Mac Metamorphosis

Linux for PowerPC

- 2000.08.24

Linux and I have had a love-hate relationship since early 1996. Boot magazine (now Maximum PC) included Debian Linux with one of their 1996 issues. OS/2 was becoming a lost cause, and I had just gotten my first network administrator gig. While strong with NT, my Unix skills were still muttering back then.

Installation of Debian was an utter nightmare, and I really didn't get too far past the installation process. After about a month of trying to get Debian going, I gave up. While taking a break from the Linux hands-on experience, I started doing my homework and learned of the other distributions that were out there. Linux.org became my best friend for all things Linux, and I decided to purchase a copy of Red Hat Linux 4.2.

Red Hat 4.2 was much easier to install, but still broken in a lot of ways. Xfree86 (Linux's GUI) did not have close to the hardware support it has now in the year 2000. So after successfully completing my first Linux install with Red Hat, I started banging away at getting a GUI running.

Around mid-1996 I lost my job, but I had saved a considerable amount of money to get by for quite some time. I decided to take eight months off from the land of responsibility and focus all my energy on mastering networking and Unix. During this time I successfully (with the help of Linux.org's laptop page) wrote a XF86Config file (X Windows configuration file) for my laptop, a Toshiba Tecra 730CDT.

After getting X Windows properly working, the question popped in my head, "What do I do with Linux now?" I couldn't come up with a good answer, so I put it on the back burner in favor of playing with routers.

Other things didn't work so well with Linux back then, but times have changed. On most distributions today, Linux tries to be your best friend right from the start, and it does a good job of it. The installation process has been simplified for first time users. It only takes a matter of minutes to get a working Linux system going.

The LinuxPPC phenomenon is something I have been following for about a year, and I am amazed at the progress it has made. Only in an open-source environment could Linux for the Power PC come so far in such a short amount of time. Most applications that run on Linux have been ported to PPC, and the ones that can't can be ported easily have source code available to download.

While waiting for Mac OS X to be polished, I decided to give Linux another shot. Only this time I want it running on my PowerBook 2000. Mac OS 9 just doesn't offer the kind raw power I sometimes want when I am in the field. I purchased the PowerBook because I wanted my G4 to go - and this was as close as I could get. I get a lot done, because it does everything my G4 can do, so it's like I am still sitting at my G4 when I am the road. Sometimes, though, I yearn for the raw power that a Unix-like OS offers. Since I cannot get Mac OS X Server working on my PowerBook, Linux is the next best thing.

The first PowerPC version of Linux I have played with is SuSE Linux 6.4 for PPC. I would recommend SuSE Linux to any Macintosh user who has never used Linux before but wants to check it out. It's installation is the easiest I have ever encountered; I was up and running in 20 minutes on my PowerBook.

SuSE Linux 6.4 is still in beta for the PowerPC platform, and it is not friendly with Apple's new hardware (G4 and Pismo PowerBook). Networking works out of the box, but sound and modem support do not. If you choose to use the graphical installation, you are stuck with using KDE (a window manager for Linux), which I find annoying and childish. It's too friendly for my likings. SuSE does give you the option of using Gnome (another X Window manager), which I prefer. However, even if you pick SuSE under a graphical install, it will go ahead and install KDE anyway.

Using the text based install allows me not to use KDE, but when you choose to install Gnome, it installs a broken version. To remedy this, I decided to download a precompiled binary from Gnome. However, I came to find that there is a problem with manually entering DNS servers when you choose to do a text based install.

Most of the patches that make all the devices work on my PowerBook 2000 (including AirPort support) are LinuxPPC 2000 specific. LinuxPPC 2000 is a wonderful distribution and really works hard to make everything work - even on the newest hardware. While the installation is a tad more advanced, I found it more to my liking. Gnome is not broken, my hardware works, and I can't find any bugs that stop me from doing what I want.

Yellow Dog Linux is another version of Linux for PPC. While an interesting one, I have found that Yellow Dog's business model revolves around charging for support. Unlike LinuxPPC 2000, where I can get all the patches and documentation I can handle, Yellow Dog seems to want to charge for general support.

It is fair to point out that if I did want to add sound support, for example, I could easily download the driver in source code and compile it under Yellow Dog. However, I don't really have time to be compiling various drivers all the time. I really just want something that works now.

I recommend that anyone who is really looking forward to using Mac OS X give Linux a try on their Macintosh. It is a good introduction to some of the rules you will be playing by and will enable you to make the transition from Mac OS to Mac OS X power user much easier. Granted, Mac OS X is playing more by BSD rules than Linux, but a lot of the basic stuff is universal.

This is about the 8th love affair I have had with Linux, and I honestly don't know how long this one is going to last. More than likely I will hit a speed bump once again and decide its too much effort to do a simple thing. However, should LinuxPPC 2000 keep being nice to me, I think it will remain on my PowerBook for a while.

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