Linux Primer

Have you heard about Linux but don't know what all the fuss is about? During this Guild Meeting, Jack Wallen, Jr., TechProGuild's Linux guru, helped all the Linux wanna-bes take the first step. This was definitely a must-attend for Linux newbies!

Have you heard about Linux but don't know what all the fuss is about? During this Guild Meeting, Jack Wallen, Jr., TechProGuild's Linux guru, helped all the Linux wanna-bes take the first step. This was definitely a must-attend for Linux newbies! If you couldn’t join us then, enjoy the transcript and we hope to see you on our next live Guild Meeting.

Have you head about Linux but don’t know what all the fuss is about? During this Guild Meeting, Jack Wallen, Jr., TechProGuild’s Linux guru, helped all the Linux wanna-bes take the first step. This was definitely a must-attend for Linux newbies! If you couldn’t join us then, enjoy the transcript and we hope to see you on our next live Guild Meeting.

Note: TechProGuild edits Guild Meeting transcripts for clarity.

Welcome to the meeting
MODERATOR: Shall we get started this evening?

Direct from TechProGuild, he's quick, he's smart, and he speaks Linux! A warm round of applause for Jack Wallen, Jr.!!!!!!

JACK WALLEN: Let's talk LINUX! Roo hoo!

What I want to start out with saying is that I encourage everyone to chime in. Don't be shy. If you have a question, shout it out loud. I would, however, like to ask you to hold more advanced questions until the end so we can actually talk about beginning Linux. So without further adieu.

How do you get started?
MODERATOR: Jack, I've one member who couldn't attend ask me to ask you where do you start if you want to go Linux?

JACK WALLEN: Okay, good question. Where do you start?

Any time you want/need to learn a new operating system, there are going to be hurdles to overcome. Remember the first time you started up Windows 3.1 or 95? You saw a Start button and a task bar and some icons. You could point and click and you could start applications, but that's really it.

With Linux (newer distributions), it's pretty much the same thing. You have a panel (task bar), menus, icons, all the things Windows had for you.

Unfortunately, the hurdles are just a bit higher with Linux. There are many reasons for this which I'll try to explain/comment on as we go.

But as to the question "Where do you go for Linux?" there are a number of places to start.

First—TechProGuild. We have some incredible writers (Vincent Danen, Bryan Pfaffenberger, Judith Samson) who all cover a myriad of Linux topics.

Second—the Linux Documentation Project. The Linux Documentation Project is a huge attempt to bring all the Linux resources together in one place. You can get more information at

The root directory
MIKKILUSA: Jack, I have a question. I had only used it (Linux) for a bit till the hard drive went bad, but it is different. You have to log in to root or as user and it has you mount your drives when you use them. This confuses me. Explain, please.

JACK WALLEN: Before I try to explain, I'm going to say that these reasons are couched in a decade or two of UNIX history, so some of the logic you just have to say "okay."

First, root vs. user isn't so bad. Linux (as is UNIX) is a true multiuser environment.

Okay, let's talk about logging in as root vs. user. Unlike Windows where you can create "login names," Linux allows you to create completely separate environments for each user. These users will have their own desktops, directories, can install software that only they can use, and can create files and directories that only they (and root ,of course) can use.

MIKKILUSA: I guess what I am trying to figure out, is root like a share or the root of say a C drive?

JACK WALLEN: Okay, mikkilusa, you're talking about the /root directory?


JSZADA: Root is really the system admin.

JACK WALLEN: Yes, root is basically the admin of the system.

There are really two different "root" directories. The first is called the "root directory" but refers to, basically, the "root" of the directory tree. This directory's actual "name" is "/". If you try to map out a Linux directory structure, you have to start with /. It's the equivalent (somewhat) to Windows "C" drive.

MIKKILUSA: So, an admin can install software for all users to have access to, whereas in NT, you have to install separately for each user?

JACK WALLEN: Exactly. Under the / directory, you have other directories: bin, dev, home, lost+found, mnt, proc, sbin, tmp, and var. That's on a Red Hat 6.2 system.

Each directory has a specific purpose and, during installation, can actually be configured in many different ways. Many people think it is best to keep the "root" directory small so there's less chance of corruption. The best way to do this is to give /home its own partition. You see /home is where all users' personal directories will live, so it gets hit really hard.

NTFS and ye ol' "loopback"
TSQR5: Can Linux be loaded on an NTFS partition?

JACK WALLEN: No. Linux cannot be loaded onto an NTFS partition. There are many "loopback" distributions that can be installed under a FAT partition but not NTFS.

TSQR5: What is a "loopback distribution"? I am not a UNIX person, NT only.

JACK WALLEN: A loopback distribution basically is a distribution that can be installed on a non-native (ext2) file system and will act as if it is. Basically, you can install (with a loopback) Linux on a FAT partition and it will run as if it's native to ext2.

TSQR5: I hate to be a pain, but what is ext2?

JACK WALLEN: Ext2 is an extension. You know how Windows 98 is a FAT32 system? Linux uses extension 2. Windows 98 is a FAT32 file system and the equivalent in Linux is ext2.

Ask all the questions you want, please. This is for those wanting and needing to know the basics.
Our Guild Meetings feature top-flight professionals leading discussions on interesting and valuable IT issues. You can find a schedule of Guild Meetings in your weekly TechProGuild Notes TechMail, or on the Guild Meeting calendar.
JSZADA: What is the relationship between /home and the "kernel"?

JACK WALLEN: The kernel is actually the "heart" of the operating system.

The kernel is what lies below all else and allows, in very basic terms, the OS to talk to the hardware.

JSZADA: So /home functions within the kernel?

JACK WALLEN: /home is simply a directory within the file structure. The current Linux kernel allows for, I believe, a max of 2-gig directories. This can be easily overcome by using multiple directories.

Hardware and CPUs
DHOWELL: What is the minimum hardware Linux can run on?

JACK WALLEN: The minimum hardware question depends on what you want to use it for.

JPNERD: Can you run Linux on a new CPU 700 or 800 MHz?

JACK WALLEN: Oh, yes. Linux will run on all the new CPUs, and it will run with dual CPUs as well.

JPNERD: Thank you.

Upgrading a Linux system
JSZADA: How does one go about upgrading a Linux system?

JACK WALLEN: At installation (with dual CPUs), the OS will detect the need for smp and install the proper kernel. It's really great! With many of the newer distributions, upgrading is very simple. I just finished a Daily Drill Down on upgrading Red Hat to 6.2. I had a lot of fun doing it because I upgraded in a non-traditional way.

JSZADA: Excellent, just what I have been looking for.

JACK WALLEN: I downloaded all the individual rpms and upgraded them ONE AT A TIME! It was amazing.

MIKKILUSA: Rpms? Tar? So much to learn, so little time.

JACK WALLEN: Yeah, rpm and tar can be a big task to learn, but it's sufficient with both to only learn the basics.

With rpm master installing (rpm -ivh package-name.rpm). upgrading (rpm -Uvh package-name.rpm) removing (rpm -e package-name) and querying (rpm -q package-name)

386 or 486?
DHOWELL: If I'm just wanting to "check it out," see how it runs without wiping out my main computer, would a 386 or 486 be sufficient to run it?

JACK WALLEN: You could run Linux on a 486, but you'll have a hard time with the GUI. Console Linux works great with a 486! You can run file servers and firewalls and all sorts of things.

For learning purposes, however, you will want to take advantage of the GUI. When you work with the Linux GUI, you really see what desktop computing is all about.

BELKATO: I installed Red Hat Linux on a PC that was pretty mismatched on hardware. I was surprised at the ease of the install. The hardest part was setting up the different partitions.

Dual booting
TSQR5: Can you have a dual boot of Linux on an Intel box, with NT 4.0 or Windows 2000?

JACK WALLEN: Oh, yes. Linux is the king of dual booting.

OVERSEER: Yep. I have a dual boot with Linux and W2K. I use System Command 2000.

TSQR5: Cool.

JACK WALLEN: I prefer to use LILO only because it is the native boot loader for Linux.

You can even triple boot if you like.

DHOWELL: So if I want the full effect, with the GUI, I will want it on a Pentium?

OVERSEER: I'd use that, but I'm on a production machine at work (they don't know I have Linux. Shh.).

JACK WALLEN: I'll never tell. I promise.

Be careful dual booting with NT and Linux. The reason I say this is because you have to start with the NT boot loader. You can't put LILO on the MBR (master boot record).

If LILO does overwrite your MBR, you can use a Windows boot disk and run the fdisk mbr command and it will wipe out what LILO did. Then, you can use a Linux floppy to boot into Linux. A hassle, but it works.

I did a Drill Down on dual booting with Linux that includes Linux/NT. Just go to the Drill Down index of the Linux tab on TechProGuild and you'll be set.

DHOWELL: Setting up the dual boot with Linux/Win98, is it pretty easy?

JACK WALLEN: Setting up dual boot between Linux and Win98 is a snap.

During install, just have LILO reside in the MBD and it will detect both OSs.

Tar balls
OVERSEER: I have a problem with tar balls ... What would you suggest for that?

JACK WALLEN: Tar balls. He, he, he. Installing with tar balls (AKA source code) is a really fulfilling treat. Basically with a tar ball, you first extract the archive with the tar xvf command, and then you cd into the newly created directory, and then run (typically) ./configure, followed by ./make, and finally ./make install.

OVERSEER: Not to say annoying when you're new to Linux also.

TSQR5: Is there a book I could buy on setting up a dual boot with NT and Linux?

MODERATOR: For anyone interested, Sams Teach Yourself Linux in 10 Minutes is in our library. The link is

MIKKILUSA: The Linux Project sounds good.

JACK WALLEN: The best book to learn how to configure Linux, believe it or not, is the manuals that come with the distribution. The new Mandrake manual (7.0) is incredible! One of the best Linux books I've seen.

Setting up firewalls
COURTNEYCARTER: If you were setting up a firewall, would you use Linux or NT as the OS?

JACK WALLEN: Oh, boy! I wouldn't set up a firewall with anything but Linux. (This, of course, excludes high-end products like the Progressive Systems Firewall or Cisco routers.)

COURTNEYCARTER: What version of Linux is best for firewalls?

MIKKILUSA: These firewalls in a box you buy—mostly run Linux, true?

JACK WALLEN: The best Linux for firewalls? Well, I'd probably have to say Slackware ( or BSD (, but BSD is not "really" Linux. Both Slackware and BSD are much closer to UNIX. If you want a simpler Linux for a firewall, then install a server installation of Red Hat 6.2 and use ipchains.

When you want to install a package and you see it has an extension of either .tar, .gz, or .tgz, you know you have the source code and you have to compile it for your machine. This has a huge benefit in that it is configured for your machine specifically.

MIKKILUSA: I have been looking into plug-in firewall boxes; most are pre-configured with Linux.


MIKKILUSA: Just plug in, and off they go. How well do they work, Jack?

JACK WALLEN: If you want plug-in firewalls, you really, REALLY want to get the Progressive Systems firewall appliance. This is a 3,000 product based on the Cobalt Cube, and it is simply the easiest piece of hardware you'll ever use for security!

Linux and ICQ
OVERSEER: I tried setting up LICQ the other day, and when I went to make it run it said it couldn't find the file even though I was logged in as root.

JACK WALLEN: ICQ and Linux. There are a couple of really good clones to use for Linux. It depends on which Desktop Environment you use, of course.

If you use GNOME, I'd suggest GNOMEICU. It sits in the Panel and works like a champ.

OVERSEER: I was using KDE.

JACK WALLEN: There is also ZICQ, which is a console ICQ, and it works really well. If you're using KDE and you want to use ICQ, I'd suggest KICQ.

OVERSEER: I saw that one. How would you rate it? Should I bother or just use one for GNOME?

JACK WALLEN: I'd rate KICQ under GNOMEICU only because of GNOMEICU's ease of use and configuration, but for a "standard" (and if you don't mind console), go with ZICQ. It's solid.

TSQR5: Is Linux's security as good or better than NT C2 security?

JACK WALLEN: Well, this thing about NT C2 security, from what I understand, is somewhat of a huge fallacy. The only true way to get NT C2 certified is to unplug it from any network.

I would put Linux security over ANY Microsoft security any day. I don't care how much you spend on an MS security product. You're just not going to be able to beat Linux.

JSZADA: Why is that so?

Game server, anyone?
OVERSEER: I'm going to be setting up a server (once I get my cable modem/DSL), and it's primarily going to be a gaming server running NeverWinterNights when it comes out. What build would you suggest for a game server?

MIKKILUSA: I suggest Diablo2 instead of NeverWinterNights.

OVERSEER: Well, maybe that, too.

MIKKILUSA: Cool. Overseer, e-mail me when it's up.

JACK WALLEN: I'd go with, again, Red Hat for a game server. I really think that Red Hat is going to set the Linux standard. Their server installations are really nice.

JACK WALLEN: Well, back to the ipchains question. If you can imagine the strength and flexibility of a Cisco product in a near "free" OS (you can download the OS if you like), NT just simply doesn't stand a chance.

Linux has two different types of users, root and everyday users. Root has permission to do anything on the system. Users do not. Fundamentally, Linux is built as a secure environment.

Let's take the multiuser aspect first. You will most likely (and should be) doing all your work as a user so you won't have permission to do, say “rm -rf /”.

MIKKILUSA: Which brings back the question, can you install software so all users have it without having to install it separate for each user like NT makes you? Jack?

JACK WALLEN: Yes, but if you really are concerned with someone getting into your system, you can simply (with Linux as root) issue /sbin/ipchains -P input -j DENY, and it will not allow incoming traffic. All with a single command.

DHOWELL: Am I isolating myself from the Windows world by using Linux, is there any cross-platform transfer of data?

OVERSEER: That and Corel Linux uses WordPerfect in which you can save an Office document.

JACK WALLEN: Cross-platform transfer of data is simple with Linux. Let's say you're dual booting a machine. You can simply run the mount command to mount the Windows partition to a Linux directory and read and write to and from, or you can use Samba which allows Windows to see Linux directories as if they were native and allows Linux, via smbmount, to read Windows directories.

JPNERD: How easy is it to start Linux after a crash?

DHOWELL: Does Linux crash??

JACK WALLEN: You can make any OS crash, but the Linux OS itself rarely crashes.

OVERSEER: At least Linux won't crash just by looking at it funny (like Windows).

JACK WALLEN: Applications will crash. X Windows might crash, but they'll never take down the OS, which means no rebooting. In fact, you can completely reconfigure your network on a Linux system without having to reboot!

Crossing applications and voice apps
DHOWELL: Can Linux apps open/convert popular windows apps ... spreadsheets, for example?

JACK WALLEN: Windows spreadsheets?

I have two apps that I use to read .xls spreadsheets, StarOffice and Applixware. StarOffice is one of my favorite apps of all time! It's an office suite for Linux and it's just incredible. Applixware is also an office suite and is equally powerful and fabulous. I switch off using them because I'm not sure which I like best!

JPNERD: Can you use voice with Linux?

DHOWELL: If I'm just "checking out" Linux, I won't want to purchase many apps. Don't a lot of apps come with some of the Linux packages and do they have the ability to pull in Microsoft Office Suite data?

JACK WALLEN: There are applications that use voice with Linux. I've not tried them but I've seen them in use. I think the Corel Word Perfect 2000 suite will support it eventually (when they get the bugs worked out of the current release).

OVERSEER: Can Linux "stripe" across drives like NT?

JACK WALLEN: I've never actually heard of the term "stripe" as you used it. Can you explain?

MIKKILUSA: Stripe as in Raid?

OVERSEER: Yes. Raid 5 for example.

JACK WALLEN: Oh, yes. Linux does raid. Red Hat 6.x does software raid out of the box! I believe it does Raid 5. This, along with such things as smp, will configure at installation. Linux also does clustering! I've never actually installed Raid on Linux. I know some people who have and were very impressed.

What you pay for
JACK WALLEN: Try this out for size. In order to get the equivalent Microsoft products that you get with a typical Linux distribution (let's use Red Hat), it will cost you approximately 4,600 dollars!

A standard Linux distribution comes with all server utilities, desktop utilities, office suite (typically StarOffice), the Gimp (Photoshop-like application), and so many more!

MIKKILUSA: I have read some disturbing news in industry mags like NetWorld, Internet World, etc., that big time companies like AT&T and stock market are switching from Linux to NT2000. Can you explain this?

JACK WALLEN: I'm going to make a very bold statement here and hope I don't offend anyone. It seems there are two very scary trends in the IT world these days. The first trend is that newer IT professionals are lacking the "real" skill sets needed for the job (specifically UNIX). The second, and equally as frightening, is that the IT world is allowing itself to be dictated by Wall Street.

What the Wall Street numbers say (read: $$$$$$$), IT will believe, simply because a product brings in bank doesn't mean it's a good product! Linux doesn't make a lot of money. Considering you can get the OS for a buck 99 at CheapBytes ( or LinuxMall (

OVERSEER: Yes. That's one thing I'm very impressed by. I love Open Source.

DHOWELL: That's one of the things that attracts me to Linux. Thank you. That tells me what I needed to know.

BELKATO: I know I spent four years for a CIS degree and none of that was spent on UNIX, or Security.

JACK WALLEN: So, yes, Microsoft is always going to stomp Linux where cash is concerned.

MIKKILUSA: It's always the mighty dollar. And you did scare me.

JSZADA: But unfortunately, isn't that where it is? If you don't have the money to research, then how can you develop newer and more innovative products? Isn't that exactly Microsoft's argument with the DOJ?

JACK WALLEN: You should give moneydance a try. It's entirely Java (so you'll also need to install jdk), and it has an amazing feature set. Go to and search.

BELKATO: You have thousands of researchers with Linux. And none of them are worried about the bottom line.

JACK WALLEN: I was in a CIS program at one point and dropped out (and this is not to offend anyone, please) because the program wouldn't offer any UNIX. Let's face it, UNIX runs the net. Without UNIX, there would be no net.

MIKKILUSA: But the thing is, only being in the biz three years, and having cut my teeth on Gates stuff, I have only just come to realize that there has got be a better way than breaking Windows. Makes me wish I had learned something like Linux first.

JACK WALLEN: Yes. If you really want to make a long-term career in IT, learn Linux/UNIX or you'll be spending a lot of late night hours babysitting Windows.

MIKKILUSA: Yep. Just kept me from a promotion not knowing UNIX. Bummer. But Windows is a full-time job just downloading the patch of the day.

YGAGNON: What is more flexible: GNOME or KDE?

JACK WALLEN: GNOME is FAR more flexible than KDE.

DHOWELL: OK. How about Linux CE for my Pocket PC I want to buy? : -)

JACK WALLEN: You want a Windows clone, go with KDE (albeit a better clone). You want amazing configurability, go with GNOME. There will soon be a product called the YOPI that will be a Linux palmtop that will be so much more powerful than all the other handhelds. If you want Linux in your pocket, I'd wait.

YGAGNON: GNOME seems more resource-hungry than KDE; am I right?

JACK WALLEN: No, the footprint of GNOME vs. KDE is pretty much identical.

Good night
JSZADA: We were all over the map here today, but covered lots of great info. Thanks for the insights and the help.

JACK WALLEN: Sorry we were so chaotic! ;-)

DHOWELL: I'm tired of rebooting my computer!

OVERSEER: Yes. Thank you. I'm definitely going to look into Linux hardcore.

MODERATOR: Thanks, everyone, for coming tonight. Let me do all the particulars.

Special thanks to our guest speaker—Jack Wallen!

JACK WALLEN: If you're really tired of rebooting, make the switch. You'll not regret it, and you'll have a lot of fun in the meantime. If you have any other questions, feel free to e-mail me at, and don't hesitate to send those questions or even a topic suggestion. You want to learn something specific, let me know!

MODERATOR: And tonight's prizes have been graciously donated by Tim Lee, another regular speaker here, from

And tonight's winners are....

JACK WALLEN: Go to They're doing some great stuff! Selling some amazing products....

JACK WALLEN: drummmmmmmmmmm rolllllllllllllll

MODERATOR: dhowell, mikkilusa, and overseer! If you would send me your mailing addresses, I will mail to you your copy of Red Hat Linux 6.2. Send that info to

JACK WALLEN: Check out buypogo's athlon machines ... they simply rock!


DHOWELL: I can't believe it!!!

MODERATOR: Wow, I feel like Alex Trebek! Thanks, everyone, for a rocking meeting!

JACK WALLEN: Good night, everyone! Make the switch, everyone!!
Our Guild Meetings feature top-flight professionals leading discussions on interesting and valuable IT issues. You can find a schedule of Guild Meetings in your weekly TechProGuild Notes TechMail, or on the Guild Meeting calendar.


Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website


Editor's Picks