7. Linux Distributions

Q: How Do I Get Started?
Q: What are the Disk Space Requirements for Minimal, Server, and Workstation Use?
Q: What are the Minimum and Maximum Memory Requirements?
Q: What Is the Best Distribution, SCSI Card, Editor, CD-ROM Drive, etc?
Q: How Can I Get a Distribution?
Q: Where Are the Linux FTP Archives?
Q: How Do I Install Linux Using FTP?
Q: How Can I Get Linux Without FTP Access?
Q: How Do I Install Linux?

Q: How Do I Get Started?

A: If you are new to Linux, you should start by buying or downloading a general-purpose Linux distribution. A distribution is a complete operating system, including the Linux kernel and all the utilities and software you are likely to need, ready to install and use. Most distributions include thousands of software packages, including user-friendly desktops, office suites, and games.

There are a handful of major Linux distributions, and as a beginner you are probably safer using one of them. For information about them, and how they are installed, see the Distributions-HOWTO from the Linux Documentation Project. Also, a list of distributions is updated weekly at http://lwn.net.

Before you select which distribution you want to try, read their descriptions carefully and compare them to your needs. Each distribution is tailored to a particular type of user. Some are optimized to function as servers, some are optimized for gaming, and some are optimized for desktop and office use.

There are a few distributions which are considered to be outstanding choices for new users:

  • Red Hat is particularly good for servers

  • Mandrake is excellent as a desktop system

  • SuSE is also excellent as a desktop system

There are also a large number of releases which are distributed less globally that suit special local and national needs. Many of them are archived at ftp://ftp.tux.org.

Q: What are the Disk Space Requirements for Minimal, Server, and Workstation Use?

A: Linux needs about 10Mb for a very minimal installation, suitable for trying Linux, and not much else.

You can fit a typical server installation, including the X Window System GUI, into 80Mb. Installing a small Debian GNU/Linux workstation takes from 500Mb to 1GB, including kernel source code, some space for user files, and spool areas.

Installing a commercial distribution that has a desktop GUI environment, commercial word processor, and front-office productivity suite, will claim 15.1 GB of disk space, approximately.

A fully installed Debian GNU/Linux system could use several Gigabytes of disk space.

Q: What are the Minimum and Maximum Memory Requirements?

A: Linux needs at least 4MB, and then you will need to use special installation procedures until the disk swap space is installed. Linux will run comfortably in 4MB of RAM, although running GUI apps is impractically slow because they need to swap out to disk.

Some applications, like StarOffice, require 32 MB of physical memory, and compiling C++ code can easily consume over 100 MB of combined physical and virtual memory.

There is a distribution, "Small Linux", that will run on machines with 2MB of RAM. Refer to the answer to: Where Are the Linux FTP Archives?.

A number of people have asked how to address more than 64 MB of memory, which is the default upper limit in most standard kernels. Either type, at the BOOT lilo: prompt:


Or place the following in your /etc/lilo.conf file:


The parameter "XXM" is the amount of memory, specified as megabytes; for example, "128M."

If an "append=" directive with other configuration options already exists in /etc/lilo.conf, then add the mem= directive to the end of the existing argument, and separated from the previous arguments by a space; e.g.:

# Example only; do not use.
append="parport=0x3bc,none serial=0x3f8,4 mem=XXM"

Be sure to run the "lilo" command to install the new configuration.

If Linux still doesn't recognize the extra memory, the kernel may need additional configuration. Refer to the /usr/src/linux/Documentation/memory.txt file in the kernel source as a start.

For further information about LILO, refer to the manual pages for lilo and lilo.conf, the documentation in /usr/doc/lilo, the LILO-HOWTO, and the answer for: How Do I Set the Boot-Time Configuration?, below.

Q: What Is the Best Distribution, SCSI Card, Editor, CD-ROM Drive, etc?

A: The "best" of anything depends on your particular needs. Discussions like these frequently occur on Usenet. Most often they're flame bait. Answering is generally a waste of time. Free software licensing is unrestrictive enough, that, with a little experience, you can perform your own testing on your own hosts.

A better way to phrase a specific inquiry might be: "Where can I find...."

Q: How Can I Get a Distribution?

A: If you can, please dig into your wallet and buy a copy of your distribution. Linux distributions are extremely inexpensive - usually around $30 for a complete system, and anywhere from $70 to around $150 for a larger system with more server software or development tools. Even the $30 "basic" systems contain the equivalent of thousands of dollars in proprietary tools, and are an incredible value. The distributors invest many of your dollars into further development, and most of them fund outside open source projects.

Commercial distributions are available from book and electronics stores, or you can order from their websites.

If you use Debian GNU/Linux, which is a volunteer project and a non-profit, you can donate directly to them instead.

A: There are some websites that sell Linux CD's very inexpensively. Try:

A: Every distribution provides a download on their home page. This is a requirement of the licensing terms of the software, so if you cannot afford to pay for your distribution, you can get a copy this way. Some people compromise between paying and downloading, for example by buying each major release (such as 6.0) but downloading the point releases (such as 6.1 and 6.2).

Also, archives of many of the distributions are on line at: ftp://ftp.tux.org and http://planetmirror.com/pub/linux.

A: Some hardware vendors now ship systems with Linux pre-installed. However, they sometimes make it very difficult to buy them - they offer Linux on only a few systems, which are server machines, or they require you to go to a special "Linux" section on their website.

Q: Where Are the Linux FTP Archives?

A: There are three main archive sites for Linux:

The best place to get the Linux kernel is ftp://ftp.kernel.org/pub/linux/kernel/. Linus Torvalds uploads the most recent kernel versions to this site.

Of the U.S. distributions, Debian GNU/Linux is available at http://www.debian.org/distrib/. Red Hat Linux's home site is ftp://ftp.redhat.com/, and Linux Slackware's is ftp://ftp.freesoftware.com/.

The Small Linux distribution, which can run in 2 MB of RAM, is located at http://smalllinux.netpedia.net/.

The contents of these sites is mirrored (copied, usually approximately daily) by a number of other sites. Please use a site close to you will be faster for you and easier on the network.

Please send updates and corrections to this list to the Linux FAQ maintainer, see Asking Questions and Sending Comments. Not all of these mirror all of the other "source" sites, and some have material not available on the "source" sites.

Q: How Do I Install Linux Using FTP?

A: Most distributions are too large and complex to make FTP installation practical. Installing a basic Linux system that doesn't have a GUI or major applications is possible with FTP, however. The main non-commercial distribution in use is Debian GNU/Linux, and this answer describes an installation of a basic Debian system, to which you can add other Linux applications and commercial software as necessary.

This answer describes installation on IBM-compatible machines with an Intel x86 or Pentium processor. You will need a machine with at least a 80386 processor, 8 Mb of memory, and about 100 Mb of disk space. More memory and a larger disk is necessary however, for practical everyday use.

For other hardware, substitute "-arm", "-ppc", "-m68k", or other abbreviation in directory names for "-i386".

For detailed and hardware-specific information refer to: http://www.debian.org/releases/stable/.

  • Connect to http://ftp.debian.org/dists/stable/main/disks-i386/current/. If you use anonymous FTP, connect to ftp://ftp.debian.org/debian/dists/stable/main/disks-i386/current/.

  • Choose the images-*/ subdirectory that matches the type of floppy drive installed on your machine, if unsure try images-1.44/. Retrieve the rescue.bin, root.bin, and driver-*.bin disk images. Once you have installed those floppy images, the rest of the system can be retrieved from a Debian mirror site, or installed from CD. If you have a Linux machine, you can use dd to write the images to the diskettes. If you are creating the installation diskettes on a MS-DOS machine, also download the RAWRITE.EXE MS-DOS utility, which will copy the raw binary images to floppy disks. Also download the install.en.txt document, which contains the detailed installation instructions.

  • Create the installation disk set on floppies using either dd under Linux (e.g.: dd if=resc1440.bin of=/dev/fd0), or the RAWRITE.EXE utility under MS-DOS. Be sure to label each installation diskette.

  • Insert the rescue diskette into the floppy drive and reboot the computer. If all goes well, the Linux kernel will boot, and you will be able start the installation program by pressing Enter at the boot: prompt.

  • Follow the on-screen instructions for partitioning the hard disk, installing device drivers, the basic system software, and the Linux kernel. If the machine is connected to a local network, enter the network information when the system asks for it.

  • To install additional software over the Internet, be sure that you have installed the ppp module during the installation process, and run (as root) the /usr/sbin/pppconfig utility. You will need to provide your user name with your ISP, your password, the ISP's dial-up phone number, the address(es) of the ISP's Domain Name Service, and the serial port that your modem is connected to, /dev/ttyS0 /dev/ttyS3. Be sure also to specify the defaultroute option to the PPP system, so the computer knows to use the PPP connection for remote Internet addresses.

  • You may have to perform additional configuration on the PPP scripts in the /etc/ppp subdirectory, and in particular, the ISP-specific script in the /etc/ppp/peers subdirectory. There are basic instructions in each script. For detailed information, refer to the Debian/GNU Linux installation instructions that you downloaded, the pppd manual page (type man pppd), and the PPP HOWTO from the Linux Documentation project, http://tldp.org/.

  • Once you have a PPP connection established with your ISP (it will be displayed in the output of ifconfig), use the dselect program to specify which additional software you want to install. Use the apt [A]ccess option to retrieve packages via anonymous FTP, and make sure to use the [U]pdate option to retrieve a current list of packages from the FTP archive.

Q: How Can I Get Linux Without FTP Access?

A: The easiest thing is probably to find a friend with FTP access. If there is a Linux user's group near you, they may be able to help.

If you have a reasonably good email connection, you could try the FTP-by-mail servers at ftpmail@ftp.sunet.se, or ftpmail@ftp.uni-stuttgart.de.

Linux is also available via traditional mail on CD-ROM. The file ftp://metalab.unc.edu/pub/Linux/docs/HOWTO/Installation-HOWTO, and the file ftp://metalab.unc.edu/pub/Linux/docs/HOWTO/Distribution-HOWTO contain information on these distributions.

Q: How Do I Install Linux?

A: Once you obtain a distribution, it will contain instructions on installation. Each distribution has its own installation program.

A: There is a very thorough installation guide on line at http://heather.cs.ucdavis.edu/~matloff/linux.html

A: Some distributions (e.g., Debian GNU/Linux) can be installed via anonymous FTP from various Linux archive sites, but unless you have cable, DSL, or some other broadband Internet access, the size of the distribution makes this impractical. See Where Are the Linux FTP Archives?.

Postings on the Usenet News groups, including the FAQ, are archived on http://groups.google.com/. Search for news:comp.os.linux, news:alt.uu.comp.os.linux and their subgroups, or whatever is appropriate, to retrieve articles from the Linux News groups. See What News Groups Are There for Linux?.