Error Messages Explained

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Original version written by Graham Morrison in LXF 109 (September 2008).

For the original article in .pdf click here.

Graham Morrison decodes the secret meaning behind the most common Linux error messages and helps you cure the problems in the process.

Some people are scared of Linux because the error messages it produces seem to imply the coming of the apocalypse. And there’s a great number of them. If you search for the word ‘Error’ in our forums, you get more than 150 pages of results. That’s a lot of people experiencing a lot of problems.

The biggest difficulty for these users isn’t the number of error messages; it’s trying to get something useful out of them. What does ‘Kernel Oops’ mean, for example, or ‘PCI Can’t Allocate’? Linux error messages are obtuse, difficult to understand and rarely helpful. Which is a pity, because the vast majority of problems can be solved quite easily, and a considerable number involve the same problems recurring again and again. In business speak, these are low-hanging fruit. And it’s these problems we want to target. You shouldn’t need to be a Linux expert to get your machine to boot, or a programmer to play a movie file. Yet it’s this level of expertise that most error messages seem to assume of their users. We want to demystify these common errors, and provide solutions that should help ordinary Linux users side-step the problem and get their machine back on track. We’ve chosen areas we think are the most problematic. These include booting problems, general software usage, the filesystem, networking and distro installation.

We’ve picked a few of the most common errors from each, and explained what’s happening along with the solution. The intention is that even if the problems don’t apply to you, you can get an idea of how and why Linux error messages might seem arcane and a little intimidating. And hopefully, this will leave you with the knowledge to find a better solution that might help you to solve your own problems.