My First Linux Server (Part 1)

Wednesday Apr 28th 2004 by Drew Robb

Swimming against the tides of rising software costs? Maybe it's time to take the plunge and dive into using open source software at your small business. Linux is a lot simpler than you might think. And it sure can save you a few clams.

Many small businesses are turning to Linux as way to swim against the tide of rising software costs. Are you thinking about diving into Linux for your small business? From the outside, Linux can appear to be a deep ocean of strange jargon in unchartered waters. Who has the time to wade through all that to save a few clams? With Linux, it's not a sink or swim proposition.

Linux is now a lot simpler than you may think. We can provide you with the easiest, simplest, no-problem process for installing Linux on a PC. After going through this simple installation process, you will have a basic machine that you can configure into any kind of server, workstation, or office desktop. Future articles in this My First Linux Server series will help you build productive, Linux-based servers and small office workstations.

Easy Linux, Easy
The best choices for your first Linux machine are probably the popular RedHat Linux or SUSE Linux, primarily because both are easy to install and configure. Additionally, these companies are sound choices for the home office or small business. Both vendors have specialized in Linux for many years and offer full corporate product lines supporting your expansion. RedHat, for example, has an extensive library of recent third-party English documentation, while SUSE is better documented in European languages. (As recently announced, Red Hat has discontinued support for Red Hat Linux 9.0, so security updates will no longer be available. But you can still learn the basics with version 9.0 and you can upgrade to supported versions when you need a more secure production system.)

Step 1: Buy CDs, Please
Linux is set up for CD-ROM installation. Of course, you can download your Linux software from many free sources and burn your own CDs. But the download is big 7#151; up to 3GBs — and it takes time to burn a full set of CDs. Do it the easy way and eliminate problems with interrupted downloads or CD data errors.

Go to eBay and buy good quality CDs from established sellers like "The Linux Store" and pay about $1.00 per CD, plus shipping. Or go to Linux CD and pay about $2.00 a CD plus shipping. You might have to look carefully to find RedHat here. At such inexpensive prices, the vendor is making no money, so you do not qualify for free vendor support. These are low-end products, but they do contain all the small business server and office software you need to get started. If you need or want someone to call on in case of technical difficulties, pay more and buy from RedHat, SUSE or other established Linux vendors.

Step 2: Prepare the Box
Any leftover, surplus, outmoded, underpowered PC is perfect for your first Linux server project. Linux runs on any Intel 386, 486, Pentium (called i586), Pentium II (called i686) and newer platforms, as well as many other CPUs. 128 MB RAM is quite adequate for a test system, and you will need around 10GB of hard disk space. The purpose of this exercise is to quickly build a Linux platform and then learn the basics of configuring a useful small business server. Then you can repeat the process on larger, faster platforms for go into heavy server production.

While you wait for the CD shipment to arrive, it is well worth it to clean up the PC as much as possible. You can keep Windows applications intact if you wish, and you will be able to use this computer for both Windows and Linux. Minimize the Windows footprint on the system by removing all unnecessary applications and files, and back up any files you might need later. Clean up the registry, defragment the disks and run a careful virus scan.

Also note that you may need Linux drivers for some of the cards and devices you have installed, so make a paper list of manufacturers and model numbers of all of the cards, CD drives, hard disks and motherboard. (Note that a driver is just a small piece of software that links the operating system to other devices such as printers and hard disks). The Linux CDs probably have the correct drivers for these devices, but if you need to search for a Linux driver, the list comes in handy.

The Linux installation starts by booting from a CD, so the CD-ROM drive must be the first boot source your computer looks for. This may entail changing some settings in what is called the BIOS — Basic Input/Output System — this can be likened in some ways to the starter motor in a car. The BIOS is what makes a turned off computer come to life. Go into the BIOS settings and change the boot sequence to put the CD-ROM drive first. It may sound complex, but it is relatively simple. If this gives you any trouble, any somewhat technically inclined associate should be able to sort it out for you in 30 seconds.

Step 3: Install First CD
Load up the Linux! Place the first Linux CD in the drive and reboot the computer. When the screen comes up, you know Linux has found drivers for your monitor, video board, and keyboard. The installer program sequences are different for each vendor, but SUSE and RedHat give you a workable system if you choose the default settings and keep it simple. Later, after some experience, you can optimize the system for workstation or server use.

Step through the screens and selections, taking the default settings and simplest choices. Read the Help text for each screen to get familiar with configurations. The keys to keeping things simple are:

  • Accept default selections when in doubt

  • Install all the software

Points to watch for Red Hat: Choose "Custom" to allow installing all software, but when you see the Disk Partitioning Setup screen, be sure to choose "Automatic Partition." Points to watch for SUSE: Accept the disk-partitioning proposal. For software selection, choose "Detailed Selection" and select all software. And please, remember to write down your IDs and passwords, because it is not easy for the novice to re-set them.

There is a final choice of whether to proceed with the installation or cancel it. Until this point, nothing has been written to disk, and you can cancel out of the installation without changing the disks in any way. You can cancel right now and go back through the installation again, choosing different options. When you finally summon the courage to make that last click, the disk partitioning and data writes begin. The installer program does an automatic reboot and then requests the remaining CDs to finish the install process.

Step 4: Feed CDs
There is no user interaction for these CDs — just insert the next CD and go do something more productive than watching software copying. After all of the applications load, the installer program takes you through a few easy configuration screens. Finally, the system reboots and brings up the boot selection screen. If you selected Linux to be the default OS; the new login screen automatically appears.

Step 5: Enjoy
Congratulations, Linux is live! Take some time to get familiar with the new look and layout of a Linux system. Explore the configuration tools, and surf the Linux sites. The adventure begins.

In the second article in this series, to be published in May, we will configure the PC to perform as simple file server suitable for home office and small business networks.

Additional Resources
For more detailed information and deeper documentation go to the source:

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