John Smith's Blog

Ramblings (mostly) about technical stuff

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...

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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