The Linux Box

As promised, here’s the first article I’ve written for the Huntsville Amateur Radio Club (HARC) newsletter.

Welcome to the first article in a series about the Linux operating system and, more specifically, the amateur radio software applications available for Linux. I’m Steve Conklin, AI4QR, and I’ve been using Linux and developing applications on it for over ten years.

The majority of radio amateurs using Linux use either the Ubuntu or the Fedora distributions. I’m partial to Ubuntu, in part because I’m employed by Canonical (the company committed to developing, distributing, and promoting Ubuntu Linux). Either distribution will work, but I have more current knowledge of Ubuntu than I do of Fedora.

Some of the applications I will discuss can also be run on Windows, but I’m not going to address Windows use in these columns. I will, however, try to mention whether a Windows version is available, but in most cases I can’t tell you how to set it up or run it.

Get Linux

The first thing you’ll have to do to follow along with this series is to run Linux. Nowadays, this is really easy to do – you won’t even need to install it on your computer. First you’ll need what’s called a live CD, and both Ubuntu and Fedora supply live CDs of their distributions. The fastest way to get one is to download disk images (or .iso files) provided by the distributions (see Note 1, following this article) and burn a CD yourself using InfraRecorder or similar software. Ubuntu will even send configured live CDs by mail, but you’ll have to wait for the postman.

If you want to experiment on your present computer without overwriting anything on it, live CDs are the way to go. By installing the entire operating system to a temporary RAM disk held in system memory, live CDs operate without touching any data on your computer’s hard drive. This is convenient, but it does have a few drawbacks – the number of applications you can install is limited by the amount of available RAM, the amount of RAM available to those apps is reduced, and you lose all your installed apps and configuration every time you reboot. This means have to reinstall and reconfigure them each time you run Linux. Booting from CD-ROM is also much slower than booting from your hard drive. Still, for first-time users, live CDs offer a great way to try out Linux and see if you want to do more.

If you have an unused or little-used computer to devote to experimenting with Linux, I encourage you to do that. This allows you the freedom to experiment without any risk to important data, and gives you a chance to install and try out each distribution. Intalling and reinstalling Linux is very fast (much faster than Windows), so it’s easy to do several times in your experimental phase, when you don’t have much to lose. You’ll find that Linux runs well on computers that don’t have enough processor speed, disk space, or memory to run Windows.

Get it Running

Once you’ve got a live CD, simply reboot your computer with the CD in the CD-ROM drive. If it doesn’t boot Linux, you may have to change the boot device order in your BIOS setup. Both distributions will give you the option to permanently install Linux to your computer. Don’t do this unless you have a machine dedicated to running Linux.

If you do decide to install the operating system, you will have to create a username and answer some questions. These are pretty straightforward for both Ubuntu and Fedora. Be sure to memorize or write down any username or passwords you create.

Now that you’re up and running, get a bit more familiar with the desktop. Then try installing an amateur radio application. To start, let’s try xlog. Xlog is a logging program, easily available in both Ubuntu and Fedora, that saves your logs to text files. To install in Ubuntu, select “Add/Remove Applications” from the Applications menu on the desktop, then search for xlog and install it. In Fedora, navigate from the System menu to Administration → Add/Remove Software. As in Ubuntu, just search for xlog and install it. Note that Fedora will also install an application called hamlib as a dependency of xlog (more about hamlib later).

An Actual Amateur Radio Application

Now start xlog (in Ubuntu: Applications → Accessories → Terminal, then type “xlog” in the terminal window; in Fedora: Applications → Other → Xlog). Xlog should start, and I’ll leave it to you to explore the built-in documentation and to play with it. One thing to notice: if you look at the preferences (Settings → Preferences), you’ll see a tab labeled “Hamlib”. This is disabled in Ubuntu because we didn’t install hamlib. Hamlib is another Linux application that I’ll cover it in a future column. It interfaces with radios that support software control through a serial or USB port. If hamlib is installed, it can talk to your rig to read the current frequency, mode, and split – and then xlog can take that information from hamlib and put it directly into your log.

I hope this is a good start for you. There are a lot of great applications out there for Linux, including logging, antenna modeling, VHF/UHF propagation using terrain models, digital sound card communications, APRS, and satellite pass prediction. We’ll get to those. If you have comments or questions, you can enter them as comments under the copy of this article located at my weblog at www.illruminations.com.

Note 1: Ubuntu disk images are located at www.ubuntu.com/getubuntu/download.
Fedora disk images are located at fedoraproject.org/en/get-fedora.

About Steve

I'm Steve Conklin, AI4QR I'm employed by Salesforce, on the SRE team for Heroku. Interests include Linux, open source software and hardware, electronics and music, and amateur radio.
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