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Tech Take-Apart
Introduction to Linux, Part 1
by kp

If you have ever considered installing a second operating system, Linux is a good option to try. Its user interface is similar to Windows and requires a small learning curve. Because Linux is available in many versions, you have a library of choices to find the best version. Using a few modifications to your computer's setup, you can operate some versions of Linux off of CD, or by partitioning your hard drive, you can install Linux as a separate OS on your Windows computer. Before starting the installation process, it is important to familiarize yourself with what Linux is and what it does.

What is Linux?
Linux started in the early 1990s as an alternative to UNIX. Linux is an open source operating system which means that the source code is available for free to use and develop. Currently, there are over 300 versions or distributions of Linux, and most can be downloaded directly from the developer's website. Retail distributions can be purchased that usually offer an expanded selection of applications and utilities in addition to the operating system. Some examples of more popular distributions of Linux are:

  • Debian - a noncommercial version of Linux developed through the GNU project
  • Fedora Core - created by Red Hat and previously known as Red Hat Linux
  • Knoppix - based on Debian distribution; used for Windows troubleshooting
  • Linspire - retail distribution that includes a full line of Internet, office, photo, music programs
  • SUSE - retail distribution sponsored by Novell

Each distribution is customized to serve specific functions. Debian, Fedora and SUSE can be used as a server platform and for the desktop. Knoppix and Linspire are geared more for the Windows user and cater to Linux beginners. Once you have chosen a Linux version to install, you need to take a few extra steps to prepare your system.

How to Install Linux
Symantec Partition Magic
Symantec Partition Magic

VComm Partition Commander
VComm Partition Commander
Each Linux distribution has its own unique set of installation instructions, so it is a good idea to read the supporting documentation beforehand. Some Linux distributions require that you have your computer specs and networking settings. Before you close out of Windows, go to My Computer and right-click Properties. Make a list of your system's configurations to keep for later. Next, if you don't already have your hard drive partitioned, you need a second partition open for Linux. The best way to accomplish this is by using partition software such as Symantec Partition Magic or VComm Partition Commander. But, before jumping into partitioning, you need a fresh backup of your drive in the event that your files get accidentally erased.

To backup your hard drive, you can use Windows built-in utility under System Tools (Start -> All Programs -> System Tools -> Backup). There are two modes to this program Basic and Advanced. For a quick backup, the Basic wizard is the less cumbersome and requires the least preparation. Depending on the amount of data you have on your drive, a DVD could do the job, but for large capacity storage, an external hard drive like Maxtor's One Touch External Hard Drive is better. These drives come with there own backup software that works similar to the Windows Backup utility and includes a restore feature for emergency retrieval. With your files successfully archived, you can move forward onto the partitioning.

When you partition your hard drive, there are a couple of points to keep in mind. If you install Linux as a separate operating system on your Windows PC, you will need to have a separate partition to boot the OS from and a sufficient amount of hard drive space. Linux uses different file systems called Ext2, Ext3, or Reiser. Both Partition Magic and Partition Commander support Ext2 and Ext3 but will leave your other OS alone. You can preserve your Windows files as long as you don't format the disk. Note: Beware of formatting versus partitioning your drive. Formatting will completely erase everything on your hard drive including your OS and files.

To use Partition Commander, insert the CD and re-start your computer. When your system reboots, the program wizard is launched showing a menu of options. Partition Commander already has a built-in feature for adding a second OS for Linux and takes you through a series of prompts. The System Commander Personal Edition, which is included on the CD, is designed to help manage multiple operating systems on a single computer. This program saves the old Master Boot Record or MBR (first sector on your hard drive that contains the critical drive information) and creates a new MBR. When you restart your computer, a new menu launches asking which OS you want to boot from.

Linux Starter Kit
Linux Starter Kit

Once your Linux partition is set up, you can begin to install the Linux OS. A good Linux beginner version to try is the Linux Starter Kit. This includes an illustrated manual and a copy of SUSE Linux 10.1 with complete tutorial on how to install Linux, use the graphical interface, configure hardware, determine settings and create directories. Or, you can pick up one of several Linux magazines available at Micro Center's in-store bookstore. Some of these publications give you a free copy of Linux along with installation instructions.

For this example, I used Fedora Core 5, so the steps may vary from other Linux versions. To begin, I loaded the first install CD while in Windows, then restarted the computer. The Fedora install disk activates an installation wizard after the reboot. The first couple steps are fairly straightforward by asking for the default language and the type of installation - full or upgrade. When you get to the partition menu, you are given several options: remove all partitions, remove Linux partitions, use free space, or create custom layout. By choosing "create custom layout," Fedora takes you to its own disk partition program called LVM or Logical Volume Manager. Here is where you can prep your drive for Linux. If there isn't an ext3 or ext4 partition already on your hard drive, you need to create one in addition to a swap partition. With the LVM, you can separate the hard drive into a root directory for your system files and a home directory for your other files. This is accomplished by setting the mount point to "/" for root and "/home" for the home directory. The swap partition also needs to be specified and used for free space. After the partitions are set, the next menu step is to change the boot loader.

The boot loader initiates the operating system upon system startup. The menu gives you the option of not installing a boot loader or using the GRUB (GRand Unified Bootloader) boot loader. By selecting GRUB, your computer displays a menu at startup that gives you the option to select which operating system you want to run - Linux or Windows. To access this menu, hit the ESC (escape) key when booting then select the OS.

The next menu after the bootloader is for networking. If you recorded your system settings as mentioned earlier, you can transfer that information easily into the following menus. The remaining menus ask to set a zone, create a root password and select a set of software applications. For beginners, choosing "Office and Productivity" applications is sufficient. To finish up the installation process, your computer needs to be re-booted.

When rebooting is complete, your computer will go through another set of menu items to set up the date/time, license agreement, firewall, display, system user, and sound settings. Again, using the system preferences you collected earlier will help fill in the appropriate items. After clicking Finish, the system will reboot once more, then display a login screen where you enter your screen name and password. From this point, you should see the Fedora desktop loading, and you are ready to get started using Linux.

Next month, we'll take a tour around the Linux interface. we'll explore the various applications available within Fedora Core and how to use them.

Debian - www.debian.org
Fedora - fedora.redhat.com
Linspire - www.linspire.com
Linux Online - www.linux.org
SUSE Linux - en.opensuse.org
Linux All-in-One Desk Reference for Dummies, Naba Barkakati, ISBN: 0471752622

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