Linux for the Timid, Part 1

by Marcel Gagné

Admit it. Some of you out there are a lot like me. You spend a fair amount of your time telling people Linux is pretty cool, and they should at least consider running it. You tout the benefits, the flexibility, the openness, the complete lack of a "blue screen of death", and still they hesitate. "Look," you say, "a graphical desktop. It even sort of looks like that other OS. And there are thousands of free applications, too." Hmm ... need something with more oomph! "My system was immune to the ILOVEYOU virus!" You detect a slight stirring this time, but that's about it. Nothing more. What could be wrong?

I'm also going to go out on a limb, and guess that some of you who are reading this column are not yet running Linux. For whatever reasons, it's extremely difficult to break that umbilical cord and make the big jump. After all, it is a lot to commit. Even if, as your friends tell you, all you have to do is create a separate partition, install their favorite distribution, and let LILO do the rest for dual-booting, it's still pretty scary. I understand that. Some of my best friends still run that other OS.

Well, it's time to get your Linux feet (flippers?) wet with the "no-commitment" approach to running Linux. For those of you who were here last week, we talked about a little distribution of Linux that fits on a single diskette and could take up to seven (if you installed all the add-ons that came with it). That was muLinux, available at . For a refresher on how muLinux works, check out last week's column. Note: you will need a copy of muLinux configured as per that article in order to try this week's little experiment.

I'm not going to go over muLinux here (I talked about it last week, but this is different - trust me), but I did want to point out a feature that could have great appeal: muLinux will run on a UMSDOS file system as well. Simply said, you can run muLinux on your Windows 9x workstation without uninstalling Windows or creating a special partition for the OS to run. The quick-and-dirty definition of UMSDOS is this: UMSDOS is a Linux file system that can live on a DOS partition.

To get your muLinux running on a DOS partition, here's what you do. Start by booting from your muLinux diskette. Let the system come up normally, and insert whatever diskettes you have configured as part of your install. If you remember, I used all seven diskettes for my little distribution. When the system comes up, log in as root and type this command:


You will then get a menu offering three different methods of moving your muLinux distribution to a hard disk. The first is UMSDOS. This is completely non-destructive, and can easily be removed from your hard disk at a later time, if you want, using DELTREE. The second is an ext2 file system install, which requires repartitioning your drive. This is not what you want to do if you are counting yourself among the timid; it is destructive. It is the same type of install you would do with a major distribution such as Caldera or Debian. The third is a loop device install, which is a single large file residing on DOS and nowhere near as flexible as the first option. The lesson, then, is to choose option [1].

Next, the system will ask you to "Insert startup floppy and press -ENTER- or [a]bort". As soon as you press ENTER, you will be presented with the system partition table, which may be simple or complicated depending on the number of drives you have configured. On my test system, I had only a single drive, but it is partitioned into a C: and D: drive. The C: drive (with a little a, for "active" or "boot" partition) shows up as /dev/hda1 while my D: drive appears as /dev/hda5. The clone process now asks you, "Do you want repartitioning with fdisk y/[n]?" The answer is a definite n for "NO". As a timid user, you don't want to muck about with your partition table.

Now we get to choose where we want this installed. The question is, "Which partition would you like to install muLinux on?" The default is /dev/hda1, namely my C: drive, but I want it on the D: drive, so I select /dev/hda5 and press ENTER. Our cloning tool now wants to know where to install the boot loader, which in this case is a DOS batch file called LINUX.BAT. It will live under the LINUX directory of whatever partition you name. It made sense to me to have all of muLinux's files in the same place, so once again I chose /dev/hda5.

The next (and last) question is a bit weird and is probably there for hysterical - er, I mean, historical reasons of which I am not aware. "Your floppy controller is a thinkpad floppy (y/n)?" I answered n for "no", and went on. The system then proudly proclaims, "Prepare root...", during which time it mounts your DOS drive as /mnt/dest, creates a linux directory and copies the files which are currently residing in RAM. This took a few seconds, at most, and all was done! Take any diskette you have in the drive out, type shutdown -r now and let Windows come up normally.

To run muLinux from your Windows 9x PC, you have a couple of choices. The first is to click on the "Start" button and choose "Shutdown". The option you want here is "Restart computer in MS-DOS mode". When the system comes back up to the "C:WINDOWS" prompt, you start Linux like this:


Remember that, in your case, you may be using the C:drive for your distribution. You also do not have to type the .BAT extension. muLinux will book, and a few seconds later, you will be at your login prompt. If you loaded the X11 add-on, you can start X by typing startx fvwm95-2. This will give you (or your timid friends) a familiar-ish desktop. To exit Linux and return to that other OS (log out from X if you are there), type shutdown -r now at the command line.

The second way is nicer, if you want to do this often. Here's what you do to get a nice little Linux icon on your desktop or one of your folders. Open an MS-DOS prompt by clicking on "Start", "Programs" and "MS-DOS Prompt". Next, type the commands I gave you above to start Linux (switching to the appropriate drive and starting LINUX.BAT). Windows complains bitterly and fires up a little box that says "Program Requires MS-DOS Mode. Linux may not run well unless it is run in MS-DOS mode. Would you like to create a shortcut to this program that will run it in MS-DOS mode?" Go ahead. Click "Yes".

Another box pops up that says, "Select a folder to place shortcut in". Well, I created another folder called "UMSDOS Linuxes" (because I'm loading a few different ones) and chose that. Clicking "Next" has the system ask for a name for this shortcut. I chose "muLinux". Another click of "Next", and I get to choose an icon for the shortcut. I went for the wizard's hat with the magic wand. It seemed appropriate to me. Finally, another click of "Next", and you get to choose your MS-DOS configuration settings. Accept the default, which should be "Use my standard MS-DOS settings". Click "Finish", and you are done. You can now start Linux by clicking "Start" and working your way up through Programs, or whatever folder you chose.

Go ahead. Play. Tell your friends to play. Should you (or they) get bored with muLinux, removing it is child's play. Simply open an MS-DOS box (or command prompt), and do this:

     D:           (or C: if you are running from your C: drive) 

That's it. It's gone.

It may seem as if I am giving muLinux a little too much press here, but I was using it as a jump-off point for this series because it nicely bridges the gap between tiny Linuxes that will run entirely in RAM and the kind of Linux a Windows user might want to play with in order to get their feet wet. In allowing users to work in multiple environments, muLinux provides a great demonstration of Linux's flexibility. Does it get any better than this? As I heard Eric Raymond exclaim at a recent Linux Expo in Montréal, "You ain't seen nothin' yet!" (Yeah, I know he stole the line from someone else, too - isn't open source great? Works for software. Works for language.)

Until next time ... don't be scared; give Linux a try. I promise, it won't hurt a bit.

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