Now I’m a believer

I’ve switched my ThinkPad to Debian, along with my desktop machine. I did it to get off the upgrade treadmill. I was using a well-known Linux distribution, as customized for IBM use, but a second forced reinstall in under a year made me snap.

I don’t want to reinstall my OS. I don’t mind it so much with OS X, because Apple make it such a trivial task—you archive and install, and your user data and applications stay there, along with all the necessary configuration, and the new OS is installed cleanly. But a RedHat or SuSE reinstall is painful, even if you are smart enough to record what was installed and take copies of the various key configuration files. Frankly, if I didn’t mind reinstalling everything from scratch once a year, I’d run Windows.

So, it was time to move to a Linux distribution that wasn’t going to force me to do unnecessary work. While I like Gentoo, I’d tried and failed to get IBM’s stupid proprietary VPN solution to work with it. So, Debian was the obvious choice.

I’d tried and failed to install Debian before, dealing with that ugly jigdo thing to try and assemble a couple of CDs, only to have the installer bury me in “Hello, you’ve just installed Package Z, here’s a page of useless information…” dialog screens.

Fortunately, Debian now has an actual installer. You download the ISO and burn it on a dinky little 8cm CD, boot it, and it leads you through the process with very little fuss. In fact, for the desktop box the most difficult part was partitioning.

For the ThinkPad, things were a little more exciting. Laptops are almost always packed full of flaky proprietary hardware, and in this case the graphics card was the tough part. Still, I eventually tracked down a working XF86Config-4, polished it up a bit, and was done.

Getting Notes 6 to run was trickier. I ended up using a vintage WINE from November 2003, converted from RPM format via alien, because current releases of WINE are broken in an irritating manner—they cause every scrollable window in the Notes client to be drawn with a double set of scroll bars.

The VPN setup was ugly, involving kernel patches, but I had some instructions from an internal web site which I managed to decipher, and now I can patch and run future 2.6.x kernel releases. I needed to build a custom kernel anyway, as the ThinkPad needed some kernel modules to work fully. As you might guess from the mention of 2.6 kernels, I’m running a ‘testing’ Debian install with a few bits of ‘unstable’ as necessary (basically Mozilla).

So now it’s all up and running, I can ignore the daily Windows virus alerts, and I can keep up-to-date with security patches and OS improvements without spending any significant amount of time doing so, and I can get on with my actual job. Fancy that!