My February Adventures with Installfest

Robert Andrew Earl CIS126RH 36343 - Mr. Dennis Kibbe Honors Project, final written report February 28, 2018

The world of Free Open Source Software (F/OSS), and that of the Linux family of operating systems in particular, is remarkably distinct from the prevailing culture of proprietary systems and closed-source software. In this paper, I intend to discuss my findings as I explored one of the first steps new users take on their journey into F/OSS: Installing Linux.

Last year as I matriculated at Mesa Community College, I also joined a group of organizations dedicated to Linux evangelism: PLUG (Phoenix Linux User’s Group) and AZLoCo, a team particularly concerned with Canonical Software’s Ubuntu distribution. One of PLUG’s major events is Installfest, which is held on the first and third Saturday of each month at the University of Advancing Technology (UAT). This report is a narrative of my experiences of attending two of these events.

Installfest is a gathering of professionals and amateurs where Linux experts can help neophytes install, diagnose, and repair hardware which is capable of running Linux and those software applications which run atop it. Among the “helper” crew are: Todd, who supervises, Walter, who works for Intel and is a crackerjack troubleshooter, Pavlos, who has helped me a great deal personally, and Don and Tammy, a married couple. UAT graciously hosts us in an upstairs classroom, with room for about 10-12 stations, and provides networking, power, and all the usual facilities.

For my first visit to Installfest on February 3, I first visited Fry’s Electronics across the street, and spent $300 on Raspberry Pi equipment, including a Pi 3 Model B in a Project Kit from Newark, formerly MCM Electronics. The kit included a 16GB MicroSD card with New Out Of Box Software (NOOBS) installed, 2.4A micro-USB power supply, clear case, 6’ HDMI cable, GPIO Breakout Board, breadboard, and assorted electronic components. Also, I purchased a 7" touchscreen display, wireless mouse, Pi HAT module with enclosure, and extra Patriot MicroSD cards. As of this writing, I have only employed a fraction of these components in my experimentations, but it is interesting, new and different for me.

Once we got down to brass tacks and began the install, it took a mere 11 minutes with gracious assistance from Pavlos. We used the default NOOBS (which is Raspbian with a few extra tools) and it was simply a matter of choosing the correct options from a graphical menu. Post-install, I took about 10 steps to configure additional features and services, including sshd, adding user “rearl” and an attempt to pair with my Bluetooth mouse, which was ultimately unsuccessful because of immature BT support, so I used its USB wireless feature. I named my system “blaise”, after the patron of the day, a bishop and martyr. Logging in as rearl, I noticed that it is necessary to add myself to groups including “video”, for extra permissions such as starting the Xorg server.

For my next adventure, I unpackaged a fresh 32GB MicroSD card and Todd helped me locate and copy a different Raspbian install image to it. I chose stretch-lite-2017-11-29, which is based on Debian “stretch” and excludes the GUI in favor of a command-line-only interface: very lightweight. The major install glitch this time was my copying process, in which I mistakenly used “/dev/sdb1” instead of “/dev/sdb” and had a corrupted image, which could have been much worse if I’d used “/dev/sda” and corrupted Todd’s root filesystem! Once Walter helped me find my error, we recopied the image and it booted, installing with no worries. This install uses 1.1GB on the root filesystem, which is a fairly lightweight install, and could probably be pared down more. There were several important config changes needed once the install finished, and time ran short before I could fully verify full system functionality.

My second visit was on February 17 during Lent. Several days before, I resolved to bring my ancient eMachines M6810 AMD Athlon 64 laptop and, deleting Windows XP, establish a dual-boot double Linux system. I considered Kali Linux, the penetration tester’s favorite; OpenSUSE, which was recommended by Mr. Kibbe, and Puppy Linux, a compact and lightweight distro suitable for liveUSB usage. This laptop has problems, particularly a tendency to overheat and shutdown, an inability to boot from USB devices, flaky DVD drive, not to mention its age and meager resources. However, Todd and the others helped me immensely, and we finally had a working Lubuntu installation when I left that day, and which five days later I ruined in my ham-fisted attempt to install Kali on the spare partition. Highlights of my experience included Todd’s loan of the PLOP boot manager CD, which can chain-boot to the USB device; a controversy over filesystem encryption (Pavlos vehemently forbade it, but Todd seemed to be in favor); and a search for Broadcom 4306 WiFi drivers. Todd informed me that Kali requires Master Mode for effective penetration testing, and since my laptop’s hardware does not support that, I would need a new laptop or at least a USB WiFi interface if I expected to engage in such activities.

Outside of Installfest, I have been evaluating the merits of Puppy Linux, and found it to be very cool! Initial configuration is intuitive, startup features a cute “bark bark!” sound effect, and it seems that the developers took great care to make it as friendly as possible, even to an experienced user. But it is markedly different from normal distributions, due to its special-application nature. Although it was only the second out of many to successfully boot my laptop, attempts to install it to HDD engendered countless woes for me, and after hours of work I ultimately abandoned the laptop for the foreseeable future. Days later, Mr. Kibbe heard my litany of complaints and suggested that I try Debian netinst, which is a very small CD-ROM image that loads packages from the net instead of CD. Following his suggestion, I ran the install yet again and, mirabile dictu, I now have a fully functional Debian stretch installation, complete with encrypted root filesystem.

As I retired for the day, Todd offered to give me a ride home, because he was sending me forth with salvage hardware. I was gifted a Lenovo G555 laptop with a black screen, and a decommissioned Dell PowerEdge Xeon 2650 rackmount server. Since then, I have successfully disassembled the Lenovo, but diagnosing the patient remains elusive. The Dell is being saved for a rainy day.

In conclusion, I shall say that I am very grateful to have connected with the PLUG crew. Every meeting with them is productive and rewarding, as we share knowledge and wisdom about IT systems, and especially the free and open kind. I enjoy challenging myself with new horizons, and so stepping outside of my comfort zone of Ubuntu on desktops was exciting and edifying. I owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who has shouldered my burden in this journey, including Todd, Walter, Pavlos, Don and Tammy, Mr. Kibbe, Brian and Hans. Most importantly, God in Heaven above, without Whom I could accomplish nothing.