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Chapter 2. 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, 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 serving a particular purpose and set of goals. These distributions are available via anonymous FTP from the Internet and via mail on CD-ROM and DVD, as well as in retail stores.

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 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.

You might also want to consider that distributions have different target groups. Some are meant more for businesses, others more for the home user. Some put more emphasis on server use, others on desktop use.

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 these distributions? If you have access to Usenet news, or another computer conferencing system, you might want to ask there for opinions from people who have installed Linux. Even better, if you know someone who has installed Linux, ask him 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.

2.1.2. Getting Linux from the Internet

If you have access to the Internet, the easiest way to obtain Linux is via anonymous FTP.[3] One major FTP site is ftp://ftp.ibiblio.org, and the various Linux distributions can be found there in the directory /pub/Linux/distributions.

[3]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.

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).

You might run into a minor problem when trying to download files for one system (like Linux) with another system (like Windows), because the systems are not always prepared to handle each other's files sensibly. However, with the hints given in this chapter, you should be able to complete the installation process nevertheless.

Some 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 Windows. 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 ftp://ftp.ibiblio.org 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.

To proceed, download the set of floppy images and use RAWRITE.EXE with each image in turn to create a set of floppies. 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 a Windows partition on your hard drive, while others 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.

Today, some of the bigger Linux distributions are also distributed as one or a few ISO images that you can burn on a CD-ROM or DVD. Downloading these is feasible only for people with big hard-disks and a broadband connection to the Internet, due to the enormous amounts of data involved.

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