An Introduction to MINIX
MINIX remains a shell-based operating system, and its concessions to the desktop are minimal. It starts with a boot menu of different system states, including (assuming you followed the install instructions) a pristine version of the operating system that you can use for recovery. When you are finished, the command shutdown halts the system, and shutdown -r reboots it.
For anyone who has used a UNIX-like system, the MINIX directory hierarchy should be broadly familiar (Figure 2). However, you will notice a few missing top-level directories, such as the ever-contentious /opt, and directories added to operating systems like GNU/Linux for user-friendliness, such as /cdrom and /media. Also missing is /proc, which tells you that the pseudo-filesystem procfs does not exist to access process information from the kernel. Because MINIX runs drivers in userspace, it does not have the need for /proc that GNU/Linux does.
Descend a directory level, and you find that the logic of the directory hierarchy is differently applied. For instance, GNU/Linux's /var/spool directory, which contains queues for cron jobs, printing and mail as well as locks, is located in /usr/spool instead. But, such examples are exceptions, and previous experience with UNIX-like systems can only benefit those exploring MINIX for the first time.
What may require more acclimatization is MINIX's naming system for devices. Open /etc/fstab, and, if you accepted the default partitioning scheme during installation, you will see something like:
root=/dev/c0d0p0s0 usr=/dev/c0d0p0s2 home=/dev/c0d0p0s1
Although this naming system may seem intimidating at first, in practice, it is very simple. It lists the physical controller and disk, followed by the partition and sub-partition, with the first of each item numbered 0.
Naturally, other distinguishing characteristics of MINIX will become clearer as you explore it in more detail. But if you do need help, MINIX supports man pages, just like most UNIX-like systems, and it includes an interesting application called whichman that attempts to find approximate matches to a query. However, you will not find any info pages, despite the fact that MINIX uses utilities provided by the GNU Project. You also can find help on the MINIX Wiki, although it is not always up to date and often suffers from a lack of detail.
When you install MINIX, the result is a minimal system (a setup that is in keeping with basic security principles). If you want more, you have to install it yourself. Beyond the basic system, MINIX has a small but well-rounded collection of 135 packages, tailored to the needs of the command line. By default, it uses the ash shell, but BASH and zsh are also available. It includes support for several programming languages, including Tcl, Perl, Python and FLTK, and users can choose between vile, vim and nano for text editors.
Some of MINIX's applications, such as Kermit, might seem old-fashioned from a modern GNU/Linux user's perspective. Others will seem thoroughly contemporary, such as SQLite, OpenSSL and wget. Then, there are the usual suspects, such as ImageMagick, tar and zip. You even can unwind with a game of Nethack on MINIX. In keeping with MINIX's status as an educational operating system, typing a command without any parameters displays a brief summary of usage.
In MINIX, you won't find desktop applications, such as Firefox or OpenOffice.org. Such programs are many times larger than the whole of MINIX, and including them would go against the project's goals of being suitable for embedded systems. Strangely enough, you will find a package for The GIMP. But the closest you will find to Firefox is Lynx, and the closest to OpenOffice.org is TeX.
For that matter, you will find little attention paid to graphical interfaces in general. The X Window System is available, but the interfaces are few. You can run TWM (Figure 4) for an extremely basic desktop, but with the unaliased text, you are better off at the command prompt. The Equinox Desktop Environment (Figure 3) is considerably more sophisticated, but unless you're doing something like viewing graphics, running any sort of graphical interface in MINIX is mostly beside the point. Although you could study the X Window System in MINIX, the overwhelming majority of the work you might do in MINIX works just as well from the command line, if not better.
Whatever your choice of extras, they are installed with the command packman. Packman opens with a list of the available packages (Figure 5). Dependencies are not resolved automatically in packman, but the list informs you when a package requires another one.
When you know what packages you want to install, press the q key, and enter their numbers at the prompt (Figure 6). When you are finished installing, press the q key twice to exit.
-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)
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