Lookback – Fifteen Years of using Linux and Open Source

Today, I will publish a post I had written in January of 2017 to mark my Fifteen year anniversary of using Linux and Open Source Software. This post never got published. Maybe because- as the timeline below would indicate- I had actually completed Sixteen years and not fifteen ! The era in which this post was written might also explain to the reader why the names of some distributions and version numbers sound… different.

Click below for the audio version of this post

November, 2016

As of this morning, I have finally installed Fedora Workstation, version 25.this merely is a milestone in a long journey.

Gnome Desktop for Fedora 23 Fedora 23 Desktop showing GNOME Settings Image Credit: Distrowatch.com

How I got introduced to the world of Linux and Open Source

My Journey from Red Hat Zoot to Fedora 25

In a way this is poetic, in a way it brings things full circle. In January 2001, when I first learnt about Unix, I wanted to try it out right away. Around the same time I also wanted to get rid of Windows ME from my Sony Vaio laptop.
Box cover for Red Hat 6.2. Blog of Amar Vyas
Box cover for Red Hat 6.2.

Circa 2001: How do I install Unix?

In 2001 I had very little idea about Linux or Open Source Software. I had used Red Hat in a Cyber Cafe in 1999 while applying to graduate schools in the US. But that experience was as a ‘regular’ user, not as an admin. And I most certainly had not witnessed the installation. By end 2000, I was still not familiar with GNU and I thought that installing Unix was as easy as popping in a CD and running the installation software. After all, that is how Windows is was installed! As the new year dawned, I expressed to my friend Nico, my desire to use Unix on a laptop . He merely smiled, and did not say much. A couple of days later, he brought 2 CDs of something called as Red Hat Zoot. He told me that he was going to install Linux on my laptop, and he would set it up in such a way that he would dual boot it. This was all new to me again, and I was amazed and excited at the same time. I was baffled with questions like, “What is a Dual boot? Can the same computer have both Linux and Windows installed?” Pondering over these questions, I sat in awe as Nico inserted the first CD, and booted the laptop. Some settings were changed in the Bios (I knew what Bios was, thankfully). About a minute later, something called as Anaconda installer came up on the screen. There was no graphical interface, or colorful images. I could only see a lot of blue boxes and black and yellow text. “How can I use this laptop if there is no display?” I asked Nico. He merely smiled again. Some fifteen minutes later, he told me that the installation was complete. “What?” I asked him. “Yes, he replied”. On my brand new Sony Vaio, I had something that was not Windows. Rather, I had something that was something other than windows. Red Hat Zoot was I believe version 6.2- back in the day when this distribution was available for the Hoi Palloi.

All’s Not Well, and it did not end well

The very next day, the screen on the laptop froze and Nico had to come again and change the settings. he mentioned something called framebuffer and settings for XF86. I thought what looked like an easy move away from Windows was not going to be that easy, after all. And I was right. A week later, Nico installed Mandrake Linux 8.0. But the screen freezing continued. As an added bonus- the speaker would produce a high pitched shrill noise less than 15 minutes after booting. Mandrake Linux 8.0. Source: Wikipedia Some of these issues continued over multiple generations of Red Hat and Mandrake.The start was not perfect, but that was a challenge I was willing to accept. Little did I know what an uphill task it was going to be.

Learning how to set up Linux desktop and use Linux Programs

Over the next several years, life brought ups and downs, and the laptop had to be sold. It replaced with a DIY desktop. Those were the days when dial-up Internet was still in use. I was a freshly minted graduate student with a new job. Which meant I had no money for cable Internet. Thus, I had to learn how to set up PPPoE, how to configure a printer, and how to get Internet access over a dial up network.

Everything had to be learnt from scratch

Daily visits to Internet forums and tutorial sites like lwn.net, reading up on newsgroups like usenix, and the manuals. RTFM (Read The `F***` Manual) became the mantra as I began to use XMMS, StarOffice (the pre cursor to OpenOffice and LibreOffice), and the Netscape Navigator. It was slow, repetitive, tiring, frustrating, and subject to more errors than success.Every step was a new learning, every step was a struggle. Screenshot from LWN newsletter, February 2005.
Fun Fact: Sites such as LWN were my (almost) daily staple along my learning journey

Late Nights, Long Hours

Every step along the journey required staying awake late at nights after a long day either at the lab or at work. And almost every day something or the other would not work. Hardware issues, configuration issues were a given. The early 2000’s were also the days of the so called RPM dependency hell , and I had a terrible time with it. But along the way, I learnt a lot about Window managers and Desktop environments, how to configure XFCE, Englightenment, and of course, KDE and GNOME. I also tried various distributions of Linux, including Slackware and Debian.
Nico had mentioned that many users found Slackware rather difficult to use. So of course I had to try it out. I continue to use Slackware quite often, and hold it in high esteem.
Nico had also mentioned the advantage of using apt-get in Debian.I loved Debian right away. Somewhere in between, I tried to experiment with Cygwin  on my Windows computer. My work required me to use Windown (Grr). The computer games I used to play back then- Serious Sam and Age of Empires – did not work on Linux, Wine or no Wine. Logo for Cygwin is posted below to refresh memory. logo of cygwin
Fun Fact: I was a member of a Linux User Group in Connecticut during 2004 and 2005.

Failure with FreeBSD, Gentoo and Crux

I even tried installing FreeBSD once, and gentoo several times. Likewise with Crux Linux. Every time I tried to install any of these distributions, I could not make much headway. Almost every time it was back to Debian. Whether I liked it or now, I had found my groove with the Debian as the distribution of choice. During this period, back in India, my uncle was a big fan and user of Red Hat Linux, and he even built a business around training and certifications for it. He was also the administrator and troubleshooter for my parents’ desktop computer, which ran Fedora Linux.
Fun fact: During this period,I had spent many a weekend in cold and snowy winters in Connecticut and Chicago, trying to install Gentoo and Linux From Scratch. *And I failed every single time*

2004-2008: The Distrowatch Era- Part I

I was introduced to Distrowatch in early 2003 or 2004. Back then, the site had about 60 or 70 distributions. between 2004 and 2008, I had installed or tried to install nearly every distribution that was listed on that site. During this period, I installed and used multiple flavors with the same core or package management system. Just to see what was under the hood. Using Debian led me to Knoppix, then to something called Ubuntu. Using Slackware led me to Vector Linux, and so on. Using Slackware without slapt-get is nothing short of an adventure, if you know what I mean.
Fun Fact: Incidentally, at the time of writing, Slackware 14.2 has been released. Great to see this project still going strong!
All along the way, because of the poor aftertaste that Red Had experience had left, I stayed away from RPM based distributions. The only exceptions were : PCLinux OS, Mandrake (which was by now known as Mandriva) and SuSeLinux (before OpenSuse). While using three different RPM based distributions is not exactly staying away, the majority of my time was spent on Debian based distributions. I DID have an Apple Powerbook G4 powered laptop to keep me away from Windows, and that is a story for a different day. Another story I would like to mention at a later date- the fate of a beautiful Dell laptop on which I had installed Slackware, no GUI. It was a beautiful machine, which I gifted to my Uncle. that laptop found its way in the hands of a cousin of mine, who kept it in the storage bin of his rickety motorbike, which damaged the disk and internals of the laptop and… oh! The tragedy. But enough digression there.
Fun Fact: I was a contributor to a project called TheOpenCD once upon a time.

2009-2014

The intervening years were spent mostly using Windows, first on my (then) new Dell D520 laptop, followed by my wife’s Compaq laptop. Add to that the computers I used for work. My parents had a desktop that ran Fedora, and I immediately replaced it with Knoppix.I had tried installing Ubuntu on my wife’s Compaq laptop. Unfortunately, it met with disastrous consequences. She has never been a Linux user since then.

2015-2016 The Distrowatch Era – Part II

In late 2015, I decided to leave my job with amazon and start my entrepreneurial journey. I was going to become a podcaster with my venture, gaathastory ! In order to do that, I needed a good laptop computer to help with the audio recording, editing and publishing. I pulled out my Dell D520, and promptly installed Linux on it. I believe it was Ubuntu 14.04 that I stared recording the first episodes of MyKitaab Podcast. Immediately, I did not like the left hand menu bar in Ubuntu and the amazon logo. I promptly changed it with Ubuntu Mate and never looked back. before installing Fedora, Ubuntu Mate Xenial (i.e. 16.04) was the OS of my choice on the Dell. There were two other laptops in the household back then- my wife’s Compaq and a Dell Mini that with Atom processor. I installed Ubuntu on both to show that all parts and systems were working, and sold off both these laptops.
Logo of Fedora Linux
fedora Linux
At the time of writing this post, nearly 300 odd distributions are listed on Distrowatch. Out of these, I must have downloaded, installed, tinkered around with, broken and uninstalled over 100 distributions in the past 15 months. These include Mepis, Antix, Manjaro, Android-X86, Vector Linux, Linux Mint, Slitaz, Puppy Linux, Icepack. I even tried Opensolaris (but did not like it!). Some of the other variants I have tried included Manjaro, Alt Linux, Linux Lite, Apricity and Antergos.

Installing Archbang Linux- Circa 2017

In recent times, I have tried BOSS (Bharat Open Source System), Lubuntu, Xubuntu, ZorinOs (very briefly), ElementaryOS, among others. Some, I installed purely for the eye candy. Others, because I wanted to learn how say `.deb` pacakge management was different from `.txz`
Fun fact: In 2015 and 2016, I installed one new distribution nearly every day. Which means I must have formatted the hard disk on my 10 year old Dell Laptop atleast a 100 times ! (my Dell Laptop could not handle Virtualbox)
Linux Distributions installed by Amar Vyas from 2001 to October 2017
Linux Distributions installed : 2001 to October 2017

Linux Distributions from India

I was very keen back then, to have tried out a Linux distribution from India. Now, this is an oxymoron because given the Open Source nature of Linux, a distribution is mostly a collection of packages. They may come from all over the world, to put it crudely. To use an analogy form manufacturing: the closest I can consider is the following scenario. The parts are imported from elsewhere and assembled in a local factory. In that scenario, a Linux distribution from India makes sense. I have mentioned Bharat Open Source System, there are others like Hamara Linux and Arya Linux. Distrowatch at the time of publishing this post lists only three active distros : besides BOSS, Garuda Linux and Arch Craft being the other two. The Archiveos site lists Arya Linux, Luit Linux, Rebellin and a few others.

Installing multiple Linux Distros- is it an addiction?

You may wonder why did I do all of this? Was it an addiction? Was I enamored by the ease and the thrill of seeing what worked and what didn’t?
Fun Fact: There is a thriving community of distro-hoppers around the world.
And oh yes, I have a Raspberry Pi3 now, which means a new hardware setup, which requires a different way of installing the operating system. On the Raspberry Pi, I installed Ubuntu Mate, then Raspbian, and finally Kodi and OpenElec, I am now going to install Fedora. My Dell laptop runs Fedora and Archbang Linux. I like the speed of the latter, but I am really impressed by the slickness and the behaviour of the applications that come with Fedora 25 Fedora 26 beta. I am simply amazed at how far along Linux as an operating system ecosystem has come.

Coming back to a full circle

Red Hat- my first ever Linux distribution.
So here it is, life coming to a full circle. My fifteen year journey has brought me back to distribution that has its roots in Red Hat Linux. How long it will stay on my laptop, I don’t know. But now that I have (finally) decided to (re)learn how to program, I might actually put the programming tools that come with Fedora to use. Instead of spending time looking for and installing a new distribution or open source software the very next day.Luckily for me, I now have a Macbook Pro which I use for podcasting. That frees up the Dell Latitude for trial and experimentation. These days I prefer speed and simplicity over features and looks anyways, Archbang is looking more and more appealing. My Fedora installation was partly prompted by this review on Distrowatch.But they say Fedora 25 26 running on LXDE may fit the bill perfectly once it is launched. And I am liking fedora so far. The two Operating systems on my laptop that I have currently occupy 55 GB (Fedora) and 23 GB (Arch) with about 2 GB for Swap.

Machines that were put to use over the years

Since I used multiple computers over the years, here is a quick recap of the following machines where majority of the installations were made. 2001-2002: Sony Vaio Laptop (do not recall model or specifications) 2002-2006: An assembled PC with AMD Athlon processor (do not recall the specs) and 2 GB RAM, 80 GB HDD. 2007-2016: Dell Latitude D520, 1.67 Dual Core Intel processor, 2.5 GB DDR RAM, 80 GB HDD. 2008-2010: Assembled desktop with Intel Celeron Processor, 2 GB RAM, 20 GB HDD. 2016: Raspberry Pi3B, 2 GB model

Acknowledgements

First and foremost, thank you Nico, for re-introducing me to Linux. So also to my uncle “Dan”. Also a huge thanks to the countless forums, newsgroups, Linux User Groups, blog posts and (post 2015) YouTube videos. These are folks – known and unknown, who helped me learn Linux. Finally, Stackexchange, Ubuntu Forums, Distrowatch, ArchiveOs, Linux Journal, and Wikipedia. They helped me understand the finer aspects of Open Source programs in general and Linux in Particular.
Banner of Distrowatch.com. Blog of Amar Vyas
Distrowatch.com : The boon (and possibly bane) of the distro-hopper. Image: distrowatch.com
Honorable Mention: Slashdot, OSnews (positively surprised to see that they are still around!), Sourceforge (the go to place to get Open Source Software before github arrived on scene) and Freshmeat. Special mention: distro.ibiblio.org – the site from where I download several Linux ISOs many. many years ago. On the good old days! This post is a part of an ongoing series on Linux and Open Source Software by Amar Vyas.
Linux and Open Source Blog Category by Amar Vyas
Linux and Open Source Blogs by Amar Vyas

A previous version of this post mentioned that I had used Fedora 23. The correct version is Fedora 25, as confirmed with the timeline on the Fedora page on Distrowatch.
This post was updated on 2022-02-18