NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, August 2003
To Linux or not to Linux........
by Nancy J. Cristolear
from The Worsley Press
The Dayton Microcomputer Association, Inc.
njc@dmapub.dma.org (click to email author)

On July 13 the Linux SIG of The Dayton Microcomputer Assn. Inc. will be having another installfest. I've participated in quite a few and have seen many people leave either happy or disappointed. I thought by writing this article I could help you make your experience a positive one.

Should you or shouldn't you take the plunge? Well that depends on several things. We'll take a few minutes to go over some of the things you should consider.

First, what are your expectations? Are you a person who has been working with a Windows or a Macintosh and expect Linux to be the same thing? I can guarantee you will be disappointed.

Unlike Windows or Macintosh, the Linux distributions are not as refined. What do I mean? Well, if you are familiar with Windows, then you are also probably familiar with applications like WordPad, NotePad, Calculator, Paint to name a few. Many of the Linux applications have names like GIMP, an acronym that stands for Graphics Image Manipulation Program. It would not jump out at you that this is a Photoshop clone would it? So, you will have to invest time into exploring the applications to see what they do. The good news is there will be LOTS of them. Ultimately, you may have to tweak the menu system so that you can find what you want.

OK, the next thing we will consider is your skill level. If you are the kind of user that expects to be able to buy something off the shelf and have it work, then Linux is not for you. Linux often requires a number of tweaks to make it work properly. However, if you are the kind of user that would throw the manual away, click a link to see what it would do, or take your box apart to see what is in there, then Linux might just be for you.

It will help if you are comfortable working with a DOS prompt. Most of the things Linux can do are more easily done from a prompt. In fact, most of the people I know have XWindows installed just to get a terminal window. [Editor: XWindow is a windowing system developed at MIT, which runs under UNIX and all major operating systems. It lets users run applications on other computers in the network and view the output on their own screen. XWindow generates a rudimentary window that can be enhanced with GUIs-Graphical User Interfaces.]

Then there are the Unix commands. They are the kind of commands that only a geek would love. Consider some of the names: grep, ls, mv, cp, ps, vi.

Lastly, what is your goal for your Linux system? Do you want to replace your Windows system? Or perhaps you just want to play around a bit. This last is where we lose the folks who are more Windows oriented. If you do not have a commitment to Linux, you won't be inclined to wade through the setup and will just forget about it.

Are you ready to take the plunge? OK then, there are still a few things to consider. Do you buy one of the packaged distributions or do you take advantage of the free software available at the installfest. What kind of machine will you be using and what do you want it to do? How old is that machine? Do you have enough hardware? Memory? Processor?

Linux is famous for being "free", however, you may want to invest in one of the packaged distributions. They run around $75. What is the difference? Well, often the commercial distributions will include tools and software that is not available for free. For instance, you might get StarOffice with all its templates and art as opposed to OpenOffice. It may come with special tools that will help with the installation and upgrade. Most important, the boxed distributions come with HELP! This help is in the form of a manual and on call technical support. This may be worth the money right here.

That doesn't mean you can't make things work with the available distributions at the installfest. They often come with a large amount of Open Source software. If you are willing to regularly attend SIG meetings, you can learn all you may need to know (or at least where to find it). In the long run though, you would probably be more motivated to work with something that you have money invested in. Either way, bring your software or not, it can all be installed at the installfest.

Next we will consider some of the choices you may want to make about what to install Linux on. Linux was originally written to run on a 386 machine with 4 Meg of memory and you can still run it on that kind of machine, in theory. However, just like Windows, as ability has been added, so has the level of machine that Linux runs best on. Most of the package distributions require at least a Pentium level machine with 64 Meg of memory. If you want to be able to install and run with a minimum of tweaking, you should have standard hardware, known components, and as much memory as you can afford (Linux is a memory hog). You can get by with about 6Gig of disk space for everything that comes with your distribution.

Next, will you run Linux on a standalone machine or will it share a system with Windows. The ideal system will run Linux and only Linux. However, many cannot afford a whole system for Linux so they share the machine with Windows. OK, do you use removable hard disks and swap them (ideal), or must you have both Windows and Linux on the same hard disk? Windows just does not do well with other operating systems on the same machine. That doesn't mean you can't do it, it just means you may have to work harder. If your skill level is lower, you will probably do better at installing Linux on a standalone or swappable disk. If you must install everything on one disk, do your Windows install first, then install Linux. Linux comes with a couple of tools to manage and partition drives or you may want to invest in programs like System Commander or Partition Magic. People at the installfest can help you to get your system set up with either. OH, if this is your regular production machine, BACK UP YOUR EXISTING DATA! Some people have tried to install Linux and ended up wiping out the entire disk. BACK UP EVERYTHING!!!!!!!!

What? You thought you could just use your 386 with a 40 Meg hard drive and 4 Megs of RAM that's sitting in the bottom of your closet? Well, don't throw it away. You can install a bare bones Linux OS with no bells and whistles. What you can't do is install XWindows and pretty graphics. You can still do a lot with it. Consider using it as a print server, mail server, or a firewall. (A 486 might be a better choice though.)

You just bought the latest and greatest thing? Well, it may be a good idea to wait a couple of months. Linux developers have to wait for hardware to be released for drivers to be written for it. So you may find that Linux is a little behind the state of the art.

Want to make sure you can install Linux on your machine? Or maybe you are just not sure you want to take the plunge completely yet. Consider getting a KNOPPIX CD. KNOPPIX is a single CD distribution that runs on the CD drive and doesn't touch your hard drive. If your hardware is all detected by KNOPPIX, then you can be confident that the Linux installs will find your hardware. You will also know if you have the patience to deal with some of Linux's idiosyncrasies. You can download KNOPPIX at http://www.knopper.net/knoppix/index-en.html. Choose the Order/Download link. Download sites are at the bottom of the page.

Even if you're just curious, consider coming out to the installfest. It will be at the Russ Engineering Center at Wright State University, July 13, 2003 from 12-6. There will be plenty to do. Presentations will be given and members will have their systems set up. You will definitely get something out of it.

There is no restriction against any non-profit group using this article as long as it is kept in context, with proper credit given to the author. This article is brought to you by the Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an international organization of which this group is a member.

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