A Linux Island in a C:\ of Windows, Part 1

by Eric Clapsaddle

A lot has been said recently about using Linux on the business desktop. People point to various minor bugs, perceived flaws or cost issues and proclaim that Linux is not ready to be a workplace desktop. I have been using a Linux desktop at work for a while now, however, and I have not experienced problems that would cause me to stop using Linux as my primary desktop OS.

I decided to try Linux in my work environment not to change the world or even my company. I simply wanted a way to make my job easier. As a UNIX administrator for a small company with around 20 UNIX servers--a mix of AIX and Linux--I wanted a Linux sandbox that was all mine. That way, if I wanted to test something out and broke it while doing so, nobody would complain. In addition, I had been using Linux at home for a number of years and thought it would be fine for work. And being able to have a virtual machine running Linux while also having a Windows machine to use to get work done sounded like a great idea. If I had to dual boot the machine every time I wanted to switch OSes, it would have taken too much time to make the move to Linux.

My company had a license for VMware that wasn't being used, and because using a VMware license is a lot cheaper than purchasing a whole new server, I loaded VMware on my company-issued Windows desktop. We use SUSE Linux Enterprise Server for S390 and Intel at work, so I decided to pick up a copy of SUSE 9.1 Professional and load it on my desktop PC.

Setting up a virtual machine using VMware couldn't be easier. Make sure you are using the latest version of VMware. Downloads are available from the VMware Web site, and you need to purchase a license to install it. Also, before installing the virtual Linux machine, you should do a Windows disk defrag so you have a nice clean place for your Linux machine to reside.

To create a new virtual machine, start VMware workstation and click on File --> New Virtual machine. I chose to use the Custom wizard because I wanted a little more control over the installation. Follow the prompts on the screen to choose the Guest Operating System, Virtual Machine name and location. For the system memory, I chose to use the defaults; it's pretty easy to change them later. If you do choose to increase the memory size beyond the suggested amount, remember that you will be using a virtual Linux machine running on a Windows machine. As a result, allocating more memory to your virtual machine may cause a paging problem with Windows memory and may impact performance.

From a networking point of view, I chose bridged networking so my Linux machine would be separated from the rest of the network. After I selected the default disk type, I chose a fairly modest 5GB disk capacity. I also chose to have the system allocate the space right away. A few minutes after I clicked Finish, the Virtual Workstation screen appeared.

To load your virtual machine, insert disk 1 of your chosen Linux distribution into your CD-ROM drive and click Start virtual machine. Most Linux installations are pretty straight forward, so I am not going to bore you with details. Simply load it as you would any standalone machine.

With that being said, I had a fairly major problem during my installation of Linux: the virtual machine wouldn't release the first disk when it asked for the second. After a few frustrating attempts, I figured out the problem. If this happens to you, click on VM in the virtual machine window and then select Removable Devices, highlight CD-ROM and select edit. Click the check box for Legacy Emulation. After doing this, my installation continued without a hitch.

I go into detail later about some of the packages that were necessary to include in order to make the switch possible. For now, make sure to load the GCC compiler--both the C and C++ parts--the kernel source that matches the kernel you are going to use, tar, gunzip and Perl. Then, pick whichever installation level you would like to use as a base. I chose the SUSE 9.1 Professional graphical workstation. After your installation completes, you should see a familiar sign-on screen. If you are new to Linux, this sign-on screen soon will become familiar. In my case, the sign-on went smoothly, but the screen resolution was huge and the mouse moved as though it had been through the maze one too many times. Even if this doesn't happen to you, look at the bottom left-hand side of the screen, where a nice message tells you that VMware tools are not installed. Pay attention to this message.

To install VMware tools, click on VM in the VMware window and then click Install VMware Tools. This brings up a dialog box telling you the guest OS must be running. Click Install, but know that no message appears to inform you that the installation was completed or where the tools are loaded. It's getting more like UNIX every step. Instead, you need to log on to your Linux machine and CD to /media/cdrom or /mnt/cdrom. If the tools package isn't present in either of those places, use the find command:

find / -name vmware-linux-tools.tar.gz  

Once I found the package under /media/cdrom, I copied it to /usr/local/src before exploding the tar ball. Because GNU tar was loaded, I didn't have to unzip it first:

tar -zxvf  vmware-linux-tools.tar.gz

Install the tools by changing directories and running the install script:

cd vmware-tools-distrib 

I simply accepted the defaults and let it load. During the configuration section of the install, I changed the screen resolution to 1024 x 768.

After completing this step, you should have a running Linux machine on the same box as your Windows workstation. If you want the Linux machine to use the full screen, press Ctrl-Alt-Enter and your machine will look and act just like a Linux machine running on its own hardware. To get back to Windows, simply press Ctrl-Alt. You still can use Linux when it is windowed in this manner, but you have to do a lot of scrolling with the side bars. If you need to get to a command line, instead of using the familiar Ctrl-Alt-<function key> combination, press Ctrl-Alt-Space. Let go of the space bar, but continue holding Ctrl-Alt and press the function key. To get back to the GUI, use the F7 function key. Being an administrator, I wasn't familiar with the GUI side of things. It was nice to have the faithful command line around when I needed it.

Now you have your own Linux desktop running on a company-supplied Windows PC. Use this machine to do your work on the Windows side while playing around and getting a feel for the Linux desktop. Soon, it will be the other way around. It's great to have control over your desktop.

In the next part of this article series, I'll talk about getting the network connections running and talking to other UNIX machines on the network. Not surprisingly, Linux offers many great tools for connecting to other machines.

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