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The Search for An Alternative OS...

First off, there are a couple of objections I have to operating systems made by Microsoft...

  • Stability - I recently heard that Microsoft's development standard for an acceptable OS is no more than two blue screens a week. That's ridiculous... and Win95 is a joke. To be fair, WinNT Workstation 4.0 is pretty reliable; when an application crashes, at least it doesn't bring down the whole system.
  • Monstrosity - Win95 and WinNT both take up lots of disk space and lots of memory.
  • Disorganization - Even system administrators get baffled when Win95 fails to work in certain respects; fixes and workarounds provided by Microsoft, when they work, usually treat sysadmins as users. Basic admin is straightforward, but the internals of Win95 are awkward despite a fancy GUI.

So I need a better OS.

Having run Slackware Linux about a year ago at college, I decided to try another direction: FreeBSD. Bought a FreeBSD 2.2.7 CD from a place called CheapBytes for a reasonable ten bucks, although you can get it from the Internet for free if you have time, bandwidth and patience.

I did two installations.

FreeBSD At Work

My boss won't allow "free" software on any production systems, so I constructed a FreeBSD box for personal use on an old 486 w/ 16MB RAM, 212 MB hard disk and an ethernet card.

Basically, I use it as a test server for web development, using Apache. I also use Samba to facilitate transfering files from my Win95 desktop. This setup, without X Windows or anything fancy, only takes up 80 megs, and contains some pretty sophicated tools: networking utils, Perl, c compiler and text manipulation programs.

FreeBSD At Home: Laptop Installation

ARGH.This was much more troublesome than the installation at work.

I have a Dell Inspiron 3200, which is a P2-266 w/ 80 MB RAM and 4 gig HD. The disk had 2 partitions: WinNT on 2 gigs, and a plain FAT partition on another 2 gigs. This second partition I split in half, allowing 1 gig of free space for FreeBSD.

Somehow, I allowed BSDBoot to take over my master book record, and I couldn't boot NT (wasn't an issue at work, where FreeBSD was the only OS on the machine). I quickly found a utility that allows booting either my NT or FreeBSD partitions, and that solved the problem.

But three problems I couldn't solve:

  1. Getting an X server to work for my NeoMagic video card. There is a tailored X server for NeoMagic (for Linux) which I downloaded and did a "make" for, but it gave me a 800x600 X Windows area in a 1024x768 screen mode (in top left hand corner of screen). I fudged and played but couldn't get it to work in full 1024x768 mode. That sucked.

  2. Mounting the FAT partition, using "mount_msdos /dev/wd0s2", would give me a "bad bpb" error. I suspect that this has to do with either the fact that WinNT formatted it, or that it is an extended DOS partition. A floppy disk formatted by Win95 mounted fine.

  3. PCMCIA support, using the "PAO" package for FreeBSD, wasn't very good. My modem and ethernet cards weren't supported out of the package and I couldn't configure /etc/pccard.conf for my devices. Documentation for PAO was unusually skimpy.

My conclusion?

From this limited experience and what I've read poking around the web, FreeBSD works great for machines with very standard hardware, but is much more difficult to set up for non-mainstream and laptop configurations.

Something New: Red Hat 5.1

Okay, so my laptop doesn't work so good with FreeBSD. I decided to try Red Hat Linux, one of the more popular distributions of Linux. (See my page on Linux on Inspiron 3200 for details.)

Red Hat had recently released an X server binary for NeoMagic cards, so I knew I could solve at least one of the problems I had with FreeBSD.

As with FreeBSD, booting was a pain. I had to make a boot disk as part of the installation process; when Linux came up, I followed the instructions in a mini-HOWTO regarding NT/Linux coexistence. Tedious, but not too big of a deal.

Did Red Hat resolve the above issues?

  1. The NeoMagic X Server from Red Hat works _great_.

  2. I was able to mount my extended FAT partition. I was even able to mount it as a "vfat" file system, enabling long filenames. Whee.

  3. After much playing, I got PCMCIA support to work.

The Age-Old Question

So which is better?

Depends on what you need, really. I use (and support) Win95 at work, administer NT Server, use FreeBSD for web development, and Linux for my laptop. They all have their place.

This should go without saying, but it's always best to play and experiment with something before dismissing or praising it. Most of us have used Microsoft OS products, and seen what they can and can't do; having tried some alternatives, I'd like to see a day when at least my own equipment will be free of MS influence.

I can't say the same for what businesses will choose to do. I haven't heard much about the quality of commercial support for Linux. One terrific recent development is the release of many software products for the Linux OS, such as Oracle and Corel WordPerfect, which will definitely spur its popularity.

One last note: check out Performance Computing magazine's web site for an interesting article written by John Hubbard, one of the developers of FreeBSD, in which he talks about the difference between Linux and FreeBSD.

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