Friday, August 10, 2007

Network Card Issues

**NOTE: This post, along with all the posts dated August 2007, is about my first experiences using Linux on a computer I have since parted with. I installed Debian "etch" onto a hand-me-down desktop computer just to see if I could do it. I note this since all of the posts from 2008 deal with an entirely different computer!

My network card has not worked since I began the installation process. Here's what's happening: I have some connectivity, but it is slow and inconsistent. When on the web, I can view pages, but they load very slowly. This limited connectivity has been very useful, though, and I was able to download Debian package elements from the Web. Since my dad never got it to work either, this card may not work well at all, but right now I'm convinced the problem is the driver. Here's why:

  1. The light on the back of the computer that indicates an active Ethernet connection is on. The light on the router is also on. This has not been consistently the case, but most of the time the lights are on.
  2. The connection works, if slowly ("jerky" is a term someone had for a similar problem on a Linux discussion site - it's an accurate description), which makes me think the hardware is not the problem. The router is also working, because I'm allowed onto the Web.
Another interesting feature of the current connection is that is works faster when I am opening a program. This means that if I'm downloading a file from the Web, it works much faster if I just keep opening programs - games, apps - whatever. When I'm up and running again I will detail the processes I've gone through so far to solve the problem.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Puppy Linux for our Laptop

In a side project, we have a 1999-2000 Compaq Presario 1900 laptop that runs Windows 98 SE and is on its last legs. After we bought our main desktop, the laptop fell into disuse, and was not revived until I set up our Ethernet network a couple of years ago. Even then though, it takes about 8 minutes to fully boot up and moves VERY slowly when performing even the most basic tasks and crashes often. This was my wife's computer when she was a student about 6 years ago and she intentionally bought it to be as bare bones as possible, because 1) she just needed Internet access and word processing capability and 2) laptops were quite expensive at that time.

Here are the specs:

Pentium III Processor
3 1/2 floppy drive (out of alignment and not functional)
6 (?) GB Hard Drive
1 USB port
CD/DVD ROM drive (no writing capability)

The PC Magazine Linux Book that I was consulting mentioned using "Puppy Linux" on older PCs with low memory specs. Once we got DSL again I downloaded the ISO from a mirror site and tried it out on the Compaq. It works fine, though when running it the first time it was awfully slow because of the small amount of RAM. What Puppy does, however, is create a file (which can reside on your hard drive) that keeps your settings, documents, etc., so when you log in the next time, it doesn't have to use as much RAM and programs run fine. Much much faster, in fact, than Windows 98 ever was. I have to boot from CD to get into Puppy, and Windows is still on the PC, but I don't ever have to use it.

I've had a little trouble configuring the network to provide Internet access, but I'm confident it can work. Of course, this means I now have 4 computers. Who needs 4 computers??!

Monday, August 6, 2007

Up and Running!

I used CD 1 to get Linux up and running. I kind of surprised myself by deciding to change my strategy for getting this project underway. Since I'm such a newbie at Linux, I decided to install the GUI and start with a standard system. That way I can get a handle on the way things work and then hopefully work with the web and file server options.

I'm VERY impressed with the Gnome GUI. It's clean and very attractive, like Apple. Windows looks decidedly UN-graceful in comparison. Here's a screenshot:

I'm very pleased. After using it for a couple of days I'm getting used to the Linux mindset, if gradually.

Jigdo? ISO? = new lingo

Well, following the advice on Debian's website, I downloaded Jigdo and began downloading CDs. I selected all 21 Debian CDs, and it took all night to get through to CD 8! What Jigdo (a contraction of "Jigsaw Download" does is take the files from several different mirror sites across the country and the world, and use them to create full CDs. This lessens the load on specific mirrors (it's all explained here).

Anyway, I did this for two nights in a row, only getting to CD 15 - then I read somewhere that I only really needed CD 1 to get started! Oh, well.

I also learned a bit about CD images (ISOs). ISO files are compressed versions of all the single files you need on a CD. You can't just write the ISO file to a CD, which is what will happen if you use Windows XP's built in CD writing utility. I initially used an ISO Recorder program I came across on the web, but the first CD I burned with it had an error, so I tried Burn 4 Free, which worked fine.

Bare bones, but excited anyway

Well, the network install did not go as planned. Now I have a VERY basic Linux system, but I did it! I've been creating files, using pico and vi, and exploring the file system. I learned Unix commands for my networking class, but that was 2 years ago, and I'm very rusty. I'm trying to see this as a blessing - I'll have to start thinking in Linux again anyway.

In any case - I've done it! I've really installed Linux on my computer!

The Plunge

Okay, I've got it all ready:

  • I've got my Dell plugged into the network - the Ethernet lights on the PC and on the router are lit, so hopefully the network will work!
  • I decided to try the Network Install option for Debian. The full program is 21 CDs, and if I can download everything from the network after Linux is on my station that will be ideal. Otherwise I'll just have to download the CDs.
  • I did a little more piddling with Windows 98 to make sure I'm ready
I've realized that I don't know what I'm doing. I would never do this with a computer that I knew I needed later! But I'm going to do it anyway. Here goes . . .

Network card problems

Well, my first attempt at using the Ethernet card in the Windows 98 Dell has not worked. My dad bought the NIC (Network Interface Card) a couple of years ago for his DSL modem, but neither he, nor the half-interested tech support guys he consulted, could make it work correctly. My dad is very interested in technology, but doesn't know or care much about its inner workings, so he just shrugged and used a USB port instead.

Since I need this card to work for this project to be successful, I have tinkered with the very frustrating Windows 98 utilities, the router's settings, and everything under the sun, and I can't seem to get it to work either. What I've decided, is that I will assume that the problem is the software, and that once I get Linux going, hopefully it will pick up the network and all will be well.

Famous last words, huh?

Setting up the network

I first got DSL a couple of years ago when I was in library school and soon after, I took a course in networking. During the break between fall and summer semesters I bought an Ethernet router and set up a network for our desktop and laptop computers, to share files, printing, and Internet. This was a lot of fun, but it involved a great deal of wiring (not to mention extra money - Ethernet cable isn't cheap!) and hours of frustration crimping twisted pair cable in exactly the right way. After I graduated last summer, we went to dial-up in an effort to cut corners.

Now my wife is entering an online program and we just got DSL again. It's like a rush of fresh water after a drought, so after a few late nights catching up on Daily Show and Fresh Air archives, I decided to set up my network again. After discovering that my router's AC adapter cord was eaten by the cat (!), I decided to upgrade to a wireless router, since we have also just acquired a wireless-enabled laptop. Setting up the network was actually quite easy this time and my wife and I spend the following evening reveling in our wireless freedom, trading iTunes songs over the network.

Now that the network is in place, I can look towards incorporating my soon-to-be-Linux desktop.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Choosing a Linux Distribution

Since I work in a very busy suburban public library, I see a lot of interesting books come through. I have been casually reading about Linux and Apache and MySQL and other similar projects for the past couple of years. I came across a book done by PC Magazine about Linux, and it included a CD with Knoppix on it. I decided to try it out on my Dell desktop (our family PC running Win XP). For some reason there was a problem with the display, and it looked too strange to use.

When I got my parents' old PC, I tried the Knoppix CD and the display looked fine. When I tried to open programs like Open Office, or Internet browsers, there wasn't really enough memory to run them (since the live CD boots using RAM and not hard drive space, this shrinks the amount of memory considerably). I was impressed by the clean interface of KDE and thought how great open source software is.

After reading through my book, I decided to choose Debian for its stability and its many different software packages. The book described Debian's relative stodginess, that years can pass between new distributions, while other Linux distributions are out on the cutting edge. Well, my interests are in stability, not cutting edge, and I have been approaching this cautiously, so the seeming conservatism of Debian is actually attractive to me.

So Debian it is!

Preparing for Linux

With some trepidation, I began looking at my parents old PC. It was loaded with software that I knew was extraneous for my purposes. I decided to run ScanDisk and to defragment the drive (did I need to do this? I don't know, but I wanted to be safe). I also began sleuthing my hardware, as suggested by one of the Linux books I was referencing. I discovered the following specs about the computer:

Intel Pentium III Processor
40 GB hard drive
128 MB of RAM
CD-ROM drive (predates CD-R/RW capability)
2 USB ports (not sure which type, but presumably 1.0)
3 1/2" floppy drive
Iomega ZIP drive
Linksys Gigabit Network Card EG1032 v.2

Basically, the layout for a top of the line workhorse computer c. 2000.

I deleted as much of the extraneous software as I could and considered the computer ready for Linux.

New to Linux

I grew up in the 80s when home computers were very much a novelty. For years the only person I knew who owned a computer was my Uncle Jack, who had a majestic Apple II Plus that ran on 5" floppies. I learned Basic and how to play text-based adventure games.

When I was in high school my mom entered a Ph.D program and bought a MacIntosh, which I used and then inherited when my parents moved up to Windows 95. Most of my computer experience as an adult has been with Windows 9X and XP, both at work and at home.

Then I went to library school at Florida State University and concentrated in information architecture. In my program I came across exciting new programs like Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird, and the concept of open source software.

My parents bought a Dell Dimension XPS T700r in 2000, and never updgraded to XP. They just bought a new Dell with Windows Vista, and let me have the older Dell so I could install Linux on it. I'm interested in using it as a web/file/email server. I'm less interested in the Linux desktop applications. While I'm not a huge fan of Microsoft, Windows/Office works well enough and it is what most businesses and schools use. My interest in Linux is not political, though, as a librarian, I believe in the core value of free information exchange, including software programs.

This blog will be where I detail what I've done to install Linux on this computer.