Installing Ubuntu on a Dell Dimension E520
Today I had the fun task on installing Linux onto a Dell Dimension E520. I chose Ubuntu as a distribution for it's ease of use and, given Dell's recent commitment to selling Ubuntu on their computers, I thought it would be a safe bet for things like hardware compatibility. It turns out I was slightly wrong about both of those things, at least as far as the installation went.
The background here is that I'm installing this new Dell for an employer who wants to use it as a new work machine. I convinced him to use Linux due to it's greater stability (sort of) and security (definitely). He's been using Firefox and Thunderbird on Windows XP for some time so there shouldn't be too many problems switching over. I plan to install VirtualBox to run XP inside a virtual machine as well to help ease the transition. Being as this is a work machine, data security is a big issue. My proposed solution is to have two hard disks in a RAID1 setup so all data is mirrored and to do regular backups to an external hard drive.
The computer I intended to install Ubuntu on is a Dell Dimension E520 with 2 x 250GB hard drives, 2GB of RAM, an Intel Core 2 Duo (E6420?), an nVidia 7300LE video card, a Viewsonic VX2235wm 22″ LCD monitor (connected with a DVI cable), and an assortment of other hardware, like a card reader, DVD+/-RW, DVD-ROM, and so on. I used Ubuntu 7.04 "Feisty Fawn", the latest Ubuntu version, burned onto a CD.
To start off I did a check of the Ubuntu CD with the CDs "check the disc for errors" menu item. After about 10 minutes it reported back that everything was fine. I proceeded with the installation and everything went swimmingly. Accepting the defaults for the install process (only having to type in user details and select "Melbourne" as my location) got me through in a couple of minutes. Then the installation itself took around 10-15 minutes to complete. Overall, very quick, especially for a full featured desktop operating system.
I then restarted the computer to view my handiwork. This is where I ran into the first problem. It seems that the kernels that comes with Feisty doesn't know how to handle the Dell's BIOS properly – it was unable to shut down or restart the system. I didn't consider this a big deal as I just did a hard shutdown and started it back up. The OS booted up normally.
The second problem, and this appears to be an issue with Ubuntu in general, is that the widescreen monitor settings were not detected at all. The only resolutions available to me from the screen resolution dialog were "1024×768″, "800×600″ and "640×480″. Definitely not suitable for a monitor whose native resolution is 1680×1050! Thankfully I'm no stranger to manually adjusting X.org configuration settings (coming from a Gentoo and Slackware background where these things are the norm) so I was able to add in the native resolution. It should be noted that Ubuntu (or X) did not allow me to use that resolution until I adjusted the vertical and horizontal refresh rates, which required a visit to Viewsonic's website.
Being a new installation there were plenty of updates waiting to be installed. One of these was a kernel update from 188.8.131.52 to 184.108.40.206. It turns out that updating the kernel fixed the issue with shutting down the computer. What is odd is that when I rebooted it told me that the primary partition hadn't been checked for errors in ~49,000 days and proceeded to run fsck over it. Right, well at least you know that your newly formatted partition is error free!
After rebooting the computer (without a hard reboot!), I noticed that I hadn't set up the hard drives to be in a RAID1 (mirrored) configuration. This was fairly easy through the Dell RAID configuration menu. It did tell me that putting the drives into a RAID setup would wipe all the data on them though. This seemed kind of odd to me but I accepted it since I wanted to use a hardware RAID if at all possible to try and avoid any OS issues. After setting up RAID1 I rebooted and started the Ubuntu install process again.
This installation didn't go so well. Instead of using the "guided partitioning" of the entire disk (and there were still two disks being reported on the system, which again seemed odd to me) I used the manual partitioning to set up a separate /home partition. Well, I don't what the problem with the manual partitioner is but it refused to let me set up the partitions how I liked. I kept getting errors of "beginning must be before the end!" no matter what combination of options for each partition I used. Very frustrating. I ended up forgetting about manual partitioning and just went with the automatic option again.
When I tried to reboot this time (using a hard shutdown again) the OS wouldn't boot. Well, that is to say that grub, the bootloader, wouldn't … load. I'm guessing this has to do with a problem relating to the new RAID1 hard drive configuration. I couldn't find any way of getting it to boot so I undid the RAID and everything worked normally. To check if RAID really was the problem I tried to set up RAID1 after I had installed everything but the disks were wiped clean as the setup tool warned.
On to installation 3! By this time I was getting pretty pissed off, as you can imagine. I found GParted (GNOME Partition Editor) in the Live CD administration menu and partitioned the disk how I liked. Amazingly it worked. Using this I could do a manual partition in the Ubuntu installer by simply setting what I wanted the existing partitions to be mounted as ("/" and "/home" in this case) and formatting them. To my surprise this worked fine but a dialog did pop up warning me about the root partition being "too small" or something. It's 15GB so I have no idea what the hell that meant.
So, the rest of the installation went fine. Rebooting (hard) into the new installation went off without a hitch and I went about updating the system again and setting X to the correct resolution for the monitor. Hopefully this is the last time I'll need to install Ubuntu on this computer! During the update process I noticed something odd: when the computer has been idle for some time (no keyboard/mouse actions) the screen fades to black. This takes a few seconds and I interrupted the process after it had just started. Apparently this is not on as it screwed up the colours on a bunch of controls on the screen (progress bar, windows titles, etc), which stayed in their "semi-faded" state and didn't return to normal. Another cycle of fading out and restoring returned these to normal.
Now the only thing to do is use LVM to set up a software RAID on the hard drives and pray that that works as it should.
So, I guess the moral of the story is that the RAID controller on the Dell doesn't play nice with Ubuntu so don't bother even trying to use a hardware RAID! Oh, and the Ubuntu partitioner needs a serious look over in terms of usability.