What my first Linux was, and its context

August 27, 2021

Over on Twitter, there was a meme going around about your first Linux. As I sometimes do, I rose to the bait:

My first Linux was a version of Red Hat in 1999, as we refreshed some undergraduate labs from SGI Indys and X terminals to x86 machines running Linux. Why Red Hat? It's what the university book store had in stock.

We were moving from the SGI/X terminal setup to x86 Linux because in 1999 no Unix workstation vendor could give us competitive hardware any more. General x86s just crushed the cost/performance of Sun, SGI, etc for basic workstations. (Sun's basic x86 workstation was extra sad.)

I was using Unix well before my first Linux, as you can tell from the history of my SGI Indy (which I kept running until 2006, and might have kept running longer in different circumstances). But 1999 was when we needed to refresh the hardware in the undergraduate labs that I was then involved in, and when we went to evaluate the various hardware on offer nothing could beat the low cost and solid performance of general x86 hardware (we wound up with branded PCs from DEC). This was my real introduction to the relentless march of inexpensive x86 machines and one of things that informs my views that PCs can be Unix workstations.

(For reasons out of scope for this entry, we knew that you could get good results from Unix on x86 hardware, but we hadn't known that you could get it with relatively entry level PCs with things like IDE drives.)

The university was on the Internet, so we certainly could have downloaded whatever Linux distribution that was then available, gotten it on to some media, and installed it. But Red Hat was available on CD-ROM in the university book store just down the street from my cubicle, it meant that we didn't have to wrestle with downloading what was then a big file and figuring out how to write it to media, and we took the fact that the university book store carried it as a certain marker of quality. It all worked out fine, and it probably would have worked out just as fine with Debian or other distributions. By 1999, Linux was a solid choice in general.

(In 1999, I only had a few GB total of storage on my SGI Indy and I'm not sure that it would have been easy to deal with a 500 MB+ ISO image. Nor can I remember if I had a CD burner on that machine at the time.)

Both my first generation of x86 PC hardware and my first Red Hat install are long gone, but parts of the install live on in my office workstation, which was first installed in 2006 as a successor and significant duplicate of that first machine and its Red Hat installation.

(I keep Linux installs much longer than I keep my hardware. More exactly, I try to never reinstall them, because reinstalling is a pain. I did it once at home, and never at work since my forced migration in 2006.)

Written on 27 August 2021.
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Last modified: Fri Aug 27 22:29:30 2021
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