It seems like each new day brings another Linux distribution that’s somehow different from existing distributions. Many are large-scale distributions, such as the newer Corel Linux or Storm Linux 2000. We also see the root-boot distributions, which are basically an entire Linux operating system on floppy disk. More of these single-floppy distributions are becoming available. Now, we're beginning to see another type of Linux distribution—a distribution that claims to be able to run under any version of Windows.
These WinLinux distributions are incredibly intuitive. The major drawback for newcomers to Linux is the need to repartition hard drives during the installation of a Linux distribution like Corel or Red Hat. This requirement makes many users uncomfortable—and with good reason. Tools like Partition Magic don’t work all of the time. I was a firm believer in Partition Magic until a month ago, when I tried to repartition a 17 GB ext2-formatted drive. In the past, I’ve used versions 3 and 4 with Windows, OS/2, and Linux and not had any problems. Last month, however, Partition Magic ate my partitions and left me with a broken server. In general, these tools are hardly what I would call reliable, and users recognize this unreliability. When it comes to giving Linux a try, they need to be very motivated to repartition their systems. The new WinLinux distributions make it easier for people to experience Linux without repartitioning their hard drives.
Of the growing number of WinLinux distributions, I chose two selections for this review: Armed Linux 1.1 final beta workstation and WinLinux 2000 final. They seem to be the largest and more popular examples of this type of Linux distribution.
The installations were performed on a PII-350mHz computer with 64 MB of RAM, a no-name SVGA monitor capable of 1024x768 and 32bit color, a 1 GB partition for the installation, a PCI NE2000 Ethernet card that was connected to a cable modem, a SoundBlaster 16 ISA sound card, an AHA1542 Adaptec SCSI card, an ATI Xpert98 AGP video card, one IDE CD-ROM, one SCSI CD-RW, and an external SCSI ZIP drive. The operating system was Windows98.
Armed Linux 1.1
I started with Armed Linux. The latest available version was Armed Linux 1.1 final beta. Among other things, the Armed Linux Web site observes: "A stable, optimized Linux operating system that installs under Microsoft Windows 95 or 98? They said it couldn't be done... now here it is." An impressive claim, I'd say.
After un-archiving the 192 MB ZIP archive, I found myself with a large 635 MB image file, a 67 MB swap file, and the files that I needed to boot. Booting Armed Linux requires that you boot into straight DOS, so I shut Windows98 down and proceeded to do so. I went into the Armed Linux directory and ran armed.bat. I watched the familiar Linux booting process, and I watched it load a number of unnecessary services, failing on almost half of them and ending up at a login prompt. The image file that was sitting on my hard drive was, in fact, a preinstalled Linux distribution that was loaded with the loopback device, which mounted it as root. The swap file that sat in the same directory was similarly mounted with the loopback device.
Realizing that a number of options must have been set up to make the image in the first place made me feel a little better about the large number of failures that I had observed at boot. The little documentation that comes with Armed Linux indicated that I needed to log in as root with a predefined password. Then, I was promptly told to change the root password. (Good.)
Next, I was kicked into a system-setup script of some sort. The first thing that I was asked to configure was my sound card. I used sndconfig, the Red Hat configuration utility. It detected my SoundBlaster card and told me that it was going to configure X. It ran a GUI installer program (called XF86Setup) that I had never seen before, but it froze on me. [Ctrl][Alt][Backspace] wouldn’t get me out of the X server, the mouse wouldn't move, and no keys worked. I was forced to reboot.
Of course, that didn’t impress me much, but I tried again. The same thing happened. The system was frozen. After the next reboot, I hammered on [Ctrl][C] before XF86Setup could start the X server. I went to the root prompt. It was time to figure this thing out. (I should note that, on each subsequent reboot, I was thrown into the initial configure script and I had to pick a new root password and reconfigure my sound card.)
Before loading the X server each time, XF86Setup told me that, should there be an error with X, I could hit [Ctrl][Alt][Backspace], go to a command prompt, and use xconf to set up X. xconf is a text-based X configuration tool that looks remarkably similar to the XConfigurator program. It also failed to set up X properly. Each time that I tried to start X through xconf, I was unable to move my mouse, and my screen was set to a size of 320x240 with 8bpp color. Realizing that xconf wasn’t going to solve my problem, I used mouseconfig, another Red Hat tool, to configure my mouse. Since my mouse was nothing special—a Microsoft mouse on COM1 (or /dev/ttyS0)—I was happy to see mouseconfig set it up properly, but I didn’t know why xconf wasn’t working.
In a fit of desperation, I tried XF86Setup again. Now that my mouse was configured properly, I could move around in the configuration program and set a number of options. Unfortunately, I couldn’t select my ATI Xpert98 video card from the list because the Mach64 X server wasn’t installed. The only servers installed were the generic VGA and SVGA servers. (Of course, nobody tells you this fact.)
After finishing the X configuration, I decided to reboot and hope that I could get back into the initial setup script to finish the configuration. I had no such luck. I was thrown directly to the command prompt and had nothing to show for my troubles.
After starting X, I was pleased (and surprised) to see WindowMaker as the default window manager. I would have assumed that it would be either KDE or GNOME. Unfortunately, it was an old version of WindowMaker. Armed Linux isn’t very old, but it was using 0.52.0 of WindowMaker. My Linux Mandrake 6.1 installation uses 0.60.0.
I was also happy to see some other good programs, such as the GIMP and Netscape. Again, they were older versions. The GIMP was version 1.0.4, and Netscape was 4.51. Another program was x11amp, which has been discontinued in almost all Linux distributions and replaced by xmms (the "second generation" of x11amp, so to speak).
Shrugging this discovery off (it's old software, but it works), I tried to go into linuxconf to configure my network and found that I couldn’t. Since I have a cable modem, I was forced to use DHCP to determine my IP address. Unfortunately, my ISP is a little strange, and the DHCP client program pump doesn’t work with it. (I can use only dhcpcd with the DHCP server.) Armed Linux comes with pump; therefore, I was unable to connect to the network. My attempt to use an RPM of dhcpcd from the Linux Mandrake 6.1 install CD failed for no reason that I could see. I’ve used the same RPM with SuSE 6.1 (the DHCP client that comes with SuSE doesn’t work with my ISP, either), and using dhcpcd under SuSE 6.1 always worked flawlessly.
Armed but misled
After all of these problems, I felt like I had been misled. Armed Linux—what I thought might become the newbie’s Linux—was more difficult to install and configure than I had expected. With the X configuration trouble, the old software, and my inability to connect to the Internet, I wasn’t pleased at all. Basically, Armed Linux is a mini-Red Hat Linux; it uses the core Red Hat system and some Red Hat installation tools. Unfortunately, it is nowhere nearly as good as Red Hat—even as a mini-distribution. Yes, the ability to install Linux without partitioning and to use the loopback device for root and swap partitions is ingenious, but the rest of the system didn’t work very well. To Linux newcomers, the whole experience would be enough to turn them off of Linux completely. Don't get me wrong. I'm sure that there are people who have installed and are using Armed Linux, but I don’t think that Armed Linux will become anything more than a small niche distribution until it’s seriously reworked.
After happily removing Armed Linux from my system, I decided to give WinLinux 2000 a try. The WinLinux 2000 Web site claims: "If you've ever wanted to have a powerful and reliable system on your computer, WinLinux 2000 is for you." There’s another impressive statement.
Instead of being archived in a ZIP file, WinLinux is a 142 MB self-extracting executable that loads a Windows installation wizard to install itself. Basically, it installs just like any other Windows program, which makes it a little easier for the newbie to use. It installed the entire Linux system into a subdirectory called \Linux on the drive I selected. Instead of being an ext2fs image, however, the entire root partition is contained below that directory. I immediately saw the problem with this sort of setup (which obviously uses the UMSDOS file system). Root is no longer the only super-user for the Linux system. Windows itself (and whichever user happens to be sitting in front of the machine) is now the super-user. Using the loopback device made Armed Linux vulnerable to something as severe as someone deleting the entire image file.
After all of the files are installed, WinLinux prompts for an unprivileged user. It provides a check box in case you want the root user to have the same password as the unprivileged user that you’re creating. After I clicked Next, I was pleased to see the hardware detection for WinLinux 2000. Amazingly, it detected everything from my SCSI adapter to the game port on my sound card. The advantage to using UMSDOS is that the Windows-native installer can write the configuration files within Windows so that you don’t need to configure anything under Linux itself. If I were a newcomer to Linux, I would have been very impressed.
When the installation finished, I found an icon to boot into WinLinux 2000 on the desktop. That was a very nice touch. Unlike Armed Linux, there’s no need to reboot into straight DOS in order to load your WinLinux distribution. The desktop icon for WinLinux 2000 takes care of everything for you. I clicked on the icon, sat back, and prepared myself to be shocked and amazed.
I was shocked and amazed all right—but not in a pleasant way. During the boot, WinLinux 2000 froze solid, with a kernel panic claiming that it was unable to boot the root system. And it claimed the same thing, regardless of which batch file or configuration file I fiddled with. After about half a dozen reboots and a complete reinstallation, I gave up.
My venture into the new WinLinux distributions taught me a few things. First, I learned that the concept is sound. I think that it's a great idea; the people who put out Armed Linux and WinLinux 2000 are on the right track. This sort of distribution would be great for new Linux users—provided that they work as advertised. I don't think that my computer is such an odd system that it couldn’t work. It may become embarrassing for the Linux community as a whole if people base their opinions of Linux on experiences like the ones I had with these two distributions. Together, the install from WinLinux 2000 and the base of Armed Linux could have made for a nice distribution. As things stand now, however, neither distribution impressed me very much.
As far as training someone on Linux is concerned, I had thought that these distributions would be perfect before I tried them. Now, I have to reconsider my opinion. I don't mean to sound disenchanted with the whole WinLinux idea. Eventually, there may be a distribution that will work as advertised, but I haven’t seen it yet. Perhaps future versions of these two distributions will work better. Distributions like Corel would make better trainer distributions. Yes, repartitioning is involved, and yes, it might become painful to accomplish. But I would rather deal with repartitioning and good backups than with flaky distributions like the two that I tried.
For those of you who haven’t taken the plunge into our amazing universe, I hope that this article hasn’t turned you off of Linux. It was a review. I must admit that I’m disappointed, too. Initially, I had high hopes for the WinLinux distributions.
If you've never tried Linux before and you’re interested in seeing what it's all about, I strongly suggest that you take the plunge with one of the larger, more mainstream distributions. Packages like Corel Linux and Caldera OpenLinux claim that they’ve made the transition from Windows to Linux much easier than other distributions, and they’re right. Based on my own experiences (with the same computer onto which I installed Armed Linux and WinLinux 2000), I support their claim. They’re easy to use and easy to install. With GUI installers of their own, packages like Red Hat and Linux Mandrake are right behind Corel and Caldera. If a GUI install makes a package easier to use, then we’ll probably see the majority of large distributions develop GUI installers within the next few months. Don’t be misled by packages that claim they’re the greatest invention since sliced bread. Equal measures of caution and prudence can save you from a lot of grief in the long run. Daily Drill Downs like this one can help you make informed decisions.
I highly recommend Caldera's OpenLinux or Corel's Linux to any new Linux user. Those are my trainer distributions of choice. Once you’ve become more familiar with how Linux works you can venture into the world of more powerful Linux distributions, such as Linux Mandrake, Red Hat, SuSE, Debian, and Slackware. Of course, if Caldera and Corel fill your needs, stick with them. The magic of Linux—and the secret to its success—is that there are many options and choices, whether you want tools to accomplish a specific task or just the distributions themselves. This variety of choice can make using Linux quite an adventure sometimes.
Vincent Danen, a native Canadian in Edmonton, Alberta, has been computing since the age of 10, and hehas been using Linux for nearly two years. Prior to that, he used OS/2 exclusively for approximately four years. Vincent is a firm believer in the philosophy behind the Linux "revolution,” and heattempts to contribute to the Linux causein as many ways as possible—from his FreezerBurn Web site to building and submitting custom RPMs for the Linux Mandrake project. Vincent has also obtained his Linux Administrator certification from Brainbench .He hopes to tackle the RHCE once it can be taken in Canada.The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.
Vincent Danen works on the Red Hat Security Response Team and lives in Canada. He has been writing about and developing on Linux for over 10 years and is a veteran Mac user.