Linux tester and linuxator for donated computers

A lot of older computers that people are ready to throw away can be decent linux boxes, in schools or in other charitable locations.

I propose a simple small program (possibly fitting on a floppy as well as CD) which can be inserted into an old computer. It scans the harware and compares it with hardware databases of chipsets, cards and other parts which are known to work well under linux (or your favourite BSD or other OS) and to work well together. It would also evaluate the machine and put it in a “performance class” to describe just how good it is. It might connect to the net (if it can) to download the latest such lists and info and software updates.

The goal is to test if the machine can do a problem-free install, one that asks almost no questions, and converts the system to a nice linux box, ready for some student to run for e-mail, web, and writing. There are so many machines to donate that we can insist on perfection. The program could also tell the owner what upgrades it might need to be good or to reach a performance class. “This machine is good but with 128M of ram it would reach performance class N.” “This machine would be perfect if you swapped the ethernet card for one of these models” and so on.

Next, of course, is a simple distribution, to install from CD-rom or over the network, that can be quickly installed with no questions asked except perhaps time-zone (if it can’t figure that out from the old OS.) The goal is a system that can be run by untrained admins who may never have seen the insides of linux or any other OS.

there is a lot of this already being done

groups like www.riseup.net and www.cat.org.au have been doing this for a long time. Many of the www.indymedia.org centers run like this. There are also groups that put the computers into community groups, but AFAIK not into schools. I'm sure that non-anarchist groups also do this sort of thing.

Schools have special needs - they need to be compatible with the bureaucrazy - that make them particularly difficult to work with on projects like this. That said, I'm sure it has been done.

Can you be more specific

What are the URLs at those sites for the image of the downloadable bootable test floppy or CD?

bootable CD

www.knoppix.net is what www.cat.org.au normally uses. We haven't got the "suggested improvements" thing, but that seems to be quite dependent on what you want the box for. Currently we have a lot of donations available so have upped our standards to the point where adding things isn't required, so that feature is less useful. We're happy about that, but obviously from a green point of view it would be better to make use of everything that's available. Unfortunately the quantities being thrown out are quite terrifyingly large.

Ah. I tried to be as clear

Ah. I tried to be as clear as possible, but the goal is a disk that takes only a few seconds, and which can be run by people who have never used unix before. Knoppix, which I have run, is not at all what I am talking about. Aside from the long time it takes to boot, the result is a running linux, and the people who have never seen linux will have no idea what to do with that or how to test if their ethernet card is working right, or the benchmarks for performance, if the video card meets the requirements etc. They probably wouldn't even know how to turn it off, though of course with knoppix you can just cut power.

Let me state again:

a) The test is to be run by people who have never seen linux. They've run Windows but don't know very much about it.

b) It should fit on a floppy if possible, or not much more than one, and thus be a quick download as well.

I don't think it can be made to work

From experience, the gap between someone who can put a knoppix CD into a PC and watch what happens, and your target market is such that you've almost certainly defined yourself out of existance. From teaching classes to people who are interested enough to come along and have a go, my feeling is that even they have mental hurdles to overcome in the process of "tampering with the machine" to the point where it will boot off a CD or floppy.

At some point you will need a few geek skills, and before then it's actually a lot easier to just go "when did you buy it" and "does it go" as the filtering process. Saying "download this" "make a floppy/CD" "change your BIOS settings" "write down the results" is going to put a lot of people off. The gap between that an an accurate report without the test is, I think, fairly small.

Depending on the level of geek skills available, and what sort of geeks you have, it can be a lot easier just to get the dumping fee off your donors and accept everything. That way the worst case is that you take the useful bits (even just the case screws, fans and power cords) and pass the dumping fee on to your local toxic waste disposal place. Ideally we find schoolgeeks who like playing with hardware, and do them deals based on "one for me, one for you" or similar, for the machines that aren't usable as we get them. Mostly those people just want one decent machine for themselves, and will build more than 10 for us (while creating a fair bit of smoke ;-)

You also need a destination for the machines. With the addition of an extra fan or two many machines make fine firewalls/servers (extra fans mean they take longer to fail with no maintenance), but for classroom use you need to put on a MS-style desktop manager and some useful software, then find monitors (this is, IME, the hardest part). Cat still has some shitty old 15" CRTs because people just aren't donating monitors that still work. We have spare 15" CRTs though...

Also, auction sites are often a good source of some of the hard to find bits - big hard disks for servers, monitors, working printers that don't cost a fortune to run (the expensive to run printers are easy to get... many cost less new than a replacement ink cartridge).

Floppy the last resort

In most cases of course, the machines would already run Windows, so it would be a matter of running a Windows program to do the testing and report. A floppy would be used in the case of a machine that's dead, ie. has no hard drive or more commonly a damaged filesystem. For those cases we have two options. The pre-donor would use their new Windows box to create the floppy or CD. A post-donor evaluation station would have a pre-created boot disk to use on machines brought in to test them and approve them for the next stage of linux install.

Knoppix is nice, but if I gave my mother Knoppix and asked her how well it ran on her PC, she would not be able to begin to give a good report. If she ran another program and it said, "4 stars but needs more RAM" that could be understood right away.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Post new comment

His name is Brad Templeton. You figure it out.
Please make up a name if you do not wish to give your real one.
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
Personal home pages only. Posts with biz home pages get deleted and search engines ignore all links
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options