Todd R. Weiss

Linux Install 101, or How I Helped Build Refurbished Linux PCs for Disadvantaged Schoolchildren at LinuxWorld 2008

By Todd R. Weiss
August 08, 2008 11:19 AM EDT

SAN FRANCISCO — Building and using Linux-based PCs is a rewarding and fullfilling pastime for open source enthusiasts, but spreading the gospel to the masses can be even more satisfying.

And if the masses include schoolchildren from low-income homes , cash-strapped non-profit groups and far-away developing nations where technology isn't something easily affordable, then it can be even more soul-satisfying.

For several hundred volunteers here at the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo in the Moscone Center this week, the self-satisfaction was palpable.

Ask me.

I was one of them.

As a Computerworld reporter here covering LinuxWorld this week, I volunteered at the show floor booth of the Berkeley-based Alameda County Computer Resource Center to help out at the first-ever Linux Installfest for Schools that they've created here at the event. Joining the ACCRC for the event are partners Untangle Inc., Ubuntu Linux and the Mozilla Foundation.

The idea, said ACCRC executive director James Burgett, was to bring together Linux and open source fans with a huge global need — helping low-income people get access to reliable and quality technology.

Burgett's been doing these kinds of Installfests for almost 20 years, and says he's provided many thousands of recycled computers to people around the world through the help of people and companies which donate used computer hardware, and teams of volunteers who donate their time to help repair, refurbish and reload all the machines.

Hardworking volunteers at LinuxWorld

Here at LinuxWorld, Burgett said that about 600 PCs would be rebuilt and made ready for new owners, helped by volunteers who took time from the show floor and the technical sessions to inspect, fix and reload one of the donated machines.

The event was as much as he could ask for, he said. "For a first-time event here, nothing blew up, and everything worked," he said. "I'm going to give away at least 600 computers because of this event, so how can you not call that a win?"

I joined one of the tables of volunteers and chose a ratty-looking old beige PC tower to work on. Equipped with a 1 GHz Intel Pentium III CPU, an old Intel D815 motherboard, 256MB of RAM and a 40GB SCSI hard drive, this was no modern machine, but it will likely be a useful tool for someone who can't afford to buy a computer.

A ratty old PC

I hooked up all the required keyboard, mouse, monitor, ethernet and power cables and fired it up, then popped in a special Linux boot CD and restarted it. The machine quickly booted to the CD, allowed me to begin an install of Xubuntu 8.04 — they use this version for PCs containing less than 512MB of RAM — and got underway. After clicking through a few simple screens, for things like installing the network drivers and choosing a hard drive on which to install the operating system, I was done in about 30 minutes. Also available for installation are several other OSes, including Ubuntu Linux 8.04 for better-equipped machines, Edubuntu 8.04 and its education-aimed special features, and Kubuntu 8.04 and its K Desktop Environment user interface.

The box I worked on will now join the hundreds of other machines that were refurbished here and be taken back to the ACCRC, where they will be gone over a second time to add needed parts and case covers, update needed pieces and cleaned up so they look nicer before they are given to families and groups.

Also installed on each of the finished PCs is a donated PDF copy of No Starch Press' "Ubuntu for Non-Geeks" book, which is a great manual for newcomers to Ubuntu and Linux, including the folks who will receive the rebuilt PC.

Ironically, the continuing success of the ACCRC and its Installfests, which it holds on a regular basis at various events, is inversely proportional to the widespread availability and use of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating systems, Burgett said.

"If Windows were any better, I'd get a lot less hardware" donated by frustrated Windows users, he said. "People get fed up with their Windows machines and they give up and give them away," providing the ACCRC with great hardware on which to install Linux and start anew.

So the next time you're at a tech event and see an Installfest for Schools booth, go take a seat and lend a hand. It may be the best work you'll do that day.

And as they said here at LinuxWorld, "May the source be with you."