I bought a new machine the other day, and decided to put Fedora 35 on it. I’ve been a Fedora user since joining Red Hat in August 2016, and decided to continue using it when I left to (co-)found Profian in mid 2021, having gone through several Linux distros over the years (Red Hat Enterprise Linux before it was called that, Slackware, Debian, SuSE, Ubuntu, and probably some more I tried for a while and never adopted). As a side note, I like Fedora: it gives a good balance of stability, newish packages and the ability to mess at lower levels if you feel like it, and the move to Gnome Shell extensions to deliver UI widgets is an easy way to deliver more functionality on the desktop.
Anyway, the point of this article is that installing Linux on my most recent machines has become easy. Far too easy. When I started using Linux in around 1997, it was hard. Properly hard. You had to know what hardware might work, what things you might do which could completely brick your machine what was going on, have detailed understanding of obscure kernel flags, and generally have to do everything yourself. There was a cachet to using Linux, because only very skilled experts could build a Linux machine and run it successfully as their main desktop. Servers weren’t too difficult, but desktops? They required someone special.
I yearn for those days, and I’m sure that many of my readers do, too. What I thought I’d do in the rest of this article is to suggest ways that Linux distributions could allow those of us who enjoy pain and to recapture the feeling of “specialness” which used to come with running Linux desktops. Much of the work they will need to do is to remove options from installers. Installers these days take away all of the fun. They’re graphical, guide you through various (sensible) options and just get on with things. I mean: what’s the point? Distributions: please rework the installers, and much of the joy will come back into my Linux distribution life.
I don’t want the installer to guess what keyboard I’m using, and, from there, also make intelligent suggestions about what the default language of the system should be. I’d much prefer an obscure list of keyboards, listing the number of keys (which I’ll have to count several times to be sure), layouts and types. Preferably by manufacturer, and preferably listing several which haven’t been available for retail sale for at least 15 years. As an added bonus, I want to have to plug my keyboard into a special dongle so that it will fit into the back of the motherboard, which will have several colour-coded plastic ports which disappear into the case if you push them too hard. USB? It’s for wimps.
Networking: where do I start? To begin with, if we’re going to have wifi support, I want to set it up by hand, because the card I’ve managed to find is so obscure that it’s not listed anywhere online, and the Access Point to which I’m connecting doesn’t actually support any standard protocol versions. Alternatively, it does, but the specific protocol it supports is so bleeding edge that I need to download a new firmware version to the card. This should be packaged for Windows (CE or ME, preferably), and only work if I disable all of the new features that the AP has introduced.
I’d frankly much prefer Ethernet only support. And to have to track down the actual chipset of the (off-board) network card in order to find the right drivers.
In fact, best of all would be to have to configure a modem. I used to love modems. The noises they made. The lights they flashed. The configuration options they provided.
Token ring enthusiasts are on their own.
Monitors were interesting. It wasn’t usually too hard to get one working without X (that’s the windowing system we used to use – well, was it a windowing system? And why was the display the Xserver, and the well, server the Xclient? Nobody ever really knew), but get X working? That was difficult and scary. Difficult because there was a set of three different variables you had to work with for at least three different components: X resolution, Y resolution and refresh rate, each with different levels of support by your monitor, your graphics card and your machine (which had to be powerful enough actually to drive the graphics card). Scary because there were frequent warnings that if you chose an unsupported mode, you could permanently damage your monitor
Now, I should be clear that I never managed to damage a monitor by choosing an unsupported mode, and have never, to my knowledge, met anyone else who did, either, but the people who wrote the (generally impenetrable) documentation for configuring your XServer (or was it XClient…?) had put in some very explicit and concerning warnings which meant that every time you changed the smallest setting in your config file, you crossed your fingers as you moved from terminal to GUI.
Oh – for extra fun, you needed to configure your mouse in the same config file, and that never worked properly either. We should go back to that, too.
Ah, disks. These days, you buy a disk, you put it into your machine, and it works. In fact, it may not actually be a physical disk: it’s as likely to be a Solid State Device, with no moving parts at all. What a con. Back in the day, disks didn’t just work, and, like networking, seemed to be full of clever “new” features that the manufacturers used to con us into buying them, but which wouldn’t be supported by Linux for at least 7 months, and which were therefore completely irrelevant to us. Sometimes, if I recall correctly, a manufacturer would release a new disk which would be found to work with Linux, only for latter iterations of the same model to cease working because they used subtly different components.
Once you’d got a disk spinning up (and yes, I mean that literally), you then needed to put a filesystem on it. There were a variety of these supported, most of which were irrelevant to all but a couple of dozen enthusiasts running 20 year old DEC or IBM mini-computers. And how were you supposed to choose which filesystem type to use? What about journalling? Did you need it? What did it do? Did you want to be able to read the filesystem from Windows? Write it from Windows? Boot Windows from it? What about Mac? Did you plan to mount it remotely over a network? Which type of network? Was it SCSI? (Of course it wasn’t SCSI, unless you’d managed to blag an old drive enclosure + card from your employer, who was throwing out an old 640Kb drive which was already, frankly on its last legs).
Assuming you’d got all that sorted out, you needed to work out how to partition it. Anyone who was anyone managed to create too small a swap partition to allow your machine to run without falling over regularly, or managed to initialise so small a boot partition that you were unable to update your kernel when the next one came out. Do you need a separate home partition? What about /usr/lib? /usr/src? /opt? /var? All those decisions. So much complexity. Fantastic. And then you have to decide if you’re going to encrypt it. And at what level. There’s a whole other article right there.
Assuming that you’ve got X up and running,that your keyboard types the right characters (most of the time), that your mouse can move at least to each edge of the screen, and that the desktop is appearing with the top at the top of the screen, rather than the bottom, or even the right or left, you’re probably ready to try doing something useful with your machine. Assuming also that you’ve managed to set up networking, then one task you might try is email.
First, you’ll need an email provider. There is no Google, not Hotmail. You’ll probably get email from your ISP, and if you’re lucky, they sent you printed instructions for setting up email at the same time they sent you details for the modem settings. You’d think that these could be applied directly to your email client, but they’re actually intended for Windows or Mac users, and your Linux mail client (Pine or Mutt if you’re hardcore, emacs if you’re frankly insane) will need completely different information set up. What ports? IMAP or POP? Is it POP3? What type of autehntication? If you’re feelnig really brave, you might set up your own sendmail instance. Now, that’s real pain.
Who does gaming on Linux? I mean, apart from Doom and Quake 3D Arena, all you really need is TuxRacer and a poorly configured wine installation which just about runs Minesweeper. Let’s get rid of all the other stuff. Steam? Machines should be steam-powered, not running games via Steam. Huh. *me tuts*
Linux distros have always had a difficult line to tread: they want to support as many machine configurations as possible. This makes for a large, potentially slow default kernel. Newer distributions tune this automatically, to make a nice, slimline version which suits your particular set-up. This approach is heresy.
The way it should work is that you download the latest kernel source (over your 56k6 modem – this didn’t take as long as you might think, as the source was much smaller: only 45 minutes or so, assuming nobody tried to make a phone call on the line during the download process), read the latest change log in the hopes that the new piece of kit you’d purchased for your machine was now at least in experimental release state, find patches from a random website when you discovered it wasn’t, apply the patches, edit your config file by hand, cutting down the options to a bare minimum, run menuconfig (I know, I know: this isn’t as hardcore as it might be, but it’s probably already 11pm by now, and you’ve been at this since 6pm), deal with clashes and missing pieces, start compiling a kernel, go to get some food, come back, compress the kernel, save it to /boot (assuming you made the partition large enough – see above), reboot, and then swear when you get a kernel panic.
That’s the way it should be. I mean, I still compile my own kernels from time to time, but the joy’s gone from it. I don’t need to, and taking the time to strip it down to essentials takes so long it’s hardly worth it, particularly when I can compile it in what seems like milliseconds.
The good news
There is good news. Some things still don’t work easily on Linux. Some games manufacturers don’t bother with us (and Steam can’t run every game (yet?)). Fingerprint readers seem particularly resistant to Linuxification. And video-conferencing still fails to work properly on a number of platforms (I’m looking at you, Teams, and you, Zoom, at least where sharing is concerned).
Getting audio to work for high-end set-ups seems complex, too, but I’m led to believe that this is no different on Windows systems. Macs are so over-engineered that you can probably run a full professional recording studio without having to install any new software, but they don’t count.
Hopefully, someone will read this article and take pity on those of us who took pride in the pain we inflicted on ourselves. Give us back our uber-geek status: make Linux hard again.
1 – my wife prefers the words “sad”, “tragic” and “obsessed”.
2 – this is a a word which my wife does apply to me, but possibly with a different usage to the one I’m employing.
3 – I should be honest: I still enjoy setting these up by hand, mainly because I can.