Hari's Corner

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Twenty years in review - my Linux journey

Filed under: Software and Technology by Hari
Posted on Fri, May 8, 2020 at 20:48 IST (last updated: Mon, May 11, 2020 @ 21:28 IST)

It's been twenty years since I first remember having got seriously interested in Linux, thanks to PC Quest magazine which distributed a some-what rebranded version of Red Hat Linux 6.1 and 6.2 in the year 2000. I still remember the excitement when I first logged into KDE 2.x. I was diving head first into the unknown world of *nix. In those days, internet connection was pretty bad, we could only dial-up from our telephone lines with the 56 kbps modem. It was almost unheard of to be able to download something like a CD ISO image practically. Hence, PC Quest was my first introduction to serious Linux. I still remember the satisfaction when I got Linux to dual boot with Windows 98. Early on I remember that I had to make boot floppies to boot into Linux due to LILO's 1024 cylinder limitation and those 3.5" floppies used to get corrupted quickly. I even remember the option of installing Linux into a single "image file partition" on Windows and using Loadlin to boot into Linux. (the "image-file" Linux installation was more of a tech demo and it was pretty slow, almost painfully slow for any real productive use). I don't remember the exact technical hurdles I faced back then, but still it was exciting to use alternatives to Windows software like StarOffice (free, as it then was) and I played around with the OS for a while, till I decided that it wasn't worth wasting so many floppies for booting into Linux. I had a lot of fun, but it was also frustrating because the OS didn't support my sound card and NVIDIA graphics and I had to hand-craft the XF86Config file just to get X working. Also I had frustrating times trying to compile software which didn't have RPM packages and yes. hunting down their dependencies as well. Still, I enjoyed Linux as a side hobby though I couldn't give up Windows because... well, games. PC Quest continued to provide RedHat (later Fedora) derived distros with their own branding which I continued to install and learn - each edition was more polished and better than the next. PCQ Linux was indeed my first real intro to the world of Linux and open source.

Later, my real full-time commitment to Linux was when the same magazine gave a copy of Debian "Sarge" CD. Debian was an eye opener and I didn't look back since then. Debian was something different. The installer was tricky but from my previous experience of PCQ Linux, I didn't struggle much. Though of course, PCQ Linux used Fedora and yum, I really became a fan of the Debian package management tools and never looked back since.

With Debian, I finally jumped full time into Linux, though of course I continued dual booting Windows for games and MS-specific stuff that I needed from time to time. However, throughout the 2000s, though I used Linux increasingly for my regular stuff, Linux was still secondary to Windows. Of course, broadband became cheaper and at some point of time, it became easy to download CD ISO images. Of course, by today's standards, it was still very slow, but at least one didn't need to count the telephone dial-up time which used to add significant charges to the telephone bills. But using "ADSL broadband" came with another challenge. Finding a proper way to connect using PPoE. I don't remember the techincal details but PPoE didn't work as smoothly in Linux as in Windows for some reason and the ISPs didn't support Linux at all. They always had some proprietary dial-up tool that worked only in Windows. Luckily that era came to a close when regular routers largely replaced dial-up modems for Broadband connections and ADSL was supplanted by other connectivity options.This was a period of intense experimentation as I tried out various flavours of Linux, including Slackware, Gentoo, Arch, Ubuntu, SUSE/OpenSUSE and Fedora and even custom Kernel compiling. I still remember keeping an extra partition on my system just for multi-booting more than one Linux distro apart from Windows where I could do all the (potentially destructive) experimental stuff. When I got a secondary hard disk, of course, that was also used to multi-boot several Linux distros at once. Of course, despite all my experimentation, I regularly kept coming back to Debian because it just felt right.

The wifi era also introduced a lot of challenges. Getting a laptop to work with Linux became the next challenge. Many Wifi cards were not supported and you had to go through ndiswrapper and installing a Windows driver. Again, firmware was an issue, especially because of the non-free firmware required for certain Wifi chipsets and Debian's free software policy not to package them by default. Despite these hiccups, hardware support has increased substantially in Linux though even today you still get some unsupported chipsets that don't work in Linux. Over time, hardware support has increased considerably and the software ecosystem has also matured greatly.

If I had to point to a single big turning point for wide-spread Linux adoption especially on the desktop, I have to say that Ubuntu in 2004 had a lot to do with it. Without Ubuntu I doubt that Linux might have become as familiar as it has today. Remember, back in 2004, installing Linux was still considered technically challenging, and most distributions at the time did not hand-hold the end users. Though I've used Ubuntu on and off and haven't used it as a main distribution for quite some time now, I still think back and acknowledge that Ubuntu had a lot to do with increasing Linux adoption, especially by non-technical people.

My overall journey can be summed up simply: today I can take Linux for granted and assume it will just work on my system, rather than in early 2000 when I could make no such assumptions. And that's saying a lot.

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