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December 2001

A Beginners Guide to Linux

Get to know distros and select a package if you’re investigating alternatives

By Shawn M. Gordon
CEO, theKompany.com

Well, HP dropped the bomb in mid-November — after years and years of trying, they are finally going to try to kill our beloved 3000 (I still refuse to call it an e3000). People are examining different options for what they might do with MPE — translation, transition and emulation — but I think we’ve got to smell the diapers and realize that for many of us it’s time for a rewrite, or time to buy a new package.

To be honest, you can go another seven years quite easily with your existing 3000 system, which is a long time for a system these days. But if you were looking for a change anyway, now is the time. So what does this all have to do with Linux?

In August of 1999, after 16 years of HP 3000 development, I founded a software company in the Linux market called theKompany.com. For me this was like joining a new band or getting remarried and having to get to know all new friends and relatives. In our HP 3000 space we mostly know the players and we are comfortable where we are. Jumping over to Linux required that I learn a lot about things I never cared about before — like the GPL, GNU, Linux, RMS, ESR, and other things that I will explain in a bit. One of the bits that has been floating around a lot on the various 3000 discussion lists is Linux.

Linux seems to be the great equalizer. It runs on watches, set-top boxes, PDAs, Intel chips, PowerPC chips in Macs and IBM systems, Itanium chips, IBM mainframes — the list goes on and on. IBM and HP both are moving their customers towards it, and IBM has done some fantastic work helping Linux on scalability. (In contrast, HP has done pretty much squat other than ride the wave; the decisions coming out of the company regarding Linux really leave me scratching my head.)

You can bet that HP-UX is going to get the same kind of obsolescence notice as MPE did sometime during the next five years.

In any case, the NewsWire asked me if I could come back to the 3000 fold and write up some bits that would help the transition for people wanting to get a level of comfort in the Linux and Open Source arena. I’m going to give you details on what a “distro” is and how those that are out there differ, and hopefully a grounding in how to get started with Linux with some resources to read.

Next month I’ll provide background on the Linux arena, and why you should care about things like GPL and RMS.

What I am not going to do is give you a “Linux for Dummies” course on commands and things. I wrote a paper about 10 years ago comparing Unix to MPE that you can find at www.smga3000.com/ papers/UnixvMPE.htm if you want to get a little primer on migration. Granted that paper covers Unix, and Linux is actually a lot more friendly, but it will give you a taste of what you can expect to be facing in a migration.


To work with Linux you will need a major distribution, called a distro in the community. You can build a Linux distribution from scratch by downloading and compiling all the bits you want — and if you are a masochist, this is a fun way to go. Downloading your own lets you tweak and optimize everything just the way you want it. But if you want an easy install, then go for a major Linux distro.

RedHat is the 800-pound gorilla in this arena, and overall they have a very good distribution which is now at version 7.2. Almost all other distributions are derivatives of RedHat such as Mandrake, Caldera and SuSE. Mandrake is based out of France and has quickly surpassed RedHat for new sales. (It reminds me of how DBGeneral came out and supported TurboIMAGE before Adager did, grabbing a big installed base.) Basically RedHat wouldn’t pre-compile for 586-based chips or include the popular KDE desktop, so Mandrake took their distribution and added those pieces. This is part of the whole General Purpose License thing I’ll explain next month — you can just download a copy of RedHat, burn copies and sell it or give it away; check out www.cheapbytes.com to order a CD with what you need for under $10.

In Europe the SuSE distribution is king, and they also sell in the States. This one was my favorite for some time after Caldera, which was founded by Ray Norda (remember Novell?). I like the Caldera distribution quite a lot, but they are very spastic about what they want to be when they grow up, and I’m afraid they probably won’t be around a lot longer without some serious focus. There are at least a dozen different distros around to choose from, but you are really better off going for a mainstream one. For a newbie I would suggest SuSE or Mandrake. You can install on an existing machine and dual-boot if you like; I’ve done this on a few machines.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Debian distribution. This kind of reminds me of Robelle, because the name comes from the couple who founded it, “Debbie and Ian,” but basically this is an entirely GPL-based distro that is not done by a company but by the community. It is very stable and very easy to install software updates on, but extremely hard to install in the first place. It took me a week to get my Apple Titanium laptop configured so that I could triple-boot the OS between Debian/Linux, Mac OS 9 and OS X.

There have been a number of attempts to make commercial distributions based on Debian, such as Storm, and notably, one from Corel that was recently sold to Xandros. This was really an excellent end-user distribution. Corel did a great job and I hope Xandros can make a success of it — we’ll find out early next year. At the moment they are talking good.

Package management on Linux is a real pain. There is something called an RPM (RedHat Package Manager) that everyone but Debian uses; they use DEB files. Package management is how a Linux software package is put together to install on your system, a central database that keeps track of dependencies and such. Overall it is better than how Windows does it. The problem is there are multiple ways to install software, including compiling it, which doesn’t make entries in the RPM database. Not to mention that you must have an RPM for your exact distro and version, otherwise it probably won’t work. That means a package made for RedHat 7.2 may or may not work for RedHat 7.1. This is one of the biggest pains in being a software supplier for the Linux community. A DEB package is much more comprehensive, but you have the same situation if you install outside their package management.


In Linux there are a variety of desktop applications you can use that have varying degrees of functionality, basically ranging from an old Xtree type applications to Windows XP. The two big contenders here are KDE and Gnome (pronounced Guh-nome). In reality, KDE is years ahead of Gnome, but for some reason Gnome is getting the corporate interest from HP and Sun, (There is no technical merit to this decision, I’ve talked to HP about it and they seem to have absolutely no idea why they made the choice they did).

Basically the desktop apps provide all the various functions you expect from a GUI desktop environment. You can read up on their sites to find out the technical details of how they are built, but if you go and get a Linux distro, I suggest that you install KDE (which it will do by default) and not install Gnome. They can both be active and you can choose what desktop to load when you login. This is pretty cool, and helps you see what you like.

There is a lot of really great software that gets included with these things, so if you’ve got the disk space, go ahead and install it all. I would also recommend checking out Python and Ruby as modern Object Oriented scripting languages, a nice alternative to developing with C or C++. I personally like Python a lot, but they both have great strengths.


Here are some Web sites that are good for news, background, software and other information. I like to read the following news sites at least a couple times a day: slashdot.org; linuxtoday.com; www.newsforge.com and dot.kde.org.

If you are looking for Linux software and applications, then look no further than www.sourceforge.com or www.freshmeat.com. These are great resources.

For background information on some of what I’ve discussed, check out www.gnu.org, www.kde.org and www.gnome.org

You would think that there would be a good www.linux.org or www.linux.com. They exist, but they are so-so in terms of content. The linux.com site is owned by the newsforge site, so you will see overlap starting there now.

If you want to download the latest Linux distros and burn your own CDs, you can get pretty much everything under the sun at www.linuxiso.org.

I really suggest just starting to read and absorb stuff — after a while you will know who the players are and what is going on. Play with the software, get a feel for it, read some books on it and you’ll get there eventually. Unlike the 3000 and MPE, there is a ton of material available to help you learn. I think I’ve given you enough to get started and thinking about what you might want to do.


While we all love our 3000s, keep this in mind: the new A-Class runs at just 110-140MHz, but it really feels about the same to me as a 55-MHz Series 917 if you look at the HP performance ratings. I’m sure people will say I’m wrong, but if you look closely at the published performance ratings, the A-Class is getting about half the performance of the N-Class, which isn’t that great. It is amazing how efficient MPE is on such a low-powered box — but think of how little it would cost to set up a four-processor 2 GHz Intel system. Such a system absolutely smokes the 3000 in raw power, and Linux is quite efficient — it’s running on all sorts of low-powered devices.

Good luck with your new future. I’m always happy to answer questions by e-mail at shawn@thekompany.com.

Next month: A guide to the major Linux distribution players, and how to handle license issues in Open Source.  

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