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February 2002

Do a Virtual Setup for Linux

By Gavin Scott

Just because you can run Linux on old PC hardware doesn’t mean you should.

If you want to be in the Linux hacking and experimenting business, then by all means start with a minimal system. You can then learn how to do all the installation manually, customize the install, pick and choose what you want to install out of hundreds of options, and learn how to resolve any resulting problems.

If, on the other hand, you’d rather minimize the amount of time you have to spend messing around, I highly recommend using at least a semi-recent PC with a relatively large hard drive. I think an absolute minimum 64Mb of RAM and 4Gb of disk space would be adequate, along with a video card and LAN card that are supported by Linux (most should be). Most sound hardware should be supported these days, but even if that doesn’t work, do you really care? (After all, MPE never had very good sound card support.)

Because of all the software that comes with a typical Linux distribution, a typical install these days will leave you with 1-3 Gb of stuff.

For a beginner, I suggest getting RedHat 7.2 (you can try another distribution if you really want to for some reason), which you can download for free from RedHat or pay $60 if you want the pretty disks plus installation manual version. Do a complete install (check the “Everything” box), which will require just under 3Gb of disk space. Why live in a tent when you can have the Taj Mahal?

You may not even need a separate PC, if yours is running Windows NT/2000/XP, has 256Mb of memory or more and at least 4Gb of free disk space. You can use either VMware ($300, awesome, www.vmware.com) or Virtual PC for Windows ($200, haven’t tried it, www.connectix.com) to run Linux inside a “virtual machine” under Windows. This means that you will have a complete Linux environment (X windows and all) running in a window (or full-screen so that you can’t tell it’s not the only OS running) at the same time you’re running all your normal Windows stuff. Both products have downloadable, free 45-day demos available.

I have a 128Mb virtual Linux machine running on my Windows 2000 workstation that I keep running all the time, which has a full RedHat 7.2 install on it. This is absolutely the way to go if you can, and it can be a good reason to upgrade to Windows 2000 or XP and maybe buy an extra Gb of RAM for $80 or so (see www.crucial.com for painless memory upgrades).

Other advantages of running under VMware: there won’t be any hardware compatibility issues; you can run multiple instances of other operating systems at the same time; you can experiment with as many different Linux versions as you have disk space for; the virtual machines can do pretty much anything that a standalone PC could do (you could even run a production Linux server this way!); and VMware supports some cool features like “undoable” disk drives, where you can revert all your virtual disks back to the way they were when you last started if you manage to seriously mess up your virtual system. And of course you can back up a virtual machine by just copying the virtual disk files.

VMware is one of the coolest things I’ve ever been able to put on a PC, and I think everyone who is thinking about learning something about Linux should try doing it this way. We’ve always wanted to have a laptop HP 3000. How cool is it to have your own private copy of your entire production Linux system — with all software and development tools — running in a window on your laptop that you can take anywhere?

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