Moving My Computer from an Animal Farm to a Wild Jungle
As a computer consultant specializing in digital creativity and new media, I don’t use Microsoft Windows at all. Yes, it’s possible to meld creative freedom with true digital freedom. So, instead of MS Windows, I use what is known more simply as ‘Linux’ by ordinary folks, though GNU/Linux is more appropriate. I’ve been dabbling in GNU/Linux since circa 1997 and started using it as my regular workstation since circa 2001. Unlike Microsoft’s proprietary offerings, Linux comes in over 400 different flavours and counting. The most popular flavours of these are called Red Hat, Ubuntu, Debian, and Knoppix, to name a few. Impressively, some of these flavours are frequently upgraded within six to nine months, giving me a shining new feel and features with which to surge forward with my work every time. Blokes who just use Windows can’t appreciate the joy and thrill of this rejuvenating experience.
To appreciate the diversity and capabilities of GNU/Linux, at any given time I’ve usually got about 7 to 10 different GNU/Linux flavours and versions installed on my computer, each usually resides in its own separate ‘partition’ on my hard-disk. Mine has 14 partitions. My favourite flavour so far is Ubuntu, which is extremely easy and intuitive for ordinary non-techie Desktop users. In fact, absolute newbies who’ve never used a computer before, take to Ubuntu like a duck to water. Yes, it’s much easier to use than MS Windows.
Normally, you could just buy yourself a laptop or desktop that comes pre-installed with Ubuntu or any other flavour of Linux, and just get down to your work without any anguish or steep learning curves. But I like to tweak and experiment. Ubuntu comes in various versions, updated every six months. I’ve got the following versions installed in different partitions of my hard-disk denoted as ‘hda’. Ubuntu Fiesty Fawn which was released in April 2007 (hence the shorthand: 7.04). It’s installed on hda2. UbuntuStudio, which is a special flavour for authoring sound, music, audio, video, and graphics, on hda3. I’ve used UbuntuStudio for composing, arranging, and producing music professionaly, as well as for graphic-design and video-editing for professional assignments. It’s installed on hda3.
I never hastily delete an old version of a Linux flavour and overwrite it with a new version. Instead, I leave the old version in one partition while installing a new version in another partition. This way, I can test and gradually migrate to the new version and fallback to the old one in case something doesn’t work properly. So, I’ve got Ubuntu Breezy Badger, from 2005, installed on another partition, RedHat 8 on another, Debian Sarge on hda 11, and another multimedia-authoring flavour called Agnula.
Gone but not forgotten from my hard-disk, are ancient versions of Knoppix, Mandrake, PCQLinux, and Fedora. I might just play with Knoppix and Fedora again, some sunny day. I badly wanted to go beyond using Fiesty Fawn to the latest version of Ubuntu, Hardy Heron (8.04) as well as newer versions of Fedora and others.
Linux-Swap: How much is enough?
Alas, my existing desktop only had 256MB of RAM. The newer versions needed about 380MB+, with 512MB preferred. So I finally bought 1GB of RAM, to get a total of 1.256GB of total RAM. In case my system would need more, have configured it to masquerade 512MB of space from my hard-disk as RAM, or virtual RAM. This is called ‘linux-swap’. Most websites clalim you need to set double your RAM size, as your linux-swap size, but this is simply not true. It merely augments your existing RAM, so if you’ve got 2GB or 4GB of RAM, you could even just add 256MB of linux-swap space. I’ve added just 256MB of linux-swap, and have been monitoring the system’s use of swap. It hardly touches it. No wonder my machine appears to respond faster, since RAM is faster than hard-disk.
Now let’s get to the nitty-gritty. When my computer switches on, it presents me a simple menu, allowing me to choose which linux-flavour to boot into from all the choices available on my hard-disk partitions. The software that runs this magic is called GRUB, for Grand Unified Bootloader. Normally, GRUB installs in a special area in the computer, called the MBR, for Master Boot Record. I’ve stored my GRUB settings in hda7, this is where the GRUB on my machine stores the entries into its menu of choices.
Everytime I install a new flavour or version on any partition, I copy the menu-entries from the latest install’s GRUB-settings, into the actual GRUB that I use from hda7. It’s worked beautifully since 7 years, except last evening, when I installed Hardy Heron.
Problems with GRUB and the latest Ubuntu
On the hard-disk known as hda, I found I hadn’t booted into Debian Sarge for some time, so I could replace it with Hardy Heron. Debian was on hda11, the eleventh partition among fourteen on my hard-disk. I deleted the partition. All subsequent partitions moved one step ahead. So the existing hda12, became the new hda 11, the earlier hda13 became the new hda12, and so on. The hard-disk showed 8GB as free space. I selected this, set it to the filesystem of ‘ext3’, and marked it as Hardy Heron’s root space, denoted with a simple ‘/’.
Got to be careful here. The new partition now appears at the end, as hda14. Within 25 minutes, I had Hardy Heron installed on my machine. Now the tricky part. I delberately wrote GRUB into hda14. Later, I booted into Fiesty, and copied the menu entries from here into my venerable GRUB in hda7. Bad idea! It did not work. I spent about 4 hours researching into what could have gone wrong, until some tech-forums pointed to the solution.
The version of GRUB installed on hda7 was 0.42. The latest versions of all Linux flavours, can only work with GRUB version 0.47 or later. So I backed up the menu-configurations of the old GRUB on hda7, and installed the latest GRUB 0.47 straight to the MBR. Cleverly enough, this new version of GRUB sniffed through all my partitions, pulled out all the linux-flavours and versions installed, and automatically populated its own menu of choices for use when the machine switched on. Brilliant.
However, it turned out to be quite unusable. I could only boot into Hardy Heron. Trying to boot into anything else would lead to an initial burst of text-info on the screen, a long wait, and then the terse: “Alert! /dev/sda2 does not exist. Dropping to a shell.” Elsewhere on the screen “Check root=bootarg cat /proc/cmdline or missing modules, devices. cat /proc/modules ls /dev”
Took me another several hours before it finally dawned on me what’s gone wrong. The earlier GRUB version 0.42 denoted hard-disk partitions as hda12, hda 13, etc., where the ‘h’ stands for hard-disk. The new GRUB version 0.47 denotes partitions as sda12, sda13, etc., where the ‘s’ stands for SCSI or perhaps ‘storage’. So, I opened the menu-entries to GRUB, stored in a file called menu.lst, and manually changed the erroneously marked ‘sda’ to ‘hda’ for all other entries. Also add ‘ro quiet splash’ to each kernel entry, so I could get the much nicer graphical screen with a simple scroll-bar while booting, rather than a blizzard of text outputs.
Whew! Everything works. Have finally got my old and new Linux flavours working together again. Next step: have to get into Hardy Heron and fix it’s screen resolution from 640×480 to a much-higher resolution. Have found some tech-forums and read several pages on how to do this. So far, nothing’s worked, but will eventually find a solution. Will then install several of my favourite applications and software, and further tweak the system. Until it’s time again for the new Linux flavour, and a newer version.