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Please note:
I wrote this piece a long time ago as part of my A-level in IT, and much has changed since. I wouldn't bother installing from floppy disk in this day and age of broadband and CD-RW drives as standard, nor would I pick Debian as a Linux starting point. Linux has changed greatly, and to be honest I would no longer know where to start; other than to point you in the direction of E2's own E2LUG usergroup. Thanks.


Linux is a very stable and powerful operating system, and I would recommend that anyone with an interest in computing at least gives it a go once. It's not difficult; just different. It's also free, so you've really nothing to use. The Linux kernel is a constantly evolving project. Linux is distributed in different distributions or distros - this writeup covers Debian, other favourites include Red Hat, SuSe, and Mandrake. This article is using Debian, as it's flexible yet easy to install -- and because it's the one I'm most comfortable with!

For this piece I am going to be installing Debian Linux on a typical home desktop machine, from floppy disks, because, aside from the cost of 15 floppies and a couple of hours worth of ‘net connection, it’s free. I’m also assuming that you either:

  • Have the Linux disks ready, or,
  • Have a net connection and a Windows OS, and that you have a block of free space that is not in the Windows file system.

1. The first step is to get hold of the disk images from ftp://uk.debian.org or one of the many other Debian mirror sites around the ‘net. There is a list of distribution mirrors available at: http://www.linux.org/dist/ftp.html.
Once you’ve browsed to the distributions directory, picked the processor architecture (386) and selected 1.4mb floppy disk images, you need to pick a distribution type. These are, for some reason, named after characters in Toy Story. For this example, I am using “Potato” (Mr. Potato Head, obviously).

Download all 15 disk images:

While these are downloading, browse back up a level in the ftp structure and download rawrite.exe. This MS-DOS application allows you to write the above files onto a disk in the Linux file format. Now is also a good time to use the Windows My Computer > Properties applet to note down hardware settings: in particular COM ports and IRQ numbers.

2. Use RaWrite to place the disk images files onto floppy disks, one file per disk.

3. Place the Rescue / Boot Disk in drive A: and reboot the computer.

4. Tada! That's the Linux install screen. Press enter to boot the kernel, (if you are asked, you do not want to pass any commands to it) and insert the Root Disk when you are asked.

5. Linux will probably want to know where you want it to install itself to. Now you get to do scary things to your MBR (Master Boot Record) by making your free space into two new partitions:

  • One large Linux File system partition, and,
  • One smaller Linux Swap File system (30 - 50mb should cover it).

I also suggest that you set Linux to the bootable partition, after all, you won’t be using Windows again, will you?

Now you can tell Linux to install itself into your new Linux partition, and to use the swap file. This is called mounting the root drive. Under Linux, you mount drives to make them available.

6. Linux will now want you to set up modules to be installed. Modules are little bits of code that attach themselves to the kernel - for example one for network support or one for your soundcard. Personally, I don't bother - you can do all this later in the comfort of XWindows or BASH, although I would recommend setting up network support, and pick a name for your machine when it’s networked.

7. Now that that's sorted, Linux will install itself automatically, with no intervention from you - other than swapping the floppy disks around. Just do as you’re told and hope none of the floppy disks are corrupted.

8. Once that's done, you’re into Linux itself. Throw the disks away (but hang on to the Rescue Disk - just in case!). The first thing you need to do is answer a couple of scary questions. You do want to install Shadow Passwords, and if you don't know the answer to any of the prompts, just use the defaults.

9. Eventually you will be asked to set a root password. Make sure you remember this, it’s the most important user account on your system. You will also be asked to set up a standard user account.

10. Next comes pppconfig, a little application to configure a dialup connection. You will need to know your username and password, ISPs phone number, and the IP address for your ISPs DNS lookup server. Answer the questions, remember to save and then quit.

11. Congratulations. That's the basics installed. You are now dumped unceremoniously at the login prompt. Next comes my own personal favorite bit: you need to login as root - this gives you the right to both edit every file and setting on the PC, and cackle like a James Bond bad guy while saying “Mwuhaha! I am the root! No one can stop me now!”

12. Check your dial up connection by typing pon and seeing if you get a connection, and use poff to disconnect. However, while you are online you may wish to use the dselect (Debian Package Selector) to download any additional applications you want to use.

The next stage is to customise Linux to suit your machine. There are a number of things you can do:

Configuring hardware. For example...

  • Connectivity: Internal (Win) modems are not supported straight from an install. You will need to visit a website like http://www.linmodems.org and see if a driver is available for your particular modem. Obviously, this would be quite tricky if you don’t have a spare external modem or Windows still installed, but never mind.
  • Graphics Cards: Download XWindows and a shell like Gnome or KDE. Most of the major chipsets are supported now. But, if you’re unlucky, again, hop on the net and see if you can get a driver.

Getting software.

  • Although the default shell (BASH) is pretty good, you could download a different one like CSH, or ditch the text-prompt completely and go for XWindows and use a shell like Gnome or KDE. There are even shells for XWindows that look like Windows 95/8, but what's the point?
  • Most programs under Windows have a Linux version or alternative. For web browsing, you can use Mozilla Firefox or Opera, while for music you can use XAmp to replace, you guess it, Winamp. For games, you can play the Quake family (hurrah!) as well as others like StarCraft.
  • If you’re really desperate, you can install WinE, the Windows Emulator, so you can use all your old Windows software.

That's it, you're done. Take some time to get to know your new operating system and get it working how you like. There is a wealth of information out there, but here on e2 and the Internet at large. Good luck!

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