Langa Letter: Getting the Right Linux Footprint - InformationWeek

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Commentary
3/4/2003
02:07 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
Commentary
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Langa Letter: Getting the Right Linux Footprint

It's never been easy to install Linux, but Fred Langa explores the best available tools and finds reason for hope.

For all its advances in other areas, the Linux setup process has long been a major obstacle to the operating system's wider acceptance. In fact, until quite recently, installing Linux was like a trip back in time:

Forget graphical interfaces. All too often, a Linux install was and still is either fully or mostly a text-based operation, although some of the screens might be dressed up a bit with colored backgrounds or multicolored text. For example, Slackware 9.0, the most-current release of that popular Linux distribution, sets up entirely through myriad screens of DOS-style colored text, like software from the mid-1980s. Primitive? You bet.

Forget auto-detection of hardware. Despite the fact that today's hardware is capable of identifying itself fully and openly to any software that knows how to ask, Linux still often requires that you know, in advance, the brands and models--and, sometimes, even exact model numbers--of the video card, network card, audio card, (etc.) in your system. If you pick the wrong driver, you might end up having to perform the entire installation over, from scratch. (In my office, you can tell the Linux boxes: They're the ones with the hardware cheat sheets taped to their sides, so I won't have to try to remember minutia such as which subspecies of network card is in a particular PC.) Yes, many current Linux distributions now at least take a shot at identifying your hardware, but the installation routine often still will stop, unsure of itself, and ask for confirmation that its guess was correct. For example, even the most recent version of Red Hat 9.0, Shrike, still does this. Primitive? You bet.

For way too long, it was a major project to turn a basic, bootable Linux system into something you actually could use for productive work. Primitive? You bet.

And if those items alone weren't enough of a show-stopper (or an administrator's nightmare), there's this: In most standard Linux setups, one of the earliest stages of installation is the repartitioning of the hard drive and the fundamental altering of the way the system boots. This isn't a problem in the sense of something being wrong--almost all operating systems want the hard drive partitioned in the operating system's native format--but this step alone prevents many potential Linux users from ever trying the operating system because it puts the user's current setup at risk.

However, a most welcome change is afoot--a way to avoid or minimize all these issues--and it's showing up first in a special class of small- and zero-footprint Linux distributions.

Knoppix
I recently had a true "Wow" experience with "Knoppix http://www.knoppix.net/ ," a zero-footprint (nothing written to the hard drive), free distribution of Linux that lives on a single, self-contained bootable CD. Developed in Germany by Klaus Knopper http://www.knopper.net/ knoppix/index-en.html and based on Debian http://www.debian.org/ , Knoppix has been garnering attention because of its completeness (there's about 2 Gbytes of highly-compressed software on the single setup CD), and its almost unbelievable ease of setup and use.

On many systems, getting Knoppix fully-configured and ready-for-work is a no-click, two-minute operation: You boot directly from the Knoppix CD, and a couple of minutes later, with absolutely no user input required at all, and with no changes made to the base system whatsoever, you have a complete, configured Linux setup running.

And I do mean complete: The Knoppix setup includes some 900 additional tools and software packages such as Open Office (a complete office suite, analogous to Microsoft Office), two browsers (Mozilla and Konqueror), a virtual desktop manager, CD burner software, partition managers, the "Evolution" E-mail tool (similar to Outlook), and lots more, even the Wine subsystem that allows Linux to run some Windows software in direct, unmodified form. The full list of what's included in Knoppix is incredible. Take a look! http://download.linuxtag.org/ knoppix/packages.txt

When you're done with your Knoppix session, or with the operating system altogether, there's nothing to undo or uninstall. You just shut down, remove the Knoppix CD, and reboot. Whatever operating system you previously had on the PC (Windows, for example) then runs unchanged, exactly as it was before you ran Knoppix.

That's not to say Knoppix is flawless: As a self-contained CD, it can't include setup files (drivers) for every possible piece of hardware, and so it does have trouble with some setups. For example, LCDs are problematic. (See this discussion http://www.google.com/ search?as_q=knoppix&as_sitesearch= langa.com for some specifics.) Also, it's quite slow: In its default configuration, each software module and application must load from your CD and then be decompressed in RAM before its put to use: Knoppix won't win any speed contests.

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