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Flipping the Linux switch: Installations are disturbingly easy

All right, the headline is a little bit of a lie. Some Linux installs are hairier, take longer, and just aren't as soothing as the one we're about to show you. They do all work approximately the same way, however, and that's just fine for us as a point of illustration.

So there we are, looking at the "Download" page of an Ubuntu derived distribution. We decide that we'll download the x86 version of the distro (we'll assume we don't have a 64 bit or PPC system or don't want a 64 bit OS). So we click on the file that ends in .iso, and it starts downloading.

Now what?
We're going to make a broad assumption that most people burn their first Linux CD on a Windows machine. If your machine has a program that burns disk images (or .iso files), such as Nero, you're ahead of the game. You will absolutely need a program that can burn disk images, not just data or bootable CDs. There are quite a few free, very nice ones out there. We've had a lot of luck with ISO Recorder.

And yes, some distributions (such as Ubuntu) can be installed from within Windows. We just feel that for many reasons, it's good to have a liveCD kicking around. And call us old-fashioned, but we just feel a little bit like less could go wrong with an existing install from a liveCD. Is that really based in truth? Our therapist is helping us work through that. Until we know for sure, though, we are using liveCDs.

When the liveCD is finally in our hot little hands, the fun (really!) begins.

We place the disk lovingly in the drive on our computer, and restart. Is the computer set to boot from the CD or DVD drive? The place we find out (and set this information) is the BIOS. It is accessible for a short period of time as the computer boots. The machine we are installing on lets us enter the BIOS if we hit "Del" at start up. Some machines are different: ESC or F2 are not uncommon BIOS keys.

The BIOS is a tricky thing. Not that what we're doing is particularly risky, but if we were to fiddle with something we didn't really know what it did, we could, in theory, really muck things up. So here's a big, fat caveat: Be careful, and if anything is slightly unclear, look it up in your computer's manual or online at the manufacturer's site.

The short, non-scary BIOS story is that we're looking for an option that says "Boot" or "Boot Order." If the first device in the boot order option is the optical drive that has the disk in it, we can exit the BIOS (usually the ESC or a function key) with or without saving.

If the first device is not an optical drive, we just need to cycle through the order till the optical boots first, and the hard drive second. Then we save and exit.

Our computer restarts, and the drive whirrs. Since we want to install or run a liveCD, we'll take the appropriate option when it shows up on our screen. Hold on to your hats, Linux is booting!

We are presented in a few moments with our desktop. If it takes a bit longer than you think it rightly should, don't get alarmed. It's a liveCD, and it will run slower than the operating system would off your hard drive.

But hey, welcome to Ubuntu (or in this example, Kubuntu). Lo and behold, there is a little icon on the desktop that is creatively named "Install."

Click it. You know you want to.

Ubuntu launches a little application called Ubiquity. It's an installer. It's like other distribution's installers, in terms of function. It partitions, formats, sets up accounts and installs your system. Ubiquity is, in our humble opinion, the pinnacle of easy operating system installs. Any operating system. And it's a great way of seeing how an OS installs. Any OS.

We are presented with a language screen. It defaults to English, but of course there are many languages to choose from. Say thanks to all the hardworking translators out there.

Next, we get to tell Ubiquity approximately where we live and what time zone we're in. In our case, Ubiquity had it pretty figured out. Sure, our liveCD system desktop time was wrong, but we don't worry about that. What matters is that the time is right here. It can be adjusted later, if for some reason your time zone is selected and Ubiquity is showing the wrong time.

Other distros may handle this step by asking if the hardware is set to UTC (system) or local time. This means the time that is set in the BIOS (remember the BIOS?) and not on the desktop itself. Granted, we have a very North America-centric view, but it seems that most machines that originally ran Windows of some variety are set to local time.

Time to test our keyboard out. We are using an English (US) standard keyboard, and we're okay with the default layout. If you are really into Dvorak keyboard arrangements, neither we nor Ubuntu are about to stop you from going down that road. Type some stuff in the box and see that everything works as intended, if that floats your boat.

We're going to give a little more explanation at this next step than may really be necessary. We'll start by saying this: If you know you want to install Ubuntu on your entire disk, and you are fairly sure you won't change distros (or otherwise don't care about preserving settings on a home partition), choose a Guided set up. Skip this bit, and continue to the next screen, "Who are you."

Maybe it's in our nature to really like to futz with things here at Download Squad (no way!). In our collective years of using Linux, though, we've found it is pretty useful to set up our /home (user's personal directories) on a separate partition. We're just too damned good at changing our minds about which distro we want to use, and even at totally borking things in the main partition that controls the system. Having all our really important files on a separate partition allows us to save our stuff across system installs and horrific flaming mistakes.

So we're going to choose a manual partitioning set up. Fear not. We'll show you a bit how it works. Your partition set up will look different (this computer was installing Kubuntu over an existing Linux install).

So we've selected manual, and now we're looking at the hard disk on the computer. The bit at the top is a graphical representation of the existing disk. Previously, we had three partitions: /dev/sda1, /dev/sda2, and /dev/sda3. You'll notice that /dev/sda1 is a different color. It's a swap partition. They were arguably a little handier in days of yore when RAM was limited and more expensive, but it is still good to have a swap partition of either twice the amount of physical RAM in your machine, or 1024 MB (which ever is smaller).

We'll also note that it is a bit weird to have /dev/sda1 be swap. Weird, but not detrimental. We won't go into how that happened. It had nothing to do with Ubuntu, so don't panic. And no, swap does not need to be /dev/sda1 on your system.

On this system, we know that /dev/sda2 is (or was) our root (/) partition. This is where our old Linux system files were before. We'd like them there again, but we'd like the Kubuntu system files, not the previous distro's files. Your system may have a Windows partitions you want to keep (or not) or resize. Your system may not have any partitions (as in the case of a new disk).

We can edit or delete existing partitions. Once we delete them, the space will be free and we can create new partitions from that. In our case, though, we want to edit the existing partition. We know for sure it will need to be formatted, so we'll go ahead and check that.

Selecting our partition and clicking edit partition brings up the wondrous "Edit Partition" window. We're going to leave the partition the same size (but if you're starting from scratch, you'll need to pick the size in megabytes in relation to your disk). We have a huge / partition. We mean it. Gigantic. It doesn't necessarily need to be any larger than a few gigs.

Here we can also choose our file system type. Ubuntu usually defaults to ext3. This is fine. There are certain cases you'd want to use other file system types. Some types are better for quick writing. Some write less than others, and can extend the lives of some solid state disks (in theory, anyway).

Our mountpoint is the actual partition name. Windows would call it the drive name and assign a letter. This is where we rename the existing /media/sda2 to /. Essentially, it goes from what is considered "storage" to become a working part of the system.

And here we have that first partition set up, and ready for its format. The other partition you see (/dev/sda3) is our old /home partition. If we were setting up a new disk, we'd take the remaining space on the disk after swap and / were set up, and we'd make it /home by creating and formatting a new partition.

In this case (or if you were reinstalling an existing system yourself) we do a very similar set of steps as above, except we are really careful to the point of outright paranoia that the "Format?" button doesn't get selected. If we were to format an existing /home directory, everything would disappear. Kind of defeats the purpose, eh?

Well, of course the other big difference is we need to be sure to name this partition's mountpoint as /home. If we didn't do this here, the /home directory would be created under our / partition. This partition wouldn't lose any information, and would be accessible (on Ubuntu as /media/sda3. Other systems might call it something vaguely different). It wouldn't be accessible as your home directory though. It would be more like an external disk.

If you should make a little mistake here, it is very fixable by editing your /etc/fstab (as root) after the fact. But hey, why make more work for yourself? Double check 'er.

Let's take one more wistful look at this screen. Don't worry about setting swap to format on either a new or existing install. Most installers (Ubiquity included) take this little bit for granted.

We're done here, so let's move on.

That, we promise you, was the most taxing part of the process. And you've probably discovered that it doesn't really have to be. If you don't want a separate /home partition, just roll with the Guided set up. (It's also interesting to note that some distros, like openSUSE, make a separate /home by default.) We included partitioning in a little more depth, though, because it is a nifty little thing to know how to do.

Now Ubuntu gets personal. It's not selling our information to spammers. It's setting up a user account. We go through and answer a few questions. Pick a password and remember it (seriously). You do not need a password for a liveCD, but if you want to get anywhere with your hard disk install, for the love of jessup, remember what you typed here.

You can pick the name of your computer on the network. Ubiquity just happily defaults to your username-desktop or username-laptop. Other distros might ask a few more questions to essentially do the same thing. This can be changed, regardless of distribution, after install.

Moment of truth time. Ubiquity reviews a few little settings on this extremely anticlimactic window, and we click the install button.

Over the next twenty minutes or so, Ubiquity will do its thing. This is the same with any installer. Ubiquity seems to be one of the fastest (although Slackware based installers are quite speedy too). Installs, depending on the heft of the system, the size of the distribution, and any additional configurations and add ons, can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to completely install.

Ubuntu notifies when the process is finished, and allows you to either keep working in liveCD mode, or immediately restart in to the new install. Whichever you choose is fine, and on shutdown (or restart) Ubuntu will remind you to remove the liveCD.

No need to touch the BIOS on reboot. If there is no disk in the optical drive, it will search for the next available drive media (usually your hard drive). You should have your shiny new Linux system appearing shortly.

That's it. Well, sort of. Next week we'll take a look at some of those tweaks to a new install that most new users have to make. Flash plugins, codecs, and DVD playback don't have to be horrible headaches. Honest.

Tags: how to, HowTo, howtos, install, kubuntu, linux, linux-switch, livecd, opensource, tweet-this, ubuntu, walkthrough