Exploring Linux with Ubuntu
From our "Linux is for Total Newbies" series, courteousy of Dave Sullivan

In this introductory article, Dave Sullivan shares how easy it can be to install and use the latest Ubuntu, even for total newbies.

After toying with Linux on and off for years, I got my hands on a copy of Ubuntu Linux. I grabbed the ISO, burned it, and booted off the CD. The installation program was extremely easy to use, in that it was almost entirely automated. As I made my way through the installation, I wondered what it would be like once I had it all up and running.

Having used a distribution called Slackware before, I was quite familiar with having to manually perform tasks. These tasks often included building support for media playback, wireless networking, and JAVA among other commonly used features. However, this go around, Ubuntu released me from many of the manual tasks. Let's take a brief tour through Ubuntu's installation.

Installation in Easy Steps

Once you pop in the CD and boot, you'll be prompted to choose an install mode. If you're installing for the first time and are using Ubuntu as a desktop system, simply hit enter for the default install mode. This default mode will more than sufficiently cover most new user's needs. After screenfuls of text whiz by (fear not, these are all normal system checks and diagnostic messages), the text-based installer appears. Again, Ubuntu has made it relatively painless for a total newbie.

The installer will ask you for your preferred language. Ubuntu's primary goal being "Linux for Human Beings," and to be universally accessible, it offers a wide selection of languages by default. The installer then asks for your location and your keyboard layout. Again, Ubuntu focuses on accessibility, so it allows you to select from a long list of keyboard layouts and options before proceeding with the installation.

Ubuntu's install software then performs an automated hardware detection, and loads necessary packages from the CD. It also attempts to detect any network cards you may have in your system and proceeds to attempt auto-configuration for a dynamic IP (DHCP). If this fails, you're given the option to manually configure the settings. I would suggest simply skipping this until later. You probably won't be needing network settings for the initial installation. It then asks you for a hostname; the Linux-equivilent of a "Computer Name," for which you can enter whatever you desire to call your computer.

After detecting disks, Ubuntu installer prompts you to choose a partitioning method. Partitions are divisions on your computer hard disk to support various needs of Linux. Intermediate or expert Linux users will typically create partitions manually, but Ubuntu's "Guided Partitioning" feature will do the work for you. To choose guided partitioning, simply hit enter on the default option.

This method will create two partitions: one data partition, formatted with the ext3 filesystem, and one swap partition, which is typically the size of your system RAM multiplied by 1.5. The swap partition operates much like the pagefile in Windows. It is virtual memory that's swapped between the hard disk and the system RAM.

The installer then copies the base packages to your hard drive, and once complete, prompts you to set the timezone and configure a default user. Much like the Windows XP install process, you need to create an initial user account to login, otherwise you wouldn't be able to access your brand new Linux system! Simply enter a username and a desired password. This user name is very important, because it is given special privilges. Please be sure to remember the user name and password. For accuracy purposes, you'll be prompted to enter the password twice.

I can hear you asking, "are we done yet?" Yes, we're almost done!

Finally, the boot loader will be installed. You will be prompted if it detects any other operating systems on your machine. A boot loader is a small program that resides on your hard drive. This particular one, called GRUB (Grand Unified Bootloader), produces a menu at boot-time that allows you to choose an operating system to boot. You are then gloriously informed that the "first stage of installation" is complete!

Adding Packages and Programs

Remove the CD and hit enter, which will reboot your system into the next automated phase of the install. Ubuntu then boots up, and sends you into the package installer, at which point you can sit back and watch as it extracts and configures all the base packages that were copied to your hard drive in the first phase. I recommend you run and grab a snack; this phase takes a few minutes.

A variety of different packages are installed at this point, such as the graphical desktop system, drivers, the Linux kernel; everything required for a base install. The only time you'll be bothered throughout this phase is to select your desired screen resolutions for the graphical interface. Soon enough, everything is installed and you've got a login screen! Don't be shy, go on and enter the username and password you set not too long ago.

Once I had Ubuntu installed for the first time and logged myself in, I realized how easy everything was. Right out of the box it supported my wireless card, among all the other hardware in my system. It required a bit of manual configuration to do more things, such as media playback and java, but the definition of 'manual configuration' changes durastically between my previously favoured distribution and Ubuntu.

Ubuntu comes with a package manager called Synaptic, which makes installing new packages a breeze. All the software packages are stored in central databases called repositories, from which Synaptic downloads packages (and all its necessary dependancies) and installs them. Using this tool, its easy to install commonly used tools such as Sun Java, Macromedia Flash, audio/video codecs for playback, and many others. By default, however, Ubuntu disables its 'universe' and 'multiverse' repositories, which hold the majority of these packages. Enabling these repositories is a simple task, and instructions on how to do so are found on Ubuntu's extensive help site.

Making Things Easy with EasyUbuntu

To make things even easier, you can download a third-party tool called EasyUbuntu, which makes setting up the packages I mentioned earlier even easier.

Ubuntu's wiki warns that you should use this software at your own risk, though. There's always a possibility that it may cause an issue, so I'd recommend using it on a fresh installation. That way, if something does appear, you can simply reinstall. EasyUbuntu has installation instructions on their download page, which walk you through downloading, extracting, and running. As for actually using it, it's just like the name -– Easy! Simply select which options you'd like to install, and click OK. It's that simple. EasyUbuntu will automagically download and install the packages you've selected.

In addition to these easy features, Ubuntu also has an excellent IRC support channel, where knowledgable Ubuntu users offer friendly advice and assistance with various problems. The majority of common tasks, however, are documented on the extensive help wiki.

Sharing the Joy of Ubuntu

After using Ubuntu for almost half a year, I upgraded to the newest release. I also installed it on my computer at school, which stirred up a few questioning minds in the computer lab.

The Linux portion of the course uses a really old version of Linux and is taught with what many of the students call a horribly written book. The course scared more people away from Linux than it did teach them about it. However, upon seeing Ubuntu, many of them became curious. I installed it on the computer that a friend of mine uses at school, and he was amazed at how easy it installed and detected the hardware. Even copying files from his USB flash disk, the grin covered his face as he exclaimed, "Wow! That's faster than Windows!"

I smiled and nodded. The version of Linux he used in the course was at least a few years old, and that Linux has indeed come a long way since then. After using it for a few days, he even asked me to burn him a copy so he could install it at home. A few weeks later, he was still using it on his school computer, and he continued to be impressed with how well Ubuntu ran and how easy it really was. Looking back at the old version of Linux he had used for the course, he was astounded at how far it had come and how different it was. This is a common misconception among new users.

"Trust me, after doing the Linux course, I didn't think I'd ever use it... but this Ubuntu!" he'd say, excitement evident in his voice. I simply smiled and nodded, feeling satisfied that I had helped share an alternative, easy-to-use option: Ubuntu.

Dave Sullivan is a Linux enthusiast with substantive experience running Slackware and Ubuntu in both the home and classroom environment.

This article comes courtesy of Dave Sullivan, published by reallylinux.com with permission.

This brief opinion article contains the opinions and personal experiences of the author at the time of publication. Linux is a registered trademark of Linus Torvalds. Microsoft, Microsoft Windows and WindowsXP are trademarks or registered trademarks of Microsoft Corporation both in the United States and Internationally. Notations MS and XP are included and refer to Microsoft Corporation and Windows XP. All other trademarks or registered trademarks in this opinion piece belong to their respective owners.