8 Aug 2010
There it was, sitting on my desk doing nothing. Our old Mac Mini was definitely surplus to requirements. With a PowerPC (PPC) CPU, it was never going to make the leap from Tiger to Leopard (let alone Snow Leopard). But I hate to see hardware going to waste.
At the same time, I wanted a replacement for our server. It doesn't do a lot of work - running our intranet and backing up our websites, mainly, plus a light bit of fileserving. But it consumes a lot of electricity. It was running on an old Dell desktop - and I mean old. So old, in fact, that it doesn't even have an Intel CPU - just a handful of transistors loosely soldered together, as far as I can recall. And a damn great power supply unit with an enormous and noisy fan.
I wanted a lower-power machine, something that doesn't run its fan unnecessarily, and preferably small, say the size of a ... ah, yes ... a Mac Mini.
I knew that a version of Ubuntu was available for the PPC, but had also heard that it is no longer properly supported, which is why I hadn't got around to doing this before. Then I searched some more and found that Debian - the underlying distro for many fine flavours of Linux, including Ubuntu - still supports the PPC.
"Ah well," I thought, "I've got a weekend coming up. What better way of spending my time than in the depths of frustration trying to install an operating system on a machine that clearly doesn't want it?"
How wrong I was.
You can obtain Debian in many ways, including old-fashioned, real-world, stand-your-coffee-on-them CDs and DVDs. But this is the age of downloading.
I could have downloaded a minimal file set which would then pull down the rest of the necessary files over the Net. But our broadband really isn't that broad (1Mb/s) and I figured this would involve sitting in front of the screen far too much, waiting for the files to arrive.
I could have downloaded gigabytes of files to burn a nicely stuffed DVD - but did I mention our broadband speed?
And so I chose the middle path - downloading 700MB-ish of files to cram onto a CD. This would happen fast enough that I could leave the download running while we had a leisurely lunch, and it would be waiting for me that afternoon. The CD image contains all the essential files to get a working installation up and running. Anything else, you get over the Net.
I downloaded, I burned, I waved a fond farewell to Tiger and rebooted with the CD still in place. Yes, I told the installer, I'm perfectly happy to erase everything currently on the HDD. I probably answered a few other questions, to do with where I live and what language I speak - stuff like that. But there wasn't a lot of do. Having installed Linux of several kinds in the past, Debian seemed curiously disinterested in talking to me.
And then suddenly the CD popped out and I was told to reboot. "No," I thought. "It's too soon. I'm not ready." But I rebooted anyway - what else was I going to do?
And there it was. Debian 5.0.5 running on the Mac Mini. No fuss. No bother.
This all happened on the Friday. Now I was going to have to find something else to do with the weekend.
Well, okay, it wasn't quite over. I have one of those lovely Apple keyboards, the type with the light touch. And while the keyboard believes that a certain key should produce an ampersand, Debian is under the illusion that it's really destined to be a double quote mark. There were a few other swapped keys, too.
No matter. Debian had thoughtfully installed Gnome for me. I don't like it much - I prefer KDE. Not that it really matters: this machine is destined to spend most of the rest of its life without a monitor, with me SSHing in from my MacBook Pro. Fixing the keyboard issue within Gnome was simplicity itself. System -> Keyboard brought up the required dialogue box. I selected the Layouts tab, chose 'Generic 105-key (Intl) PC' from the Keyboard Model list, then added a layout selecting 'USA 'and 'Macintosh' as my options. All done.
I understand that there is a way of setting the keyboard layout from within a console, too. Type:
dpkg-reconfigure -p low console-data
A program will pop up letting you select the settings you need. Apparently, 'pc / qwerty / US / Apple USB / Standard' works quite well (change the location to suit).
There were a few other jobs, too. Debian installed Postgres as the default database server, but I wanted MySQL. Apache was already installed and running, but I also needed to ensure PHP5 support. And there were a few other odds and ends (Privoxy, Tor and so on). There is a GUI tool for adding new software, but frankly, I found it easier to open a terminal window and use Apt-Get Install <application>. It really couldn't have been easier.