An attempt at investigative journalism.
By Pappy McFae
Welcome to the Linux Project: An attempt at investigative journalism. As the title implies, this project marks my first real foray into the world of investigative journalism. The project began when I pulled an old Pentium II computer out of mothballs. At the time, I was unemployed and looking to pad my resume a bit. Since I was looking for a job in computers, either straight IT work, hardware repair/upgrade, or system administration, I figured it behooved me to tackle the world of Linux as I had twelve years ago. Besides, it's always good to perform mental exercises as often as possible to keep the mind keen and the wits sharp.
The first Linux package I installed on that system was called PHLAK (Professional Hacker's Linux Assault Kit). I installed PHLAK before the idea for this project became nestled in my brain. At the time, the intent was just to see how much different Linux was from the first time I played with it about twelve years ago. Immediately, I was struck with how much easier simple installation of Linux had become in the intervening years. What was a two day affair just to get Linux on a hard drive had turned into a mere two hour job of sticking the install image CD into the drive, booting from it, and clicking on the option to install it to my hard drive. Once the system rebooted, I had a Linux system installed on my hard drive. No muss, no fuss, just stick in the CD, click the install, and viola, Linux
Of course, after that, then came the demon I remember with Linux. Due to its nature, Linux is a rather buggy system. While PHLAK installed with incredible ease, getting it to a point where it would work the way I wanted it to work became an adventure of the likes I hadn't experienced in some time. Then I remembered just what Linux actually is.
i: What is Linux?
Simply put, Linux is a flavor of UNIX. It is referred to as an open source operating system. Technically speaking, Linux actually refers to the kernel, or operational root of Linux. In the time since it was first created, Linux has come to mean not only the kernel, but also the rest of the software that is built around that kernel. That software includes device drivers, compilation libraries, shells, applets, and complete applications such as spreadsheet and word processing.
UNIX is a very old computer operating system. When I say very old, I mean it came into being in the 1960's. As with most high tech things of the time, it was birthed at Bell Labs, the same people that brought us the transistor and the integrated circuit. It was first compiled for use on mainframe computers. As research continued on it, it became the operating system for a host of computer systems from the original VAX systems to PC's and other microcomputers, as they exist today. Simply put, UNIX is as close to a universal computer operating system as there is. It runs on pretty much anything that has a microprocessor inside. (source: Wikipedia: UNIX)
In 1983, Richard Stallman founded the GNU Project, with the goal of developing a complete Unix-like operating system composed entirely of free software. By the 1990's, the GNU project had compiled a great amount of software for its project. However, what it lacked was the operational kernel. They began working on a kernel, but it was a very difficult process.
At about the same time as the GNU project was working on its kernel, Linus Torvalds, a Finnish student at the University of Helsinki was also working on a kernel built upon a system known as Minix. The creator of Minix didn't permit others to build upon or extend his operating system. Torvalds created his kernel specifically to replace Minix. Originally known as "freax", it became known as "Linux" when Ari Lemmke, who administered an FTP server belonging to the Finnish University Network invented the name Linux for the directory from which Torvalds' project was first available for download. (source: Wikipedia: Linux)
ii: Open Source.
Linux is an open source system. Open source means that anyone who knows anything about computers (or, in practice, THINKS they know anything about computers) is welcome to try their hand at making Linux work. In this way, Linux stands out from Microsoft offerings because work on Microsoft products is limited to Microsoft employees and their outsourced operations.
By virtue of the GNU project, from its inception, Linux has been and remains a group effort. While there are some people who ask for donations, and others who want payment for their contributions to Linux, for the most part, Linux exists as a free operating system readily available from the Internet.
Also, due to the open system nature of Linux, there are numerous different flavors of the system. When beginning the research for this project, I went to the web site http://www.linux.org/dist/ , I found out there were hundreds of different distributions available in numerous languages. Just a search for English distributions netted ninety-five different distributions. Basically put, there's a flavor of Linux out there for just about everyone, from the ultra-nerdy geek type, to the guy who just wants to set it up and make a portal of his own on the internet.
Because of the sheer number of Linux distribution flavors that exist, I will probably not delve into all of them. Of course, if someone were to decide this project was of enough interest to pay me to continue researching all the various flavors, I'd be hard pressed to find a reason to not continue this research. Since that highly unlikely scenario is not in the cards, I have decided to pick five flavors. Three of the five have already been decided at this point, and I will pick two more as the project continues. Since it will be an ongoing thing, I have time to decide which distributions will be worked, and which won't.
On the downside, open source also means there are numerous bugs in the system. Because there are so many individuals working on various portions of Linux, and since each person is somewhat limited to the systems they have available to them, it is next to impossible to get each function working properly on all systems that exist. While ideally the number of people sharing applications and drivers means that eventually, the system will work on all available computer hardware, in actual practice, you can rest assured that no matter who makes the Linux distribution you are installing, there are going to be glitches. If this is enough to scare you away from experimentation with Linux, now would be the time to run!
Suffice it to say, one of the reasons for starting this project in the first place was to inform the neophyte of the dangers and pitfalls of installing Linux. If, like me, you are possessed of a spare computer that's just lying around collecting dust, then by all means, I heartily recommend taking a stab at setting up a Linux distribution on that machine. It's challenging to say the least. It can teach you much about computers, yourself, and how to handle frustration and stress with grace. Or, it could send your test system flying out a window. You decide.
iii: The System.
The Linux Project is going to be carried out on the old system I pulled out of mothballs as I said above. The system consists of the following:
Motherboard: Asus Pentium II, III with onboard USB ports
CPU: Pentium II 350 MHz w/512k Internal cache clocked to rated speed
Memory: 256 Meg 100 MHz SDRAM module
Video Card: S3 Verge w/4meg video RAM
Net Card: DFE 530-TX 10/100
Sound Card: Ensoniq ES-1370 (Creative Labs SoundBlaster 64)
Floppy Drive: Sony 3.5" 1.44 Meg. standard floppy *
Hard Drive: Fujitsu 10 Gig IDE. **
CD-ROM Drives: HP 24X4X4 read/write, Samsung 32X8X8 read/write ***
* Floppy drive type listed for reference only. It will only be used if required by the project. Since the system boots from the CD-ROM drive, the floppy drive could just as easily not be included.
** The system also contains a Western Digital 6 gig hard drive with a Microsoft O/S loaded on it. It will be used to operate the CD writer to insure proper disk operation at set up time. It will be disconnected from the system during the testing phase of the project, and only reconnected as needed.
*** Due to its unstable nature, the Samsung drive will not be used during the research.
iv: The Criteria
Each distribution will be judged on five criteria.
The first criterion is ease of installation. This takes into account not only the ease with which the distribution disks install the distribution, but also takes into account any hurdles that must be jumped to finish the install to a point where it will boot properly from the hard drive. Most distributions are loaded directly from their distribution disks as made from ISO images available on the Internet. However, at this time, there is one distribution that installs from the net itself. I will note this distribution when I get to it in the project. Each distribution will be rated on a scale of one to five; with one being the most difficult, and five being easiest. Think star ratings here. One star is bad, five is good.
The second criterion is basic system operation. The judgment on this criterion will be made on how well the applications operate within the distribution. This judgment includes, but is not limited to operation on the Internet, operation of various applications such as spreadsheet and word processing applications. Wherever possible, this criteria document will be created using included word processing applications. Once again, this criterion will be rated from one to five.
The third criterion will be device support. In other words, I will be rating the operating system as to whether or not it finds and operates all installed cards. The ideal is that the Linux distribution under test will find and operate all cards installed in the test system. This is admittedly a subjective criterion since the list of supported hardware varies with each distribution. However, given the age of the installed cards, it is assumed that recent distributions should be able to support older cards and devices. Any variation from this will be duly noted. Also noted will be steps required to make all devices functional, as well as whether or not the devices can be rendered functional. Once again, this criterion will be rated from one to five.
The fourth criterion will be look and feel. This takes into account not only how the GUI (Graphical User Interface) works, but also the ease with which the applications operate. Also taken into account with this criterion will be whether or not the system boots directly to the GUI. Since most computer users today are accustomed to having their O/S boot directly to a GUI, any deviation from that will be duly noted. My assumption at this point is that all assembled distributions will boot directly to a GUI. This is 2007 after all. Once again, this criterion will be rated from one to five.
The fifth and final criterion will be overall impression of the distribution. This will more or less be a synthesis of all the other criteria, as well as a subjective judgment about any and all hurdles encountered during the setup and operation of the distribution under test. Since most computer users are used to pulling the operating system out of the box and having it work right the first time, this criterion will rate how close each distribution comes to that ideal. Once again, this criterion will be rated from one to five.
v: Caveats and words to the wise.
As you read the portions of the Linux Project that follow, please keep a few things in mind.
First, I am no computer expert. While I am a geek, and have been since I got my first computer, a Texas Instruments T.I. 99 4 A for Christmas almost thirty years ago, I never studied computer science in college. Everything I know about computers comes from real world experience. While I have an Associates Degree in Electronic Engineering Technology, I finished my degree at least a year before the GNU Project was conceived. I had only one class in digital theory and design. I also had only one class in BASIC as well. I am a seat of the pants geek all the way.
Second, because of the very nature of Linux, your results WILL vary! There is no way around what Linux is. It cannot and will not be all things to all people. There are many who will barely be able to get past making the ISO image from the Internet into a useable installation disk. There are others that will balk when not all their drives and cards appear or operate properly. This is more likely to happen than you might think. Trust me, I have haunted the support and forum sites on various Linux web sites. I know of what I speak!
Third, this project is not only meant to be informational, it's meant to be as fun as one can make an extremely long essay about computer operating systems. Take any and all information provided with a grain of salt. This is as much a mental exercise for myself as it is a means of imparting information to you, my reader. Try to have fun with it and remember: all you have to do to rid yourself of the demon Linux is re-install one of Bill Gates' operating systems. At least you know those will work right the first time...well, except for Windows 98. Whew, what a stinker that was...like the Linux of Microsoft.