Running 64-bit Linux on a G5

A couple of weeks ago TerraSoft released preliminary 64-bit ISO’s of their flagship product, Yellow Dog Linux 3.0.1 (YDL), especially for owners of Apple’s new G5 machines. I was pining for a chance to get an open source OS running in 64-bit mode so I quickly downloaded the three ISO’s.This version of YDL is just a beta, so this won’t be a review of the distribution’s features. YDL just happens to be the first open source OS I got working on my G5 and I would like to share my experiences with you. In this article I’ll use YellowDog mainly as an example.

Ever since I got my dual 2GHz. G5 in September I’ve been dying to get under the hood and see what this system is capable of without Apple’s beautiful but resource hungry GUI. I spent weeks digging through alternative OS websites finding very little, but that would seem logical since the G5 has only been out in the wild for a couple of months now.

My greatest hope for a 64 bit capable OS was with three groups of developers:
NetBSD (being the most multi-platform BSD),
Gentoo and
. Personally I’m a great fan of the BSD’s and feel very much at home using them. However there was little news coming from the NetBSD community. That’s why I went looking around in Linux-land where development is usually faster than with the BSD’s.

Both Gentoo and Terrasoft showed promise. First Gentoo released a live CD from which it’s supposedly possible to bootstrap a Linux system. The Gentoo folks didn’t have the G5’s cooling fans under control yet though, so I decided to wait some more. A G5 without software fan control turns up its fans to full blast all the time and sounds much like a vacuum cleaner. There was little joy in working with the machine this way. YellowDog Linux 3, obviously derived from RedHat Linux 8.0, came with working fan control. My G5 seems even quieter in Linux than it is using Apple’s own OS but getting YellowDog to run in a usable way was quite an endeavour.


Sure, downloading three ISO’s and doing a RedHat-style install is easy, but the G5 has a few quirks that still need to be addressed. In short I experienced kernel panics, problems getting the machine to dual boot, video issues in X, some problems with OSX 10.2.8 on another partition and
Mac-On-Linux doesn’t work either. These are serious problems, but I don’t blame YellowDog for them. A representative from TerraSoft told me that they are working on these issues and that this beta-release was only meant to provide a bare bones running system, which it does.. eventually.

To get the first CD to boot at all, I had to lower the display resolution in OSX from 1600×1200 to 800×600. In the higher resolution the install CD would boot, and soon afterwards give a string of errors with a full-blown kernel panic as the climax. I only found the remedy to this after a good bit of searching on the web and in newsgroups. Linux boots perfectly in 800×600. A minor annoyance is having to change resolutions back and forth in OSX whenever I want to use one or the other.

With these kernel panics out of the way, I wanted to install Linux and OSX in a dual boot configuration. This wasn’t easy. Apple’s tools aren’t helpful at all for this purpose and I lost my OSX installation twice due to me misunderstanding the way Apple wants me to think about partitioning. Finally I got things to work by first installing OSX on one partition with the rest of the disk remaining unpartitioned. YDL’s automatic partitioning sorts out the rest of the process perfectly when you choose to automatically partition in the installer. OSX is very similar to Windows in its assumption that it’ll be the only OS the user has on the disk. It is therefore imperative that you install OSX first.

Finally, the installation proceeded properly, much like RedHat’s on an x86. Sadly though the configuration of XFree86 is also very much like it is on an x86. I really hope TerraSoft will at some stage provide standard working configurations for all contemporary Macs. Mac users intrinsically know less about the hardware they’re running than most Linux users on x86 computers do and it’s difficult to choose the right keymaps and video driver. Even now, after half a dozen attempts, I have my screen running in 800×600@70Hz. While this is theoretically usable, which I’m proving to myself right now by typing this review within Linux, it is a sad state for a 21 inch monitor and a Radeon 9600 to be in. Surely there must be a way to change this. I just haven’t found it yet.

Linux affecting OSX on another partition also has to do with graphics. Sometimes, seemingly randomly, OSX boots in 800×600 instead of 1600×1200. This happens sometimes when I reboot after software updates and also when I just rebooted to reproduce this error on a clean system. Much worse though is the problem I got with OSX 10.2.7 and 10.3.1 where the whole System Preferences dialog simply wouldn’t start anymore after I had booted into Linux and back into OSX afterwards. I was left in OSX without a way to change the screen resolution back to 1600×1200 or to change any other settings on the system. The preferences applet simply didn’t appear at all when I tried to launch it. I only managed to resolve this by reinstalling OSX (which also entails reinstalling Linux, or fiddling with the bootloader by hand). I experienced this problem in both OSX 10.2.7 and 10.3.x.

My final and much smaller gripe with YellowDog on my G5 is the fact that Mac-On-Linux doesn’t work. As far as I can tell this has to do with the kernel modules MOL needs being for 2.4.xx kernels, and YellowDog using a 2.6 testing kernel. I’m hardly sure of this assumption though, and frankly I hope to be proven wrong.


YellowDog Linux for the Apple G5 is quite stable for a beta and it works in SMP mode. It does have problems, which are mostly tied to the video subsystem, and these really need to be resolved before this 64 bit Linux will be a viable working environment. The installer could use an overhaul, especially in the X department, to give Mac owners an easier time configuring their systems. I’d opt for a configurator dealing with all contemporary Macs in their default configurations and an ‘Advanced’ or ‘Custom’ button for those who need to tweak their settings.

I’ll certainly be watching TerraSoft closely in the weeks and months to come to see if they can get their distribution up to date and the problems ironed out. Gentoo also shows a lot of promise and of course NetBSD (“Of course it runs NetBSD!”) shouldn’t lag behind Linux too long if it wants to live up to its slogan. There are exciting times to come in the 64-bit arena, and I’m not even talking x86 here!

About the Author
I’m a graphics designer and journalist by trade. I have been using computers since around 1987 when I got my first Commodore 64 as a kid. More recently, in 2000, I got into alternative OS’es on my x86 PC and completely dumped Windows about a year ago. Last summer I ordered an Apple G5, which I feel is the best computer I ever bought.


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