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Waxing Nostalgic About Old-School Linux

Waxing Nostalgic About Old-School Linux

Back in the early days of Linux, distros were nice and small, admins knew what they were doing, and systems could run just fine with double-digit megabytes of RAM. That's how some remember it, anyway. A recent post at TechRepublic from Jack Wallen has the FOSS community reminiscing fondly -- and not so fondly -- about Linux's formative years.

By Katherine Noyes
03/10/11 5:00 AM PT

Sometimes there's nothing like a walk down memory lane to remind us of how far we've come, and that's just what a recent blog post over at TechRepublic has afforded.

"10 Things I Miss About Old School Linux" was the title of the post, in which blogger Jack Wallen waxes nostalgic over some of the key, old-school aspects of Linux he'd like to bring back.

Top of Wallen's list? None other than linuxconf. "Of all the admin tools I have used on Linux, the one I thought was the best of the best was linuxconf," he wrote.

Perhaps even more interesting -- and telling -- was the item in Wallen's No. 2 spot: the challenge.

"Don't get me wrong, I love how easy Linux is to install (and how that simplicity enables users of any skill level to use Linux)," he explained. "But there was something to be said about overcoming the challenges presented by Linux in the early days. It was a badge of honor only a select few could wear."

'Old School Linux Is Alive and Well'

The topic must have struck a chord with Linux geeks far and wide, because Wallen's post received a resounding response in the blogosphere. More than 50 comments appeared in short order on the TechRepublic site, followed by another 500 or so more when the Slashdot crowds got involved.

Regarding linuxconf, for example, "I must agree -- that was a fantastic tool," Slashdot blogger armanox wrote. "I remember being upset when it disappeared."

Then again: "The true old-school admin tool was vi (or ed even)," Darinbob hastened to point out. "Linuxconf was already 'dumbed down' in many veteran's eyes."

Alternatively: "On behalf of the many gentoo, arch, and slackware users, I'd like to point out that 'old school Linux' is alive and well and more capable than ever, thanks," clang--jangle asserted.

Any time a topic stirs up this much discussion and -- yes -- emotion, Linux Girl knows it's time to hit the streets of the blogosphere to learn more.

'The Size of the Distribution'

"The only thing I miss about the olden days is the size of a distribution," Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza told LinuxInsider down at the Git Grub cafe.

"Once upon a time it was possible to get a fairly complete Linux distribution on a stack of floppies," Espinoza explained. "The first time I installed Windows 95 I did it from 21 floppies. Slackware 2.0 with the A, N, D and basic X sets took less disks and had vastly more software; I was able to get X11, Netscape 2 and the development system running on a 386 with 8MB RAM and a 120MB disk."

Today, on the other hand, "a gigabyte is cramped for a basic Debian install, and the only real relief comes from gentoo, under which you may (but also must) compile your own packages to remove unnecessary dependencies included for minor features," he pointed out.

'The Ability to Run in Tiny RAM'

Similarly, "I miss the ability to run in tiny RAM," blogger Robert Pogson agreed. "My first experience of GNU/Linux was in 72MB RAM and applications had enough features to be snappy with those ancient processors running a few hundred MHz."

Today "we can still customize the kernel and use smaller libraries to fit, but it is almost impossible to install any mainstream GNU/Linux distro these days in 64MB," he noted. "That's too bad. Clocking more RAM than necessary is not green, and with ARM, memory and peripherals are consuming more energy than the CPU.

"Portable devices are the future -- we should not accept so much bloat as the norm that we can no longer do well in a tiny device," he added.

Of course, "Linux in all its forms is now a mature technology," Pogson pointed out. "The system is healthy and strong and getting stronger every year.

"I doubt I would return to the old days of the floppy disk, but you will have to pry vim out of my cold dead hands ... same goes for X window system," he said. "A networked display as the basis of GNU/Linux is too good to let go. It allows one to keep old PCs going for double or triple their lifespan as clients of newer machines."

'A Community of Real Experts'

Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, has been running Linux since 1999.

"What I miss is having a community of real experts that was generally willing to try to help resolve issues," Travers told LinuxInsider.

"Nowadays I hear all sorts of crappy misadvice, especially where Linux is being considered for desktop roles," he explained. "Documentation has become increasingly opaque and knowledge increasingly specialized."

'Linux Hasn't Changed That Much'

Of course, "I don't think that this is just a problem with Linux but rather an overall industry trend," he pointed out. Still, "a lot of so-called Linux 'experts' these days seem to primarily have experience on the GUI side and have surprisingly little knowledge of how, for example, authentication works on a Linux system."

Other things Travers misses include "the days when the combination of Kerberos plus Telnet was the preferred way to do encrypted remote sessions on a larger network," and also "HESIOD, which was a method of using DNS to do directory services," he explained.

Fundamentally, though, "Linux hasn't changed that much," he concluded. "People who see it becoming too much like Windows don't spend enough time at the command prompt."

'The Skilled Admins'

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet is a self-admitted Windows fan today, but he still misses "the doses of reality and skilled admins," he told Linux Girl. "In the old days one didn't pretend that using Bash was nice, or that Linux could replace user-friendly OSes -- as opposed to task-friendly, which is how *NIX has ALWAYS been designed."

Instead, one "accepted the fact that the *NIX way wasn't for everyone and that some jobs were easy, others hard," he explained. "Back then you had admins that knew their way around the guts and could optimize Linux to be an awesome server on just about ANY hardware."

Ever since the arrival of Ubuntu, "there has been a serious dose of crazy that the old school guys just didn't have," he opined. "I mean, you'd never see them trying to push Linux onto granny. I miss the days when discussions were about performance tweaks and increasing load handling instead of this 'year of the Linux desktop!' nonsense."

'I Wouldn't Want to Repeat the Process'

For Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by "Tom" on the site, the old days are best left in the past.

"Waxing nostalgic over the 'good old days' is like running into someone you broke up with years ago -- you catch yourself charitably thinking, 'maybe it wasn't really all that bad,' but 10 minutes later, it's 'GAWD! Get me OUT OF HERE!'" Hudson said.

Same goes for old-school Linux, she opined. "At the time, there was a sense of newness, of exploration, but I wouldn't want to repeat the process," Hudson told LinuxInsider.

"I certainly don't miss taking forever to download Slackware on 15 floppy disks at 2400 baud, or having to calculate modelines by hand, with all the attendant trial-and-error, to get the video card to work," she explained.

Nor would she miss "waiting 4 hours to do a full install from CD, deciding to change the partitions, restarting the install before heading off to bed, and being awakened by the sound of the overstressed CD fracturing and taking out the CD- ROM, leaving me with an unbootable computer," she added.

In short, "they say you can never go back," Hudson concluded. "I say, 'Do you really want to? Go watch 'Groundhog Day,' that should cure you'."


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