Installing a new distribution

Notes on installing a Linux distribution.

GETTING READY
Download the distro of your choice. There are many good distros, but for a newcomer to Linux popular options include openSUSE (my personal choice), Mageia, and Ubuntu. TODO: Write a new article on selecting and testing a distro, and replace this paragraph with a reference to the new article.

Make sure that everything you want to keep has been backed up or imaged.

While partitioning can usually be left to the installer, it’s prudent to review what you currently have if only to perform a sanity check on the installer.

You may want to print out your existing system information for reference. Windows users can use SIW Portable, and Linux users can use hardinfo.

Use a UPS during the installation. You don’t want the power to fail in the middle of this.

IF YOU’RE REPLACING AN EXISTING LINUX INSTALLATION
I make an image of the root partition and back up /home, so I can roll back to my old distro if needed. /etc contains configuration files that I sometimes want to refer to later as I tweak my new distro, so I back it up, too.

Also don’t forget to back up:

  • Local databases
  • Local content management systems or customer relationship managers
  • Cron and at jobs in /var/spool/at and /var/spool/cron
  • Any special firewall configuration
  • Any .desktop files you’ve edited

Print your partition and filesystem details (df -T | lp) for reference. If you have definite ideas on a partitioning scheme, plan it.

If you’re using hardinfo to print out your existing system information for reference, a full report is probably overkill. I only bother with:

  • Computer: Summary, filesystems, environment variables
  • Devices: PCI devices, USB devices, sensors, DMI
  • Network: Interfaces

Confirm that you won’t suffer UID mismatch after installing the new distro.

INSTALLATION
Connect and turn on all your peripherals (printer, webcam, etc.). Many installers will attempt to set up any peripherals they can detect.

If you are replacing one Linux version with a newer one of the same distribution, you may be given the choice of an upgrade vs. a clean install. Generally accepted best practice is to perform a clean install unless you have reason not to, because upgrades increase the risk of something going wrong. Lately, however, I have been performing upgrades. I figure that if it works then I’ve saved myself the trouble of reconfiguring everything to my liking, and if it fails, then I can fix it with a clean install. So far I haven’t had any trouble with this strategy, but I’m not yet prepared to recommend it.

Many installers will give you the choice of manual vs. automatic partitioning. Unless you know what you want you can let the installer set the partitioning scheme for you, but do look at the recommendation before accepting it.

Do not configure supplementary installation media or download packages or updates during the installation. Doing so increases the installation time and adds additional points of failure. Keep the installation simple and do your downloading later.

Some installers give the option to clean /tmp at each boot. When available, I enable this option.

If you’re replacing an existing Linux installation, avoid UID mismatch when users are being set up and make certain your new installation uses the same user and group ID for each user as in your previous installation.

Some installers give you the option of not automatically starting the graphical interface upon booting. If you do this then your new distro will boot into a shell prompt and you will have to enter startx after login to get a graphical desktop. The advantage of installing this way is that if your new distro has post-installation video problems, this will allow you to fix them without having to drop into safe mode. Naturally, you can enable the graphical interface on boot once you have confirmed that video is working.

POST-INSTALLATION
Once installed, boot your new distro. If you did not enable automatically starting the graphical interface upon booting, start it manually with startx. Once you insure that video is working, you can enable automatically starting the graphical interface.

Follow the steps in the security and stability tuning checklist.

If you reformatted your home partition during installation, recover what you need from backup. When it comes to user configuration files, this can be complicated; see “Restoring your data” in Detox Your Linux Box.

Install desired software. I find it helpful to have a list of software I commonly install.

Check your peripherals. Modern distros automatically detect and configure many peripherals for you during the installation, but you will want to check to be sure.

If your Internet connection is fast and reliable, consider deactivating (not removing) local sources. That way software would be fetched from the net and you won’t be bothered with finding and inserting disks.

Tweak your system as desired.

REFERENCES
Additional good advice can be found in Detox your Linux box

If the hardware is slow, or if like me you simply like a light box, consult the lightweight workstation notes for additional ideas.

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About Warren Post

So far: Customer support guy, jungle guide, IT consultant, beach bum, entrepreneur, teacher, diplomat, over-enthusiastic cyclist. Tomorrow: who knows?
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6 Responses to Installing a new distribution

  1. Pingback: Setting up a lightweight workstation | A maze of twisty little passages

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