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Basic Linux Training

Lesson 2: Hardware Requirements and Selecting a Distribution

Table of Contents

Hardware Requirements

At this stage, your main concern is that your hardware is compatible and supported by Linux, particularly your CD-ROM drive. (When you get ready to install X you will need detailed information about your video card, chipset, and your horizontal and vertical frequencies.) Generally speaking, if a device works from the DOS prompt, it will probably work fine with Linux.

So the first thing you need to know is what hardware you have installed, and whether it's compatible with Linux.

Choosing a Distribution

It would seem that here is one place where you can safely save some time, effort, and expense. The differences in the software packages included in the most popular distributions are relatively minor - and you can always install additional packages later.

You can check the various web sites for the distributions, and search through but unless you're familiar with the individual programs it's not going to mean much to you. You'll get lots of opinions on 'which is the best' and those discussions can quickly degenerate into a religious war. There are pros and cons with all the distributions.

My highly biased take on a few of the favorites:

  • Debian is gaining a lot of popularity among experienced users; the basic installation is 100% GPL software, and the list of software options in the installation program is impressively long - but all of it is available with the other distributions; dselect is too confusing for inexperienced users - IMO; good, bad, or indifferent, Debian has its own documentation project; there are literally dozens of developers putting this distribution together

  • Red Hat gets lots of (well-deserved) press, and has a vastly superior solution for handling upgrades - RPM - but you can get RPM for any distribution; my main problems with Red Hat are that it is vastly overrated for ease of installation (check the newsgroups for verification), and hides too much about the operating system from the user - one of the major selling points to users who don't want to know anything about it, just point and click; the distribution is put together by a company

  • Slackware doesn't have any slick advertising, is not sexy or glamorous, was the first distribution, and may seem a little shop worn in areas; I don't particularly care for the included demoware, but the installation program is much better than it used to be and not nearly as 'primative' as some would have you believe; it's what I started with, I've been happy with it from the start, and it's going to take a lot more from the 'competition' than anything they currently have to offer to get me to change; Slackware still supports running Linux off the CD-ROM where Red Hat has given that option up; most of the available documentation, especially through the Linux Documentaion Project, is intended for Slackware; this is essentially a one man operation

  • Caldera seems to be going after the business users - they've got a lot going for them, and they aren't afraid to spend money to develop a better product; I anticipate great things from them over the next 3 to 5 years and beyond
There is a project to make Linux more accessible to the casual home user - Simplified End User Linux (SEUL) - which will add another distribution. And, to confuse matters further, last month yet another one was announced - e-Linux.

Fortunately, because Linux is freely available on the Internet, there is an inexpensive way around this dilemma: try any of the current distributions, if you're not happy with it, change to another distribution until you find one you like. More likely than, once you understand how to customize Linux, the answer to 'which distribution is best' will be the one you have up and running.

Disk swapping is not one of my favorite pastimes, and I strongly urge you to stay away from it if at all possible - it takes too long to copy the disk set images to floppies, and too long to install them. Rather than download 50 or 60 disk sets for a minimum install, get a cheap CD-ROM for US$2 (plus shipping) or one of the 3 distribution sets which includes the latest versions of Red Hat 4.2, Slackware 3.3, and Debian 1.3.1 - the three most popular distributions. There is also a 3 CD-ROM set of the major Linux archives which includes just about everything available.

Preview of the setup Program

Let's take a brief preview of what a Slackware setup program will be doing and what information it will be asking you to furnish in this hypothetical exercise. (We'll cover how to choose you images and make the disks later.)

Put the BOOTDISK is drive a: and warm boot your computer with CTRL+ALT+DEL. This is simply a kernel small enough to fit on a floppy and will include only enough of the device drivers to get Linux installed on your hard diak.

Shortly the word LILO will appear at the top of your screen followed by a new screen with lot of information as Linux echos everything that happens. (This is essentially the same power on self testing that DOS does, only echoed to the screen. At the first prompt, you'll be asked about passing additional parameters to the kernel, the first time through you should press ENTER and see whether you need them (chances are very good that everything will work, and you won't need to type in any parameters).

At the boot: prompt remove the BOOTDISK from drive a: and put in the ROOTDISK, then press ENTER.

At the slackware login: prompt enter fdisk rather than setup to set up your Linux partition(s) and format them to create the filesystem(you only need to do this once, on any subsequent installation it will not be necessary).

After you have created the new filesystem, make sure that it is readable. Go back to the BOOTDISK and boot your computer again, as before, and the ROOTDISK when prompted. This time at the slackware login: prompt enter setup and press ENTER.

From the Menu, select target, then format and enter /dev/hda2 for Linux native filesystem on the second partition on the first IDE hard disk (we'll get into Linux naming conventions later);

Select slow format with bad sector check, and 1024 bytes per inode.

You'll want to make you DOS partition (/dev/hda1) visible to Linux and store this information in /etc/fstab; choose whatever name you like as the mount point (where it will show up in your directory structure under Linux), /dos is fine (this will be added to /etc/fstab).

Source media selection is, of course, 5 - install from CD-ROM; your choice of CD-ROM drive will depend on your actual CD-ROM drive, and let it scan to make sure that it can read from your CD-ROM drive.

Select your installation method - Slackware (or slaktest if you want to run Linux off the CD-ROM with a small directory on your current DOS partition).

Choose disk sets - yes.

Series selection (see the next section in this lesson).

Use the menu option, otherwise you'll have to respond to each prompt for the packages individually, which will get tiresome very fast.

Install the kernel from the BOOTDISK to vmlinuz.

Configure the system - yes.

Make bootdisk - use a fresh floppy.

Modem - yes (you can do it now or later).

Mouse - yes (we'll need this when we install X) You'll need to know what type and which port you're using.

Custom menu fonts - no (you can do this later).

Modem speed - (pick the highest number that applies, or the first number higher; e.g. 28.8 is not listed, so rather than 19.2 choose 38.8).

LILO installation - Skip this or you'll probably get into serious trouble; use loadlin instead.

Configure network - no (we'll do this later).

gpm - no (this is the mouse for text based Linux; it interferes with the X Window System).

SMTP (or SMTP-BIND) We'll be covering these near the end of the course.

Time-zone - Major cities are listed by countries alphabetically. Unix machines are usually set to Universal Co-ordinated Time (UTC, formerly called Greenwich Mean Time).

That completes the options. Now Linux will be installed, so grab a cup of coffee. You can read the descriptions as the packages are being installed, or take a break for a few minutes.

After the installation has completed, reboot, and login as root.

At this point you should have a basic working installation to practice what you're learning in the lessons and textbook - no 'frills', like sound and a X. This is not an ideal setup for Linux, but it gets you in the game. You can experiment and customize as much or as little as you like. In fact, the more you play around with it, the more you're likely learn. You can't break anything, and if you 'crash' you probably will only crash a single application - not the operating system like you're used to - and you can recover from that in a flash without rebooting.

Choosing Your Disk Sets

All the disk sets are grouped into series by similar functions. These series will be presented in order. The required programs and libraries will be installed and you will have the option to go with the recommended programs or make some changes. You can use the arrow buttons to scroll through the list, and press the spacebar to toggle selection on or off. (The actual programs installed by default will vary with the distribution, but are pretty much all you'll need for the time being.)
  • A - the base Linux system and required for all installations

  • AP - various applications that do not require X

  • D - program development (programmers will need this, and so will you if you recompile your kernel - e.g. for sound)

  • E - GNU emacs (highly recommended, but it's huge)

  • F - FAQ lists, HOWTO documentation (convenient to have on your hard disk, but you can leave it on your CD-ROM if you need to have the space on your hard disk)

  • K - kernel source code (obviously required to recompile the kernel)

  • N - networking (TCP/IP, UUCP, Mail, News)

  • T - TeX (a terrific typesetting program that's huge; don't install unless you need it)

  • TCL - Tcl/Tk script language (sooner or later you'll probably get into these, you can do a lot of programming with just a few lines of code)

  • X - XFree86 (yes, if you want a GUI)

  • XAP - X applications (some neat stuff here)

  • XAD - X server development kit (you'll probably need this, too, sooner or later)

  • XV - XView (another X application you'll probably want)

  • Y - games that do not require X
As you go through the series' you need to keep notes of which options you've selected. For example, there are a number of text editors, and while you can get along fine with emacs and vi, joe and jove may be a little easier for you to learn; similarly, I much prefer vim to vi. Keep an eye out for mc (Midnight Commander; similar to Norton Commander) and lynx (which is a non-graphical hypertext browser you can use with the bash shell).

Linux Distributions

This is an abbreviated listing. For a more exhaustive listing, consult the LDP homepage at

Bookmark the following sites. You're not expected to visit all of them.

Other CD-ROM Sources

Some more additional sites to bookmark:


Textbook: Running Linux
  • Chapter 1: Hardware Requirements, p.30-42

  • Chapter 2: Linux Distributions, p.43-46

  • Appendix B: Linux Vendor List, p.559-565

  • Bibliography, p.606-609
A reminder for those who do not have the textbook yet: a newly revised (February, 1998) version of portions of the textbook is online at: This version updates the orginal (1994) online version with the distribution specific guidelines for Debian, Red Hat, Slackware, and S.u.S.E. that first appeared in the Linux Gazette in 1997.

Terms and Concepts:

Define and add these to your glossary:

  • proprietary
  • controller (card)
  • gateway
  • moderated/unmoderated
  • disk image
  • block transfer



Bring all you User's Manuals together and get started on an inventory of your hardware. There is a hardware survey form at to give you some help. Fill out as much as you can; but don't spend much time on this because we'll be going over this again in other lessons. The items you should concentrate on first are your controller cards, CD-ROM and mouse.

Go to Basic Linux Index

Date last revised: 11 May 1998

Copyright © 1997, 1998 Henry White. All Rights Reserved.
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