SOME THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE YOU INSTALL LINUX

Some Background:

The Linux Penguin

The Linux Penguin

The Linux operating system kernel was released by Linus Torvalds in 1991. From its inception, the software is very Unix-like, and shares many command line entries with Unix as well.  Linux is open source software (basically, this means the source code license allows the user to freely change, improve, and distribute the software).   As people around the world have voluntarily collaborated on improving the operating system, many variants of Linux have emerged.  These different types of open source Linux variants are called “distributions”.

Over the years, Linux has matured.  If fact, if you use either Windows or a Mac OS X today, you will have a very short learning curve to operate a Linux machine.  The installations are pretty effortless, though there can still be some issues.  When there are problems, they usually stem from the fact that Linux, like Windows, is written for all types of computers, hardware, and possible configurations.  Sometimes a software driver,  for example, can be absent or incorrectly applied.   Fortunately, at least for the major distributions, there are plenty of wiki’s, blogs, and other sources of information available to lead you out of harm’s way.  That being said, the software has a loyal following and is known for being efficient, stable, and versatile.  You can find Linux on Desktop PCs, laptops, file servers, tablets, network routers, video game consoles, and mobile phones (Android is a Linux variant).

Three Good Reasons To Use Linux:

1.  Linux operating systems have less dependency on computer resources than Windows, and as a result, breathe life back into a lot of older computers.  Here are the minimum hardware requirements for Window’s 7 operating system:

  • 1 GHz or faster 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64) processor
  • 1 GB of RAM (32-bit)/2 GB of RAM (64-bit)
  • 16 GB of available disk space (32-bit)/20 GB (64-bit)

Now the minimum hardware requirements for the Linux OpenSuse 12.1:

  • Pentium* III 500 MHz or higher processor (Pentium 4 2.4 GHz or higher or any AMD64 or Intel* EM64T processor recommended)
  • Main memory: 512 MB physical RAM (1 GB recommended)
  • Hard disk: 3 GB available disk space (more recommended)
  • Sound and graphics cards: supports most modern sound and graphics cards, 800 x 600 display resolution (1024 x 768 or higher recommended)

The Pentium III 500 MHz processor was introduced in February of 1999, and the minimum requirements of Suse 12.1 parallel the hardware specs for PCs of that vintage.  Linux is equally well equipped to handle the hardware of  PCs of today, and it does so very efficiently.

2.  Linux is reliable.

3.  Unless you are buying Enterprise grade distributions (here you are usually paying for Support), Linux is freeAlso, most distributions come fully packaged with software (all Open Source and free too).  These installed packages include:  Office system (Word processor, spreadsheet, database, and presentation software, – usually Microsoft Office compatible), photo and video editing software,  games, and much more.  In addition, there are also places to go to get additional software (called “repositories”) that you can access from within the operating system.  You select the software you want from the repository, and it is downloaded and automatically installed.  System and software updates are also accomplished through the operating system.  It informs you what is available, and either lets you decide to download and install it or not, or you can set it to “automatic”, and leave the whole update process up to the computer, – almost an identical process as updating your smartphone.

Some Choices:

1.  Linux distributions usually have a default desktop, and several optional ones.  The most popular desktop choices are KDE and Gnome.  Upon reading the following, the developers of these desktops may well not be pleased with my comments, but………….in describing these desktops, I would use the following analogies:  KDE resembles what a very distant cousin of the classical XP Windows desktop might look like, and Gnome on the other hand has a more OS X inclination.  Usually, the default desktop is Gnome.  You should do some searching, and see what each desktop looks like and download the distribution with the desktop you prefer.

2.  When you install your distribution, you have to input very little, but you do have to make a very important decision regarding where and how to install the new operating system.  If you are just using Linux on your PC, the software will recommend to you how it will set up your hard drive, and usually you have to do nothing but accept the recommendation.  On the other hand, if  you are planning to keep a current (already installed) operating system, say Windows, and install Linux on a separate segment of your hard drive, called a partition, you have a little thinking to do.  The advantage having both operating systems available to you is that you don’t have to give up some software on the original non-linux operating system that you need or enjoy using, – you preserve the functionality of the original operating system.  When you start your computer you will be presented a selection showing both operating systems on your PC, and you choose the one you want to use.  During the installation, Linux will find the other existing operating system, and usually provide you with a solution on how to use the available unused space on your computer for Linux.  Do some homework so you understand how your hard drive will be divided and why.  You goal is to make sure you have enough space for each of the operating systems to work effectively.  Often, the “install” recommendations are OK, but “often” is not “always”, and you have an opportunity to make the adjustments to space allocation as you see fit.

3.  Do I use Samba or NFS to set up my network?  If you are unfamiliar with these terms:  Samba allows Unix and Linux computers to access files shared by Windows computers, and conversely, allows Windows computers to share files on Unix/Linux computers.  In addition, via Samba, either Unix, Linux, or Windows computers can allow the other operating systems to access their local printers.  Finally, Samba has become very secure over the years with password authentication and confirmation, and file sharing access.  Though you can set up simple access configurations for networked computers,  Samba has many levels of complexity making it a very robust networking tool, – for example:  besides file sharing, Samba can integrate with a Windows server domain, either as a Primary Domain Controller, or as part of an Active Directory Domain.  The level of complexity of Samba is reflected in its (at least to me) very steep learning curve.  NFS (Network File System) is a very much simpler networking protocol, allowing the client computer to connect to files on the network as if those files were stored locally on the client itself.  The upside of NFS is that it is easier to setup, easier to maintain, and I think faster than Samba (it doesn’t have to go through the authentication processes Samba does).  The downside, is that it is no where near as secure as Samba, and it is less robust as it does not allow many configuration options.  To me, it boils down to how secure to you need to be?  At home, with a couple of users, NFS seems to be a natural choice.

Narrowing The Field:

Out of realm that contains a seemingly endless number of Linux distributions, we first need to narrow the field by deciding exactly what your needs are for the computer.   I will make a few assumptions:  The operating system you choose is not destined to be on an Enterprise level  computer (mission critical computers on which a business depends, – always networked with domains and work groups, usually involving data bases, and so on).  In addition, your PC is not a file server (a data storage device accessed by other networked computers).   Now, we can focus our attention on two general types of computer functionality:

  • The Amateur (Stand-A-Lone PC, not on a network with other PC’s).  Uses the net, word processor, hobbyist level photo/movie editing, ability to run movies, slide-shows,  maybe some spreadsheet work, etc.  In short, a typical home computer.
  • The Pro (Small Office/Home Office/Media PC).  Increased usage of the above, – usually connected to a data, media server, or a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device.   This PC is “work” focused, or for the audio/video/photography enthusiast.

I know I have made some rather sweeping generalizations here, but knowing how the PC will be used allows you to decide both on the choice of the Linux distribution you will employ and how it ultimately will be configured.

Decision Time:

To me, there are three major distributions that should easily meet the needs of 95% non-Enterprise/non-server Linux users:  Debian (this includes Mint Linux, and Ubuntu. Both are Debian derivatives), OpenSuse (the open source version of Suse, an Enterprise grade Linux distribution), and Fedora (the open source version of Red Hat, another Enterprise grade Linux distribution).

For the Amateur PC, I would recommend Mint Linux (according to distrowatch.com, currently the most popular Linux distribution), followed by Ubuntu (not surprisingly, the second most popular Linux distribution).  I don’t know which one I like the best.  I have used both, and found them to be easy to install (you are asked your location, time zone, key board layout, hard drive partitions, and a password), well designed, a large amount of software available from which to choose in its repositories, simple to update, and very stable.  For the home computer, both distributions are perfect solutions.  I don’t see any real downsides.

For the Pro PC, I recommend OpenSuse.  Mint Linux, or Ubuntu would be my second and third choices respectively.  In OpenSuse, you can see the influence of its Enterprise big brother.  At the operating system level it is secure, and easily configurable.  I find the software to be well thought out and executed.  I currently have OpenSuse 12.1 installed on my 5 year old HP Pavilion laptop.  It has 1 gig of RAM, two hard drives (the original 80 gig, and a 320  I added), a 17″ monitor, and a dual core AMD 64 bit processor.  I have Windows XP on the 80 gig drive, and OpenSuse on the 320.  The ethernet and wireless work great, as do sound, and video.  I don’t have any real issues with it.  I am pleased with this OS and am making plans to replace my old Unix OS on my server with OpenSuse.

The thing that makes Ubuntu and Mint Linux so good on the Amateur PC, is the thing that hinders its usefulness on the Pro PC:  Both the Debian offspring’s automatically configure the operating system too much, and unwinding what has automatically been done can be an exasperating experience.  OpenSuse strikes a pretty good balance between automatic and manual configuration, – you know what’s been done, and where it’s done at.

My experience with Fedora was disappointing.  It was a fairly easy install, but configuring the networks were a struggle.  I thought I had Samba configured correctly, but when I went to save a letter on my server, I got a message on my client that documents could only be saved to the local hard drive.  I could access documents from the server, copy documents to and from the server, but I could not save documents to the server.  So, the only way I could get a file from a program on the client to the server was to save the file to the client hard drive, then copy the file using a file manager to the server.  Duh!!!  I am confident the problem was not in Samba or its configuration.  I believe a security policy to be the culprit, and I did not feel I wanted to go deep into the configuration process to isolate the policy and adjust it.  I eventually installed another Linux distribution.

Installation:

After you have chosen your Linux distribution, install it with an expert.  Without fail, when I install a Linux distribution, I go to howtoforge.com for step by step instructions on the install and configuration.  I have used howtoforge as a resource for years.  Here are the links you can use for the distributions I have mentioned here:

http://www.howtoforge.com/the-perfect-desktop-ubuntu-11.10-oneiric-ocelot

http://www.howtoforge.com/the-perfect-desktop-linux-mint-12-lisa

http://www.howtoforge.com/the-perfect-desktop-opensuse-12.1-gnome

http://www.howtoforge.com/the-perfect-desktop-debian-lenny

— Larry

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