The move to Linux, stymied by hardware...the server side...

by David Lane

If you thought installing Linux on a laptop was a fun discussion, have I got a new one for you. This comes straight out of the really, it should not be this hard category…the server side.

I have an HP Proliant 385 G2. It was running Fedora Core 7. It installed fine a year or so ago and was running fine, but I wanted to take it up to Core 10 and test drive the new features. Pretty simple. The server has a P400 RAID board, a pair of 72GB disks and four 146GB disks. The 72s are mirrored (RAID 1+0) and the 146s are in an RAID5 array. Pretty standard stuff right?

Boot up my Core 10 DVD, select my language and whamo, I get the message:

Unable to determine geometry of file/device /dev/cciss/c0d0. You should not use parted unless you REALLY know what you are doing.

My initial thought is that there was something wrong with my array configuration so I boot back into SmartStart and blow the arrays away and rebuild them, reboot and go through the process and we are back to the message. OK, maybe I can ignore it and move on, which I do. I spend about 45 minutes picking and choosing my packages and start the install and head home for the night.

The following day, I reboot the server and end up at a dead GRUB prompt. There is nothing you can do to move it beyond this point. It is at this point that I begin my Internet searching.

That was Tuesday. It is now Thursday afternoon, some 30 man hours later.

Since then I have read articles about large disks which, while interesting does not apply 1) because I don’t have a large disk in excess of 2 TB and 2) I am not using a DELL, but it is nice to see that I am at least not alone in having no immediate answers. I have read about bugs in Ubuntu and the various strings related to it and while interesting, does not solve my Fedora Core 10 issue, but it did pose some very interesting options to try.

It would seem that this fix, relating to the scsi_wait command is doing the trick, but only after a lot of machination after the fact. During the course of arriving at this article, I what seemed like several hundred pages of solutions, none really exactly what I needed. I patched, updated and flashed firmware, rebooted into Knoppix, partitioned with three other OSs, stood on one leg and generally cursed a blue streak. Good thing my office is in a bunker and removed from the rest of my coworkers.

The point here is that we keep trying to tell people Linux is the better mouse trap. I say it all the time because it has proven itself over and over again in real world use. But when something as simple as a commodity RAID controller in use in mainstream hardware chews up 30 hours of manpower time just to get the operating system installed and the process of getting there includes things like building and burning custom ISOs and enough byzantine commands to make perl readable, then maybe we need to step back a bit and ask ourselves what the goal really is? Do we want to provide a world class operating system, capable of supporting thousands of customers and millions of transactions, running on commodity systems or don’t we? Do we want to offer a stellar, rock hard, and truly viable alternative to Windows or do we just want to keep working in our little hobby shops?

This is very much about being smart. It is about the smart use of time and the money that time costs. I have seen, and believe, that Linux is the answer, that is is a world class operating system with all the capabilities that any IT shop could ask for. It is the better mouse trap. I have been using it since 1995 to solve a variety of problems that Novell and Microsoft could not do then and in many ways still cannot do today. I have seen Linux systems half the size of a Windows system run rings around the Windows box and still have CPU left over for other tasks. I am a believer. But after 30 hours of frustration, cussing, ISO burning, and hacking, even I begin to wonder if it is all worth it, when I know I can slap my copy of Server 2008 in the same box and be up and running in a couple of hours and management is willing to live with the shortcomings.

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