Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Gentoo to Ubuntu Migration Part 1: Prologue

I've been using Linux for over a decade now, and loving almost every minute of it. Recently I changed the distribution I was using on my workstation from Gentoo to Ubuntu. Since one of the goals of this blog is to document my technology learning, I feel obliged to report on the transition experience. Also, at least one of my friends has an interest in this story.

In an attempt to make the story as dramatic as possible, I decided to break it into multiple sections. This, the first, is the back story: how I got into Linux.

I first got started with Linux around 1996, when I was still in high school. In BL Times (Before Linux), I ran a small bulletin board system (BBS) called raw sewage (a name which I cherished so much I use it for my website). The BBS is important because it gave me a requirement for my PC which was unusual at the time: multitasking, i.e. the ability to run multiple applications concurrently. These days, we take multitasking operating systems for granted, as virtually everybody has at least a couple programs running: a web browser, an email client, a spreadsheet or document, maybe a music player, and a game of solitaire when the boss isn't looking.

But my bulletin board days pre-dated Windows 95, which was Microsoft's first operating system that had semi-useful multitasking capabilities. (Yes, you could technically run multiple applications at once with Windows 3.x, but it was "fake" multitasking. I'm glossing over a lot of technical detail here: the techies should know what I mean and everyone else can take my word for it.)

Anyway, I was running MS-DOS, the old text-based operating system that required you to type in commands. DOS could only run one program at a time. I needed to have the bulletin board software running constantly, but I also wanted to be able to use my computer for other things. For a while, I used a program called DESQview, which effectively made DOS into a multitasking operating system. Eventually, for reasons I can't remember, DESQview fell out of favor with me.

I also dabbled in IBM's OS/2 Warp. I remember liking OS/2 for the most part. However, I ultimately gave it up as well, but, again, for reasons I can't remember. (My apologies: my memory is bad, and all this was over a decade ago---with college i.e. lots of beers---in between.)

At some point, I heard about this operating system called Linux that was a true multitasking system and free. Somehow, I happened across one of those multi-CD cases that contained at least three Linux distributions: RedHat, Debian and Slackware (there may have been more, but see my note about my memory). The case had a little insert that described how to install each operating system. I do remember that it suggested first-time users install Slackware: and so I did.

Of all the details I've forgotten, I do remember my initial reaction: underwhelmed. And I remember staying underwhelmed for quite a while, actually. Here I had read all these great things about Linux, how powerful it was, etc. And yet all I had was a foreign prompt staring at me. It resembled DOS, but it clearly wasn't DOS. It couldn't run my BBS software, or any other program with which I was familiar. And there was supposed to be a graphical interface, but I didn't know how to get to that... I remember I basically spent a lot of time just nosing around the file system, trying to make sense of things like "usr" and "var". But it was some time before I actually did anything useful with Linux.