Linux for Die-hard Mac Users - Thorny Path to Success, Part I


Your first time experience may be almost no-problem success, difficult road, nightmare or complete failure, depending on the distribution, hardware, skills and of course luck.

Anyway, if you decided to seriously explore (not just install and click on the icons) Linux for yourself, and have a Mac mentality, first what you really need is a patience and persistence. A lot of patience and persistence!

You can skip this section and go next if you have another hardware or more recent distribution(s). All described below is applicable to particular hardware and distribution(s) only !


I had objective to get 3 Linux machines running:

  1. My own Apple FireWire iBook (so called summer 2000 model) with dual OS booting (primary MacOS and secondary Linux) and MOL (Mac on Linux Emulator, in order to run both OS simultaneously);
  2. PC server for Internet hosting (WEB, mail, firewall), with ftp mirroring system for important updates;
  3. PC file and print server for accounting system.

Of course, I could pass this task to experienced Linux specialist, but I am the kind of tech junkie who definitely will not miss the chance to dig and tune new cool piece of software. Since I had programming background, arcane command line syntax would not scare me. My colleague joked that my Linux effort revealed my hacker's nature (by the way, among computer specialist "hacker" means "hard-core professional", not someone who steal credit card numbers, the last called cracker).

When Too Much Choices is Too Bad

Since different people recommended different distributions, I downloaded them all for testing purposes from Linux ISO at my office Power Macintosh G4 with huge hard drive, probably pursuing my ISP to qualify me as Net terrorist. Although Linux distributions are very cheap ($29 - $69), "try before you buy" is the first rule when it comes to purchasing software, since there are no reasons to pay for something which may appear unusable or useless. The only distribution not available for downloading as CD ISO image was SuSE Linux 7.0 for PowerPC (however, it can be downloaded as separate files). Then I burned CD ISO images with Adaptec Toast (if your downloads have generic document appearance just drop them on the Toast and click "Write CD" button).

iBook Preparation

Next step was to prepare my iBook. I have done backup with Retrospect at office, then reformatted hard drive with Apple Drive Setup utility, allocating 6 GB HFS+ partition for MacOS and remaining 3.2 GB for Linux as unallocated (Linux with 2.2 kernel, unlike MacOS, cannot start up from the external FireWire hard drive, so I had to put it on primary disk). I did not liked the idea to shrink existing MacOS partition with formatting utility like FWB Hard Disk Toolkit. Its not safe, and do not forget that HDT will install its own hard disk drivers, which may become somewhat problematic after major OS upgrade.

Tip from MacGuru: if you still want to resize your existing MacOS partition in order to free some space for Linux, and get rid of HDT drivers, you will need Symantec Norton Utilities 6 and full version of FWB Hard Disk Toolkit 4 (often referred as HDT), both on bootable CD. So, if you have them, do the following:

  1. Backup your data to another hard drive, removable, CD, or server volume.
  2. Boot from Norton Utilities CD and optimize hard drive with Speed Disk using "Disk Resizing" option. FWB HDT will not be able to shrink partition if something is written on the last blocks.
  3. Boot from the FWB HDT CD.
  4. Select you hard drive and choose "Devices - View Partitions". The following screen should appear:
  5. Now resize desired partition with "Resize Volume" command. When HDT will ask to install its own hard disk drivers, say yes.
  6. To get rid of HDT driver, double click on the "Apple Driver ATA" (or Apple Driver SCSI if you have SCSI disk) and mark it as active.
  7. HDT drivers will remain of the hard drive but will be deactivated.
  8. Restart and select "Get Info" command in the Finder on the hard drive where you have resized partition(s).
  9. Your hard drive driver information (look at the line labeled Where:) should not mention FWB.

Sudden Discovery

Unfortunately, these days all Mac Linux distributions I had appeared just before release of my FireWire iBook.

Neither Debian 2.2 Potato, LinuxPPC 2000Q1, or Yellow Dog Linux 1.2.1 could be started up from the CD. No problem on old iMac, G4 and even first-generation iBook, but not on FireWire iBook! Linux just hangs on the startup with strange video artifacts.

I suspected that Linux do not liked built-in ATI Rage 128 Mobility video accelerator, although full-blown AGP and PCI versions of this card for desktop Macs function properly under Linux. Debian people suggested to stop at yaboot prompt and turn "safe video" booting mode. The problem is that I did not get this prompt at all because Linux crashes instantly after startup.

Tip from MacGuru: portables often are the stumbling block for Linux because of proprietary and nonstandard hardware. Even if you get Linux running on portable, some features like built-in Ethernet, sound, modem, certain interfaces (e.g. video out, FireWire), video acceleration or power saving options may not work.

SuSE to the Rescue

However, I am wasn't ready to give up. I knew that SuSE Linux is reputable distribution among PC users, but I didn't had a chance to try out Mac version and had no clue how complete PowerPC port is. Searching SuSE hardware computability database did not revealed anything helpful, iBook have been mentioned as generally compatible, but there was no information if they mean first generation iBook, FireWire iBook, or both; and it was not clear if built-in Ethernet, modem, sound and video acceleration are supported.

I sent a message to SuSE support and was very surprised to get several very comprehensive replies. Surprised because Linux distributions are very cheap products and its free technical and especially pre-sales support is hardly to be paid off. Anyway, I've got clear instruction how to install SuSE Linux 7.0 on FireWire iBook and configure yaboot (Mac Linux bootloader). Technical support personnel was kind enough to inform me that almost all built-in features of my iBook supported except sound and FireWire, then outlined roadmap for work in progress drivers; and I am was promised that hardware compatibility database on the SuSE site will be updated with Mac-related data "in a few weeks". They kept promise and now installation instruction for FireWire iBook available here.

So, I went no further and ordered SuSE.

PS. Just several weeks after updated distribution - LinuxPPC 2000Q4 solved compatibility problems with some new Macs, including FireWire iBook. Also, Debian people discovered how to get around startup crash with Potato 2.2r2 release and properly configure X Windows.

Tip from MacGuru: Linux evolves very fast, so if you have compatibility problem with support for certain new hardware, it may be solved within month or two. Also, subscribe to Mac Linux mailing lists and do not afraid to ask for advice, people there are usually experienced and helpful.

FireWire support for Linux is still work in progress. Project called Linux 1394 aims to connect Linux and FireWire (SONY calls its as iLink, the industry name is 1394 interface). First release of Linux 2.4 kernel included FireWire support but suddenly appeared to be broken. I am not sure about bright future of FireWire on Linux, first because FireWire is still not popular interface among server hardware manufacturer, and second because USB 2 will gain broad support in the near future, offering most advantages of FireWire at lower cost. The father of Linux, Linus Torvald, recently criticized FireWire in one of his interview, insisting that 1394 interface gained visible support only among Japanese manufacturers of digital imaging equipment. Possibly his conclusion was grounded on the fact that Linux is mostly a server, not content creation platform. Personally, I could not imagine personal computer without FireWire, I used to use it for a long time as cheaper yet more advanced replacement of SCSI by the time USB 2 was still on the paper.

Continued - a) Intel PC and Linux - read below, b) Thorny Path to Success, Part II...

Intel PC and Linux - Plug and Play (May be)

Meanwhile, waiting my SuSE Mac boxes to arrive, I downloaded Debian Linux for Intel x86 based PC. Installation went smooth, but after Linux refused to launch X Windows because of weird errors. I reformatted hard drive, replaced video card, installed again, changed X Windows settings, but the result was almost the same - X Windows didn't run. It appears that mouse configuration setup utility was bogus and X Windows configuration file had to be modified manually. After that, everything seem to work OK. However, Debian package management utility called dselect despite outstanding features has one drawback - it uses character based (DOS-like) interface and navigating through huge list of available software was a pain. No matter how I liked superior Debian package management system I decided to switch to Red Hat based Linux.

Mandrake Linux have been recommended by 2 my good friends and unlike Debian, it have been installed and started without a single problem. Installer automatically detected all add-on cards (nVidia video card + 2 Fast Ethernet Cards from 3COM) and activated proper drivers. X Windows configured and started up successfully from the first time on the same hardware which have been problematic for Debian. The only complains so far were that some very useful configuration utilities (like rpmDrake and DrakeConf) have not been installed by default (possibly, it is true only for download version). Mandrake Linux is probably the best for beginners because it mimics many elements of commercial operating systems (Windows, MacOS) like control panels.

First Fruits

My Mandrake Linux PC box was up and running, and finally I managed to run WEBMIN. You should turn off SSL for WEBMIN administration if you do it with the Mac Internet Explorer (it does not like Linux SSL implementation and throws annoying warning messages before load of every page). WEBMIN is unbelievably flexible and capable, despite being pre-beta version 0.80 (did you ever heard that such versions could exist?).

With WEB based administration utility WEBMIN its possible to do almost everything, including installation and removal of software packages, starting and stopping processes, configuration of many system resources, even formatting hard drives and creating partitions. You can connect to WEBMIN on the same machine from WEB browser via URL https://localhost:10000 or http://localhost:10000. If you are working with WEBMIN from another PC, type https://YourServerIP:10000 or http://YourServerIP:10000 (https means secure encrypted protocol, usually this is default setting).

Not the Mac Best Friend

So, next logical step was to install AppleTalk.

Netatalk package provides AppleTalk compatible networking services under Linux plus fast and efficient AppleShare IP emulation.

This time Netatalk was not available neither within Mandrake Linux 7.2 distribution neither from MandrakeSoft ftp server, so I downloaded it straight from source - from Two versions were present - 1.499 and 1.5pre3. I decided for the first, it looked like final. Additionally, I downloaded Netatalk WEBMIN module V0.9 and new version 0.83 of WEBMIN itself (Netatalk administration is incompatible with WEBMIN prior to 0.81). Somehow, WEBMIN 0.8 was not directly upgradeable to 0.83 neither with RPM from WEBMIN WEB site neither with one from Mandrake ftp server, and it had to be removed and installed from scratch.

In short, it did not work. Netatalk WEBMIN module required to be reconfigured itself by means of editing directory path to some binaries and configuration files, but nasty bug (lost Mac shares) prevented it from further use; upgrade from WEBMIN to version 0.83 broke administration for SAMBA (Windows networking module); and finally, Netatalk daemon had problems starting up with no clue how it could be solved.

PS. Later I found how to solve Netatalk startup problem in SuSE support database, but it was too late (for Mandrake).

SuSE to the Rescue

I looked at different Linux distributions, which include Netatalk. It seems my problems with Linux AppleTalk networking could be fixed with almost no effort if Netatalk module is installed and configured by default. Download-able evaluation version of SuSE Linux had no problems during installation and configuration, so I have opted for x86 professional version, which also includes some handy server configuration utilities. Additionally, the big advantage of SuSE was the availability of Mac version.

Continued - Thorny Path to Success, Part II...

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