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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Installation of Devuan 1.0.0 and Debian 9.2.1

A brief review of two nearly identical versions of Linux, and solutions to problems


Installation of Devuan 1.0.0

What you need:

  1. Devuan 1.0.0 DVD #1 (from www.devuan.org) . . . ✓
  2. A functional Internet connection to your PC . . . ✓
  3. Debian GNU/Linux 1.0 - Final _Jessie_ -Official i386 DVD Binary-1 20170522004:06 DVD
  4. A burning hatred of systemd . . . ✓

Devuan is a fork of Debian that uses sysVinit instead of systemd. SysVinit is truer to the spirit of Unix than systemd, and many Linux users prefer it.

I installed Devuan 1.0 on a HP Z820, a high-end Xeon system that we purchased to do molecular modeling simulations. Installing SLES on this computer, which the modeling software required, was a bit tricky. So when the hard drive crashed, I was a bit concerned.

My concern was unwarranted. Installing Devuan was like falling off a log. You simply download the Devuan ISO file and burn it to a DVD, slap it in, and reboot. It asks a number of simple questions. The click interface is designed to be foolproof. When it needs you to select an alternative, you click on the selection you want. The text turns green and you accept the selection by clicking the Continue button. If it encounters a problem, it backs up and lets you select something else.

Partitioning and formatting are easy as well. The old UEFI partition spizazzle that Linux used to go through is gone. If you accept the default, it creates a swap partition, dumps everything else into one big partition, and automatically formats it to ext4.

I recommend keeping /home on a separate partition. I changed the partitions to this:

  Size         Mount point         Formatted as      
100 GB / ext4
200 MB swap swap
1.9 TB /home ext4

Note the conspicuous absence of a /boot/efi partition.

Next you have to tell it which partition to make bootable. Again, the default (‘/’) is recommended. The principle seems to be to make installation simple by limiting your choice. For instance, there's no choice of boot loader—you have to use Grub. If you have more than one network interface, you can only activate one of them at this stage. The default is DHCP, and you should accept that or give it a static IP depending on how you connect to the Internet.

The disadvantage of this system is that if you change your mind, you can't back up. But there's a button you can click to make screen grabs if you want.

It takes only a few minutes to install a minimalist system, then it reboots. It comes up in a nice gray xfce graphical desktop. At this point, if you're an executive who only uses email, browsing, and Office, you're done. Or, if you want to do something useful, you can install some actual software.

Most users will want to do this: there are few tools like ifconfig for administrating your system, few libraries, and no compilers. There were also a couple things I wanted to delete, such as Gimp, which I dislike.

To do that, you select the package manager from the menu. Like Debian, Devuan uses apt-get, so you select Synaptic from the menu. It then says something like:

Please insert Debian GNU/Linux 1.0 - Final _Jessie_ -Official i386 DVD Binary-1 20170522004:06 into the DVD drive

The software is adamant: it has to be this exact file. Jesse is the old version 8 of Debian, and I couldn't find it anywhere. I downloaded Debian 9, which is called Stretch, but to no avail. You'd think it would be on Devuan's site. If it's there, I couldn't find it.*

Another snag was that Network Configuration was missing from the menu, so getting that second and third interface running would have meant configuring it manually. That would be a pain even if the commands for doing that didn't keep changing in Linux.

Devuan is remarkably mature given its youth. If they fix those little snags, it could become my OS of choice.

* I was not connected to the Internet during this test. We often set up PCs in the lab with no Internet connection. You might not need the Debian DVD if your Internet connection works; I didn't test this.


Installation of Debian 9.2.1

What you need:

  1. Debian 9.2.1 DVD #1 (from www.debian.org) . . . ✓
  2. A functional Internet connection to your PC . . . ✓
  3. A list of MAC addresses of your Ethernet Interfaces, if you have more than one. Ideally you should know which MAC address goes to which cable. . . . ✓

At this point I had a copy of Debian 9.2.1 (“Stretch”), so I decided to put off Devuan for now. Debian's installation screens were identical to Devuan. Debian installed the same Windowsy xfce desktop, except the background was green instead of gray, and unlike in Devuan, there was an option for Network Configuration.

Installation was easy as well. It took some doing to get the two interfaces straightened out, since the essential tools (ifconfig, route, etc) are still missing at this stage. It seems we're supposed to use the ip command now instead of netstat, arp, route, and ifconfig. It's part of the new Linux philosophy: instead of having a thousand programs that no one can remember, we now have one program with a thousand options no one can remember.

The interface names are assigned by the OS. Be forewarned: they're not eth0, eth1, and eth2 any more. Linux gives them names like ens1, eno1, and enpls0, seemingly assigning them at random; the only sure way to distinguish them is by their manufacturer and MAC address, so it's a good idea to create a list of which of your Ethernet cables goes to which MAC address before you start.

Debian is big—really big. It comes on 14 DVDs, of which the first three are usually all you need. You have to scan them first so the software can create a list from which you can choose what to install. At this stage the software takes over the eject button on the DVD player. You have to click ‘Continue’ and wait for the computer to open the tray. My computer scanned them successfully, but during the installation phase it started acting like it was worn out from exhaustion and refused to eject the DVD. Then it said

/cdrom/:Please insert the disc labeled: 'Debian GNU/Linux 9.2.1 _Stretch_ - Official i386 DVD Binary-1 20171013-14:17' in the drive '/cdrom/' and press enter.

After about ten minutes of searching for a paper clip, I discovered that you can get the tray to open by clicking "Back", but then it says

There was a problem reading data from the CD-ROM. Please make sure it is in the drive. If retrying does not work, you should check the integrity of your CD-ROM.

This was a bogus error message, and I was able to finish the installation.

Once Debian is installed, you have to use the menu option to set up your network connection again, and then you can install more software, such as the g++ compiler. The software says it's “downloading,” but it's actually reading from the DVD.

With a single DVD, I was able to create a minimalist system with a C++ and Fortran compiler, a functional browser, and some other software. All three DVDs are needed for a more complete system. But after installing Debian, I am kicking myself for putting up with that other distro for so long.


Problems and Solutions

Linux wouldn't be any fun at all without computer problems. In fact, that's why people use it! This section isn't finished, and most of these problems aren't yet completely solved.

xfce and mc

Xfce and mc don't play nice together. Hitting F10 causes xfce to close the terminal window instead of exiting mc, so there's no way to get out of mc other than killing it in another window.

Compiling Motif and Motif software

Lots of the software I use every day, including Nedit, xmgr, and Imal, as well as all our insanely expensive commercial software, use Motif, but I couldn't find Motif in Debian until I got around the DVD eject button problem mentioned above. The latest version of Motif (available at Sourceforge) is 2.3.7. Debian installs 2.3.4. Install the C/C++ compiler and all the libraries starting with libx before starting.

I was able to compile all my existing Motif-based software, including imal, xmgr (see below), and my statistics program xdata.

Compiling xmgr

I have a customized version of xmgr that gives it more colors and graph types. To get xmgr to compile, replace the ix86-linux conf file with the linux one:

cp conf/linux conf/ix86-linux

Type configure and check config.h to make sure HAVE_FINITE and the other math functions are defined, then type make.

Installation problems

Software installation was a little slow, but amusing time estimates like this one help the time go faster:

Download rate: 11.9 kB/s - 1d 23h 28 min 35s remaining

If the installer hits a file with a bad hash sum, it prints the message

An error occurred

followed by the hash sum. Usually the installation then stops without ever getting to the “Installing software” screen. A number of packages, including Scilab and Octave, bombed out with bad hash sums.

This problem turned out to be a truncated DVD download. I'm getting these a lot on the network where I work. I also had a 30 GB protein database called nr.gz that was corrupted by the university's network. After I downloaded a new copy of DVD #2 on my home computer, the hash sum problem disappeared and all the packages installed, except for a couple with unresolved dependencies. Use md5sum (Linux) or WinMD5 (Windows) to check the integrity of the DVDs, or at least check the file size. Here are the sizes of the first three:

  DVD #         Size      
1 3,734,011,904
2 4,670,926,848
3 4,681,916,416

It would be nice if we could buy all 14 DVDs on a thumb drive so we could install it from another PC and avoid DVDs altogether.


On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise
nov 21, 2017; updated nov 22, 2017

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