All About Linux 2008: Linux distros I've loved before

In honor of Linux week, I’d like to talk about some distros I’ve known and loved. This isn’t an exhaustive list and many aren’t really distros, but it’s more an exercise in nostalgia than anything else.

I’ve been loving *NIX since 1993 or so. That’s when I got my first shell account at Ohio State while I was still in high school. I didn’t realize what I was using at the time but I understood the power after spending some time at AT&T’s Scouting group where they invited Boy Scouts in to play on some monstrous UNIX machines in their training center in Columbus. I understood shell scripts and networks, but not enough to fully grasp the power of the platform. It was during this time that I wrote POSDT to copy some of the things I learned in UNIX. My friends in college were already using UNIX with regularity and used to borrow my account to telnet to distant accounts.

I forgot about UNIX and Linux for most of college. I remember kids in the Carnegie Mellon computer clusters downloading something called Red Hat and burning it to CDs, but I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. CMU had Sun X terminals, Macs, and PCs. The X terms were the most fun because they were so nasty. We’re talking green screens and mice the size of your head. It wasn’t like CMU couldn’t afford anything newer — I think the CS nerds liked them. I suspect we were using BSD then, but I don’t remember.

Fast forward to 1998. I was consulting in Washington DC when they flew me to Warsaw, Poland to work on a telecom switches. I knew nothing about telecom switches, but I spoke Polish and apparently it was a good idea to fly kids over, give them big apartments and an American salary (back with the dollar was worth more than the Canadian cent), and let them loose on nascent cellular networks. It was pre 2K madness and I was programming COBOL on a VAX machine in Warsaw, Poland. We used to write scripts using a scriptable terminal program to send Man-Machine Language codes to Nokia switches to add call forwarding to thousands of subscribers, for example. If you had a problem with your phone, for example, the terminal GUI would let you add and delete features right on the switch, which I suspect was madness.

There I fell in love with Mandrake. Poland, like most European countries, had a rich and varied magazine culture. You could get all sorts of magazines and most of them came with CD-ROMs simply because, at that time, broadband was fairly rare in Central Europe. They bundled games, movies, and even Linux distros in these magazines and they still do, slapping in nine DVDs chock full of code for your installation pleasure. I installed Red Hat, didn’t quite like it, and then found Mandrake. The early versions of Mandrake had a text installer but then I found one that had a GUI installer and I was hooked. It was as easy to install Windows 95 and twice as powerful. Mandrake is now Mandriva and they were one of the first distros to support “themed” versions like distros for gaming or graphics. It was at this time I also became a KDE user, finding users of GNOME to be far inferior and its users and fans to be petulant pooftas. Just joking. I couldn’t care less about desktops. Heck. I used barebones X at one point.

I used Mandrake for my home PC and Red Hat at the office where we tinkered with a few dot-bomb ideas running on a single Linux machine. I also ran my websites on Red Hat.

Heading back the US in 2000 I forgot Linux for a bit. I actually began using cygwin in Poland and carried it over with me to the US where I installed it on most of my Windows PCs. It gave me the comforting feeling of power over a box that could, with any luck, explode at a moment’s notice. Shell scripting was a great way to get research done and I discovered the magic of wget when stealing entire websites before they were taken down by the DMCA. Good times.

I used Linux at YRB, where I worked for a time. I moved the mail server over to postfix and and ran floppy firewall on another 386 machine which acted as the entire website’s firewall. Yes, I used a floppy disk to protect an ecommerce site — and it worked. The website itself was written in Visual Basic ASP and I had so many problems with it that I almost ported it over to PHP. In fact, I had this one crazy ASP problem where two integers (1 and 3, for example) just wouldn’t add. I had to do three or four statements (a=1+1, a=a+2 or something equally stupid) just to get it to work in production. I knew I was done with Windows at that point.

I kept getting new distros from Poland when we went back to visit. I ran Mandrake for a few years as an alternate OS then Red Hat when it became a little more user friendly. I also used Knoppix to troubleshoot computer problems. I’d boot up in Knoppix, mount the NTFS or FAT32 filesystem, and do my business. About three years ago my Dad called and told me his computer was acting up. This was during my OS X phase, which is *NIX enough for my blood, although it was BSD. Instead of fixing his Windows install, I installed Xandros Linux and let him go crazy. I had no service calls after that. I then gave him my old Mac Mini and I had even fewer problems.

Starting to run Linux is like knowing owning a pick-up truck: you basically can do more stuff. Need a website? Boom. Need an easy desktop? Bang. Need a hug? Tux! Going through all these distros — and I’m sure my experience is very limited compared to some of yours. Tell me about your favorite distros. Maybe I’ll learn something new.