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Moving the digital homestead

January 11, 1999
by Zac Belado

There have been a few changes around the household.

Last week saw the delivery of a bright, shiny ADSL connection into my apartment. I now have more bandwidth than many small midwestern schools and the changes to my way of life have been immediate. I now snort at 17K./sec download rates. I go out even less. I have more MP3s. I watched several 30 minutes short films at the LA Live website. But as monumental as all that was, there have been even wider ranging and more traumatic changes here partially exacerbated by the ADSL line.

It all started two weeks ago when I bought a new PC. I got a second hand P166 tower model because the Digital desktop model I have was getting a bit cramped. The desktop machine's case was designed by an obvious acid crazed Echer fanatic and hands small enough to actually fit PCI boards into the machine are only just being conceived in the feverish dreams of geneticists. I had too many boards and not enough space to put them in.

My newly acquired tower model brought the number of Intel boxes in the apartment to three, opening up the possibility not only of getting an easily upgradable work machine but also of finally being able to put Linux back on one of them. I miss Linux. I mostly miss using bash and would probably have gone totally insane if it wasn't for the availability of several UNIX utilities, including bash, at the Cygnus website. It isn't the same as really having a proper implementation of bash (think of it as binary pornography for UNIX geeks) but it helped me through withdrawal.

So big plans were made. Careful plans. Backups and testing and all sorts of responsible adult things were conceived and plotted.

And as the saying goes...

Mice, men and boot sector realignment

Step one was to reformat and repartition the hard drive in Baby, the new tower model. I've become a very big fan of multiple disk partitions since I've started working on PCs. This is mostly because of the cranks that designed Windows and made it suicidal to put your data and your system on the same partition. The quickest way to fix a maladjusted Windows install is to re-install it and the easiest way to re-install Windows is on a clean disk. Re-installing Windows overtop of a previous Windows install is just courting disaster. You can do it if you want but I suggest you acclimatize yourself to the pain and frustration it will cause by repeatedly slamming your foot in a solid wood door beforehand. Which brings us to my first rule of Windows systems;

Rule 1: Always put your system on its own clean partition.

Put nothing else on it but the system and any apps or files you are forced to install on your system partition. Everything else -- apps, data, games, pirated audio files, etc should go on different (ideally several different) partitions. Then, if you have to re-install Windows its a simple matter of formatting the drive and starting from scratch. Which is always easy to do if you follow rule two;

Rule 2: Always have a boot disk that includes your CD-ROM drivers.

Windows 95 will not do this if you make a boot disk using the "Startup disk" option in the "Add/Remove Programs" control panel (and isn't that such a logical place to put it?). Windows 98 will do this for you automatically but it does it in such a brain damaged fashion, including drivers for every possible type of drive system, that its better to make your own. You know they'll work and it won't take all that long to boot off them.

So armed with my boot disk I repartitioned and reformatted the drive on Baby. I made a 750 MB partition for the system and three 1 GB partitions for data. So far, so good.

It was then time to install Windows 95. I have a copy of the Win98 CD but my previous experience with it has made me nervous enough that I really think I won't be installing it until after the next service pack (SP2) comes out. My first day playing with it at a client's office resulted in my getting a JavaScript error while "exploring" the C drive. Needless to say I began to adopt an "evil that I know" policy in regards to Microsoft operating systems.

I rebooted the machine and then copied the Windows install files to a folder on the hard-drive. This is such an amazing time saver that it should be done by the installer itself but I guess Microsoft thought they would have needed the 20-30 MB of space that the Win95 CAB files take up for the all important Office clipart and left the option out.

Rule 3: Copy the Windows installers to your hard-drive and then install from there.

For me it was a pretty simple matter.

c:> mkdir win95
c:> copy d:\win95\*.* c:\win95
c:> cd win95
c:> setup

And away the installer went.

Now whenever windows needs a file it won't ask for the CD but will instead pull the file from the hard-drive. Faster and easier on your nerves if you frequently play with your Network configuration as I do. Windows has this mindless and bewildering desire to update all its network drivers and utility applications if you do something "monumental" like change your IP number or subnet mask. Do this 10 or 15 times in a day and you'll soon get a desire to start hunting down Microsoft QA engineers. Save yourself the lawyer's fees and prison time by popping the files on your hard-drive instead.

Unlike many people I know I didn't have that difficult a time moving my apps over to the new machine. Many companies, most notably Adobe and Macromedia, make your life easier by installing all their DLLs and files into the same directory as the application. This isn't really all that shocking since Microsoft recommends that people do this, but the common practice among Windows developers is to just pile everything into the \Windows\System\ directory, making it impossible to copy an app from one machine to another.

I really only had to re-install 6 apps (oddly most of them were Microsoft apps) and a few more reboots I was up and running.

The calm before the storm.

I kept all the other files on their respective machine and ran Baby for a few days to make sure that everything was okay. When no problems developed I moved all the files from the NT server over to the Digital box, now named webBaby. NT 4 was installed over that machines Win 95 install, Cold Fusion was installed and this new situation was tested for a few days.

Flying colours abounded and it was then time for the last machine to once again get its much cherished Linux install.

I now have 4 different Linux distributions but I decided to play it safe and stay with Redhat 5.1. I have a copy of S.U.S.E (which ships with KDE making your X windows system look like a Mac) but I know enough about the Redhat installer now that I actually feel comfortable using it. Getting Linux up and running was a fairly simple task and after I got the X Windows server running and my users accounts installed I was ready to go

Rule 4: Always use a user account when running a UNIX system unless you need to do something as root.

You can totally trash your Linux system when running as root by making a simple typo. Part of the peril of being treated as an "adult" by your operating system is that it assumes you know what you're doing. If you don't, or if you make a mistake you can well and truly rain on your parade, so to speak. Logging in as a regular user limits the amount of havoc you can self-inflict on your system.

So after a few days or installing, testing and backing up everything seemed to be working just fine.

The walls come tumbling down

Before the ADSL line arrived I was running the developer version of the Cold Fusion server on a Windows NT machine. This was the box that had previously been running Linux and the box I hoped to be running Linux on again. Since I was using a dailup connection to my ISP, I had an internal Ethernet TCP/IP setup that I used to communicate with the web and Cold Fusion servers. This let me have static IP numbers on all the machines so I could bookmark links to the server using its IP number. With the ADSL line I wasn't able to do this anymore as all the machines now had a dynamic IP allocated to them when they booted up.

Luckily enough I could have gotten around this by using the wonderful scheme that my ADSL provider uses that maps your IP to a DNS entry based on your user login. Simply put it lets me use a static "name" regardless of the IP I get assigned.

Wonderful

Except that webBaby couldn't get an IP number from the DHCP server.

Talking to tech support didn't help. Tweaking my network settings didn't help. Installing a different network card didn't help. Booting back into Windows 95 didn't help. Modifying my BIOS didn't help. Updating my BIOS didn't help.

After two days I was unable to get the machine to use the ADSL line and since it came in over my Ethernet connection I wasn't able to go back to using the static IP setup I had before.

To make matters worse, at some point the network setting under NT got "buggered" and the machine spent almost 98% of its available CPU cycles doing "something". I could never figure out what it was, and I could never stop it. The machine was hung if I tried to run it under Windows NT. This was really the final straw for me with respect to NT. It's arcane as hell without any of the benefits of Linux. It is a pain is the ass to add new hardware to it. It doesn't run any software that requires Direct-X 3 or above. And to make this all even more annoying I can't really see what benefit it offers as an internal web-server.

Which meant, sadly enough, that I was required, once more, to remove Linux from the machine it was on and install Windows 95 on it. The powers that be were once again working their evil spells and making it so I couldn't keep Linux installed on a machine for more than a week.

One repartition and reformat later and I was installing Windows 95 on the ex-Linux box. This took a bit more time than normal as I had to download a different partitioning utility to reformat the extended DOS partitions that Linux created. fDisk  didn't know what to do with them and alternately told me that I couldn't delete it because it had a logical drive on and and then told me I couldn't delete the logical drive because it wasn't there. I downloaded a handy utility called Partition Manager from Download.com, copied it to a boot floppy (always have one for every single machine) and was back in business in a matter of minutes.

Unlike the Digital desktop machine, this "clunker" AST tower rebooted, loaded the network drivers and was connected through the ADSL line with nary a second thought. Obviously the Digital's DHCP problem was a bit more complicated than I first thought.

I have the sneaking suspicion that the machine (which was designed as a network workstation) has a hardware setting on the motherboard that stops it from getting a direct connection to the Net. But the final resolution of that matter will have to wait until the end of the holiday when I can call Digital's tech support and find out what, if any, solution exists for the problem.

So I no longer have Linux and now have a machine that works fine on an internal network but seems to have a early nineties "Microsoft" attitude towards the internet; it can't see it and doesn't want to get involved with it. Still the entire process was a learning experience at least.

But I'm still not running Linux.

Zac Belado is a programmer, web developer and rehabilitated ex-designer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He currently works as an Application Developer for a Vancouver software company. His primary focus is web applications built using ColdFusion. He has been involved in multimedia and web-based development, producing work for clients such as Levi Straus, Motorola and Adobe Systems. As well, he has written for the Macromedia Users Journal and been a featured speaker at the Macromedia Users Convention.

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