Linux Revisited

Over the last two weekends, I spent numerous hours trying to install OpenSuse Linux on my laptop. Actually, installing it wasn’t the real problem; getting the built-in wireless network adapter to talk to my wireless network was.

I remember the days when Linux was still fresh and new, and there were only one or two distributions. It was 1994 when I first installed Linux, probably RedHat, on a faculty computer, because they wanted their own webserver (after I persuaded them that the web was going to be big. Anyday now. I remember being awestruck at the end of ’93, when I first saw an Australian museum’s website with photos on it, so I went and made a website for the Rotterdam law faculty where I worked at the time, with scanned photos of the city of Rotterdam on it.) Linux came on a couple of disks back then, and installed and ran happily on an old 386sx that was gathering dust in a corner. Text only of course, no fancy GUIs available yet. Fortunately I had just had a Unix course for the Convex number-cruncher that the university had just bought (does Convex still exist?).

Today, some things have become simpler. I downloaded five cds, fed them one by one to my laptop, and I had a slick-looking, user-friendly (okay, mostly geek-friendly) operating system complete with shell-goodness. It’s good to be able to type in vi just for the fun of it (then :q and quickly over to jEdit). A big, yellow-striped, green lizard is keeping an eye on me from the background wallpaper. I’m happy. Now I only want one more thing: wifi access.

The reason I chose Suse in the first place was because I found some reports on the net that this is the distribution that will recognize the most wireless network adapters. I don’t mind doing a make to build, say, Ruby. But to have to compile drivers… Come on, it’s been twelve years! Even Windows has learned to do it properly by now! So my hope was on Suse. Would it see my wireless card?

No, it wouldn’t. What a deception. It was back to the net (on another pc), roam the forums, faqs, howtos. I found something about an ndiswrapper, something that will wrap a Windows driver (sic) (sick!) and let Linux use it. Edit some obscure config files. Type in some mysterious shell commands. Hey, it works! Job well done, case closed.

No, it wasn’t. As it’s a laptop, I like to take it places. Places outside the range of my wireless network at home. And still be able to use it. So to do a test, I changed the ID of my wireless network and rebooted the laptop. That caused it to hang during booting, ironically displaying a message that the network was not found, and that it wouldn’t be a problem if there were multiple interfaces (the wireless network definitions) defined. Which I had, I’ve got a normal ethernet interface as well. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t work.

A few days later I found a list of supported wifi cards on a Suse site, that listed my card as well (ar5212; yes, it’s an Atheros; no, I couldn’t get MadWifi to work). In a footnote for my card, it said: “requires non-gpl driver”. And while I wholeheartedly support GNU and the GPL, I guess after using Microsoft products for twenty years makes me tainted enough that I shouldn’t worry about one more non-gpl driver. However, YaST, my distribution’s package manager, does not list any non-gpl drivers; so I just installed something called default non-gpl kernel modules instead. That should do the trick. And it did! The network device manager now recognizes my wifi card directly, without using the ndiswrapper.

I still can’t boot up properly if I’m away from my home network, not without disabling the wifi card entirely (for which my laptop fortunately has a handy button). And I haven’t dared remove the ndiswrapper, which should be useless now; but at least everything works. I like working with Linux and with Gnome, even if it’s a little shaky here and there. I like being able to open up a shell window and type in vi. And then quickly :q.

2006-02-23. No responses.

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