Wednesday, January 14, 2009

OpenSUSE 11.1/Vista/Ubuntu Part 1: Choosing and Installing OpenSUSE

I've decided to write about my usage of OpenSUSE and Vista on my new machine. In this post I'll discuss choosing and installing OpenSUSE.

Introduction: I Want 64 Bits

When I got my new dual core, 2.53 GHz laptop with 4GB of RAM, it came with a 32 bit operating system: Vista Home Premium 32 bit.

Now nearly nobody really needs a 64 bit operating system these days, not yet. But since I need simultaneous access to multiple operating systems, short of carrying more than one notebook around, the simplest answer is to use virtual machines. Modern operating systems are RAM hungry, so to run these multiple virtual machines, I plan on bringing the RAM up to 8GB as soon as it becomes less than insanely expensive. For now 4GB of RAM will be enough.

Now I should note here that the copy of Vista as installed on this machine dutifully reports all 4GB of RAM, which normally 32 bit Vista does not. 32 bit Vista normally can't use all 4GB of RAM because it is using some of that address space for other things. I was surprised to see all 4GB available, and double checking I confirmed that it was, indeed 32 bit Vista. It must be the case that Vista has been configured with PAE (Processor Address Extension) enabled. This extends the virtual address space, leaving room in the address space for all the physical RAM and Vista's other memory address uses. So I have plenty of RAM to run three or four copies of Windows XP on virtual machines if I want to, and performance isn't bad.

Still, I expect that virtual machine performance would be better under a 64 bit operating system rather than a 32 bit one and I expect to upgrade to more RAM later so I can allocate enough memory to run larger virtual machines. Unfortunately Microsoft doesn't provide an 32 to 64 bit upgrades for users with 32 bit Vista that comes with the machine. To find out whether 64 bit makes a difference, I'd have to shell out for a brand new license. Rather than do that, I decided to install 64 bit Linux. But which one?

Choosing OpenSUSE over Ubuntu

I've been using Ubuntu as my main operating system for the past several years. Before that I'd used Debian (which I'd downloaded over a modem in 1996), than SUSE, and after that Mandrake (now Mandriva). I'd been a happy KDE user before switching to Ubuntu; there are still some KDE features I missed, but after a couple of years I'm pretty satisfied with Gnome.

Given this, it was logical for me to go for Ubuntu 8.10 64 bit, however I ran into a problem with the installer: it showed only a white screen after booting. Using the Alt-F2 keystroke, I brought up a shell window and saw that Ubiquity, the Ubuntu installer, was running. A little Googling showed that others trying to install 8.10 on recent hardware had the same issue. One of the answers was to give the installer boot argument "vga=771", which is hexadecimal 0x303. To make a long story short, this is supposed to tell the kernel that the display is 800x600 with 256 colors. Unfortunately, this didn't work.

Now I am generally happy with Ubuntu, but there are certain things about it that have been thorns in my side over the years. One is that every time there is a kernel update, it seems to break some hardware I use. Oddly enough, the stock Debian kernels seem to be OK most of the time. So I wasn't looking forward to solving this one. Perhaps there was a problem in Ubuntu's 64 bit kernel.

So I decided to research who had successfully used Linux on my laptop model, the Asus F8VA-C1. It turns out that OpenSUSE is reported to work completely with this hardware. I'd been happy with SUSE before it became part of one of the Evil Empire's satellites, so I decided to give OpenSUSE 11.1 a whirl; in the meantime I'd get a chance to look at developments in KDE.

Installing OpenSUSE

I personally hate distro reviews that focus on installation, which is the least important aspect of an operating system... provided it works. However there were some noteworthy occurances in installing OpenSUSE 11.1.

I opted for the net install of OpenSUSE, rather than downloading the full DVD, figuring I wanted to install a minimal system. SUSE's install screen is a beautiful, emerald green, not that it matters. The installation process, while tarted up in all kinds of GUI makeup, is in function and spirit not far removed from the ancient Red Hat text based installers of the late early 2000s.

The net install is probably a mistake, unless you have your own repository to install from. On the plus side, the display on the laptop was being driving correctly, and the wifi card was dectected and configured flawlessly. The download speed was extremely erratic. Sometimes a seven megabyte package would download in under a minute, then a 100K package would take two or three minutes. Then the downloads stopped entirely, and (using the Alt-F1 key) I got a shell console and figured out that the wireless card had somehow become unconfigured. Bizarre. I manually restarted wpa_supplicant and things resumed at their snail's pace. So netinstall is not for beginners.

Finally, the installation process simply halted. The net install runs like this: download a package, install the package; download another package, install that package; repeat for 2000+ packages in a basic installation. For some reason, after it downloaded grub (the boot loader that starts the operating system at power up), it installed it, hanging at "100%".

Bugger this. It'd taken about four hours to reach this point, and I wasn't going to spend another four hours to get to the same impasse. Instead I downloaded the DVD installation. After going through the same preliminaries, I was surprised to find that the DVD install took just as long; it was downloading the packages over the network. Apparently I'd missed an option about whether to use the local copies or to download, and it chose to download by default.

In any case, it was late at night, after spending hours on the net install, so I decided to let the net install run all night. If the wifi didn't turn off mysteriously, it should be done in the morning. In the morning, I discovered that the installation process was hung.... once again on grub, the boot loader. Switching to a command console and running "top", the process that was using the most CPU was, indeed "grub". Odd, that the installer would run grub at this point. Every Linux installer I'd ever used set up booting at the very end. It makes sense, especially if you're dual booting. Why screw up booting over a half installed OS? So I simply killed the grub process, and the installation continued.

WHen it finally finished, I rebooted with trepidation. Would interrupting the grub installation make the system unbootable? Nope. Everything starts up fine. After all the time it took, I'd have been seriously peeved if it didn't.

I now had a (more or less) functional copy of OpenSUSE 11.1.

Conclusions, Part 1

Linux reviews usually overemphasize the installation process. First of all, it's a very small part of the user experience. Also, getting Linux onto the hard disk and booted was never all that difficult, even in back in 1996. What was hard was getting the X window GUI to work, and getting the sound card working with a kernel. Those were real headaches, but fortunately these things have been painless for many years now. You might not get 3D acceleration working on every video card, but most people don't need it.

Still, when an installer simply doesn't work, that's an important detail.

Hardware support is both the great strength and weakness of Linux. If you have an old piece of hardware lying around, say an old USB wifi adapter, chances are you can plug it into a Linux box and it will work. If it was designed to work on a PC, you can usually use it on Mac hardware running Linux. Device manufacturers don't support Linux, so Linux developers build drivers that last.

On the other hand new hardware presents a problem to the Linux user. Manufacturers don't bother creating Linux drivers, so often you'll have to wait until somebody with the skills figures out how to get it working. Still most of the time, even on newly purchased systems, Linux installation is straightforward. This particular laptop, however, is the exception.

My laptop's hard ware, while relatively new, is far from exotic. It has the Intel PM45 chipset, which is fairly standard on high end notebooks these days. The PM45 chipset is pretty much what you want to have if you really want to run Vista reasonably well (more on this in upcoming installments). The F8VA has an ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3650 graphics adapter. Basic 2D operation should work (actually 3D seems to work fine under OpenSUSE).

Still, the Ubuntu installer issues are pretty much what you expect for hardware that has been out for less than a year; it's to OpenSUSE's credit that it handles the hardware more or less perfectly. What is a real concern is that OpenSUSE's installer hangs.

Most people, even those accustomed to installing Linux, would not have got OpenSUSE installed, and as it was it took an unconscionable amount of time. I don't ask that an installer be beautiful; it just has to work. It has never been that difficult to get Linux running, so long as the installation program does what it is supposed to, and OpenSUSE's does not.

It makes me wonder about the priorities and overall quality of the distribution, that the installer should look good, but not do the job. It turns out that this is not entirely limited to OpenSUSE's installer. OpenSUSE 11.1 is quite admirable in certain respects, especially it's visual polish which is on par with any other modern operating system. It has a number of serious shortcomings that lead me to think that it wasn't very well tested before release.

Next: OpenSUSE 11.1 and KDE 4

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