John Smith's Blog

Ramblings (mostly) about technical stuff

The saga of getting Fedora 14 running on a Dell Mini 10 netbook - part 6 of 6

Posted by John Smith on

It's over two months since I first started this series of posts, and to be honest, anything that hasn't already been written up, I've largely forgotten about. Not to mention, Fedora 15 has since come out, so anything specific to version 14 is already out-of-date. However, after writing up so much already, it seems only right to try to come to some sort of conclusion.

First off - although it didn't come into play until later in the process - Fedora 14 initially shipped with a broken version of the pyxf86config package. This caused a failure to set the display refresh rate correctly when I got the proper drivers installed, so before doing anything, yum update that to a fixed version.

This machine uses a "Poulsboro" (aka Poulsborough aka Poulsbo) chipset, which seems notoriously ill-supported on Linux. However, there are (non-free) packages available for this chipset, I ended up installing the following:

  • kmod-psb
  • kmod-psb-PAE
  • limdrm-poulsbo
  • livna-config-display
  • psb-firmware
  • xorg-x11-drv-psb
  • xpsb-glx
The first two are "metapackages", with the actual packages being stuff with horrendous names like "kmod-psb-".

When all this is in place, Fedora switches to the native resolution of 1366x768, and the machine is pretty much as usable as you might reasonably hope. Because of the way I installed the wifi drivers, every time I've upgraded to a new kernel, the wifi has broken. So far I've just kept with the older kernels - by selecting them via the relevant grub boot option - but I assume it's just a case of recompiling the modules under the new kernel, or hopefully replacing them with a package which will automatically update itself in line with the kernel.

Anyway, hope all this is/was of some use to someone out there...

The saga of getting Fedora 14 running on a Dell Mini 10 netbook - part 5 of several

Posted by John Smith on

To recap from the previous post in this series, I now had a machine with Fedora 14 installed and running, but with no networking, and a generic graphics driver that failed to detect the netbook's native resolution.

I assumed that getting wired Ethernet working would be easier than wifi, but this turned out not to be the case, or so it seemed at the time. The manual building of a driver as outlined below never worked, and at the time it seemed there was nothing shipping with Fedora that supported the Ethernet networking. However, as I write this post (nearly a month after the original install), I find that wired networking is indeed running happily. Not sure what happened - maybe the Poulsbo drivers (to be documented) also cover this aspect of the device?

The upshot is, much of the stuff below may well be irrelevant, but without knowing precisely why stuff wasn't working before, but is now, I'm inclined to keep it all here.

The wired Ethernet chipset reports as a "Realtek RTL8102E/RTL8103E PCI-Express" card, and I downloaded the RTL8101-1.020.00 driver from I couldn't locate a driver that was explicitly marked as being for 8102E or 8103E.

(By the way, am I alone in finding mobo/gfx card manufacturer sites horrendous from a user-experience perspective? They all seem to send you round in circles and make it difficult to know whether you've found what you're looking for...

Building from source obviously requires a number of tools and libraries, according to my bash history, I ended up installing the following from the RPMs on the DVD:

  • kernel-devel-
  • kernel-headers-
  • gcc-4.5.1-4.fc14.i686.rpm
  • binutils-
  • cloog-ppl-0.15.7-2.i686.rpm
  • cpp-4.5.1-4.fc14.i686.rpm
  • libmpc-0.8.1-fc13.i686.rpm
  • glibc-devel-2.12.90-17.i686.rpm

Despite all this, Ethernet networking resolutely failed to work at the time, so I elected to try the wifi instead.

Having never really bothered with Linux wifi since failing to get it working on an HP laptop around 2004/2005, I'm pretty ignorant of how it works. As far as I can tell, there are some open libraries that interface with the closed drivers that a vendor supplies?

In Windows XP, the wifi card is reported as a "Dell Wireless 1397 WLAN mini-card", which appears to just be a rebranding. Fedora's Network Manager states that it is a "Broadcom Corporation BCM4312 802.11b/g LP-PHY", and this Linux Forums thread indicates that it can be made to work with Fedora. With no operational networking whatsoever, it wasn't possible simply to add RPM Fusion to the list of repos, and instead I'd have to download the RPMs on another machine and transfer them via a USB drive.

Unfortunately, my initial Googling came up with inconsistent results. This FC14 RPM Fusion page listed a Broadcom driver, but with 'fc13' in the package name.

Some kmod-wl RPMs also wouldn't install without a wl-kmod-common package, which wasn't listed on that page.

Eventually I found that there's a "meta-package" broadcom-wl here that provides 3 sub-packages:

  • broadcom-wl
  • config(broadcom-wl)
  • wl-kmod-common

Anyway at this point I was pretty fed up and gave up on this angle of attack. (Sound familiar?) I found some binary drivers on the Broadcom site and using the instructions in their README I was able to build the driver and get it working - albeit at the second attempt.

I hacked in the following lines to /etc/rc.local: modprobe lib80211 insmod /root/wifi/broadcom/wl.ko This probably isn't the most elegant solution, but it got wifi networking operating seamlessly from boot, which would then allow me to tackle the graphics driver...

The saga of getting Fedora 14 running on a Dell Mini 10 netbook - part 4 of several

Posted by John Smith on

Netbooks obviously have a bit of a flaw when it comes to installing Linux distros - namely their lack of an optical drive. Many distros now offer easy means of making a USB key, but Fedora's process is a bit of a faff-around.

In particular, I was rather annoyed to find that it wouldn't actually fit on the 4GB USB drive I had earmarked for it - as well as the ~3.5GB ISO image, there's a separate boot image that you have to install, that pushes it over the age. Fortunately, I did have some 16GB drives kicking around, and after clearing out some old files, I had enough space for Fedora 14.

Unfortunately, even though I was able to boot from the Fedora'd USB drive on a regular PC, I was unable to convince the netbook to boot from it, despite fidding around with BIOS settings and the like. (Not that that was necessary for Ubuntu.) I did contemplate trying a network install, but ultimately decided to buy my way out of the problem, and acquired a cheap(-ish) external USB DVD drive. As I've got 3 netbooks, hopefully it might get some long-term use, but I can't actually recall the last time I used optical media on a PC other than for installing operating systems or burning backups...

I then had a minor mis-step - which was nothing to do with Fedora per se - in that I tried to boot from an x86_64 DVD, but the Atom CPU in the netbook seemed to only want to work with 32-bit binaries. Given that I have a Mini-ITX Atom motherboard that quite happily runs a 64-bit OS, I'd naively assumed that all Atom chips were 64-bit, but evidently not.

Luckily I'd already got a 32-bit DVD to hand from some time back, so I was able to get Fedora installed with no further problems. Unlike Ubuntu, it defaulted to having a separate /boot filesystem, so I can be sure that I can easily get rid of Fedora should I ever choose to. The boot installer recognized the Windows XP drive fine, but it seems that - for now at least - the Dell backup stuff is still out of reach :-(

On booting Fedora from the hard-drive, I wasn't in any way surprised to find that it failed to use the proper graphics drivers - defaulting to a non-native resolution - and was also lacking in any sort of working networking drivers. Evidently the USB drives were going to come in useful after all...

The saga of getting Fedora 14 running on a Dell Mini 10 netbook - part 3 of several

Posted by John Smith on

I pretty much stick to Fedora/Red Hat/CentOS for my primary Linux machines, and just use VMs when experimenting with other distros. This isn't due to any intrinsic brilliance in the Red Hat way of doing things; it's more a case that I'm familiar with how those distros are organized, and can quickly get them configured in a way that I want.

However, whilst the puritanical approach of not including binary/non-free drivers is to be admired, it's not necessarily ideal when it comes to getting a working OS on a machine which might have some 'unusual' chipsets, and many laptops and netbooks fall into this category. As such, I thought it worth installing Ubuntu, due to its more 'pragmatic' approach - I'd previously installed Ubuntu on an Asus EeePC and had encountered no problems.

Trial-running with Ubuntu running from the USB drive was basically fine, so I took the plunge and installed it on the netbook's hard drive, repartitioning the existing Windows XP installation. N.B. at this point in time, I didn't realize that Dell had things up with separate boot and backup partitions, as documented in the previous post.

The hard drive install was fine, other than the expected caveats of not running in the native resolution, and not having fully functional networking - if memory serves, wired Ethernet worked, but not wifi. However Ubuntu popped up an alert asking if I wanted to download the binary drivers for these, and soon all was running happily.

That release of Ubuntu though was around 5 months old, and so it seemed prudent to upgrade the installed packages to their latest versions - big mistake. On reboot, the login prompt (gdm I guess) wouldn't respond to keyboard or mouse. Attaching an external USB keyboard did get it to respond a bit more, but I was unable to get it allow me to enter a username or password. Trying the Ctrl-Alt-function keys to get a non-X11 prompt wasn't any use either.

Ubuntu had created some 'safe-mode' style booting options in the GRUB menu, but these were no good either - booting would halt with some error message I've forgotten, long before getting anywhere near a loging prompt. After faffing around for a while, and failing to find anything useful on Google, I decided to reinstall. However, the Ubuntu installer seemed to be a bit confused, and only offered me the choice of repartitioning the already-repartitioned WinXP disc, not to overwrite the borked Ubuntu install.

At this point I decided to give up on Ubuntu, and try Fedora instead. Before doing this though, I had the forethought to check beforehand how exactly the disk was partitioned. (If I'd done this before starting on this whole process, it would have probably saved a lot of time and stress...)

The hard drive was split up as follows (this was the first time I'd realized there had been more than just a single Windows filesystem originally):

  1. The tiny Dell boot partition
  2. The main Windows XP partition
  3. The Ubuntu partition I wanted to get rid of
  4. The Dell restore partition
What I'd like to have done prior to attempting to install Fedora, was to restore the machine back to its factory state, but this wasn't possible - the Ubuntu installer had rewritten the MBR, circumventing the Dell boot partition that would have given me this option. In retrospect, I should have backed up the MBR with dd before installing Ubuntu, which would have now allowed me to restore it via a live distro running from a USB drive.

Worse, Ubuntu's installer not creating a separate /boot filesystem meant that the whole boot process - even for Windows XP - was dependent on this Ubuntu filesystem I wanted to get rid of. (Fedora does create a separate /boot by default, so it's easy to get rid of the main Fedora installation with no impact on the prior OSes.) Possibly I could have restored an MBR from a different machine, but given the non-vanilla Dell configuration, I had doubts that this would be problem-free.

In the end, I decided that the only real option was to go ahead with installing Fedora, and hope that it wouldn't make any more of a mess than was there already...

The saga of getting Fedora 14 running on a Dell Mini 10 netbook - part 2 of several

Posted by John Smith on

Continuing on from the introductory post in this series...

This post is really only of relevance if you intend to retain the original OS and dual-boot - if you're happy to obliterate all traces of Windows, then you can happily skip this one.

I'm not really up on current best-practice for PC vendors, but traditionally I'd expect a new machine to ship with the hard drive fully formatted with a C: drive, whether FAT32 or NTFS. However, this Dell netbook appears to have the disk split into three partitions, as follows:

  1. A pretty tiny 'Dell Utility' filesystem
  2. The actual Windows NTFS, taking up the bulk of the disk
  3. what purports to be a CP/M (!) filesystem, containing (presumably) an image of Windows XP that can be reinstalled. As I haven't used it, I've no idea if this is a vanilla install, or if it has the specific drivers for this machine pre-baked in
Here's how fdisk -l reports these filesystems; note that this was run after I'd created a Linux partition, hence the end of the NTFS filesystem not matching the start of the CP/M one. /dev/sda1 1 5 40131 de Dell Utility /dev/sda2 * 6 11643 93478796+ 7 HPFS/NTFS /dev/sda3 18184 19457 10233405 db CP/M / CTOS / ...

The machine isn't currently powered up, so I can't check the exact figures, but I'd made a backup of these files, and the first partition has just 9.7MB of files, the backup partition has 4.1GB - I'd assume the partitions are only slightly bigger. (By the way, both Ubuntu 10 and Fedora 14 seemed quite happy to mount these filesystems, despite their slightly obscure formatting.)

What I'm guessing is the 'Dell Utility' filesystem is like a /boot Linux filesystem with grub or lilo on. It would seem to look for some key being pressed at boot time - F8 judging by various pages on the net - and if so, runs some restore process using the images on the CP/M filesystem. (Note that F8 itself doesn't seem to be picked up by the BIOS, which only mentions and responds to F2 and F12.) Unfortunately, all this is a guess, because neither the Ubuntu 10 nor Fedora 14 installers seem to recognize the true nature of these filesystems! :-(

What happens is that the installers detect the existing XP install, and when they configure the bootloader, give the choice between booting Linux or Windows - and by Windows, I mean the OS on the NTFS filesystem, not the Dell Utility stub. As such, while XP boots up happily, it seems that I've now lost the ability to restore the system to the factory default using the Dell tools. Whilst I don't have any plans to do this, it would be nice to have the option.

In retrospect, what I should have done was to first back up the MBR using a live distro, which in theory would allow me to undo any "damage" inflicted by a Linux installer - or a regular reinstallation of Windows for that matter. As I've never actually restored an MBR, I don't know if various pages on the net are accurate, but the commands seem to be: # create a backup file called sda-mbr.bin in /tmp dd if=/dev/sdX of=/tmp/sda-mbr.bin bs=512 count=1 and # restore the backup file dd if=sda-mbr.bin of=/dev/sdX bs=1 count=64 skip=446 seek=446

At some point I'll do some experiments with the grub configuration to see if it can be coerced into booting either of these extra filesystems - but for the most part, I've given up on any expectation that they ever be usable again.

As a postscript, this information may not be applicable to newer Dell netbooks. Some page I read - this one perhaps? - mentioned that when the restore stuff is running during the boot process, it briefly flashes up some white text on a blue background. I do recall seeing something like this on this netbook, but it doesn't do it now, which makes sense given the mangling of the original boot sequence. However, my 11" Celeron/Win7 Dell doesn't flash this up at all, so whether they're doing something different now, I don't know. I'll probably do some digging with the aid of a live distro on it, but right now I'm still more interested in getting this 10" machine fully up to speed.

In the next exciting installment, I'll bitch about Ubuntu...

The saga of getting Fedora 14 running on a Dell Mini 10 netbook - part 1 of several

Posted by John Smith on

Amongst my ever growing, never diminishing, pile of hardware are a couple of 1-2 year old Dell netbooks - an Atom based 10" with Win XP Home, and a Celeron 11" with Windows 7. I never had any special plans for either of these machines, they were mainly bought because they were amazingly cheap - the 10" was £209 in Autumn 2009, the 11" £229 in Summer 2010, both of which were around £50-100 less than the going rate for comparable hardware at the time.

Since getting the 11" machine, the 10" has had pretty minimal use. Even with a supposedly "low-end" OS like XP Home, the crummy CPU coupled with 1GB of RAM means it's a pretty chuggy experience - probably not helped by the mountains of pre-installed crap that Dell shoved on it. (The Win 7 machine was much, much cleaner in this regard.)

Now, I do have an Atom based desktop machine running Fedora 11, and that's perfectly usable for the most part - albeit with a slightly better spec Atom processor, but with the same 1GB of RAM. As such, it seemed to make sense to look at getting Linux on the unused netbook, which might give it a bit more regular workout. Both of the netbooks have had a few distros installed within VMWare, but unsurprisingly they don't run that great, performance-wise, but I'm hopeful that Linux running natively should be a decent experience.

The last time I installed Linux natively on a laptop was around 2004/5, and whilst I was happy with how it run, I never got the wifi working. In all honesty, I don't think I actually spent much - if any - effort trying to fix it; I was quite content to use a wired connection. However, the experience made me wary of expecting too much by way of Linux compatibility on laptop hardware; hence why I've generally stuck to running distros within VMs, and letting the underlying pre-installed OS worry about the hardware.

Also, I'm loathe to ever get rid of the originally installed OS on any machines I buy, so I run them as dual-boot. I don't think I'd ever had much of an issue on this before now, but that was before I encountered the mysterious of Dell's restore functionality...

All this blather is leading up to a series of posts I'm planning, that document the trials and tribulations of doing what in theory should be a fairly straightforward task - getting a modern, well-establish and widely used Linux distro (Fedora 14) running on what would seem to be fairly mundane, well understood and supported mass-market hardware (Dell netbook). Unfortunately, this isn't the case :-( Most or all of the areas I'll cover in this series is documented on the net, but it's all rather disjointed, so hopefully I can collate it all here for any other lost souls who set on this path.

To be continued...

About this blog

This blog (mostly) covers technology and software development.

Note: I've recently ported the content from my old blog hosted on Google App Engine using some custom code I wrote, to a static site built using Pelican. I've put in place various URL manipulation rules in the webserver config to try to support the old URLs, but it's likely that I've missed some (probably meta ones related to pagination or tagging), so apologies for any 404 errors that you get served.

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About the author

I'm a software developer who's worked with a variety of platforms and technologies over the past couple of decades, but for the past 7 or so years I've focussed on web development. Whilst I've always nominally been a "full-stack" developer, I feel more attachment to the back-end side of things.

I'm a web developer for a London-based equities exchange. I've worked at organizations such as News Corporation and Google and BATS Global Markets. Projects I've been involved in have been covered in outlets such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, the Financial Times, The Register and TechCrunch.

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