Washington Apple Pi

A Community of Apple iPad, iPhone and Mac Users

electric pi


Because It's There: Linux on Virtual PC

© 2000 Washington Apple Pi Labs

Washington Apple Pi Journal, March/April 2000, pp. 44-46, reprint information

Washington Apple Pi Labs has always enjoyed challenges. From the very beginning, whenever that was, we strove to do the impossible, the improbable, and sometimes the clearly silly. When we first got our hands on a gigabyte hard drive, for example, we immediately plugged it into a Macintosh IIfx (at that time, the file server for the Pi's bulletin board, the TCS), and set virtual memory to a full billion bytes. Then, flush with all this imitation memory, we launched, simultaneously, every single application we could find, even going so far as to install an extra 20 or 30 so we could have them all running at once.

The advanced partitioning options of the OpenLinux 2.3 installer were used to create several partitions in Virtual PC 3.0. This is not for the faint of heart (and, in fact, this partitioning attempt proved to be unsuccessful). Note the Virtual PC icons at the bottom of the screen, used for changing the screen size and accessing various types of media.

It was grand and glorious, a prime example of conspicuous computing. It was also painfully slow and, admittedly, without a readily identifiable purpose, particularly when we ran out of applications before using up more than a third of the memory. So: why?

During the installation process, the installer checks out the (emulated) hardware to see what "devices" are available. A device, in typical UNIX fashion, can be something physical, such as a CD-ROM drive, or a "logical" device, such as a hard drive partition.

Why would anyone in their right mind want to install an Intel version of Linux on a Macintosh? Since the Mac doesn't use an Intel central processing unit (CPU), this seems a strange thing to do, especially when there are perfectly good PowerPC-specific versions of Linux available. So: why?

After installation, instead of colorful (and cryptic) startup icons, Caldera's version of Linux offers nice, clear (and still cryptic) milestones of where it is in the boot process. The "Plug 'n' Play" and "tulip" milestones are the target of frequent humor.

George Mallory, attempting to climb Mount Everest in 1924, was asked the same simple question: why? "Because it's there" was his famous answer. On June 8, 1924, Mallory disappeared on Everest. Seventy-five years later, on May 2, 1999, Mallory's frozen body was found on the mountain. No one knows if he ever made it to the top.

Once Linux has initialized and you've signed on, you have the option of opening up a terminal window (tty console) and trying out the famous, easy to understand UNIX CLI (command line interface).

Half a world away and several miles closer to sea level, Washington Apple Pi Labs still thinks Mallory had the right idea: "Because it's there." Or at least it might be, given a late-model translucent-cased Power Macintosh, lots of memory, lots and lots of free hard drive space, Virtual PC 3.0 from Connectix, and one of the many "commercially packaged" versions of Linux. So on a frozen January morning, with the entire East Coast shut down by a surprise blizzard, Washington Apple Pi Labs attempted something you probably don't want to ever do yourself.

Every time you boot, you are presented with a graphical dialog box asking for name and password. Note the pop-up menu in the lower left offering you a choice of interface types.

And, since you also probably aren't interested in anything other than the pictures, we'll offer just an executive summary. First, Virtual PC was used to create an emulated Pentium computer. Next, the default Windows operating system was blown away. Next, the Linux installer application was fired up from CD-ROM, and Linux was installed. And installed. And installed. (It takes a while.)

If you select KDE (which stands for "K Desktop Environment") when you first log in, you are presented with this cheery graphical user interface, patterned after the browser mode of Microsoft Windows 98. Thus, after hours of work, you can stand proud, knowing that you have a UNIX emulation of Windows 98 running on an emulated PC running on a Macintosh. The "K" in KDE, by the way, apparently stands for nothing other than the letter between "J" and "L."

Many hours later, we had reached a conclusion: yes, you can run Virtual PC 3.0 and, within Virtual PC, fully install and operate Linux. If you wish, you can even run one of the Windows-like graphical interfaces to Linux on your emulated Pentium running on your Power Macintosh, complete with network services. Of course, it redefines the word "slow," but it does work.

7.virtualdiscs.tiff: While not directly related to this project, this window shows a "good use" for a Linux machine: CD-ROMs saved as Linux disk images, mounted under Linux and shared over a network via netatalk so they can appear -- and be used -- on a Macintosh desktop. Yes, there are less Byzantine ways of doing the same thing, but they probably aren't nearly as entertaining.

It is also a safer way to spend your time than climbing nearly six miles into the sky without oxygen. Why do this? Because it's there.

Return to electric pi

Revised March 17, 2000 Lawrence I. Charters
Washington Apple Pi
URL: http://www.wap.org/journal/