First time with Linux: 30 installation tales

First time with Linux: 30 installation tales

The Linux kernel turns another year older on August 25.

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The Linux kernel turns another year older on Saturday, August 25. Twenty-six years ago it may have felt to the creator and BDFL Linus Torvalds that Linux would only amount to satisfying the needs of one. But today we know it has changed the lives of many.

To celebrate, thirty of our readers share what their first Linux distro and installation was like. Some of their stories are magical, some maniacal. And, it's no surprise that the tension and passion of these Linux lovers is palpable.

Read on for their stories.

30 firsts with Linux 

Gentoo

Steve Ovens writes:

My first Linux kernel version was 2.6.3. It was Gentoo with Gnome 2. It took more than four days to compile on my computer at the time. I prayed there wasn't a power outage or failure halfway through. I remember spending all that time compiling the OS and getting to the desktop and thinking "Great! Now what?" Having used only Windows previous to this adventure with Gentoo, so I didn't really understand how getting software worked. I couldn't just download packages, and I wasn't particularly motivated to do anything in-depth. The system only lasted a few months before I gave up. I would come back Linux on 2.6.8 with Ubuntu 4.10 Warty Warthog. With this release, Linux gained a permanent foothold in my house, and it would eventually launch its domination of my infrastructure and eventually my personal computers. By 2006, I was running Linux on everything I could.

I was running Linux on everything I could.

Linux

Matthew Helmke writes: 

I installed Linux 2.2 on a server I did not own, and version 2.6 was the first that I successfully installed myself. My installation involved lots of invocations, muttering, driver source downloads, and compilation. In retrospect, I learned it was because I made a poor hardware choice at the time. My second was a breeze.

My second install was a breeze.

Jet Anderson writes:

It was 1992 if I remember correctly. I had a spare box of parts sitting near my desk in a design company where I supported their fleet of Macs. I paid about $60 for the book "Yggradsil Computing 'Plug-n-Play' Linux" with accompanying bootable installer CD. I thought... "How hard can this Linux thing be anyway? Besides, it's bootable!" So, I put in a graphics card, a hard drive (40 MB if I remember correctly), and installed some ram... a whole 4 MB. That should be plenty right? Everything went downhill from there. The graphics card was unsupported. Did I mention the drives were SCSI not IDE? Thankfully I had ethernet based access to the internet or I'd have been in the sad world of trying to configure a modem to download updated drivers for everything. After about a week of wrestling, I finally got the drive formatted, kernel installed, and X running. It felt like an incredibly heroic thing I'd just accomplished. Sitting there with my very first terminal window open I typed "dir" and got... "dir: command not found." It was time to start learning.

How hard can this Linux thing be anyway?

Steve Ellis writes:

My first Linux install was 1.3 back in 1996 using the DR1 release of MkLinux on an early PowerPC 601 based Power Macintosh. The installer was remarkably like early versions of Red Hat Linux. We were given a CD at Apple's 1996 WWDC and it took me a couple of months to persuade my boss that I wouldn't totally destroy one of our developer workstations trying it out. Suddenly, I had a Linux/Unix workstation that was faster than our aging RS/6000 and pretty much never looked back from a Linux adoption perspective.

Gary Smith writes:

My first Linux install was Yggdrasil Linux Plug and Play, in 1993. I still have the CDs for nostalgia's sake.

PowerPC Linux

John Anderson writes:

My first Linux install was PowerPC Linux onto a PowerMac 7500. I downloaded the install media in my University lab and carried it home on a stack of zip disks, and I set up the PowerMac to dual-boot MacOS 9 and PPC Linux. I only had the one computer, and the thing I remember most is how incredibly overjoyed I was when I got PPP dial-up working on the Linux side so I could search for stuff without having to reboot back into MacOS!

I carried it home on a stack of zip disks.

Red Hat Linux

Don Watkins writes:

My first Linux install was Red Hat 5.0. I don't know the kernel version. I think it came on floppies. I could not get a GUI and didn't like it. I thought it was like MS-DOS. The second install was with a CD on Red Hat 6.1, and that was kernel version 2.2.12-20, according to Wikipedia. I liked the install experience, and it was my first successful install with a GUI. I think it was GNOME, but I'm not sure.

I don't think I could have done it without a friend.

Dave Neary writes:

The first kernel I remember compiling was 2.0.32. It was on a Red Hat Linux 5.0, and I needed to recompile the kernel to get a driver for the ethernet card working. It took me a full day, with the help of a friend. It had fvwm95 as the window manager. It was a lot of fun and a great learning experience. I was on my hands and knees, with the back of the computer off, trying to see what the chip was on the ethernet card. As I recall, it was a D-Link DE-220. Then I remember having to figure out what the modeline was for my screen. I hedged my bets and got my computer dual booting with lilo. I don't think I could have done it without a friend who could help me figure out the next thing I needed to learn about!

Greg Pittman writes:

My first Linux was with Red Hat 5.1, or 2.0.34 kernel version, according to Wikipedia. The install went pretty well, it seemed to be well-documented, but it was all about the drivers: video chip drivers, printer drivers, modem drivers (remember modems?). Not only that, you had to manually edit the config file. This was on a Gateway laptop, where I had set up a dual-boot situation. Gateway was of course, no help, so you had to research it yourself and find somebody that talked about a driver for your hardware. Also, since I didn't have a modem working in Linux, I had to keep rebooting to Windows to do the research, download the drivers, and save them on a floppy. One of the happiest days of my life was about two weeks after the install when I FINALLY got X-windows working. Life was good.

Life was good.

Jay LaCroix writes:

My first installation was Red Hat 7.1 or 7.2, probably 2002 or thereabouts. I was using it on a 300Mhz Pentium III PC with very limited resources. GNOME wouldn’t even start on it, but I was able to get KDE to work. It was the installation I used while taking a Linux course at a community college.

Ben Cotton writes:

My first Linux kernel version was 2.4.18 or so—whatever was shipping in Red Hat Linux 8 at the time. My first Linux install was a dual boot on my desktop my sophomore year of college. I'd been frustrated with my Windows 2000 installation and my friend suggested I try this "Linux" thing. It was a pretty basic desktop. I didn't really know what I was doing at the time, but I had just started learning my way around FreeBSD for my part-time job, so it felt pretty cool to run something non-Windows. I remember taking my computer home for the summer and not being able to get the modem working, so I couldn't get online. My parents still had dial-up then.

I didn't really know what I was doing at the time.

Alan Formy-Duval writes:

The first kernel I actually compiled myself seems like the most appropriate answer. I believe it was probably 2.0.32 or 2.0.33. I was running Red Hat Linux 5.X as my first distribution. My first installation was onto a basic Dell Optiplex desktop machine. There were always a few necessary steps after performing the installation. Those were to complete the network configuration, configure X-Windows, and compile the latest kernel. For the kernel, I would head over to kernel.org and download the latest version. I remember (mostly) the command used to run the compilation as something like "make dep clean bzlilo modules modules_install." It seems like the compile took an hour or two.

David Both writes:

My first was probably kernel 2.0.32 in Red Hat Linux 5.0 in late 1997. My first install was long and slow on my IBM ThinkPad—which was even then quite old—with a CD. It required me to make a number of choices that I did not then understand, including ones about hardware and the list of software to install. As I recall, there were no groups of software that would install required prerequisites so after the basic installation I had to endure hours of dependency-hell to install a few additional top-level packages. Package management with RPM was a nightmare because it did not deal at all with finding and installing dependencies like YUM and DNF. It must have been even worse before RPM. I never did get the display on my ThinkPad to switch to graphics mode. But that was probably excellent as it forced me to learn how to use the Linux command line, and I have been a CLI fan ever since.

Chris Hermansen writes:

My first kernel version would have been around 2.2.12. I remember getting Red Hat Linux on floppies shortly after returning home from my first visit to Chile in November 1999. If I recall correctly, the first install did not go at all well—it was on a Thinkpad. The second was on a desktop and it seems to me that worked just fine. The thing that struck me about that first brush with Linux, once I got past the huge packet of floppies, was how generally decent it was compared to my work machine which at the time was a Sun SPARCStation something or other.

My first install was a total failure.

Anderson Silva writes:

Red Hat Linux 3.0.3 (Picasso), kernel 1.2.13. My first install was a total failure. I had to open up my Packard Bell computer, to see if I could identify if my CD-ROM was Primary or Secondary Master or Slave, as my BIOS wouldn't tell me, and Linux didn't auto-detect it, and then it died on the X install. I only tried the install again six months later, successfully. I've been running on Red Hat Linux/Fedora since then. A funny story: I remember jumping on an IRC server and going to ask for help. And I typed something like "I need help getting Xwindows working on my PC." I was kicked out of the channel with a reason: It is not Xwindows, but Xwindow... so, yeah... open source folks can be tough!

SCO Openserver

Jim Salter writes:

A rough guess for which version is 1.2.0. I can't find a definitive answer on the kernel it shipped with, but 1.2.0 would have been pretty current when SCO OpenServer 5 shipped. The install was absolutely horrible. Did I mention it was SCO OpenServer? Horrible. This was the foundation of a very spendy telemarketing predictive dialing system, with SCO OpenServer 5.0 as the OS and a proprietary application running the phones over a T-1. Mostly I remember thinking that I was for absolute certain going to be a FreeBSD person, not a Linux person. And for quite a while, I was. There wasn't really any doubt in my mind then or now that FreeBSD was a superior system in pretty much every way in the mid-90s; but at some point in the 2000s Linux blew the doors off and has been gaining more steam ever since.

I remember thinking I was for absolute certain going to be a FreeBSD person, not a Linux person.

Slackware

Tony McCormick writes:

It was exciting to be able to use a Unix like OS at home so I could run Perl and Bash scripts. During the installation, there were lots of 3 1/2" floppy drives and flipping through the Yggdrasil Linux book to figure out how to compile things. Getting dial-up working so I could login at to the office was fun too, but great.

Peter Czanik writes:

My first Linux kernel version was 0.99.11 or 0.99.13. Of course, I don't remember by heart, but it was Slackware, and it was not yet kernel 1.0. It was a pretty basic installation, as my machine did not have much RAM. It was good enough for a text console and to learn the basics: bash, init scripts, server applications, reading tons of man pages. My first Linux install involved many floppy disks. And, I actually had to reinstall it a couple of times as DR-DOS (the other OS on the machine) and rearrange partition numbers on each boot.

Now what do I do?

Steve Morris writes:

I was another of those early Slackware users; I picked it up at a local Comdex show in Vancouver. I rushed home and proceeded to install the 24 or so floppy disks on my PC. After what seemed like hours later, I was left with a command-line shell. All I could remember about that first experience is, "Now what do I do?" It lasted on the machine for about three months before it was mothballed and I purchased a copy of Red Hat Linux 5.0 on CD.

Kevin Cole writes:

I started with an ancient Slackware distribution sold by a company called Trans-America. I cannot recall the kernel but the era was circa 1993-1994. The thing I remember most was that halfway through the install, I had to switch CDs and when I did, it said: "What's a CD?" (It could no longer find the driver.) Thankfully, even back then, there was an online community willing to help and someone lent me to a floppy that would allow me to continue. That first install was... "OMG, I've got a friggin' mainframe on my desk!" I wrote more about that adventure in this article

Andy Thornton writes:

Pre-version 2, I remember the buzz around a new 2.0 kernel coming out! I installed Slackware because I had met a mate in Boston who showed me around it, and I had to build a box when I got home. I used it entirely from the shell and it went on to be a MUD server I hosted out of my bedroom. I had a script to dial my internet provider during off-peak hours to save on bills (this was in the UK). I spent an entire weekend downloading the equivalent of 80 floppy disks on a 54k modem, and once I had it all down, I transferred it to a Jazz drive from Iomega so I had a copy. I would pray no one rang the house during the download as it would break and I would have to recover it or start all over again. I will admit, it was a fun weekend.

I would pray no one rang the house during the download.

Daniel Oh writes:

My first install was Slackware, and it took a lot of time for me to stand up Linux. I got used to doing hands-on stuff with Windows, but it was so exciting to try out open source technology. There were many floppy drives involved with my first installation, and I had to use a few Linux books to learn how to build, install, and configure all matters of the OS programs. It took a lot of time but it was really fun for me.

Softlanding Linux System

Jim Hall writes:

My first Linux distribution was Softlanding Linux System (SLS) 1.03, with Linux kernel 0.99 alpha patch level 11. Installation required a whopping 2 MB of RAM, or 4 MB if you wanted to compile programs, and 8 MB to run X Windows. Linux added modules in 1.0, so this was pre-modules. Everything had to be compiled in.

Michael Schulz writes:

IIRC, my first version was 0.98-4 pl 10 on the SLS distro. There were twenty-four 1.44 MB floppy disks (remember those?) that I had to download with my super fast 9k6 US Robotics modem. Those were the days.

There were 24 floppy disks (remember those?)

Eric Eslinger writes:

I installed some version of Linux in the 0.99 kernel version time (definitely prior to 1.0), using SLS, in or around 1993. It was a moment of spontaneous magic for me. A friend helped me do things like bring up an xterm, change my shell to the very cool csh, and learn how to set DISPLAY environment variables to run graphical applications on my personal computer while running the code on a server. It was transformative for me to have an OS I could not only understand but also write code for directly.

It was a moment of spontaneous magic for me.

Yedidyah Bar David writes:

My first kernel booted was 0.99.11 or so in SLS, but I failed to install it. My first kernel used was IIRC 0.99.10, from MCC Interim Linux, which managed to install with just 2 MB RAM (because it had a documented option to not use a ramdisk, but directly from a floppy). This install was hard and took several weeks! I remember that SLS (which is what was recommended to me at the time, in 1993) didn't install with 2 MB RAM. So, I consulted people, tried HJ Lu's Boot/Root floppies which did boot and work, then found MCC and installed it, which worked. Shortly thereafter, I compiled a kernel (0.99.14?), which took around 24 hours, then I bought another 2 MB RAM for my machine. Then, the compile took about an hour. I used MCC for some time, then tried SLS again. SLS's installation with 4 MB RAM was reasonable, but somewhat ugly with white on black and question prompts and answers. A few months later a friend told me he installed Slackware, and "it was so much nicer!," which indeed it was true. It was in color and fullscreen, though still in text mode. So, I moved to Slackware for two years, then finally installed Debian, and stayed with it until two years ago. Also, I used it on my first laptop as an employee at Red Hat. Three years later, I decided it was time to move to RHEL!

Ubuntu

Kedar Vijay Kulkarni writes:

My first Linux was Ubuntu. I had to install it as it was mandated in our curriculum at MIT College of Engineering in Pune, India. The installation itself was very easy and straightforward. The only option I had to get right was "Install Ubuntu alongside Windows" in order to make sure I didn't wipe out my Windows partition. Something that I distinctly remember about my first Linux install was learning how to create a bootable USB drive and learning what dual partition is and looks like. I remember all the excitement of getting a whole new operating system entirely for free. Plus, the Unity GUI was a refreshing break from Windows XP.

It didn't require license keys―it just worked.

Brian Whetten writes:

My first Linux kernel version was 2.6.32 as part of Lucid Lynx Ubuntu version 10.04. My first Linux install was memorable because after helping others install Windows XP and older versions of MacOS, Linux installed the fastest. Even though I was only in junior high at the time, I knew that I had found something special. It was snappier than any computer I had used at school or home (with the exception of some video acceleration issues). I was just excited to finally have a machine I could freely learn and explore in, with no knowledge blocks and great searchable documentation. Blender ran incredibly well on it versus the comparable Mac my family-owned computer.

David Clinton writes:

My first Linux experience was installing Ubuntu 7.10 (kernel version 2.6.22) from Windows XP using Wubi. That part was easy. Getting it to work as an LTSP server for a network of thin clients booting via PXE was considerably more complicated. I can't remember whether I actually got it all running from the Wubi version or whether that had to wait until my first full install, but the triumph of success was worth the effort... even if it first required diagnosing a flaky port on the old network switch I was using.

Kyle Conway writes:

My first install was Ubuntu 8.04, Hardy Heron, which seems to have run Linux kernel 2.6.24. It was a WUBI install (the relative simplicity of an *.exe that wouldn't "break" my computer convinced me to give it a try). There's a great thread on the Ubuntu forums where I got the help I needed (getting my WUBI install back) and move fulltime to Linux. I'm coming up on a decade! It was unbelievable to me that I could download this at no cost, that it ran many of the applications that I already used (e.g. Firefox), that I could share it with others, that it had useful software installed by default, and that it didn't require license keys―it just worked.


Share your first Linux install story with us in the comments!

About the author

Jen Wike Huger - Jen is the managing editor for Opensource.com. On any given day, you'll find her running the website's publication schedule and editorial workflow (on kanban boards), as well as brainstorming the next big article. Learn more about her at Jen.io.