I’ve always had difficulty knowing when I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. You know the point – when the effort expended far outweighs the benefits of the end goal. Jobs, games, computers. They’ve all challenged my ability to objectively determine when the effort has trumped the goal.
A serious case in point was the six hours spent this weekend attempting to install Debian. I was prepared. I had my step-by-step install guides, both from the web and from some experienced Deb users. I’d already been halfway through the process and had made the system work, well, half way. I was motivated by the challenge ahead and by the desire to write about the process in Penguin Shell. I wasn’t going to be beaten.
Six hours, a pot of coffee, countless web searches, and a psyche brimming with frustration later, I hit the wall. The problem was about as fundamental as problems come. I simply could not get Debian to recognize my network card – a feature essential to upgrading the base installation via apt-get. The boot log showed that my PCI BIOS had assigned the network card to IRQ 0, which, “probably won’t work.” Easy enough, other than that my Frankenbox is an old eMachine with a BIOS that doesn’t allow configuration of the PCI slots. And, I couldn’t find a current BIOS flash for the machine. I could manually assign IRQ 9 to the card and confirm all the parameters with ifconfig eth0. I made sure, using more /proc/pci that this IRQ didn’t conflict with another device. I unloaded plug and play OS support from the BIOS. When that didn’t work, I loaded it back in. At one point, I was almost able to see the Internet – a ping actually hung rather than throwing an unknown host message.
After six teeth-gnashing hours, a single clear question struck me. “Who am I writing this review for, anyway?” The answer, in part, determined the course of the remaining weekend. New Linux Users. Is Debian a distribution that’s friendly to New Linux Users? My experience, obviously, says no. While I’ll certainly welcome any solutions from Deb users, I can’t, in good conscience, point someone who’s just making the transition to Linux toward Deb. Heck, I’ll even invite the raves of the Deb hardcore. It’s all part of the open source discourse. I’ll gladly and freely admit that the problem was hardware, not directly the distribution. In the end, though, the effort itself really wrote the review.
Ultimately, there’s no need today for a distribution to be this tough. Over the course of this review, I’ve seen Mandrake, Suse, TurboLinux, SlackWare, and, this week, RedHat. Even Slack, renowned as being a bit temperamental for new users, installed comparatively easily. There’s simply no reason to incur this level of install torture. Deb users say often that Deb is the purest, most powerful version of Linux. I won’t question that. But if the overall goal of moving new users to Linux is best accomplished by minimizing the legendary Linux headaches, I’m all for simplification. I happen to think that’s the key and that the effort to reach that goal is far outweighed by the benefit.
By way of a clumsy segue, we’re now on the home stretch of the Great Distro Review with RedHat. It’s comfortably and functionally meeting nearly all my computing needs as we speak. Given the length of today’s discourse, I’ll save the history and install review for tomorrow. A quick preview will have to do for today: my PCI BIOS made no difference. With no additional effort, the web is once again my playground.