For most people, “easy” in computers means “familiar.” When I tell them and show them Linux is different — unfamiliar — that's usually the end of the discussion. If the price of change is too high, this is not for you. If the price of learning something new is just another of the costs of having a computer in your home, you'll accept the relatively small price you pay up front for something which gets a lot easier later. If you are still trying to find the “ANY” key, Linux is not for you, especially CentOS. If you have the time and inclination to learn enough to get by, you have come to the right place. The primary advantage of using CentOS in particular, among other types and brand of Linux, is you install it once, and it tends to work exceedingly well until the hardware breaks, as “stability and security” are the primary selling points.
0. Mental migration: It's an old computer geek joke to start a numbered list with zero, but it serves to symbolize the different mindset required for Linux compared to Windows. The first thing you need to reconcile yourself with is the trade-offs. While it's possible these days to run a Windows emulator under Linux, and keep your old Windows favorites, it requires a bit of extra horsepower, and can be quite tricky. In the long run, it's best to change your expectations. For the average home user, there's a Linux tool which does just about everything you've done in Windows. Sometimes it's not as neatly integrated as it seems to be on Windows, but that's because Windows is pretty much one thing, whereas Linux is all sorts of different things. We will try to explain how to make CentOS offer the cool stuff you take for granted under Windows, but we will also discuss the cool things Linux offers which you may not do, or won't do quite so easily, under Windows. If you really struggle with the different assumptions, but are determined to see it through, perhaps you might benefit from reading some of The Clueless User's Guide to Free and Opens Source Software (FOSS).
1. Chasing information: Preparation for this migration requires time and effort, not money. This is do-it-yourself territory, but you're never alone. Using your favorite search engine (Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc.), use the search terms which characterize your hardware alongside the abbreviation “rhel” — the most common shorthand for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, from which CentOS is derived. In fact, CentOS is essentially Red Hat with different artwork. For example, I typed in “inspiron 4100 rhel” and found some useful information about someone who had installed an earlier version of Red Hat. I ran another search substituting “centos” for “rhel” and got slightly different results, but less usable info, since a lot fewer folks are commenting on CentOS compared to Red Hat. If your machine is built from scratch or highly modified, start by researching the motherboard name and model. Either way, some of what you find will inevitably be highly technical, and will require you read it more than once to follow. I believe it's worth the persistence.
Be aware of one significant item: When the Linux folks come up with a driver for some piece of computer hardware or peripheral, Linux will always have that driver. Microsoft has to make a profit, and can't afford to support every piece of old hardware, even if it still works. Most of the time, the company which produced the hardware has to create the Windows drivers, and they tend to drop older products. Some drivers are simply no longer available for companies that folded. There are lots of things you could use with Windows 98 which won't work at all under XP, and you may know with Vista and Windows 7, drivers are a major problem. For Linux, the vast majority of hardware drivers are written by someone who has to analyze the hardware and make it work, all without any help from the manufacturer. Once they make it work, it will likely always work in Linux. I use some ancient hardware which Linux recognizes instantly, and it works quite well, but for which there are no Windows drivers anywhere, not for any version.
One of the things you really need to read through at last once is an installation guide. You can find the official version online, but it's overkill for most of us. Much simpler walk-throughs, with graphics, are also available (especially the first three pages). Please note: The instructions are the same for any part of version 5, so “5.1” is the same as “5.3” in terms of what you experience.
2. Getting the software: Assuming you have reason to believe CentOS will run on your hardware, the next step is getting the means to install it. If you have a really good, fast Internet connection, the best bet is to do what's called a “netinstall” — booting from a minimal CD and installing straight from the package libraries online. This way it will be up to date from the start. Next best is the full installer DVD. If you don't have a DVD reader on your hardware, you'll have to settle for the stack of 6 CDs. If you are able to burn your own DVD/CDs, the place to start is here. Choose one of the links to a server offering the ISO images, a big fat file designed to be written as a usable DVD/CD. If you lack experience in that, you can look it up on the Net; there are hundreds of places explaining how to do it. Of course, you can skip the whole thing by paying someone a few bucks for the trouble. They can't charge you for the software legally, but for the service of creating and shipping you a disk. Again, you'll find them by searching the Net, probably using terms like “buy centos dvd”.
3. Schedule installation: It's possible for an experienced installer to have everything completed in one hour, and in two hours have all the various enhancements and modifications we will do later. If you simply have some savvy, the basic installation can be under two hours. The delay is often figuring out what to choose at certain points. By reading through an installation guide first, you can be primed to choose more quickly. The best situation, of course, is having the help of someone who is familiar with Linux. Let them talk you through the installation process and explain the whys and wherefores of various choices, along with initial use of it.
4. Transitional learning curve: If your first experience with a PC was DOS, OS/2 or an early version of Windows, you had to learn a basic set of habits and expectations. Now you learn some more. Literally millions of ordinary folks have already done it. Honestly, the majority of them are not hobby users, but folks like you who are content to know enough to get by. Once CentOS has been installed, and is running, give yourself some time to get used to it. It won't sing and dance, you may still have to make adjustments (some rather cryptic), but it's largely a matter of trading one set of conveniences for another. You may well be surprised at just how much overlap there is. The one thing which does not overlap is the virus and spyware stuff. I'm exaggerating only mildly when I say you can forget about that completely, because, not only have I never faced that on Linux, I don't even know anyone who has. Running CentOS is as close to immunity as you'll get with so little work.
The last item is reminding you before you start to create two very good passwords. I prefer the method of picking a song (title or line from it) or sentence I'll always remember. Take the first letter from each word in the line, capitalized as appropriate, along with any punctuation. If you are creative, you can subsitute numbers for letters (1 = i, 4 = t or f, 3 = e, etc.), and so forth. You need 7-9 characters, so sometimes a critical word can be abbreviated. Here's an example I once used: an old favorite song from the `80s, “God Is in Control” = Giictrl! Notice I took the common abbreviation for the “control” key to make it come up with enough characters, adding an exclamation point. As long as I associate that song with typing my password, I'll never forget it. Best of all, tests have shown even the smartest computer cracker is unlikely to guess it, nor is cracking software likely to get it. Create two passwords like this, one for “root” and one for a user account.
You are ready to install.
Ed Hurst is Associate Editor of Open for Business.