The Great Debian Experiment

This weekend, I have been mostly trying to make Debian work on my PC.

I should have realised that something was wrong when my boot sector virus scanner picked up LILO as an enemy (it seemed fine with GRUB before). Nine CDs later I logged in. The CDs don’t seem to support my graphics card, or my network card. So no Gnome or X-Windows, and no easy way of updating them. (I tried several installations with different graphics configurations and no success).

I eventually figured that the best thing to do would be to get connected, then apt-get in any updates. I have a Linux network driver. Unfortunately it didn’t like my setup and requested the kernel source so that it could compile an interface for itself. Debian does come with kernel sources, but none of them seem to match the default installation. So I found one of the others and learnt how to compile a new Linux kernel. In that respect, the Debian experiment was a great success; it taught me a lot about Linux and how it works.

Getting my network driver out of its zip on the backup CD was also a mission. I’m afraid I resorted to the use of my Windows partition. Note to self: when backing up Linux stuff, use tar.

The network driver needed another module as well as the source. No idea where the module can be found. I spent 20 minutes looking for this information. Eventually sanity dropped in to point out that I was on the path that leads to the zoo and the shaving of the yak.

20 minutes after that I had Ubuntu up and running, with Gnome at 1280 x 1024, full connection to my LAN and the internet, and my email restored to its usual place.

I hereby apologise to the gods of Ubuntu. I’m sorry that I ever doubted you. Appropriate sacrifices will be made on the altars of chaos next time I play nethack.

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8 Responses to The Great Debian Experiment

  1. untermensch says:

    Interesting! The last time I saw a default kernel fail to support an ethernet card was in the late 90s. Do you know what chipset the device is?

    Also, what graphics card do you have?

    And btw, “zip” and “unzip” are installed by default!

  2. sirenian says:

    I said “card”, it’s a misnomer. It’s actually on-board Gigabit enabled LAN.

    My graphics card is Sapphire Radeon 9600 I think.

    And no, there was no zip command. I did find gzip and gunzip, but they didn’t like the zip file. Maybe Winzip did something strange when it zipped it!

  3. sirenian says:

    The Gigabit LAN is made by Marvell. I know nothing else about it!

  4. sirenian says:

    Oh, yes – as far as I could tell, there was no default configuration for the kernel. I had to pick “X-Windows” and “Desktops” off a list, for instance. There was no “network” on the list. Strangely, depending on the order in which I put the CDs as apt-sources, I did or didn’t get various menu choices.

    Odd, huh?

  5. untermensch says:

    I still think the online install is way better than the CD install 🙂

    Might be able to pin this down to having lots of experience, but I’ve not lacked success at installing Debian on anything for 4 or 5 years now. I’m the sort of strange person who insists on recompiling the kernel as soon as GCC is installed, and digging around for drivers and tinkering with compile options is, for some strange reason, my idea of a fun night in!

    I wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall just to see what was going on. I suspect that some things which would normally “just work” (eg, networking, correct kernel sources, basic file utilites like zip/unzip) weren’t presented clearly enough to be used or done correctly.

    ATi cards require a proprietary driver from ATi which, due to the software licensing purism of the Debian project, isn’t distributed with Debian. Third party Debian-based distributions are a lot more leniant and will incorporate these kinds of things. This is both a strength and a weakness of Debian (this is a complicated issue), and also one of those things that means you’ll probably end up riding a steeper learning curve when trying to get these things installed manually.

    Well, it sounds like you had quite a strenuous learning exercise! I think if I were in your position I’d stick with one of the friendlier Debian-based projects (Ubuntu is fantastic, and I’m special because I’ve met Mark Shuttleworth hehe) until, for some reason, you feel you need a more naked Linux experience – although these days, there are very few reasons why you’d really want to head down that path.

    Hopefully I don’t sound like too much of a zealot. Really, I’m not. I have been a Debian user for 5 years though, and it’s been the most consistent and solid software distribution of any kind that I’ve ever used, by a long way, so I have a natural sort of affection for it 🙂

  6. entropyjim says:

    Which distro of Debian was is? Stable is notoriously out of date 😉 Unstable (as odd as it sounds) may be the best bet. Stable is relative…

    Running SuSE 9.x at work – very happy with it.

  7. sirenian says:

    Yeah – maybe unstable is the best way to go. Stable dates from Jan this year, though (up to 3.0 now) so goodness knows.

    Mark – Debian came with support for some ATi cards… just not mine…

    What, exactly, does Debian do that Ubuntu doesn’t? I was probably wrong in assuming that Debian is more mature and therefore more stable. Having spoken to people here, they reckon that if all I’m having problems with is XMMS then I’m probably doing OK.

    I didn’t go the SuSE route because I love apt-get so much. 🙂

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