Installing FreeBSD in a VirtualBox Virtual Machine

With UNIX being the basis of Linux, I have a soft spot for trying out any UNIX that can be installed on a PC. For a while, I had OpenSolaris on the go and even vaguely recall having a look at one of the BSD’s. However, any recent attempt to install one of the latter, and there are quite a few around now, got stymied by some sort of kernel panic caused by using AMD CPU’s. With the return to the Intel fold arising from the upgrade of my main home PC last year, it perhaps was time to try again.

The recent release of FreeBSD 10.0 was the cue and I downloaded a DVD image for a test installation in a VirtualBox virtual machine with 4 GB of memory and a 32 GB virtual hard drive attached (expanding storage was chosen so not all the allocated space has been taken so far). The variant of FreeBSD chosen was the 64-bit x86 one and I set to installing it in there. Though not as pretty in appearance as those in various Linux distros, the installer was not that user unfriendly to me. Mind you, I have experience of installing Arch Linux so that might have acclimatised me somewhat.

Those installation screens ask about the keyboard mapping that you want and I successfully chose one of the UK options. There was limited opportunity for adding extras though there was a short list of few from which I made some selections. User account set up also was on offer and I would have been better off knowing what groups to assign for my personal user account so as to have to avoid needing to log in as root so often following system start up later. Otherwise, all the default options were sufficient.

When the installation process was complete, it was time to boot into the new system and all that was on offer was a command line log in session. After logging in as root, it was time to press pkg into service in order to get a desktop environment in place. The first step was to install X:

pkg install xorg

Then, it was time to install a desktop environment. While using XFCE or KDE were alternatives, I chose GNOME 2 due to familiarity and more extensive instructions on the corresponding FreeBSD handbook page. Issuing the following command added GNOME and all its helper applications:

pkg install gnome2

So that GNOME starts up at the next reboot, some extra steps are needed. The first of these is to add the following line into /etc/fstab:

proc /proc procfs rw 0 0

Then, two lines were needed in /etc/rc.conf:

gdm_enable=”YES”
gnome_enable=”YES”

The first enables the GNOME display manager and the second activates other GNOME programs that are needed for a desktop session to start. With each of these in place, I got a graphical login screen at the next boot time.

With FreeDSB being a VirtualBox Guest, it was time to consult the relevant FreeBSD manual page. Here, there are sections for a number of virtual machine tools so a search was needed to find the one for VirtualBox. VirtualBox support for FreeBSD is incomplete in that there is no installation media for BSD systems though Linux and Solaris are supported along with Windows. Therefore, it is over to the FreeBSD repositories for the required software:

pkg install virtualbox-ose-additions

Aside from the virtual machine session not capturing and releasing the mouse pointer automatically, that did everything that was needed even if it was the open source edition of the drivers and their proprietary equivalents. To resolve the mouse pointer issue, I needed to temporarily disable the GNOME desktop session in /etc/rc.conf to drop down to a console only session where xorg. conf could be generated using the following commands:

Xorg -configure
cp xorg.conf.new /etc/xorg.conf

In the new xorg.conf file, the mouse section needs to be as follows:

Section “InputDevice”
Identifier  “Mouse0”
Driver      “vboxmouse”
EndSection

If it doesn’t look like the above and it wasn’t the case for me then it needs changing. Also, any extra lines from the default set up also need removing or the mouse will not function as it should. The ALT+F1 (for accessing GNOME menus) and ALT+F2 (for running commands) keyboard shortcuts then become crucial when your mouse is not working as it should and could avert a panic too; knowing that adjusting a single configuration file will fix a problem when doing so is less accessible is not a good feeling as I discovered to my own cost. The graphics settings were fine by default but here’s what you should have in case it isn’t for you:

Section “Device”
### Available Driver options are:-
### Values: <i>: integer, <f>: float, <bool>: “True”/”False”,
### <string>: “String”, <freq>: “<f> Hz/kHz/MHz”
### [arg]: arg optional
Identifier  “Card0”
Driver      “vboxvideo”
VendorName  “InnoTek Systemberatung GmbH”
BoardName   “VirtualBox Graphics Adapter”
BusID       “PCI:0:2:0”
EndSection

The next step is to ensure that your HAL settings are as they should. I needed to create a file in /usr/local/etc/hal/fdi/policy called 90-vboxguest.fdi that contains the following:

<?xml version=”1.0″ encoding=”utf-8″?>
<!--
# Sun VirtualBox
# Hal driver description for the vboxmouse driver
# $Id: chapter.xml,v 1.33 2012-03-17 04:53:52 eadler Exp $
Copyright (C) 2008-2009 Sun Microsystems, Inc.
This file is part of VirtualBox Open Source Edition (OSE, as
available from http://www.virtualbox.org. This file is free software;
you can redistribute it and/or modify it under the terms of the GNU
General Public License (GPL) as published by the Free Software
Foundation, in version 2 as it comes in the “COPYING” file of the
VirtualBox OSE distribution. VirtualBox OSE is distributed in the
hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY of any kind.
Please contact Sun Microsystems, Inc., 4150 Network Circle, Santa
Clara, CA 95054 USA or visit http://www.sun.com if you need
additional information or have any questions.
-->
<deviceinfo version=”0.2″>
<device>
<match key=”info.subsystem” string=”pci”>
<match key=”info.product” string=”VirtualBox guest Service”>
<append key=”info.capabilities” type=”strlist”>input</append>
<append key=”info.capabilities” type=”strlist”>input.mouse</append>
<merge key=”input.x11_driver” type=”string”>vboxmouse</merge>
<merge key=”input.device” type=”string”>/dev/vboxguest</merge>
</match>
</match>
</device>
</deviceinfo>

With all that set, it is time to ensure that the custom user account is added to the wheel and operator groups using this command:

pw user mod [user name] -G wheel operator

Executing the above as root means that the custom account can run the su command so that logging in as root at the start of a desktop session no longer is needed. That is what being in the wheel group allows and the anyone in the operator group can shut down or restart the system. Both are facilities readily available in Linux so I fancied having them in FreeBSD too.

Being able to switch to root in a terminal session meant that I could go on to add software like Firefox, Libreoffice, GIMP, EMACS, Geany, Netbeans, Banshee and so on. There may be a line of opinion that FreeBSD is a server operating system but all of these make it more than passable for serving as a desktop one too. There may be no package management GUI as such and the ones that come with GNOME do not work either but anyone familiar with command line working will get around that.

FreeBSD may be conservative but that has its place too and being able to build up a system one item at a time teaches far more than getting everything already sorted in one hit. So far, there is enough documentation to get me going and I hope to see where else things go too. So far, the OS hasn’t been that intimidating and that’s good to see.

A need to update graphics hardware

Not being a gaming enthusiast, having to upgrade graphics cards in PC’s is not something that I do very often or even rate as a priority. However, two PC’s in my possession have had that very piece of hardware upgraded on them and it’s not because anything was broken either. My backup machine has seen quite a few Linux distros on there since I built it nearly four years ago. The motherboard is an ASRock K10N78 that sourced from MicroDirect and it has onboard an NVIDIA graphics chip that has performed well if not spectacularly. One glitch that always existed was a less than optimal text rendering in web browsers but that never was enough to get me to add a graphics card to the machine.

More recently, I ran into trouble with Sabayon 13.04 with only the 2D variant of the Cinnamon desktop environment working on it and things getting totally non-functional when a full re-installation of the GNOME edition was attempted. Everything went fine until I added the latest updates to the system when a reboot revealed that it was impossible to boot into a desktop environment. Some will relish this as a challenge but I need to admit that I am not one of those. In fact, I tried out two Arch-based distros on the same PC and got the same results following a system update on each. So, my explorations of Antergos and Manjaro have to continue in virtual machines instead.

To get a working system, I gave Linux Mint 15 Cinnamon a go and that worked a treat. However, I couldn’t ignore that the cutting edge distros that I tried before it all took exception to the onboard NVIDIA graphics. systemd has been implemented in all of these and it seems reasonable to think that it is coming to Linux Mint at some stage in the future so I went about getting a graphics card to add into the machine. Having had good experiences with ATi’s Radeon in the past, I stuck with it even though it now is in the hands of AMD. Not being that fussed so long there was Linux driver support, I picked up a Radeon HD 6450 card from PC World. Adding it into the PC was a simpler of switching off the machine, slotting in the card, closing it up and powering it on again. Only later on did I set the BIOS to look for PCI Express graphics before anything else and I could have got away without doing that. Then, I made use of the Linux Mint Additional Driver applet in its setting panel to add in the proprietary driver before restarting the machine to see if there were any visual benefits. To sort out the web browser font rendering, I used the Fonts applet in the same settings panel and selected full RGBA hinting. The improvement was unmissable if not still like the appearance of fonts on my main machine. Overall, there had been an improvement and a spot of future proofing too.

That tinkering with the standby machine got me wondering about what I had on my main PC. As well as onboard Radeon graphics, it also gained a Radeon 4650 card for which 3D support wasn’t being made available by Ubuntu GNOME 12.10 or 13.04 to VMware Player and it wasn’t happy about this when a virtual machine was set to have 3D support. Adding the latest fglrx driver only ensured that I got a command line instead of a graphical interface. Issuing one of the following commands and rebooting was the only remedy:

sudo apt-get remove fglrx

sudo apt-get remove fglrx-updates

Looking at the AMD website revealed that they no longer support 2000, 3000 or 4000 series Radeon cards with their latest Catalyst driver the last version that did not install on my machine since it was built for version 3.4.x of the Linux kernel. A new graphics card then was in order if I wanted 3D graphics in VWware VM’s and both GNOME and Cinnamon appear to need this capability. Another ASUS card, a Radeon HD 6670, duly was acquired and installed in a manner similar to the Radeon HD 6450 on the standby PC. Apart from not needing to alter the font rendering (there is a Font tab on Gnome Tweak Tool where this can be set), the only real exception was to add the Jockey software to my main PC for installation of the proprietary Radeon driver. The following command does this:

sudo apt-get install jockey-kde

When that was done I issue the jockey-kde command and selected the first entry on the list. The machine worked as it should on restarting apart from an AMD message at the bottom right hand corner bemoaning unrecognised hardware. There had been two entries on that Jockey list with exactly the same name so it was time to select the second of these and see how it went. On restarting, the incompatibility message had gone and all was well. VMware even started virtual machines with 3D support without any messages so the upgrade did the needful there.

Hearing of someone doing two PC graphics card upgrades in a weekend may make you see them as an enthusiast but my disinterest in computer gaming belies this. Maybe it highlights that Linux operating systems need 3D more than might be expected. The Cinnamon desktop environment now issues messages if it is operating in 2D mode with software 3D rendering and GNOME always had the tendency to fall back to classic mode, as it had been doing when Sabayon was installed on my standby PC. However, there remain cases where Linux can rejuvenate older hardware and I installed Lubuntu onto a machine with 10 year old technology on there (an 1100 MHz Athlon CPU, 1GB of RAM and 60GB of hard drive space in case dating from 1998) and it works surprisingly well too.

It seems that having fancier desktop environments like GNOME Shell and Cinnamon means having the hardware on which it could run. For a while, I have been tempted by the possibility of a new PC since even my main machine is not far from four years old either. However, I also spied a CPU, motherboard and RAM bundle featuring an Intel Core i5-4670 CPU, 8GB of Corsair Vengence Pro Blue memory and a Gigabyte Z87-HD3 ATX motherboard included as part of a pre-built bundle (with a heatsink and fan for the CPU) for around £420. Even for someone who has used AMD CPU’s since 1998, that does look tempting but I’ll hold off before making any such upgrade decisions. Apart from exercising sensible spending restraint, waiting for Linux UEFI support to mature a little more may be no bad idea either.

Update 2013-06-23: The new graphics card in my main machine is working as it should and has reduced the number of system error report messages turning up too; maybe Ubuntu GNOME 13.04 didn’t fancy the old graphics card all that much. A rogue .fonts.conf file was found in my home area on the standby machine and removing it has improved how fonts are displayed on there immeasurably. If you find one on your system, it’s worth doing the same or renaming it to see if it helps. Otherwise, tinkering with the font rendering settings is another beneficial act and it even helps on Debian 6 too and that uses GNOME 2! Seeing what happens on Debian 7.1 could be something that I go testing sometime.

A place for GNOME?

There has been a lot of doom and gloom spoken about the GNOME desktop environment and the project behind it. These days it seems to be the fashionable thing to go constantly criticising it, especially after what Linus Torvalds said. KDE went through the same sort of experience a few years ago and seems to have got far enough beyond it that some are choosing it in preference to GNOME. For a good while, it was the other way around.

Since its inception, the GNOME Shell has attracted a lot of adverse comment. However, since my first encounter, it has grown on me to the point that I add it to Ubuntu and Linux Mint and use it as my default desktop environment instead of Unity, Mate or Cinnamon. The first of these may not be so surprising because of the unique approach has been taken. The use of lenses and an application launch bar are items to which I could adapt but its the merging of application menus and title bars with the top panel of the desktop that really puts me off it. Application window buttons can be moved to the right everywhere but on this global menu so I tend to view things from afar instead of using it everyday. There just is something about the experience that won’t grow on me. Strangely, that also applies to my impressions of KDE albeit in a different; there just is something less slick about the appearance of the bottom panel, the plasmoids and other items like them.

Given that Mate and Cinnamon continue the GNOME 2 approach to things that dominated my home computing for much of the last five years since I turned to Ubuntu, my decision to use GNOME Shell in preference to either come as a surprise. It isn’t that the environments aren’t slick enough but that I have come to prefer the way that GNOME Shell handles workspaces, spawning them as you need them. If that could be an option in Cinnamon, then it might become my desktop of choice but that seems to go against the philosophy of the project even if someone adds and extension for it.

For a time, I played with going with LXDE rather than either Unity or GNOME Shell; as it happened, my first impressions of the latter weren’t so positive until I spent a day with the GNOME variant of Fedora 15. Being not dissimilar to GNOME 2 in the way that it worked was the main attraction of LXDE and my initial use of it was with Lubuntu running on a netbook; the LXDE version of Linux Mint 12 now runs on it so there hasn’t been so much change on that machine.

Sometimes, the only way to deal with change is to take a look at it to see what’s coming and to decide what you need to do about it. In the case to GNOME Shell, my day with Fedora 15 on a backup PC changed my impressions and Linux Mint 11’s GNOME 2 desktop looked a bit old-fashioned afterwards. In fact, I popped GNOME 3 on there and have been using it as my main desktop environment ever since.

In computing, there always are some who expect things to just work and be the way that they want them. The need for extra configuration is a criticism that still can be levelled at GNOME Shell. Before going with Mate and Cinnamon, Linux Mint went the same way and I wonder what be done with such an approach. Will someone else pick up that baton and do the handiwork so that users don’t have to do it? Not yet, it seems. Since no one is following the lead of Linux Mint 12, there is a need for user tweaking and I have found which ones work for me and it no longer takes so to do them either.

The first place to begin is GNOME’s Extensions website and I raid a few extensions from there every time I do an operating system installation. The Alternative Status Menu extension is among the first to get added so that I have the shutdown option again on the user menu, a common criticism of the default set up. Since I always install the GNOME Tweak Tool from the distro repositories, I add the Advanced Setting in User Menu extension to get an entry in the status menu that grants quick access. Frippery Bottom Panel comes next on the list because of its workspace switcher and application window list. Others like Frippery Move Clock, Monitor Status Indicator, Places Status Indicator, Removable Drive Menu, Remove Accessibility, Shell Restart User Menu Entry and User Themes follow in some order and make things feel more pleasing, at least to my mind.

You aren’t stuck with the default theme either and I have chosen Elementary Luna from deviantART. For adding your own themes, the above listed User Themes extension is needed. Because I want Frippery Bottom Panel to match the top panel, I tweak its stylesheet and that’s where the Restart User Menu Entry extension comes in handy, though some care is needed not to crash the desktop with constant shell restarts.

Doing the above makes GNOME Shell really amenable to me and I wouldn’t like to lose that freedom to customise. Saying that, the continued controversial changes aren’t stopping yet. Those made to the Nautilus file manager in GNOME 3.6 have caused the Linux Mint project to create Nemo, a fork of the software, and Ubuntu is sticking with the previous version for now. Taking some action yourself instead of just complaining loudly sounds a more positive approach and it too makes its own statement. Many want the GNOME project team to listen to users and the new Nautilus appears not to be what they needed to see. Could the project go on like this? Only time can answer that one.

While it appears that many have changed from GNOME to other desktop environments, I haven’t come across any numbers. A reducing user base could be one way of sending a message and it makes use of a great feature of free software: there is plenty of choice. If the next version of Nautilus isn’t to my taste, there are plenty of alternatives out there. After all, Cinnamon started on Linux Mint and has gone from there to being available for other distros too; Fedora is one example. Nemo could follow suit.

Now that GNOME’s constituent applications are seeing changes, it may be that GNOME Shell is left to mature. Computer interfaces are undergoing a lot of change at the moment and Microsoft Windows 8 is bringing its own big leap. Though controversial at the time, change can be a good thing too and us technical folk always like seeing new things come along (today saw the launch of iPhone 5 and many folk queueing up for it; Google’s Nexus 7 ran out of stock in its first weeks on the market; there are more). That could be what got me using GNOME 3 in the first place and my plan is to stick with it for a while yet.

An in situ upgrade to Linux Mint 12

Though it isn’t the recommended approach, I have ended up upgrading to Linux Mint 12 from Linux Mint 11 using an in situ route. Having attempted this before with a VirtualBox hosted installation, I am well aware of the possibility of things going wrong. Then, a full re-installation was needed to remedy the situation. With that in mind, I made a number of backups in the case of an emergency fresh installation of the latest release of Linux Mint. Apache and VirtualBox configuration files together with MySQL backups were put where they could be retrieved should that be required. The same applied to the list of installed packages on my system. So far, I haven’t needed to use these but there is no point in taking too many chances.

The first step in an in-situ Linux Mint upgrade is to edit /etc/apt/sources.list. In the repository location definitions, any reference to katya (11) was changed to lisa (for 12) and the same applied to any appearance of natty (Ubuntu 11.04) which needed to become oneiric (Ubuntu 11.10). With that done, it was time to issue the following command (all one line even if it is broken here):

sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade && sudo apt-get
dist-upgrade

Once that had completed, it was time to add the new additions that come with Linux Mint 12 to my system using a combination of apt-get, aptitude and Synaptic; the process took a few cycles. GNOME already was in place from prior experimentation  so there was no need to add this anew. However, I need to instate MGSE to gain the default Linux Mint customisations of GNOME 3. Along with that, I decided to add MATE, the fork of GNOME 2. That necessitated the removal of two old libraries (libgcr0 and libgpp11, if I remember correctly but it will tell you what is causing any conflict) using Synaptic. With MGSE and MATE in place, it was time to install LightDM and its Unity greeter to get the Linux Mint login screen. Using GDM wasn’t giving a very smooth visual experience and Ubuntu, the basis of Linux Mint, uses LightDM anyway. Even using the GTK greeter with LightDM produced a clunky login box in front of a garish screen. Configuration tweaks could have improved on this but it seems that using LightDM and Unity greeter is what gives the intended set up and experience.

With all of this complete, the system seemed to be running fine until the occasional desktop freeze occurred with Banshee running. Blaming that, I changed to Rhythmbox instead though that helped only marginally. While this might be blamed on how I did the upgraded my system, things seemed to have steadied themselves in the week since then. As a test, I had the music player going for a few hours and there was no problem. With the call for testing of an update to MATE a few days ago, it now looks as if there may have been bugs in the original release of Linux Mint 12. Daily updates have added new versions of MGSE and MATE so that may have something to do with the increase in stability. Even so, I haven’t discounted the possibility of needing to do a fresh installation of Linux Mint 12 just yet. However, if things continue as they are, then it won’t be needed and that’s an upheaval avoided should things go that way. That’s why in situ upgrades are attractive though rolling distros like Arch Linux (these words are being written on a system running this) and LMDE are moreso.

Sorting out MySQL on Arch Linux

Seeing Arch Linux running so solidly in a VirtualBox virtual box has me contemplating whether I should have it installed on a real PC. Saying that, recent announcements regarding the implementation of GNOME 3 in Linux Mint have caught my interest even if the idea of using a rolling distribution as my main home operating system still has a lot of appeal for me. Having an upheaval come my way every six months when a new version of Linux Mint is released is the main cause of that.

While remaining undecided, I continue to evaluate the idea of Arch Linux acting as my main OS for day-to-day home computing. Towards that end, I have set up a working web server instance on there using the usual combination of Apache, Perl, PHP and MySQL. Of these, it was MySQL that went the least smoothly of all because the daemon wouldn’t start for me.

It was then that I started to turn to Google for inspiration and a range of actions resulted that combined to give the result that I wanted. One problem was a lack of disk space caused by months of software upgrades. Since tools like it in other Linux distros allow you to clear some disk space of obsolete installation files, I decided to see if it was possible to do the same with pacman, the Arch Linux command line package manager. The following command, executed as root, cleared about 2 GB of cruft for me:

pacman -Sc

The S in the switch tells pacman to perform package database synchronization while the c instructs it to clear its cache of obsolete packages. In fact, using the following command as root every time an update is performed both updates software and removes redundant or outmoded packages:

pacman -Syuc

So I don’t forget the needful housekeeping, this will be what I use in future with the y being the switch for a refresh and the u triggering a system upgrade. It’s nice to have everything happen together without too much effort.

To do the required debugging that led me to the above along with other things, I issued the following command:

mysqld_safe --datadir=/var/lib/mysql/ &

This starts up the MySQL daemon in safe mode if all is working properly and it wasn’t in my case. Nevertheless, it creates a useful log file called myhost.err in /var/lib/mysql/. This gave me the messages that allowed the debugging of what was happening. It led me to installing net-tools and inettools using pacman; it was the latter of these that put hostname on my system and got the MySQL server startup a little further along. Other actions included unlocking the ibdata1 data file and removing the ib_logfile0 and ib_logfile1 files so as to gain something of a clean sheet. The kill command was used to shut down any lingering mysqld sessions too. To ensure that the ibdata1 file was unlocked, I executed the following commands:

mv ibdata1 ibdata1.bad
cp -a ibdata1.bad ibdata1

These renamed the original and then crated a new duplicate of it with the -a switch on the cp command forcing copying with greater integrity than normal. Along with the various file operations, I also created a link to my.cnf, the MySQL configuration file on Linux systems, in /etc using the following command executed by root:

ln -s /etc/mysql/ my.cnf /etc/my.cnf

While I am unsure if this made a real difference, uncommenting the lines in the same file that pertained to InnoDB tables. What directed me to these were complaints from mysqld_safe in the myhost.err log file. All I did was to uncomment the lines beginning with “innodb” and these were 116-118, 121-122 and 124-127 in my configuration file but it may be different in yours.

After all the above, the MySQL daemon ran happily and, more importantly, started when I rebooted the virtual machine. Thinking about it now, I believe that was a lack of disk space, the locking of a data file and the lack of InnoDB support that was stopping the MySQL service from running.Running commands like mysqld start weren’t yielding useful messages so a lot of digging was needed to get the result that I needed. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why I am sharing my experiences here.

In the end, creating databases and loading them with data was all that was needed for me to start see functioning websites on my (virtual) Arch Linux system. It turned out to be another step on the way to making it workable as a potential replacement for the Linux distributions that I use most often (Linux Mint, Fedora and Ubuntu).