My advisor was kind enough to buy me a new workstation. Of course, life is not so simple. I wanted to install Debian on it, but that proved to be quite a challenge.
The problems all had to do with the Debian Installer (sarge netinst) being unable to properly read from the CD-ROM. This was perplexing, as the system did boot from that same CD-ROM it then claimed to be unable to read. The exact error message where things fall apart is: “There was a problem reading data from the CDROM. Please make sure it is in the drive. If retrying does not work, you should check the integrity of your CDROM.” This page gives an accurate description of the failure mode I observed.
I found this page which sounds like what I needed, but he apparently didn’t run into the same CD-ROM problems that I did, because the recurred when following his instuctions.
After flailing around with floppy disks without success, I found a page about Debian on Dell Servers which lists the Optiplex GX620. I burned their debian-dell-2.4.31.iso and gave it a try. Well, this installation failed in some ugly way, complaining about zcat. The output was in text mode and was not formatted properly, so I spent very little time trying to repair it. I assumed, possibly wrongly, that the CD-ROM had the same problem and it just manifested itself differently.
Stay with me though, all is not lost. I happened to have a Knoppix 3.7 Live CD lying around, and I tried to boot it. I first had to enable “Compatibility Mode” in my BIOS, but Knoppix booted up and recognized my CD-ROM drive, my SATA hard drives, and my network interface. Now I felt like I was in a position to install an OS. 🙂 I went ahead and installed Knoppix to the hard disk so at least my system could boot into something useable. Taking this working Knoppix system as a starting point, I found these very helpful instructions about how to install Debian onto another partition in a running Linux system. As I write this, debootstrap is happily sucking packages from the Internet. If I never come back and edit this post, you can assume things just worked from here on out.