� Weblog: Open and Free Publishing | Main | Tech Squad �

April 26, 2004

Operation: Project Heresy

Some of you know that I've been an Open Source/Linux advocate since 1996. I rarely waste an opportunity to unfurl the Linux banner, and wave it proudly in the faces of those who are afraid to detach themselves from M$ umbilical cord. In fact, I no longer use M$, err I mean Microsoft products at home. One of my friends recently learned that their outgoing mail (SMTP) service was interrupted by their ISP, b/c their Outlook inbox was infested with the Netsky/worm.

So unknowingly, they had become a spam relay, and their ISP shut them down without notification. Recognizing their ISP's concern for their other customers, I understand these actions, albeit pretty nasty.

Hmmm. I thought to myself, these are the precise situations where Linux excels. I offered to help solve the matter by converting their aging Dell Optiplex GX1 running W98, to Fedora Core I (aka RedHat). It didn't take much effort to convince them b/c everyone was thoroughly disgusted with the proliferation of viruses that were systemic to the M$ OS.

So, we set out on a journey to convert the Dell PC to an efficient virus-free Linux box. I asked my friend to begin the download the Fedora Core I pkg, before I came out the next day to begin the rebuilding process. I forgot to mention that there are several 'mirror' sites that store the RedHat Fedora Core images. I also didn't remember to tell him that the Fedora was comprised of 3-CDs or 1-DVD. Naturally, when I arrived at 3pm to begin the installation, he hadn't finished the download. He assumed incorrectly that the only 'legitimate' location was the RedHat website. Apparently, other people thought as he had, as we were getting a wopping
6kb/s download speeds with our high-speed cable modem.

Of course, I had jump into overdrive, as I suddenly realized that this was going to quickly become an ugly situation. Each CD image is roughly 700mb each. Luckily, we had a spare laptop, which had a wireless connection. We would download the software in tandem with both laptop and desktop machines on his LAN. I directed him to a Univ. of Tulsa FTP site which had 212 kb/s download. We begin to download CD-1 and CD-2.

Next, we headed upstairs to add a 120GB harddrive to the Dell, as the native data was not backed up to a safe location. Adding the harddrive and setting its jumper to boot as master was simple. No problems here. 3hrs later we finally get all software from UTulsa. Had I thought about it, I would have used Bittorent instead of the typical FTP. Anyway, we've got all 3-CD images of the Fedora Core-1.

It's now 6pm. Not home-free yet, we still have to copy the Disk Set 2-3 from the desktop PC. Yes, we had a burner on the desktop PC, but it was running some weird variant of Roxio (DirectCD) that didn't handle ISO images very well. Unfortunately, filesharing didn't work very well between wireless laptop and the rest of his network. No problem, we resorted to the USB-to-USB null cable transfer. Took about 20 minutes to copy the 2-images from the desktop to laptop.

Now we must burn the CD-1 and CD-2 images. Done in about 20 minutes.

Next step, setup the BIOS to boot from CD, as these CD images are all bootable. Easy enough right? Wrong answer. The brilliant Dell engineers loaded the Optiplex GX1 w/Bios version A04, and it doesn't have the ability to boot from CD. The inability to boot from CD, really didn't irritate me as much as the totally cryptic BIOS interface. Dell seems to have licensed their BIOS firmware from Phoenix. However, I have been building PCs since 1996, and I've never encountered such a poor BIOS interface. It was not immediately evident how to change the boot sequence to CD. Better yet, why the hell would you provide this option if the damn BIOS is not equipped to boot from CD? I could not figure out why it refused to boot from CD. It easily searched floppy and even the cool Bootpd/PXE strategies. Despite selecting 'boot from CD' in the sequence menu. It still would not work. Aaargh..

Hmm. Well, I figured that I'd simply flash the BIOS and upgrade it to A10. Surely, this would solve the issue. Wrong again. Flashing the BIOS did absolutely nothing.

After 'Googling', to find some answers to the mystery, we discover that lots of other people had booting issues with this model Dell PC. Unfortunately, their issues were only PXE boot related. This 'discovery' process took about 1.5hrs. What a royal PITA. Project Heresey had quickly become Mission Impossible or better yet, an excercise of futility.

Gradually, my friend's children began to invade our make shift lab. I knew that I was in trouble. Soon his wife would awake and begin asking, "What are you guys doing in there?" or "Aren't you finished yet ?" Thankfully, these words were never uttered. At least not in earshot.

It's now 10pm, and we still don't have an efficient virus-free Linux box. Time for drastic measures, I still refused to abort this mission. At this point, I said goodbye to RedHat Fedora Core-1. Enter Debian and it's very cool network install.

Unfortunately, fatigue has now zapped my strength. As I glanced over to my friend, he is now studying the inside of his eyelids, and murmoring in a drowsy stupor, something about "We should've installed XP." Clearly he was delusional.

Now that we're upstairs we run into another problem. I wake him up b/c the laptop with wireless connection has no floppy drive. He provided me another laptop which was equipped w/a floppy drive, so after using the very useful USB-to-USB null cable, I begin copying the Debian install floppy images to the 2nd laptop. Once copied I began making the bootable floppy images using the rawrite utility.

It's now 11pm, lethargy has begun to cloud my judgement. Debian install process is underway; I'm prompted to format /dev/hda. Have really isolated the 10GB hard drive that has wifey's data ?
Or was /dev/hda our new 120GB harddrive. It was a toss-up, as both disks were connected to the Primary IDE controller.
All I know is that I setup the 2nd drive w/Cable select, as we couldn't clearly understand the jumper selections on the older hard drive. Obviously it was time to shutdown and regroup, I did not want to screw up.

Now I'm wondering to myself how to explain why I've finished the job. Luckily his wife accepted my technospeak and permitted me to leave his home with my dignity/ego intact.

I will return during week with a renewed vigor. Stay tuned.

Posted by AG at April 26, 2004 8:34 AM