If you’ve never tried Ubuntu Linux, you’re missing a real treat. Here’s how to get started with the absolute best free desktop Linux.
Unless youâ€™ve been living under a rock for the last year or so, youâ€™ve probably been hearing about Ubuntu, the new, hot South African import thatâ€™s been making waves and earning raves all over the Linux end-user community for itâ€™s ease of installation, user friendliness, huge software library, and the fact that 10 Million clams has been pledged to the newly formed Ubuntu Foundation by Mark Shuttleworth and his company, Canonical. Shuttleworth is a South African billionaire and, uh, astronaut. Yep, if you recall, Shuttleworth was the guy who hitched a ride on the Russian Soyuz to the International Space Station in 2002 (for an estimated $20 million). Now, for his latest challenge, heâ€™s going to conquer the Penguin food chain.
I had initially dismissed Ubuntu for my own personal use because I already had been maintaining two Linux distros, Fedora Core 4 and Debian Sarge, on my personal workstations, and well, Ubuntu for the most part is just a different Debian. But since Ubuntu is a community supported, free distribution, I had to try it. Boy, am I glad I did.
Ubuntu can be considered sort of a parallel-universe version of Debian: it tastes like Debian, looks like Debian, and acts like Debian, but there are some differences. Unlike Debian, the Ubuntu project maintains their own package repositories, although the source of many of their packages come â€œupstreamâ€ from Debian and are tweaked and polished by Ubuntu volunteer maintainers and thrown into the Ubuntu Universe package feed. Unlike Debian Sarge, Ubuntu is optimized to be a desktop, end-user distribution, whereas Debian tries to be all things to everyone. Ubuntu also doesnâ€™t tend to prompt you for configuration changes when new .deb packages are installed in the system and instead makes configuration assumptions automatically.
Ubuntu also comes in two distinct flavors: Ubuntu, with a GNOME- based desktop, and Kubuntu, the KDE- based desktop. Both desktops are totally optimized for end-users and are more polished and integrated than their Debian Sarge cousins, which are for the most part out-of-the-box, completely generic, plain vanilla source builds.
Like Debian, which uses cute code-names like â€œPotato,â€ â€œWoody,â€ and â€œSargeâ€ to distinguish between major releases, Ubuntu has chosen â€œWarty,â€ â€œHoary,â€ and â€œBreezyâ€ for successive versions. â€œHoaryâ€ is the current version, while â€œBreezyâ€ is under active development. Unlike Debian, however, Ubuntu strives to make major releases of its operating systen at least once a year, whereas Debian traditionally has been on a much longer timeframe. (The latest, Summer 2005 release, Sarge, took over three years to get out, but now Debian is aiming for a 12- to 18-month release cycle.)
If you want to try Ubuntu, the first thing do is download an Ubuntu ISO file. Fortunately, unlike other distros like Fedora or SuSE which require several CDs or even a DVD-ROM, Ubuntuâ€™s main installation comes on a single CD-ROM image, and the rest it grabs from the Internet as it needs it. (Ubuntu has a lot of mirrors all over the world and the main ones can sometimes be quite busy, so try a few until you get a download mirror that appears to be speedy.)
The download page for Ubuntu is at http://www.ubuntulinux.org/download/. The URL for Kubuntu is http://releases.ubuntu.com/kubuntu/hoary/.
If you choose one desktop and find out later you need some GNOME or KDE apps or perhaps want to try out the other desktop, no problem: it can be installed all with a single command (which is described shortly).
After you have downloaded the ISO file, use your favorite CD burning application to burn it to a CD and pop it in the CD drive of a machine. Your PC BIOS must support booting from CD (pretty much everything made in the last 4 years does) and youâ€™ll want your CD drive to be set as the boot device. After booting, you should see the Ubuntu (or Kubuntu) logo and boot: prompt. Simply hit the Enter key to load the kernel and installer.
Like Debian, Ubuntu utilizes the Debian Installer introduced with Debian Sarge. The Installer is a fast, menu-driven, character mode installation program, but unlike the Debian version, Ubuntu has tweaked it so that it asks a lot less questions. That being said, it still prompts for a number of answers.
The first question is what language you want the system to use. If you live in the United States, choose English. Youâ€™ll then be asked what country you live in, which is used to determine localization variables and what mirror Ubuntu downloads software packages from. This needs some tweaking later, but for now just take whatever country you live in.
Next, the installer loads various device drivers to support storage and network adapters. It asks for a unique hostname for the system and then follows with the partitioning screen. If the entire system is going to be used for Ubuntu, go ahead and accept the â€œErase entire diskâ€ default setting and confirm that the entire disk is to be partitioned automatically. After youâ€™ve confirmed your choice, the Installer starts copying packages to the hard disk.
After the packages are copied, choose a time zone.
The next question is critical and marks one of the key differences between Ubuntu and Debian and most every other Linux system youâ€™ve likely worked with: youâ€™ll be asked to choose a username and a password (shown in Figure One). Be sure to choose a name and a password that is easy to remember, because that identity replaces the root account that you are used to for administrating other Linux systems. (More on that momentarily.)
Next, finish the installation and reboot the machine. At this point, the basic installation is finished, the installer automatically configures the GRUB bootloader, the system reboots, and the Debian Packager utility, dpkg, starts to actually configure the packages it has copied to the system.
After dpkg finishes configuring all of the packages, specify what video modes youâ€™d like to use on the detected video card. By default, the system enables the ones it thinks best matches your card. Simply choose the defaults and finish the installation.
The system then boots into the GDM graphical login screen and you can login to your chosen desktop using the user ID you chose in the user/password screen.
You Do, I Do, We All Do sudo On Ubuntu
Once your desktop is up and running, you should tweak your /etc/apt/sources.list, which determines where all of your software updates and feeds come from. By default, the Ubuntu installation program sets a few sources pointing to servers in your country, but it doesnâ€™t enable all of the goodies you really want.
The /etc/apt/sources.list file is set with root permissions, so to edit it, you need to gain root access. However, on an Ubuntu system, the root account is not actually used; instead, you need to preface your commands with sudo to achieve that higher level of access.
From a command prompt (on Ubuntu with GNOME, choose Gnome Menu, Applications, System Tools, Terminal; from KDE, choose K Menu, Utilities, Terminal) issue the following command:
$ sudo nano /etc/apt/sources.list
When asked to enter the root password, enter the same password you logged in with initially. (You only need to enter the root password the first time you issue a command with sudo in any particular shell session.)
Listing One shows an effective sources.list file.
LISTING ONE: A useful Ubuntu sources.list file
deb cdrom:[Kubuntu 5.04 _Hoary Hedgehog_ - Release i386 (20050407)]/ hoary main restricted
deb http://archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu hoary main restricted
#deb-src http://archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu hoary main restricted
deb http://archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu hoary-updates main restricted
#deb-src http://archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu hoary-updates main restricted
deb http://archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu hoary universe
#deb-src http://archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu hoary universe
deb http://security.ubuntu.com/ubuntu hoary-security main restricted
#deb-src http://security.ubuntu.com/ubuntu hoary-security main restricted
deb http://security.ubuntu.com/ubuntu hoary-security universe
#deb-src http://security.ubuntu.com/ubuntu hoary-security universe
Some things in Listing One have been modified from the default. All of the deb-src lines have been commented out with a # sign to ignore the source code of packages that get downloaded. (You can always enable source downloads later or download a source package by nam e via apt.) Also, the â€œUniverseâ€ feeds have been enabled, providing access to a huge library of software packages that you can install from the Internet. For all practical purposes, â€œUniverseâ€ is the entire Debian package repository, so virtually everything that is supported on Debian is also supported on Ubuntu. Finally, the default us.archive.ubuntu.com base URL has been changed to just archive.ubuntu.com, the main Ubuntu mirror. (The main mirror seems to provide better results than the package mirrors located in the United State.)
Once youâ€™ve finished editing your sources.list file, type Control-X, answer â€œYâ€ to save the file, hit Enter and then Enter again to confirm. Next, issue the following command from the prompt:
$ sudo apt-get update
apt-get update causes Aptitude, or apt, the Debian/Ubuntu software update utility, to connect to the Ubuntu archive and update your local package database.
To update all of the the packages on your system at any time to the latest versions that are available, simply issue:
$ sudo apt-get upgrade
There are some exceptions to the global upgrade command. Some packages, for instance, are considered major revisions and have separate package trees. For example, OpenOffice.org 1.x and OpenOffice 2.x are considered disparate packages with separate lineages and can run simultaneously on the same system.
If you prefer OpenOffice.org 2.x, issue the following:
$ sudo apt-get install openoffice.org2
If you want to install the wonderful Firefox browser, type:
$ sudo apt-get install mozilla-firefox
If you choose Kubuntu but want the option of using GNOME and GNOME applications as well, you can install the standard Ubuntu desktop with a few quick keystrokes:
$ sudo apt-get install ubuntu-desktop
Conversely, if youâ€™re an Ubuntu user and you want to install the Kubuntu KDE 3.4 desktop, you would do the following:
$ sudo apt-get install kubuntu-desktop
If you donâ€™t know the names of the various packages, you can use either the synaptic or kpackage graphical front-ends to search through software in the Ubuntu repositories. You can install those two packages with sudo apt-get install synaptic and sudo apt-get install kpackage, respectively.
You can find more information about apt and synaptic in the October 2004″ Guru Guidance” column, available online at http://www.linux-mag.com/2004-10/guru_01.html.
Jason Perlow is a long-time Linux user. He can be reached at email@example.com.