Linux on the Low End

Preparing Your Mac's Hard Drive for Linux

- 2006.08.09

I had hoped to start going over the actual Linux install, but then realized that I needed to go over some more things before we start. Next time I will start the installation. Promise.

There are three main ways (but many more possibilities) to prepare your "Old World" Power Mac for Linux.

  1. The first is with a single hard drive.
  2. The second is by using two hard drives on the same controller. If you're using a PCI card, the card must have an Open Firmware BIOS on it.
  3. The third way is with two hard drives on separate controllers. The Linux drive can be connected to a non-Open Firmware controller this way.

One Hard Drive

If there isn't any free space on the drive, then the drive must be repartitioned, and Mac OS will have to be reinstalled. I recommend the following setup with a single drive:

Example: My son's PowerBook WallStreet has a 40 GB drive. A second drive isn't practical (drive bay hard drives use a slower bus than the primary hard drive) unless it's external, so I partitioned it with a 5 GB Mac OS partition and a 32 MB ProDOS partition using the Mac OS install discs. I left the remaining space free. I then used the Linux installer to create the Linux Swap partition and the primary Linux partition.

The Swap partition is akin to the "Virtual Memory" used by Mac OS. However, instead of being able to change its size on the fly, it's a fixed size on it's own partition. The general rule of thumb is to make the swap partition twice the size of your physical RAM. So if you have 256 MB of RAM, then a 512 MB swap partition would be created. I don't really recommend making a swap partition larger than 512 MB, though, because it's a waste of space.

The main Linux partition is the "root" partition called "/". This is where the system is installed. Unlike the Windows convention of using drive letters or the Mac way of naming your drives or partitions, partitions in a Linux system are mounted onto the root partition.

On my son's PowerBook, I created a 5 GB "/" partition and used the rest of the free space as the " /files" partition. I did it this way so that if I wanted to reinstall or replace the Linux install, all of his videos and stuff wouldn't have to be backed up and reinstalled later.

Why Use a ProDOS Partition?

Linux doesn't always support being able to read/write to Apple's HFS+ file system. With the "Old World" Power Macs, whenever you update your kernel, you have to copy your "initrd" (initial RAM disk that sets the system up to boot) and your new kernel to the Mac OS partition so BootX can boot the newest version. I named that partition "/boot" on the PowerBook. HFS+ support is available in Linux, but some distros don't include it. And why take a chance of messing up your Mac OS installation?

What About the File System?

I highly recommend using a journaled file system. One of the strengths of Linux is it's diversity. The main journaled file systems are ReiserFS, Ext3, XFS, and JFS. openSuSE defaults to using the ReiserFS. Most other distros use Ext3.

Why Use a Journaled File System?

A journaled file system saves a list of every modification to the file system. In the event of a power failure or crash (it does happen, even with Linux), the journal is read during reboot and the system is cleaned up. This is very fast and very easy.

When using a regular file system, you have to repair it manually, and this can be a pain (trust me, a real pain). Ext2 is the main regular file system used under Linux, but it isn't journaled.

Once SuSE started using ReiserFS by default, I never had to worry about a system crash. I would reboot, and the system would be set up and ready to go. I might lose something I had been working on that was unsaved (it happened to me recently), but everything else was just fine.

Two Hard Drives on One Controller

You could be using two SCSI drives on the stock MESH (Macintosh Enhanced SCSI Hardware) controller or two drives on an Open Firmware capable PCI card - SCSI, IDE, or even Serial ATA (with Mac OS 8.x and newer). If so, I recommend installing the Mac OS on the primary drive with a ProDOS partition and using the second drive for Linux. Or, depending on the drive sizes, you could also put a Linux partition on the first drive like the "root" partition (same as the above example) and use the second drive for storage.

I generally use a large drive for storage and have it labeled (or "mounted") as "/files". This allows me to take that large drive from machine to machine and just add/remove it from each system as I need to copy files to and from it.

Two Drives on Two Separate Controllers

This is how I plan to go over the install in my next article. I intend to use a Power Mac 7500. It will have the stock 1 GB SCSI drive with a Mac OS partition and a 32 MB ProDOS partition.

The second drive will be installed on a Adaptec 2940 PCI card that does not have an Open Firmware BIOS. The Mac OS will not be able to use this drive at all, but Linux will be able to see it and use it just fine. The machine will have the following specs:

  • Power Mac 7500 with a Sonnet G3/400
  • 256 MB RAM
  • ATI Rage II 4 MB PCI Video Card
  • 1 GB SCSI drive connected to the NCR Controller
  • 24x SCSI CD-ROM connected to the NCR Controller
  • 4 GB SCSI drive connected to the Adaptec 2940 PCI Controller
  • Opti USB v1.1 PCI card
  • Optical 5-button USB mouse
  • 20" Apple Multiple Scan 20 monitor

This machine will basically be setup for Web browsing, so a large hard drive for Linux isn't needed. Also, since I have a DSL connection, the stock 10 Mbps ethernet controller will be more than adequate.

Linux itself will take about 2 GB total, depending on what software is installed. I don't intend to install OpenOffice or a lot of unnecessary software, since this will be designed mainly for use as a secure Web browsing machine.

The Mac OS drive won't be used except for booting into Linux.

Why Use the Secondary NCR Controller Instead of the MESH Controller?

First, the NCR controller is faster than the MESH controller. Second, since I will be using openSuSE for the install, it automatically activates the NCR controller - but not the MESH controller - so using the MESH controller would require an extra, unneeded step.

Finally, since we will need to be able to copy the kernel and the "initrd" files to the ProDOS partition, we will need the Mac OS SCSI drive available for Linux to use.

Next Time

Next time we will get started with the installation, and I'll have screen shots showing what to expect.

After getting the 7500 up and running, I will go over installing the popular Ubuntu distro onto my Beige G3.

No Flash

There is one thing that's unavailable at this time for Web browsing while using Linux on your Power Mac. That's Adobe's Flash Player. Personally, I despise Flash, since it's mostly used for advertising. The rest of the time, it's not implemented very well, and the websites that use it tend to be slow and unnecessarily cumbersome.

In my opinion, it's just annoying, but a lot of people use Flash-based websites, such as YouTube, on a regular basis. and use Flash for their sites.

Adobe is supposed to be working on Flash Player for Linux, but it's unknown whether they will offer support for Linux on the PowerPC any time soon. There is an online Macromedia Flash Player for Linux/PPC petition you can use to encourage Adobe to get it done.

If you frequent Flash-based websites, using Linux on your Power Mac may not be for you. LEM

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