Free Agent: Install Linux Over the Internet

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One of the best things about Linux is that its dozens of varied incarnations are generally available as free downloads on the Internet. To install the latest version of Novell's OpenSUSE Linux, Red Hat's Fedora Core 5, or Ubuntu Linux, all you have to do is download the CD or DVD image files from the distribution's Web site or via BitTorrent (you can download the software from us), burn them, and boot your PC with the first disc.

But if your Internet connection is swift, and if you're only planning a one-time installation on a single computer, you can skip the disc image downloading and burning, and instead install Linux directly from an Internet server.

The benefits of a server- or network-based installation are manifold. For one, it lets you install Linux wherever you are without having to schlep discs around. It also reduces the overall size of the download--instead of downloading all five CDs (or one DVD) worth of install files, you download only those you need for the installation, using as much or as little of it as you need.

This method also lets you install Linux on devices that lack a CD or DVD drive (like ultraslim notebooks), so you could boot from a USB thumb drive or other bootable USB device. Best of all, it allows you to install any available version of the distribution, including the very latest one, without having to download and burn an additional set of discs.

Though numerous Linux distributions support network installations, this month I provides specific pointers for two of the most popular distributions: OpenSUSE 10.0 and Fedora Core 5. The procedure for each is nearly identical to a disc-based installation--only the source of the files changes.

A Small Burning Sensation

Did I say you don't have to download and burn a disc? I may have oversimplified things. To install Linux, you must first boot Linux, so you'll need a boot disc or other bootable device. If you are truly determined (or forced) to install Linux on your PC without any sort of removable boot disc or device, read Marc Herbert's rather thorough-looking how-to about this option.

The rest of us will need to boot the PC using a boot disc or device. The good news is that the .iso disc-image file for a boot disc is quite small--only 6.67MB in the case of Fedora Core 5, and 64MB for OpenSUSE (significantly larger, but still a lot smaller than a full install CD, which runs about 650MB). These downloads are for PCs based on 32-bit Intel CPUs, but 64-bit versions are also available.

To create the boot disc, download the .iso file to your PC and burn it using your CD-burning program's option to create a disc from an image file. But before you do, make sure your PC supports booting from a CD-ROM; older computers may not.

USB thumb drives are handier and more durable than recordable CD media, which could make them preferable for bootstrapping a Linux installation. The bad news is that OpenSUSE doesn't appear to offer an easy way to boot from a USB drive. But Fedora Core does: Download the file diskboot.img from Fedora's Web site. At a Linux shell prompt, enter the command dd if=diskboot.img of=/dev/drive, where drive is your USB drive's device name. You may need to change your PC's BIOS settings to allow booting from USB devices; and as with CDs, older computers may not support this option.

Look Ma, No Discs

After booting your PC from the boot disc or device, you'll have to provide the Linux distribution's installation program with all the information it needs to get the files, including how it should connect to the Internet, what type of server it will be dealing with, and, finally, the location of the server.

After a few preliminaries, the installer will ask you to pick a network interface--you'll probably see only one, unless you've installed additional network adapters, such as a Wi-Fi client, in your PC. You'll then have to specify how the installer will receive an IP address for your own network; most often you'll select DHCP to receive an address automatically from a router or other server.

Next, you'll need to tell the installer whether you want to retrieve your Linux files from an ftp or an http server. From a user perspective, it makes little difference which one you choose, but you do have to choose one. Both Fedora Core and OpenSUSE are available via either ftp or http.

Finally, tell the installer where to look for the distribution's installation files. Pick a site near you from the list of Fedora Core 5 or OpenSUSE mirror sites. For either distribution, you'll need to specify the appropriate version for your CPU: x86 and i386 are for 32-bit processors; x86_64 is for 64-bit processors.

Once the download starts, you'll probably want to find something else to do, since the process will take a bit longer than a CD-based install. I usually start one of these at bedtime and return in the morning to finish up. But the upside is that I don't have to swap, burn, store, or discard any discs.

PC World contributing editor Scott Spanbauer is sitting in for "Free Agent" author Matthew Newton this month.
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