Red Hat 6.1: It's all in the install

Installing Red Hat 6.1 can be a pleasant surprise. Some say the installer may be the nicest around.


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Usually a .1 upgrade doesn't get half as much buzz as has Red Hat's release of Red Hat Linux 6.1. I decided to see for myself what the fuss was all about. What was the big deal? I carved out a recent evening at home to research the matter. Witness my journey below.

The test machine
A home built 450 MHz Celeron 300a with 256MB of RAM and a 6 GB disk. If Red Hat didn't install on this machine, it wouldn't install anywhere.

The software box
Red Hat Linux 6.1 Standard comes with an installation manual, a reference guide, a boot diskette, a CD-ROM, and three cool stickers. My computer was adorned seconds after the box was opened.

A friendlier install

I'm going to attempt the proverbial Christmas morning install (sans manual) because in my experience, no one ever looks at the install manual unless there is a major problem. Also, I had heard the new installer makes the manual superfluous.
Installation now seems more like choosing the options for a new car than anything else.
Indeed, the installer of Red Hat 6.1 - written in Python - is very nice, possibly the nicest I have seen for any operating system. All the right questions are asked and installation now seems more like choosing the options for a new car than anything else.

Users have the choice of the default installation and the expert installation. The expert mode shows you all available options to hand-pick from. Expert is also required when your hardware isn't automatically detected - the installer will then prompt you for a driver disk, much like a Windows installation. This is particularly relevant if you have a new or previously unsupported device for which drivers have only recently become available.

For the disk configuration step, default users are presented with only the Disk Druid for partitioning. Disk Druid provides a simplified interface to the mundane task of partitioning disks and doesn't require you to memorize partition types or single letter commands. Expert mode continues to offer the additional choice of fdisk.

While I will be dual-booting my system, I decided to add a second disk solely for Red Hat. I suggest that users install a drive dedicated to Linux if they plan on dual booting. If a single disk is to be used for more than one operating system, the partitioning tool FIPS is required to resize the existing partitions and can sometimes be tricky. Disk configuration is really determined by the application of the machine - I chose the following for my workstation:

/dev/hdb1 /boot 50M 
/dev/hdb5 /home 3000M 
/dev/hdb6 /usr 1500M 
/dev/hdb7  512M
/dev/hdb8 /var 400M 
/dev/hdb9 / 100M 
I really wished I had had another drive lying around to play with the new RAID configuration in the Red Hat installer. RAID support has been present in previous versions of the Linux kernel and thus Red Hat for some time now. Taking that support one step further, the Red Hat team's integration of RAID into the 6.1 installer makes installation of professional workstations and servers much easier.

One thing I immediately noticed about the new installer (and the kernel) is that the maximum swapfile size of 127MB has been eliminated.

The maximum swapfile size has been eliminated ... surely good news for large-system administrators.
This will surely come as good news for large-system administrators: it's far easier to administer one single 1 GB slice than eight 127MB partitions of swap.

As you continue, you are prompted for the partitions to format and whether or not you would like to check for bad blocks during the format process. I recommend you do. Better to find out before you put the machine into service whether your disk has issues - a house is only as strong as its foundation.

LILO, tattoos, and meatloaf
The next menu asks you where you would like to install LILO, the LInux LOader. I like the ease of having my operating systems in a menu when I start up, so I chose to install LILO in the Master Boot Record (MBR). If you do this, you need to choose which operating system will boot if you're looking out the window when you turn on your computer. If you choose not to use LILO in the MBR, you can create a boot disk.

After choosing alternate partitions to boot from (i.e., Windows NT or Solaris), you get to choose your hostname and IP address information if your network card was detected. This part of the installation is most like getting a tattoo: You're likely to stick with the hostname you choose at installation, so be creative. If at this point you are unsure about what to enter into the IP address fields, consult your network administrator.

Cool ...
In Red Hat 6.1, selecting your TIME ZONE just got cool: Point to where you live on a digitized map of the Earth. While the old method of picking a time zone from a list of locations or hours removed from GMT was adequate, the map makes choosing a time zone so much more fun. :-)

You will now be asked to enter the root password - the keys to the city, the Holy Grail of those who want to break into your system and steal Aunt Matilda's meatloaf recipe. Try and make this one difficult to guess.

6.1 has added to the installer the ability to create a user other than "root." As the dialog states, this will make it less likely for those new to Linux to mess it up 15 minutes after braving the installation. I suggest home users leave the next dialog alone as it unwisely allows you to disable shadow passwords, which are highly recommended. You will also be prompted for NIS (Network Information Services) information. Adding this to the installer is a wise move for Red Hat if it intends to target the technical workstation market, but home users can safely ignore it.

Packing privacy
Next comes the fun part of selecting the packages to be installed. I always feel like a kid in a toy store going through all of the individual packages. For those who aren't sure about what they want or need, selecting one of the preset install types allows for a reasonable variety of tools and applications. By choosing the "Select individual packages" radio button, you are presented with a nice exploding list of, well, individual packages. Look through all of the packages. It's easier to install them now than to use Red Hat Package Manager (RPM) later on.

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