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Chapter 2. Preparing to Install Linux


Distributions of Linux
Preparing to Install Linux

This chapter represents your first step in installing Linux. We'll describe how to obtain the Linux software, in the form of one of the various prepackaged distributions, and how to prepare your system. We'll include ways to partition disks so that Linux can coexist with Windows, OS/2, or another operating system.

As we have mentioned, there is no single "official" distribution of the Linux software; there are, in fact, many distributions, each of which serves a particular purpose and set of goals. These distributions are available via anonymous FTP from the Internet, on BBS systems worldwide, and via mail on floppy, tape, and CD-ROM.

2.1. Distributions of Linux

Because Linux is free software, no single organization or entity is responsible for releasing and distributing the software. Therefore, anyone is free to put together and distribute the Linux software, as long as the restrictions in the GPL are observed. The upshot of this is that there are many distributions of Linux, available via anonymous FTP or mail order.

You are now faced with the task of deciding on a particular distribution of Linux that suits your needs. Not all distributions are alike. Many of them come with just about all of the software you'd need to run a complete system--and then some. Other Linux distributions are "small" distributions intended for users without copious amounts of disk space. Many distributions contain only the core Linux software, and you are expected to install larger software packages, such as the X Window System, yourself. (In Chapter 5, "Essential System Management", we'll show you how.)

The Linux Distribution HOWTO contains a list of Linux distributions available via the Internet as well as mail order.

How can you decide among all of these distributions? If you have access to Usenet news, or another computer conferencing system, you might want to ask there for personal opinions from people who have installed Linux. Even better, if you know someone who has installed Linux, ask them for help and advice. In actuality, most of the popular Linux distributions contain roughly the same set of software, so the distribution you select is more or less arbitrary.

2.1.1. Getting Linux via Mail Order or Other Hard Media

If you don't have Internet or BBS access, you can get many Linux distributions via mail order on floppy, tape, or CD-ROM. Many distributors accept credit cards as well as international orders, so no matter where you live, you should be able to obtain Linux in this way.

Linux is free software, but distributors are allowed by the GPL to charge a fee for it. Therefore, ordering Linux via mail order might cost you between US $5 and US $150, depending on the distribution. However, if you know people who have already purchased or downloaded a release of Linux, you are free to borrow or copy their software for your own use. Linux distributors are not allowed to restrict the license or redistribution of the software in any way. If you are thinking about installing an entire lab of machines with Linux, for example, you need to purchase only a single copy of one of the distributions, which can be used to install all of the machines. There is one exception to this rule, though: in order to add value to their distribution, some vendors include commercial packages that you might not be allowed to install on several machines. If this is the cas, it should be explicitly stated on the package.

Many Linux user groups offer their own distributions; see if there's a user group near you. For special platforms like Alpha, a user group may be an excellent place to get Linux.

2.1.2. Getting Linux from the Internet

If you have access to the Internet, the easiest way to obtain Linux is via anonymous FTP.[12] One major FTP site is, and the various Linux distributions can be found there in the directory /pub/Linux/distributions.

[12]If you do not have direct Internet access, you can obtain Linux via the FTPMAIL service, provided that you have the ability to exchange email with the Internet.

Many distributions are released via anonymous FTP as a set of disk images. That is, the distribution consists of a set of files, and each file contains the binary image of a floppy. In order to copy the contents of the image file onto the floppy, you can use the RAWRITE.EXE program under MS-DOS. This program copies, block-for-block, the contents of a file to a floppy, without regard for disk format. RAWRITE.EXE is available on the various Linux FTP sites, including in the directory /pub/Linux/system/Install/rawwrite.

Be forewarned that this is a labor-intensive way of installing Linux: the distribution can easily come to more than 50 floppies.

Therefore, in many cases, you simply download the set of floppy images, and use RAWRITE.EXE with each image in turn to create a set of floppies. You boot from the so-called "boot floppy," and you're ready to roll. The software is usually installed directly from the floppies, although some distributions allow you to install from an MS-DOS partition on your hard drive. Some distributions allow you to install over a TCP/IP network. The documentation for each distribution should describe these installation methods if they are available.

Other Linux distributions are installed from a set of MS-DOS formatted floppies. For example, the Slackware distribution of Linux requires RAWRITE.EXE only for the boot and root floppies. The rest of the floppies are copied to MS-DOS formatted floppies using the MS-DOS COPY command. The system installs the software directly from the MS-DOS floppies. This saves you the trouble of having to use RAWRITE.EXE for many image files, although it requires you to have access to an MS-DOS system to create the floppies.

If you have access to a Unix workstation with a floppy drive, you can also use the dd command to copy the file image directly to the floppy. A command such as dd of=/dev/rfd0 if=foo bs=18k will "raw write" the contents of the file foo to the floppy device on a Sun workstation. Consult your local Unix gurus for more information on your system's floppy devices and the use of dd.

Each distribution of Linux available via anonymous FTP should include a README file describing how to download and prepare the floppies for installation. Be sure to read all available documentation for the release you are using.

When downloading the Linux software, be sure to use binary mode for all file transfers (with most FTP clients, the command binary enables this mode).

2.1.3. Getting Linux from Other Online Sources

If you have access to a BBS system, there may be a means to download the Linux software from this source. Not all Linux distributions are available from these computer networks, however; many, especially the various CD-ROM distributions, are available only via mail order.

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