Lenovo M93p ThinkCentre front

Some Linux distros really suck at dealing with multiple hard drives. Too many “maintainers” only have a laptop.

Background

You need a wee bit of background before we jump in. Hopefully you can see the featured image. Recently picked up this Lenovo M93p ThinkCentre from eBay. I specifically bought an M93p instead of M83 because I wanted two hard drives. I had a 480 GB SSD I wanted to transfer the Windows 10 over to and I had a 6TB Western Digital Black I wanted to use for the other operating systems.

Why did I buy this particular M93p?

Lenovo M93p Ports

I actually added the PS/2 ports today. The little cable showed up to do that. It already had both serial ports, wifi, and the NVIDIA add-on video card. If your eyes are real good you will notice that on the other side of that Wifi antenna is a parallel port.

Software engineers need a lot of ports. If book sales start picking up I may even have to break down and buy another dot matrix printer to print shipping labels with. Yes, parallel port dot matrix printers are still made. You can buy them from newegg.com today. There are lots of legal requirements to print with impact printers on multi-part forms in various shipping and transport industries. They also do a more economic and reliable job on mailing labels . . . if you buy the right one . . . and you have the proper printer stand.

Printer stand back

The best ones from days of old have both a center feed slot and a rear feed slot to accommodate either type of printer. Long time readers of this blog will remember I started work on a Qt and USB series and then life got in the way. That was all USB serial ports talking to real serial ports. My Raspberry Qt series also involved quite a bit of serial port work. My How Far We’ve Come series also involved quite a bit of serial port stuff as well.

Putting it mildly, I still do a fair bit of serial port work from time to time. If I get done with RedDiamond and RedBug without life getting in the way I’m going to start a new post series using CopperSpice and serial ports. The makers of Qt have honked off their installed base with the new “subscription licensing” for Qt 6.x and beyond. Even more honkable, if that is possible, is the chatter that they are trying to license the OpenSource QtCreator as well. Yeah, people are making a hasty exit from the Qt world and many are headed to CopperSpice.

Sadly Needed Windows

Unlike every other machine in this office, I needed to have Windows on this machine. There is some stuff coming up that will require it. There is no way in Hell I was going to try writing my serial port code using Linux in a VM. I may edit it there, but testing is a completely different story.

You’ve never spent days trying to track down why some characters don’t get through. Worse yet, the serial port just “stops working.” After you do a bunch of digging you find that someone baked in some super secret control strings to do special things in the interface driver of the VM. Nothing nefarious. Usually to support “remoting in” via cable connection.

Boot Managers

In the days of DOS and GUI DOS that Microsoft insisted on calling Windows, this was no big deal. BootMagic and about a dozen other competitors existed to help Noobies and seasoned pros alike install multiple operating systems onto the same computer. Honestly, I can’t even remember all of the different products that had a brief life helping with this very task.

OS/2 had Boot Manager backed in. Those of us needing to develop for multiple operating systems usually ran OS/2 as our primary. It just made life so much easier.

Early floppy based Linux distributions came with Lilo. It was generally pretty good at realizing Linux wasn’t going to be on the primary disk. SCSI controllers could support six drives and distributions were different enough you had to boot and build on each.

Grub

Later many distros went with Grub. To this day Grub has issues. The biggest issue is that each Linux distro adopts new versions of Grub at their own pace and Grub has a bit of history when it comes to releasing incompatible versions.

Adding insult to injury is the fact many Linux distros like to hide files Grub needs in different places. When you run your distros version of “update-grub” (as it is called in Ubuntu) it has to be a real good guesser when it wants to add a Grub menu line for a different distro.

Your second fatal injury happens during updates. Say you have an RPM based distro but have Ubuntu as the primary Grub OS. When your RPM based distro updates and changes the boot options for its own Grub menu entry in its own little world it has no way of informing the Grub that is actually going to attempt booting. Sometimes an “update-grub” will fix it and sometimes it won’t. A bit heavier on won’t that will.

Drives got too big

That’s the real problem. During the SCSI days when 80MEG was a whopper we put each OS on its own disk and just changed the boot device. That was our “boot manager.” Every OS existed in its own little universe.

As drives got bigger various “boot manager” type products could play games with MBR based partitions. Only one partition could be “active” so a tiny little boot manager got stuff into the MBR and it changed the active partition to match the requested OS.

Cheap but effective trick as long as you didn’t need more than four partitions. Only a primary partition could be flagged for active booting. Lilo and the other Linux boot managers started allowing Linux distros to boot from Extended partitions.

Today we have GPT and UEFI

I’m not intimate with how these work. The Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) created the spec for GUID Partition Table (GPT). {A GUID is a Globally Unique Identifier for those who don’t know. That’s really more than you need to know.}

Theoretically we can have an unlimited number of partitions but Microsoft and Windows have capped support at 128. The UEFI should be replacing Grub, Lilo, and all of these other “boot manager” type techniques.

We shouldn’t have all of these problems

As you install each OS it should obtain its partition GUID then find the boot device and locate the UEFI partition on it. Then it should look for a matching GUID to update and if not found, create an entry. There is a spec so every entry should be following the same rules.

(If you read up on the OS/2 boot manager you will see that from the 10,000 foot level UEFI and the OS/2 boot manager conceptually have a lot in common.)

When any computer boots from UEFI and there are multiple operating systems in the UEFI partition, UEFI should show the menu and let the user select. This should all be in hardware and firmware now. We shouldn’t have Microsoft trying to lock us into their buggy insecure OS and Linux distros shouldn’t be trying to ham-fist Grub into UEFI.

The Split

I wanted all Linux distros to boot from the 6TB drive. I wanted Windows and UEFI to stay on the tiny SSD. This isn’t unreasonable. As all of the background should tell you, I’ve been doing things like this for decades. I did not want to try and stuff everything on the 6TB.

Each Linux distro would get 500 GB – 800 GB depending on how much I thought I would be doing in them. This means I should be able to put up to 12 different distros on the drive.

That may sound like a lot, but it’s not. You’ve never written code that worked perfectly on a Ubuntu LTS and failed rather bad on some of the YABUs supposedly using that LTS as their base . . . I have. The only way to know things for certain is to have a bunch of test systems. When you are testing serial port (or other device stuff) you need to be running on hardware, not in a VM.

Manjaro was the first failure

Manjaro kernel 5.9.16-1 was actually a double failure. I have this distro running on a pair of machines, but it is the only OS on them. Rather like what they’ve done with the KDE desktop. I rather hate the fact PostgreSQL cannot access the /tmp directory bulk import to restore a database doesn’t work on that platform. There are a few other odd Manjaro bugs as well.

I wanted to do some pacman packaging and some testing of the future serial port code in CopperSpice on Manjaro so it was first on the list. It booted fast and seemed to install clean. Rebooted the computer and boom, Windows came up. Navigated to the Advanced Settings under Settings in Control panel and tried to switch the boot OS. Boom! Windows is the only entry.

(*&^)(*&)(*

Let’s Install Ubuntu!

I had real dread when I reached for Ubuntu. That installer has had a lot of assumptions baked into it over the years. I was pleasantly surprised and slightly disturbed.

Installation went smooth and when I rebooted I was greeted with a Grub menu. Both Windows and Manjaro were on the Grub menu, but, should we really be seeing Grub on a UEFI system with multiple operating systems? Shouldn’t there be a UEFI menu that just has an entry for Ubuntu and when you select Ubuntu shouldn’t that be when you see a Ubuntu Grub menu?

Let’s See if Manjaro Boots Now!

Once I verified Ubuntu could boot and apply updates I rebooted and selected Manjaro. That’s as far as you get. The Lenovo logo stays on the screen and nothing else happens. HP owners have the same problem according to Reddit.

Fedora 33 Was Next

The Fedora installer was the worst of the lot. If you chose the second drive via one of the manual methods, it looked for a UEFI partition on that drive. It wasn’t smart enough to determine what the boot device was and go look there. You couldn’t get out of the screen either. There was no back or cancel, you had to power down.

Summary

Manjaro at least tried to install. It failed to create anything in the UEFI partition of the boot disk and it failed to show any error with respect to UEFI creation failure. It refuses to boot from the entry Ubuntu created for it in Grub. Double failure. I suspect this is due to a combination of super secret stuff needed on the menu entry, Manjaro using a different version of Grub, and Manjaro potentially hiding the files in a place Ubuntu doesn’t know to look.

Fedora failed to get out of the starting blocks. That graphical installer needs a whole lot of work!

Ubuntu worked despite my expectations of abject failure.

Just because Ubuntu worked doesn’t mean every YABU will. Most tend to write their own installers. If the developer working on the installer only has a laptop, they are going to take unreasonable shortcuts.

Related posts:

Fedora 33 Black Screen Again

How to Install PostgreSQL on Fedora 33

Fedora 32 – Black Screen After Login

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