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Tips for speeding up your hard drive and choosing the best Linux distribution

If you support Linux, here are two must-have tips. Find out which distribution is best for Linux beginners and then learn how to speed up your hard drive.

Now that Microsoft's new licensing and activation policies are a reality and not just water-cooler talk, it's likely that end users will soon ask if Linux might be a good choice for them, and, if so, which Linux distribution you would recommend. Below you will find advice on matching the end-user to the appropriate Linux distribution so that these Linux-hopefuls won’t catch you off guard. As a bonus, we've also thrown in a quick tip to help you speed up your hard drive.

Which distribution is best for Linux beginners?
When an end user who is thinking of moving to Linux asks your advice about which distribution he or she should choose, it’s important to set aside your personal opinions and consider the user's situation. Ask for specifics about the user's previous computing experience and goals; your recommendation may vary significantly based on what you're told. Most aspiring Linux users will fall into one of two categories: UNIX users who want to transition to the freeware incarnation of the OS or Windows or Mac users who want to try their hand at a different OS.

Current UNIX users with a high degree of system administration proficiency may well prefer Slackware, which bills itself as the most UNIX-like Linux distribution. Debian GNU/Linux is also quite UNIX-like and offers a package-management system that is similar to Red Hat Package Manager (RPM). Since both of these distributions are maintained by organizations staffed by volunteers, don't expect much in the way of technical support beyond the basics (FAQs, mailing lists, and newsgroups). A relatively new distribution, Elfstone, is just the ticket for Motif users. Elfstone is based on the Motif 2.1.10 graphic user interface that is widely implemented on UNIX workstations.

For beginners migrating from Windows or Mac OS, it's hard to beat Mandrake Linux. The recently released Mandrake Linux 8.1 provides what is arguably the best available support for the application- and feature-rich K Desktop Environment (KDE). If you're partial to the GNOME desktop, Red Hat Linux and the latest versions of SuSE are also relatively easy to install and use. All three of these distributions are maintained by for-profit companies with full-time, salaried developers and support personnel, so they're good choices for individuals or businesses that will need more than minimal technical support.

For a complete survey of available distributions, see the Distribution List.

Speed up your hard drive
Many Linux distributions are installed in such a way that the 32-bit input/output (I/O) and DMA capabilities of today's UltraATA/66 hard drives are not fully exploited. By reconfiguring your system, you can get much better performance. To find out if your hard drive is configured for 16-bit I/O, switch to superuser, type hdparm -c followed by a space and the name of the drive (such as /dev/hdc), and press [Enter]. If you see the following, your system is configured to access this drive in 16-bit mode:
I/O support = 0 (default 16-bit)

Use the following command to test your disk's speed:
hdparm -Tt /dev/hdc

(substitute your drive's name for /dev/hdc); you'll see the data transfer rate (in MB/sec) for buffer cache and buffered disk reads.

To turn on 32-bit I/O and DMA support, type the following and press [Enter] (use your drive's device name):
hdparm -c 1 -d 1 /dev/hdc

If the command succeeds, you'll see the message:
setting 32-bit I/O support flag to 1
setting using_dma to 1 (on)
I/O support = 1 (32-bit)
using_dma = 1 (on)

Try the hdparm -Tt /dev/hdc command to see how much improvement you've obtained. If you're happy with the result, repeat this command for additional drives, if you have any.

To commit the successful settings, use the same command with the -k option, as in the following example:
hdparm -c 1 -d 1 -k 1 /dev/hdc

Because this command is lost when you reboot Linux, you may wish to put this command into a system initialization script, such as /etc/rc.d/rc.local. If you modify this script, be careful that you don't erase any of the existing code.

Be aware that, on some systems, modifying the hard drive settings can result in data corruption. This is especially true if you attempt to use these commands on older hardware. Do not proceed unless you have a verified backup of all valuable data. As always, modify system settings at your own risk.

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