Wired Again – There’s No Place Like Home

After 4700 miles in three weeks of “Road Tour 2010,” we are back at Chaos Central, with our wired (and optionally, wireless) network, and can resume full-contact computing. The Unix Curmudgeon has been itching to reconfigure the Nice Person’s new HP Mini to run Ubuntu, but the hard facts of life are, you need to have a wired connection to get wireless working on an HP, with the Broadcom chipset, or find some other way to get the STA package loaded.

We did load up Ubuntu Netbook 10.04 on a USB stick, and it looks great, though slow in the “live CD” mode. The menu is a lot more full-featured than the otherwise excellent HP QuickWeb interface. But, to be useful for work, the system needs to be installed on the hard drive.

Our preference, of course, is to build a machine from the ground up with Linux or FreeBSD or Solaris on it, but there aren’t too many laptop barebones kits available, so for our mobile computers, we start with a machine that has Windows pre-installed. Being frugal as well as curmudgeonly, it seems a shame to throw away something we’ve paid for, so we don’t usually take the wipe-the-disk option when installing Linux on an existing Windows machine. Besides, as a software developer and occasional consumer of Windows-based software that simply won’t run under WINE, it’s handy to have Windows available when we absolutely can’t avoid it, so we opt for a dual-boot system.

There are two ways to relegate the Microsoft Tax penalty to a no-interest savings account: either repartition the hard drive to squeeze the Windows installation aside to provide a Linux native partition, or use Wubi (if Ubuntu is your distro of choice). On my development machine, I took the repartition route, since Wubi wasn’t integrated with Ubuntu when I started, and I need all the performance I can get. For most users, Wubi is the way to go, as there is no scary repartitioning, and actually no need to burn an install CD, as Wubi can be downloaded as a small EXE file.

The Nice Person asked if we had to keep Windows: I said we might need it, “just in case,” so she agreed to leave it in place, as long as it didn’t sneak up on us and boot when we didn’t want it (which it does do “out of the box” if you boot the machine and don’t click somewhere on the HP Quickweb screen before the 15-second countdown ends).

Wubi works by creating a large file in the Windows NTFS file system that has a Linux ext4 file system built in it. Wubi adds itself to the Windows NT boot loader, which when selected at Windows boot time, loads GRUB for the Linux boot, for alternate kernel or recovery options.  [There are some more details that make all this possible, but that’s the principle.]

The problem with installing Ubuntu using Wubi is, of course, that you do have to install it under Windows, with all the frustration that entails. Since we only boot Windows when we absolutely must, that chore becomes an ordeal of warnings about virus protection out of date, missing updates, and so forth, which take an hour or two to resolve, along with several reboots and “Do not touch this machine” admonitions before we can actually get started with our own work.  I did take the opportunity to install ClamAV for Windows–no need to subscribe to the paid anti-virus and spyware suites if Windows will be rarely used.

At this writing, we have, squirreled away in hard disk partitions on machines that came with it, and in virtual machine loop-back files on the native Unix/Linux systems, at least one copy each of Windows 98, Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7, so we are pretty  much covered for any software testing we want to do, or for the handful of programs we can’t get to run under WINE on Linux.

The Wubi install went well, except Windows went to sleep during the download, which delayed things.  Despite having a bootable “live” USB drive, Wubi downloads the ISO via a torrent, so we had to not only be wired but enable high-order portmapping through the firewall to the netbook during the install, not something with which we’re comfortable while using Windows, but at least the privileged ports are still protected.

Of course, after installing, it is necessary to run the Update Manager.  When updating a Wubi installation with a new kernel, it is important to check the “no, I don’t want to install GRUB” box when asked, if you want to keep the NTloader for the initial boot screen.  At some point, Ubuntu realizes it doesn’t have a driver loaded for the Broadcom wireless, so it will try to get one from the ‘Net.  This driver is available on the alternate install CD, but it is easier to install it through a wired connection.  Ubuntu 9.04 and 9.10 didn’t work with the STA driver provided by Canonical, either downloaded or on the alternate install disk, so you had to obtain the source package from Broadcom and compile and install it with ‘make’, but the STA driver package provided for 10.04 worked just fine.  After installing, just click on the network icon on the task bar to look for wireless networks.

We’re used to working in a network, so having an SSH daemon and other networking packages is handy.  Accordingly, I allocated a lot more space for the Wubi disk, to make sure I had enough space for extra packages.  However the netbook is just that–a modestly-powered Internet “terminal”–so we don’t expect to do any heavy lifting with the device.  Having Ubuntu installed in addition to the HP Quickweb will make road trips seem almost like being at home.

One last chore is to boot to Windows once more and change the boot order so that Ubuntu is the successor to HP Quickweb instead of Windows, to satisfy the Nice Person that she won’t have Windows foisted on her by accident.  In the start menu, right-click on “Computer”, click on “Properties.”  In the window, select “Advanced System Settings,” then the options for Startup, select Ubuntu as the default system to boot.  In the “old days” of NT4, we used to hack the boot.ini file, but that seems to have been folded into binary format in later versions.  And, it works! Windows doesn’t boot up by accident, now.  Life is good.