LinuxPPC 1999

How to install Linux on your Power Macintosh to gain a robust alternative to the MacOS.
Installing with the Red Hat Installer

The Red Hat-based installer is geared somewhat more toward the command-line user, though other users should not anticipate any difficulties with it. Perhaps the most stringent problem arising with this installer is the difficulty of going back and making changes to adjust for a problem encountered during the installation.

Nevertheless, booting in the Red Hat installer is very simple. Either add an option to the kernel arguments in BootX (; redhat) or remove the live file system from the MacOS (renaming it is sufficient). The installation process then prompts for various configuration information: keyboard type, type of installation (upgrade or new install), source installation (FTP, NFS, local or CD-ROM), and the partitioning step. Rebooting the computer after the partitioning step is required rather than suggested as per pdisk instruction, otherwise the file system may be corrupted. Then the file system is configured, the mount points are set, and the package selection is proposed. Once installation of all packages is finished, the installer will try to configure the X Server (e.g., by editing /etc/X11/XF86Config). Unfortunately, this operation will likely fail in a frustrating manner; the workaround to this problem is proposed later.

Then, the root password is set and the system is rebooted. Since the X Server configuration failed, the system will boot in runlevel 4 until the X Server is properly configured.

About the X Server: XF68_FBdev

The current implementation of XFree86 is somewhat peculiar to LinuxPPC: the incantation of the X Server is XF68_FBdev, written by Geert Uytterhoeven. This X Server uses a hardware abstraction for the frame buffer by creating a special device file in /dev/ (usually /dev/fb0) and using it to drive the graphics. As with any devices/special files, kernel support is required. The default driver for the frame buffer device is called the open firmware frame buffer (offb). This driver is common to all Macintosh computers, which makes it inherently slow, hence the poor graphics performance of a basic installation (or the total failure thereof).

Fortunately, patches are available to build a kernel to support a particular frame buffer. Such is the case for Apple Powerbooks (1998: G3/233, G3/250, G3/266, G3/292 and G3/300) sporting an ATI Rage controller (either RageII LT or RagePro LT) with 4MB SGRAM. Booting with such a patched kernel will provide users with accelerated 2-D graphics, and an overall improved experience with the X Server (often mistakenly associated with the overall system speed, by first-time users).

To configure the graphics for such a kernel, do the following:

  • Pass the correct kernel arguments in BootX to indicate the use of another frame-buffer device, screen size, screen depth and refresh rate. For instance, to boot in 1024x768x32@60Hz on a Powerbook G3/266, use the following:

        video=atyfb:vmode:14,cmode:32,pll:135,mclk:60
  • Once the booting process is finished, run Xconfigurator. Note that the correct amount of VRam is now detected. Select a monitor which suits your needs and the resolutions to be used.

  • Let Xconfigurator try to start the X Server; in the event it fails, be sure to select at least one configuration at 8bpp. In the event it keeps failing to start the X Server, select another monitor.

  • Start the X Server using startx.

Xconfigurator edits the /etc/X11/XF86Config file for specific hardware. Admittedly, this is more work than most users are willing to do, and there is no guarantee that the list of monitors provided will match a particular monitor. Fortunately, some alternate X Servers are available. Such X Servers are Xpmac and Xpmac_mga (accelerated), which are essentially software-only X Servers (although Xpmac_mga offers a degree of acceleration on some hardware). Installing them requires simply copying them to /usr/X11R6/bin in an existing XFree86 installation and linking X to either Xpmac or Xpmac_mga.

Conclusion

All in all, while this version of LinuxPPC certainly has its flaws, once the problems are resolved, the system is rock-solid and very responsive. Furthermore, the LinuxPPC community is fairly responsive. The support newsgroup is a great source for help on most common problems, as are the mailing lists. Hardware support is currently at its best, as most devices do function properly (even PPP works). For Mac users on the search for a robust alternative to the MacOS, whether for development or server applications, LinuxPPC certainly delivers the goods.

Resources

Stephane Morvan can be reached via e-mail at smorvan@ces.clemson.edu.

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