True Freedom of Choice

by Sean Bossinger

When it comes to using computers, I, like most people, use general software. Typically, I use my computer as a tool for a few primary tasks: web browsing, sending and receiving e-mail, home financial bookkeeping and word processing. Knowing this, why would I start looking to change my operating system, when most of the applications I need to run are provided by one vendor?

Why I Switched to Linux

Did I want to switch because I longed for the "good old days" when you knew, or at least could have a good idea about, what making a change to your computer would cause that computer to do? Was it because I suspected some better operating system was out there? Was I concerned, after reading my End User License Agreement, that use of the operating system implied a right for the vendor to gain access to my machine and apply unnecessary or unwanted updates? In a nutshell, the answer to all these questions was "yes".

For the better part of a week, I sought and reviewed alternative operating systems for my PC. What I wanted was a non-Microsoft operating system for my x86-based PC, but one that was more or less widely distributed and supported by either a corporate entity a very active community. Additionally, due to my job requirements, I needed to have applications available on this new platform that could open and save documents created with Microsoft Office. In the end, I decided that Linux would suit my needs well because of the large community of users available who were ready, willing and able to help me become the newest member of their community.

After choosing Linux as my new operating system, I thought my selection work was complete. However, as a Linux user, there is another choice to be made--the Linux distribution. Distribution preference are largely driven by personal taste and support requirements. Geography plays a role as well. For those users here in America, Red Hat is the dominant distribution, while SuSE is the leading distribution in Europe.

Which Distribution to Use?

Several of my friends and coworkers voiced an almost unanimous recommendation that I install the Red Hat distribution. I'm positive their recommendations had less to do with a technical superiority of this distribution than it did with the fact that RH is such a recognizable name in the realm of Linux. Other people may recommend Mandrake, SuSE, Debian, Lindows, Corel and so on, based on their personal preferences and requirements. As far as application compatibility is concerned, each distribution pretty much runs the same software. Where the distributions differ is ease of installation of both the operating system and subsequent applications and corporate support. If you have a requirement to provide a specific level of support for an environment, or if you feel less adventurous in terms of searching for device drivers or troubleshooting problems, I would recommend you stick with one of the more widely distributed versions, such as Red Hat, SuSE or Mandrake. Doing so will likely make your experience of installing Linux less intimidating and more fulfilling.

For my installation, I chose Red Hat 7.3 for several reasons. First, it was the one recommended by my pals at work. Next, I wanted to purchase the media rather than download it, and although other distributions were available at the computer store near my home, Red Hat was the only distribution of Linux on the shelf at the time. Finally, I chose Red Hat because of the included ability to download updates via the Red Hat network and the free 30 days of installation support.

After a week of researching and deciding, I was ready to install Linux on my home computer. Although I had the option to install my new operating system alongside my existing Windows installation, I chose to perform a wholesale switch to Linux. I did this to ensure that I would live in this new operating system and not fall back on my Windows applications. Going cold turkey, I expunged from my machine an operating system that I have lived with, in one form or another, for close to ten years.

The Fruits of my Labor

I'm pleased to say that I have been with Linux for over a month now, and due to my overwhelmingly positive experience, I have no intention of reinstalling Windows.

One of the selling points of Linux is it's a rather lightweight but robust operating system. Even if your machine is less powerful than my 1.2GHz desktop system with 512MB of RAM, depending on the services that you start on your system, you will experience a faster operating system. In fact, if you are interested in only the character-based shell terminals available with Linux, you can have a fairly robust system using a 486 processor machine with 32MB or less of RAM.

Prior to my installation, I backed up certain documents that I wanted to keep. I also exported my e-mail addresses from Outlook to both a comma-delimited text file and V-cards. During this time, I also read the installation guide that Red Hat included in their package. After I prepared myself with this data backup and extra bit of research, I inserted the first Red Hat CD and restarted my machine.

After the machine went through its power-up tests, I was greeted with a descriptive screen welcoming me and telling me how to start up the Linux installation. Simply put, pressing Enter started me down the path to my new operating system. Soon, I was watching Linux load the requisite hardware drivers required to get me through the installation, followed shortly by the greeting of the Red Hat logo splash screen.

After a few moments, the Red Hat logo screen disappeared, and I was presented with a screen introducing me to the installation configuration. For anyone who has installed an operating system or application for Windows, the graphical tool presented by Red Hat is a similarly intuitive interface. If you haven't installed an operating system before, don't fear.  The screens presented by the installer are extremely explanatory about what the system is requesting and why it is requesting the information. If you run into problems, you can get assistance from the on-screen help or by calling Red Hat installation support.

First, I was asked the type of boot loader I wanted to use. The boot loader is similar to the menu you receive on a Windows system when choosing which version of their operating system to load in a multiboot scenario. GRUB, which is the newest generation of boot loader, is recommended unless you have a specific need to run LILO.

Next, I was asked what type of installation I wanted: Workstation, Server, Laptop or Custom. Having no idea what I really wanted, I had read in the Installation Guide there is a way to install everything that shipped with the operating system. Since I wasn't short on space, I chose the "Custom" installation, and then when I was prompted to select the packages I wanted to install, I scrolled to the bottom and chose "Everything", which installed all the features that shipped with the OS.

After answering some cursory questions about the networking interface on my machine and the type of password mechanism that I wanted, the system asked if I wanted to install the firewall that ships with the OS. Since I run my at-home system behind a hardware firewall, I chose not to initiate the firewall application. On other screens, choosing the defaults is usually sufficient to get you up and running.

Next, I was prompted to tell the system how I wanted to partition my hard drive. Because filesystem installation is one of the more complex steps in any operating system installation, I was pleased to see that Red Hat included an option that allows for automatic partitioning of the drive. I chose this option and then deleted all existing partitions.

After this, the installation began. Selecting Next here would cause the system to format the drive, and I would be kissing my data "goodbye." Up to this point, I could roll back my changes and still go back to my Windows system.

I Checked, Rechecked, and Then Checked Again...and...It Worked

Even though I knew I had saved everything that I needed, I still approached looked at the Next button with a large measure of trepidation. Like a stunt-man jogging back to get enough of a flying leap to cross an open chasm, I went back and reviewed my choices. Screen-by-screen, I pressed Next, until I came again to the confirmation screen, which I passed with another click of the Next button. The Formatting Filesystem message popped up, indicating I was on my way to a new operating system.

Forty minutes later, after progressing through each of three CDs, the installer prompted me for some final cleanup details. I was asked to select a graphical or text-based login and which desktop system I wanted to use, KDE or GNOME. It then prompted me to select the resolution at which I wanted to view the screen. Not being familiar with any of the different desktop systems, I kept the defaults for all of the entries.

The setup completed with Linux dropping back to a text screen, and I heard my CD-ROM spin down and eject. The system rebooted itself, and within 30 seconds after the boot process started, the screen full of text cleared to a login; I was ready to sign on to my new system.

That was the total extent of the input I had to make to install my new Linux operating system. The hardest part was sitting, waiting to swap CD-ROM disks as the system would eject them one by one during the phases of installation. The Installation Guide didn't mention that it was this easy. Even though I had followed all of the steps in the guide, I still suspected that because I had built my own system I would have some difficulty getting at least one device to work.

At the graphical login prompt, I logged into my GNOME desktop as the root user. (This practice is not condoned, for security purposes, and for the safety of the system files. Red Hat's GNOME desktop even warns you about this when you log in as the root user.) I wanted to get a quick look at my new operating environment and had not established any other users during the install.

The Differences Were Readily Apparent

The first thing that struck me was how large the panel is, as the task bar is called in GNOME parlance. In Microsoft Windows, I was used to a ½"-thick task bar. In the GNOME desktop, the default panel was about one inch thick, with large icons. I soon found out that this feature, along with almost every other facet of the window environment, is highly configurable. The next thing that struck me was the flashing exclamation point within the panel. This is Red Hat Network's automatic updating software, UP2DATE, informing you that updates are available.

Because I am security-conscious, one of the first thing I do when installing Microsoft's Windows is perform all of the critical and recommended updates. It follows that I would do the same here. Therefore, I took the time to sign up for my trial membership with the Red Hat Network. This tool, for better or worse, allows you to keep up to date with all of the changes that Red Hat publishes for its operating system. Its use is free for the first month of ownership if you purchase the OS in a store or from them on-line. Thereafter, it's $60.00 per year-a small price to pay to keep the operating system up-to-date and secure.

After going through all of the screens and entering my demographic information for the Red Hat Network, I was prompted to join the Red Hat Linux 7.3 channel for downloads. After this step, the UP2DATE tool ran a comparison of all software installed on the machine versus a database that it maintains on the server. What was returned was a list of all the applicable updates that I could apply to my system. I chose them all and was informed that it would be a 180MB download. So, I set it to work and went for a snack. After about an hour, I came back, and all of the updates had been downloaded. The next phase, installation, took about 30 minutes.

Once I installed all of the updates, including a new kernel, UP2DATE suggested I restart my machine. I did so and noticed that the boot loader (GRUB in my case) had some additional entries in it. The entry that was chosen by default was the entry for the new kernel. I let GRUB do it's thing, and in time, the machine came back up to the graphical login screen.

After logging back into my system, I was greeted with the Red Hat Network's blue checkmark on the panel. This told me with a glance that everything was up to date with my system. I then set about logging in as root, again with the warnings, and adding additional users to my system.

So, I Have a New Operating System...Now What?

Anybody who has toyed with the idea of implementing Linux as their only operating system has contemplated how they will do their productivity tasks on the desktop. Unless you are a die-hard gamer, you will not be disappointed by the variety of applications available on the desktop. And if you are a die-hard gamer, ports of many but the most recent applications are generally available for Linux.

The applications I used most often on my Windows PC were Microsoft Outlook for e-mail, Outlook Express for newsgroups, Word for word processing, Excel for spreadsheet needs, PowerPoint for presentations, Internet Explorer 6.0 for web browsing and Quicken 2002 Deluxe for money management. Prior to implementing my newly chosen operating system, I did some research and found that Linux applications were available to suit each of my needs. In fact, there wasn't only one application for each need, as I suspected there would be. Instead, I was given a choice of applications to use for each of my needs.

For e-mail, I chose Ximian's Evolution product. Version 1.0.3 of this application shipped with my version of Red Hat Linux and came preconfigured in the GNOME desktop. The only thing I had to do was set up the mail accounts so that I could send and receive e-mail via my Earthlink account. For those of you used to integrating your e-mail with your personal information manager, I would recommend this application. While it looks like Outlook, its summary page gives you much more information, in a more configurable manner. For example, I have it set to give me weather reports from all of the towns to which I travel within the state, so that at a moment's notice, I can get the information for my next destination.

For my newsreader, I chose the Pan newsreader. Like Evolution, this came preconfigured for the GNOME desktop. The only thing I had to do was point it to my news server. While less graphically intensive and less intuitive than Evolution, it serves its purpose as a newsreader quite well. It also takes up considerably less memory than the comparable product would have under Windows.

For my office applications, at first I installed Sun's StarOffice 5.2, which shipped with my distribution. I was pleased with the general interface presented in each of the applications. I was not pleased, however, with how the products were integrated, so I looked for an alternative. My alternative was initially Open Office's application package. But after subscribing to a high-speed download link available from Ximian to get their latest and greatest updates, I was able to download and install Sun's StarOffice 6.0 application. In this version, Sun got rid of the centralized interface they were shipping with 5.2. Even though the products don't share a browser-like interface like they did in 5.2, they did much better product integration with version 6.0.

It is important for my daily work to be able to open, read and edit Microsoft Word and Excel documents, as well as PowerPoint presentations. While my Word documents generally imported well and were quite viewable, I did notice there would be problems with documents using a lot of tables. Since I don't deal with tables often enough to warrant too much concern, I'm not disappointed with the StarOffice writer. My other documents (including presentations) were viewable without issue within the StarOffice 6.0 applications.

For my home finances, I discovered GnuCash. This is a nifty little application that shipped with the GNOME desktop. It provides a basic but thorough way to track my home expenses. Although it is somewhat lacking in its ability to help with a home budget, I'm thinking that I might volunteer with the GnuCash project to help them design this facet of the product. After all, this is what the open-source experience is all about-contributing your knowledge.

It's a Wrap!

To wrap up, I've tried to share with you my experience of installing Linux on my home PC as my desktop operating system. My goal with this article was not only to share with you the experience that I've gained, but to inspire others who may want to try an extraordinary operating system but, for one reason or another, can't get off the fence. As long as you do your research and find that you have acceptable tools in another medium, it's not that difficult to replace your operating system. While your mileage may vary, you very likely will learn more about your computer than you have working with any other software.

The biggest feeling of success I have garnered from this endeavor is the satisfaction of knowing that I have chosen how my system is configured, how it behaves and how it will benefit me. It truly is a feeling of freedom; a true freedom of choice.

email: sbossinger

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