Because Linux is free software, no single organization or entity is responsible for releasing and distributing the software. Therefore, anyone is free to put together and distribute the Linux software, as long as the restrictions in the GPL (and other licenses that may be used) are observed. The upshot of this is that there are many distributions of Linux, available via anonymous FTP or mail order.
You are now faced with the task of deciding on a particular distribution of Linux that suits your needs. Not all distributions are alike. Many of them come with just about all the software you'd need to run a complete systemand then some. Other Linux distributions are "small" distributions intended for users without copious amounts of disk space.
You might also want to consider that distributions have different target groups. Some are meant more for businesses, others more for the home user. Some put more emphasis on server use, others on desktop use.
How can you decide among all these distributions? If you have access to Usenet news, or another computer conferencing system such as web-based discussion boards, you might want to ask there for opinions from people who have installed Linux. Even better, if you know someone who has installed Linux, ask him for help and advice. In actuality, most of the popular Linux distributions contain roughly the same set of software, so the distribution you select is more or less arbitrary.
A particularly interesting type of distribution is the so-called live CD, such as Knoppix (http://www.knoppix.org). These distributions boot from CD and do not require any installation at all; they keep all information in RAM, but can still access your hard drive and other hardware. Besides being a very convenient way of test-driving Linux without having to wipe out anything else, they are also a very good way of rescuing a system that has become unbootable. More about salvaging booting problems will follow later in this book.
2.1.1. Getting Linux via Mail Order or Other Hard Media
If you don't have high-speed Internet access, you can get many Linux distributions via mail order on CD-ROM or DVD. Many distributors accept credit cards as well as international orders, so no matter where you live, you should be able to obtain Linux in this way.
Linux is free software, but distributors are allowed by the GPL to charge a fee for it. Therefore, ordering Linux via mail order might cost you between U.S. $5 and U.S. $150, depending on the distribution. However, if you know people who have already purchased or downloaded a release of Linux, you are free to borrow or copy their software for your own use. Linux distributors are not allowed to restrict the license or redistribution of the software in any way. If you are thinking about installing an entire lab of machines with Linux, for example, you need to purchase only a single copy of one of the distributions, which can be used to install all the machines. There is one exception to this rule, though: in order to add value to their distribution, some vendors include commercial packages that you might not be allowed to install on several machines. If this is the case, it should be explicitly stated on the package.
Another advantage with buying a distribution is that you often get installation support; that is, you can contact the distributor by phone or email and get help if you run into trouble during the installation.
Many Linux user groups offer their own distributions; see if there's a user group near you. For special platforms like Alpha, a user group may be an excellent place to get Linux.
2.1.2. Getting Linux from the Internet
If you have access to the Internet, the easiest way to obtain Linux is via anonymous FTP. One major FTP site is ftp://ftp.ibiblio.org, and the various Linux distributions can be found there in the directory /pub/Linux/distributions. In many countries, there are local mirrors of this server from which you should be able to get the same software faster.
When downloading the Linux software, be sure to use binary mode for all file transfers (with most FTP clients, the command binary enables this mode).
You might run into a minor problem when trying to download files for one system (such as Linux) with another system (such as Windows), because the systems are not always prepared to handle each other's files sensibly. However, with the hints given in this chapter, you should be able to complete the installation process nevertheless.
Some distributions are released via anonymous FTP as a set of disk images. That is, the distribution consists of a set of files, and each file contains the binary image of a floppy. In order to copy the contents of the image file onto the floppy, you can use the RAWRITE.EXE program under Windows. This program copies, block for block, the contents of a file to a floppy, without regard for disk format. RAWRITE.EXE is available on the various Linux FTP sites, including ftp://ftp.ibiblio.org in the directory /pub/Linux/system/Install/rawwrite.
Be forewarned that this is a labor-intensive way of installing Linux: the distribution can easily come to more than 50 floppies. Therefore, only few distributions still provide an installation option that uses floppy disks exclusively. However, combinations of a few floppy disks for the initial booting procedure plus one or more CD-ROMs for the actual software installation are not uncommon.
To proceed, download the set of floppy images and use RAWRITE.EXE with each image in turn to create a set of floppies. Boot from the so-called boot floppy, and you're ready to roll. The software is usually installed directly from the floppies, although some distributions allow you to install from a Windows partition on your hard drive, while others allow you to install over a TCP/IP network. The documentation for each distribution should describe these installation methods if they are available.
If you have access to a Unix workstation with a floppy drive, you can also use the dd command to copy the file image directly to the floppy. A command such as dd of=/dev/rfd0 if=foo bs=18k will "raw write" the contents of the file foo to the floppy device on a Sun workstation. Consult your local Unix gurus for more information on your system's floppy devices and the use of dd.
Each distribution of Linux available via anonymous FTP should include a README file describing how to download and prepare the floppies for installation. Be sure to read all available documentation for the release you are using.
Today, some of the bigger Linux distributions are also distributed as one or a few ISO images that you can burn on a CD-ROM or DVD. Downloading these is feasible only for people with big hard disks and a broadband connection to the Internet, due to the enormous amounts of data involved (but remember that you only need the disk space for one ISO image at a time; you can delete the image after having burnt it, and before downloading the next one).