Unix and the Mac

Installing Linux on Your Low-End Mac

- 2002.03.19

Continued from yestereday's Preparing Your Low-End Mac for Linux.


With Iridium finally ready for Linux, I could move on to the actual installation process. Before you start this stage, it's important that you read up on how the installation process works. There's quite a bit of information available, both as text files on the Debian CDs and from Debian's Internet site. When looking up this material, it's important to remember that Linux runs on several different platforms; you need to make sure you get the right guides for the Mac.

Another excellent resource for the low-end Mac Unix user (and indeed for almost anything related to older Macs) is Jag's House, which has links to a wide variety of Unix information.

SE/30One guide that stood out to me was SE/30 Debian Install. Potato, Kernel 2.2.19, Penguin 17, which not only walks you through the installation process, but also targeted the very Mac I was using! This particular guide is a handy thing to read even if you're not using an SE/30, but remember that it, like many others, was written as an unofficial spare time project and isn't always clear-cut.

One guide that is written as a full time professional project is Learning Debian GNU/Linux from the respected computer publishing house O'Reilly Associates. This book, weighing in at 360 pages, will not only help you install Debian, but also act as a useful guide and reference as you explore your machine's capabilities. The only downside is that the book isn't targeted specifically to running Debian on a Mac, rather concentrating on Debian in general. Still, it's hard to complain when you consider that O'Reilly makes an electronic version available completely free of charge on their Internet site.

It's also a good idea to choose one or two documents that you think will prove the most helpful during the installation process and print them out so you have them on hand in permanent, write-all-over form should they be needed.

My efforts to get Debian Linux running on my trusty old box ran into one final wrinkle - the Linux kernel that came on my CD is an older version (2.2.10) which does not support the SE/30. The Linux kernel is the very core of the operating system, and if it won't work on your Mac, your Linux adventures will grind to a halt. On the official CD-ROM, the kernel you'll be using lives in the :install:mac folder in a file simply titled "linux".

The solution to this problem - as documented in the aforementioned SE/30 Debian Install guide - is to copy much of this :install:mac folder to your hard disk's Mac OS partition. Once there, you can download a newer kernel (version 2.2.19) from the address given in the guide and add it to your copy of the folder in place of the original linux file.

When it comes to working out what kernel version your machine needs, you may have to look around for the information. There may be something floating around on the net telling at what version support for the various Mac models was added to the kernel, but if it exists, I don't know where. Once again, the key seems to be experimentation. Try initialising the installation process using the kernel from the CD and see what happens. You'll know if the kernel proves incompatible with your machine as the Mac will almost certainly lock solid as soon as the Penguin loader tries boot up your Linux session.

Even if the kernel you have is compatible with your Mac, it might be a good idea to grab a newer one anyway as the stability and feature set of the kernel improves with each new release. If you do take this approach however, bear in mind that your Mac OS partition must be large enough to accommodate these extra files.

Installing Linux

After the effort of getting Iridium ready for action, running the actual installation itself was almost relaxing by comparison. The Penguin loader, once its basic configuration was complete, flawlessly launched my newly downloaded Linux kernel, after which the installation program starts up automatically.

Debian's installer is a text based system, navigated by cycling through the various options with a combination of the tab, arrow, and enter keys. Though this system lacks the intuitiveness of the mouse driven systems with which Mac users are familiar, one can get the hang of it after a few minutes use.

It does remain clumsy in places and has one or two tricks up its sleeves. Of these, the one you're most likely to notice, is the fact that it hasn't quite got the hang of screen redraws, so an old dialogue from several steps back can suddenly reappear in front of you. These "ghost" dialogues are just that and will remain unresponsive to your attempts to use them. They don't actually harm anything, just cause a little confusion until they disappear to make way for the next "real" dialogue.

Looking at the installer, however, you can get the impression that it's somewhat of an "unfinished" work designed to be the bare minimum necessary to get the job done with little concession to aesthetic niceties. This is likely due in no small part to the fact that Unix has largely been the preserve of the techie crowd, who remain comfortable with these sometimes complicated procedures. Those who wrote the installer probably only tested it's functionality among themselves, giving little thought that others - particularly those whose computing background rests largely on consumer OSes like the Mac OS or Windows - may have difficulty coming to grips with it's idiosyncrasies. If they did, they were likely willing to accept such a concession in return for both the monetary and creative freedom of such an Open Source project.

Even after you've got the hang of the installer's navigation, you should still be on the lookout for any attempts it may make to stymie your progress by throwing up questions which are either difficult to understand or whose answers aren't always what you might expect. Should this happen, your best course of action is to refer to one or two of the installation guides you hopefully have at the ready and research that particular step thoroughly before answering anything.

The last step, and one of the somewhat more enjoyable steps, of the process is to select which of the optional software or packages you want to install on your Mac. This step comes in two flavours. First is advanced, which perhaps you should avoid unless you like the idea of sifting though a list of thousands of packages - often with little clear indication of what each one does or whether you need it. Second comes simple. which reduces the process into selecting from a list of fifteen or so tasks you may want to do with your Mac.

Once I had Iridium up and running with Linux, I planned to test it out on some light Internet duties and C programming, so among the tasks I chose were "Dialup Internet" and "C Development." Later on, I might want to play around with networking the old SE/30 to a PC, so I added the Samba toolkit that will allow my Mac to talk to a Windows box just as if it were another Windows PC.

As an experiment in low-end masochism I threw in the X-Windows system, as well as a few text-based games to while away those in-between moments of productivity.

Having completed this last step and allowed the Mac to scan all three of the CDs for the packages it needed to install for my chosen tasks, I then left it in peace to get on with the process of trickling all that data from the CD to its hard disk.

I knew this process would take time, Jag (the maintainer of Jag's House) mentions on his site that it took 16 hours for his SE/30 to install Linux from a 2x CD-ROM.

It was just after 7 p.m. on a Monday when my own Mac slowly began sucking the packages one by one from the CD. This continued throughout the evening, generally without any intervention on my part, although it did ask the occasional question, forcing me to check up on it every now and then.

I went to sleep that night to the muffled sound of Iridium's fan from the other room, and when I woke at 6 a.m. the next morning to go to work, the packages were still copying across, the old Mac having soldiered on all through the night.

Leaving it to do it's thing throughout the workday, I expected it to be waiting for me to change the CD once I got home at 5 p.m., but it was still going. It was at this point that I began to think that not using that 12x CD-ROM wasn't exactly a bright idea.

It wasn't until 6:55 p.m. - just short of 24 hours after the packages started copying - that the Mac finally prompted for the second CD. Unfortunately, while the first CD went by with little intervention on my part, the second CD was much more talkative, with various Internet tools and the Samba networking suite all lining up to ask me something. It was still working away at 11 p.m., so I spent another night lulled by the muted hum of an SE/30 cooling fan.

At 6 a.m. next morning I awoke to find a problem I expected to run into had in fact occurred - sometime during the night the Mac wanted to know the details of my Internet provider and, while I slept, had sat idle waiting for them. Giving it the required information got things moving again, but at the cost of several hours.

I came home to the same thing, gave Iridium the answers it wanted this time - "Some packages have failed to reinstall properly, would you like to reinstall them now [Y/n]?" - and left it to do it's thing.

Finally, at just after 7 p.m. on Wednesday, I was greeted with the words, "Have fun. You can either log in as root or adam now...." A touch of the enter key cleared the screen and then, at 7:10 p.m. - fully 48 hours after I first left the Mac to stream the data across from the first CD - I finally saw the words:

Debian GNU/Linux 2.2 iridium tty1
iridium login:

Lessons Learned

Of the 48 hours that passed during the Great Linux Package Install, I'd estimate that around 40 consisted of the actual installation, with the Mac spending the other 8 or so waiting around for me to answer some question or other. Upgrading Iridium's hard disk, preparing the software and running through the interactive stages of the installation probably chewed up an additional 3 hours, making for a total of 51.

While those first three hours were inevitable, you probably won't be too anxious to spend two entire days having your Mac thrash it's hard disk while you check in on it every there and then. Unfortunately, if you're planning to drag out an old SE/30, IIcx, or similar machine for your Unix box, you are basically asking for such a wait, but there are some things you can do to push it along.

First, and most obviously if you're installing from CD, is the CD-ROM drive. As I said, by the installathon's 24th hour, I was beginning to regret my decision to stick by my 2x drive in favour of borrowing my Power Mac's 12x CD-ROM. The faster drive would obviously be a great help, but it isn't everything - though the 12x unit is six times faster than my old 2x Apple CD300, an installation using it would not have passed by in one-sixth of the time.

On top of the fact that the old SCSI bus of an SE/30 can only go so fast, the actual transfer of data to the hard disk is only part of the process. The packages are stored on the CD in compressed form and must be expanded back into their original uncompressed selves. How quickly this occurs depends on just how much power your Mac has lurking under the hood, and, as anyone who has unstuffed a large .sit archive on an SE/30 can tell you, file decompression on a 16 MHz '030 doesn't exactly flash by fast enough to make your head spin.

While there is little you can do to speed up your Mac's processor short of taking to the machine with a soldering iron or trading the whole thing in for something a little zipper, file compression - like most tasks - can benefit from a larger helping of RAM. As your machine's RAM provides the work area in which the files are actually decompressed, it follows that the more there is to work in, the more the machine can do in a given time - especially as it can make fewer reads of the CD and hard drives. Also, once you do have your chosen flavour of Unix running, your RAM upgrade will stand you in good stead as some Unix apps, most notoriously the X-Windowing system, have a voracious and sometimes downright frightening appetite for memory.

Naturally, you can't just dump a fast CD ROM and some extra RAM into your battered old SE/30 and expect it to scream through an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Unix install within minutes. What you will get, however, is a useful increase in speed and capability - both during the install and later on when everything's up and running,

So when all's said and done, I'm now the proud owner of my first non-Intel Unix box. What I'll do with it now is still up in the air, but I do want to see how useful it is, and I'll be mentioning it's progress here in addition to that of some faster companion Macs I'm setting up alongside it.

It seems almost comical to have spent over 48 hours installing Debian onto the SE/30 when the PC I'm typing this on (a 200 MHz Pentium Pro with 64 MB RAM) could blow through a far larger installation in as many minutes, but no Intel Unix installation was quite this interesting, and the end result sure as hell never looked so good. LEM

Go to the Unix & the Mac index.

About LEM Support Usage Privacy Contact

Follow Low End Mac on Twitter
Join Low End Mac on Facebook

Favorite Sites

Cult of Mac
Shrine of Apple
The Mac Observer
Accelerate Your Mac
The Vintage Mac Museum
Deal Brothers
Mac Driver Museum
JAG's House
System 6 Heaven
System 7 Today
the pickle's Low-End Mac FAQ


The iTunes Store
PC Connection Express
Macgo Blu-ray Player
Parallels Desktop for Mac

Low End Mac's Amazon.com store


Open Link