This week I am attending an excellent training course on Linux System Administration at Oracle’s offices in Moorgate, near London. The course is given by Harald van Breederode, an excellent trainer who manages to combine deep technical, real-life expertise with a rare ability to explain complex things in simple terms with a sense of humour.

As is traditional, each attendee was asked to give a precis of his/her job role, star sign, experience with Oracle, most embarrassing professional moment, any exposure to Unix (Linux), favourite band and expectations for the course.

Although I have used various flavours of Unix since embarking on a degree in Computer Science at Warwick University in 1981 and then working for a variety of software houses, my first experience of Linux didn’t come until December 1999.

At that time, I was working at Sequent and had ported a lot of GNU software utilities and tools to Dynix/ptx so I had an interest in GNU software. In the midst of the dot com boom, I had responded to a job posting on Usenet and subsequently been interviewed for a Oracle developer role at a small UK Internet company. The embryonic company had less than 10 employees and provided marketing reports, segmentation and campaign management based on click-stream analysis.

If successful, my first task would be to migrate 15 production Oracle databases from Oracle 8.0.5 on Windows NT to Oracle 8.1.6 on Linux. After the interview, I figured it might be prudent to actually familiarise myself with Linux and how to install and configure Oracle on this platform.

Back then, our house possessed a single desktop computer running Windows 95 so the first step was to obtain a copy of the Linux operating system. I sent off the princely sum of £3 (including postage and packing) to the wonderfully named Linux Emporium (which I am pleased to see survives to this day) and waited patiently for my CD to arrive in the post. Norma raised her eyebrows at a blank CD anonymously packaged in a plain brown envelope but still.

This method of Linux distribution seems a little quaint and old-fashioned when, nowadays, you can download and burn a Live CD in a matter of minutes but back than I had a dial-up 56K modem and downloading a full Linux distribution would probably have taken 3 weeks.

As I recall, I had sole use of the PC back then (Norma didn’t use it for anything) so I didn’t have to bother with a dual-boot system or any pesky backups so I simply inserted the CD, immediately made a pigs ear of partitioning the hard disk, inadvertently formatting it in the process and proceeded to install RedHat.

Given that I knew that my prospective employer had already selected as SuSE the preferred platform (they offered a bundled support package for Oracle and SuSE), the choice of RedHat seems a rather odd decision. I can only assume it was because I had already seen more FAQ’s, HOWTO’s and community support available for RedHat than SuSE. Although, knowing me, the fact that the RedHat CD was 50p cheaper than SuSE can not be ruled out.

Obviously the years, coupled with the drink and drugs, have taken their toll, so my memory is slightly hazy after 9 years but I do remember a tinge of excitement as white text on a black background announcing system messages detecting (or more likely failing to detect) various elements of hardware and peripherals rapidly scrolled past my eyes.

Eventually, I was surprised and delighted to see a desktop complete with a login box rendered on my screen. However, I was equally nonplussed but not wholly surprised when my mouse didn’t work. Now although ‘Tools are for fools’, the Oracle 8i installer is normally run as a GUI (Java) application so, unfortunately, I had to resolve this issue.

Not for the first time, I was now completely stuck as I only had one computer. My impetuousness meant I couldn’t simply boot back into Windows to research the problem so I did ‘Altavista’ed at work, printing out a wealth of similar looking issues and resolutions and started troubleshooting.

Norma was a little suspicious of me being locked away for hours on end, messing around on the computer with my new shiny, blank CD but graciously ignored the alternating screams of anguish and ecstasy emanating from the bedroom.

I soon got comfortable with booting to a command line with no Windows (‘init 3’) and actually managed to configure a device driver for my mouse and I believe I may have even recompiled the kernel. Not because I needed to but well, because I could.

When I eventually got movement out of the rodent and was able to log in, it was incredibly satisfying.

After that, installing Oracle was fairly straightforward as I had already used Oracle on Solaris. However, I recall running Oracle in my environment was a rather different matter as I was perilously close to the absolute minimum specification (64MB of of physical memory) required for Oracle 8i.

All of this work paid dividends as I was summoned back for a second interview and I was able to talk a little more knowledgeably about the potential issues and pitfalls of a Windows to Linux Oracle migration.

Needless to say, this was rather a verbose answer for the course so I just said ‘I once blagged a job as an Oracle DBA managing Oracle 8i on a handful of self-built servers running SuSE.’