Why does Linux hate me?

Last year, I tried installing Linux, with less than encouraging results. This past weekend I tried again, with hardware that's about as generic as you can get, using up-to-date versions of the two most popular distros I could find. So why didn't it work?

In the Talkback section of this blog, my loyal readers routinely urge me to switch to Linux. “Try it!” they say. “Once you do, you’ll never look back.” I’m perfectly willing to try, and indeed I’d love to have at least one Linux machine on hand so I can test interoperability scenarios here. About eight months ago I tried to install Ubuntu Linux 6.06 on a couple of systems here. The results were less than encouraging, and I’ve been using Linux in virtual machines since then.

Over the weekend, I thought I’d try again to put together a dual-boot Windows/Linux PC. I have another system I can devote to the cause, with decent specs and no hardware issues that I know of. This hardware is about as generic as an Intel-based system gets. I first built this system in late 2003 and have upgraded it extensively over the past three and a half years. System specs are as follows:

  • Abit BL7–Raid motherboard
  • 2.8 GHz Pentium 4
  • 1.5GB RAM
  • Two ATA drives (200GB, 250GB) connected to HPT370 controller (on motherboard) in non-RAID configuration
  • ATI Radeon 9600 AGP video adapter
  • Realtek RTL8169 Gigabit Ethernet adapter

I downloaded the latest release of SUSE Linux (10.2) and burned it to DVD. I also retrieved the Live CD copy of Ubuntu 6.06 LTS that I used last July and burned a fresh copy of Ubuntu 6.10. Here’s what happened next:

I booted from the Suse Linux DVD first. The system went straight into the installer, where I answered a few simple questions (time zone, language, and so on) and eventually got to the screen where it proposed what seemed like a sensible partitioning scheme. It recognized both drives, offered to create swap, system, and home partitions, and said it would resize an existing partition. I clicked OK and promptly received this error:


Failure occurred during following action:
Setting type of partition /dev/hdf6 to 82

System error code was: -1012

That’s not good, is it? Googling every conceivable permutation of that error message turned up no useful information. When I rebooted to Windows, I saw that the partitioning utility had created the three partitions but hadn’t been able to finish the job.

I repeated the process after wiping all disks completely and removing all partitions (i.e., making them RAW). No difference. I tried the different installation options on the Suse DVD, including the Safe option. Still no joy.

So, it’s adios to Suse and on to Ubuntu 6.06 LTS. I restored an image of the Windows Vista installation and then booted to the Ubuntu CD. The runup to the installation was similar to my Suse experience, but when I chose the default partitioning options the installer didn’t halt on me. This is encouraging. The “Installing system” dialog box kept me apprised of its progress and eventually asked me to remove the CD and reboot. When I did, I was greeted with the usual startup text, followed by this message:

GRUB loading Stage1.5

And then the system rebooted. Next time around, it got to exactly the same point and rebooted, continuing in this loop until I hit the power button.

When I used a disk diagnostic utility to view the partitions, I saw that Ubuntu had indeed set up all the partitions exactly as it promised; it just couldn’t boot from them. And somehow the resized system volume (which had previously contained Windows Vista) had become corrupted and would no longer start. So I wiped that disk completely and restarted, this time using the Ubuntu 6.10 CD. When I got to the disk partitioning screen, I chose the default option to use the entire drive (the one I had just wiped) and to completely reformat it.

Everything proceeded exactly as before – including, unfortunately, the reboot loop.

Finally, I inserted a Windows Vista DVD, rebooted, and ran through Windows Vista setup. Vista doesn’t include drivers for the HPT370 controller, but I was able to download the XP drivers to a USB flash drive and supply them at the disk partitioning screen. Less than 25 minutes later, I had a full working copy of Windows Vista with access to all drives and devices.

So, my loyal Linux advocates, where did I go wrong? This isn’t a case of oddball hardware or missing drivers – in fact, both distros I tried had in-box drivers for my storage controller, recognized my disks during setup, and partitioned them to the correct sizes. They just couldn’t get the job done. And just to make clear, my objective here is to get a working installation, not to prove some ideological point in a Windows versus Linux debate. I want to have a working Linux box.

Update, seven hours later: The culprit apparently, is the HPT370 card. I disabled it (and unfortunately lost access to 450GB of storage) and installed a PCI SATA card with a 200GB drive. After a few hiccups (still not smooth) and more than two hours, Suse 10.2 is nearly installed. Now that I know this works I’m going to reconnect the IDE drives and hope it works…