My Computer, A La Carte - InformationWeek

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2/12/2009
03:56 PM
Mike Fratto
Mike Fratto
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My Computer, A La Carte

OS installs have gotten easier over the years, whether it's a Linux distribution, Mac OS X, or Windows. Fewer choices to make and fewer technical decisions that need to be pondered. But today, I found the easiest of them all, Slax 6 Build a Distribution and I think it serves as a model for how software should be distributed, a la carte, and as a model for smart system recovery.

OS installs have gotten easier over the years, whether it's a Linux distribution, Mac OS X, or Windows. Fewer choices to make and fewer technical decisions that need to be pondered. But today, I found the easiest of them all, Slax 6 Build a Distribution and I think it serves as a model for how software should be distributed, a la carte, and as a model for smart system recovery.Slax, a live CD installation based on Slackware Linux, boots and runs off a CD image. It's small -- the base OS with X-Windows and apps is less than 200 MB. New applications are added as modules when the system boots or during run time. There are hundreds of modules that can be added to Slax and there's plenty of documentation on how to build your own modules. The most interesting part of Slax 6, however, is the build program at slax.org.

Build Slax is an a la carte menu where you can add or remove Slax modules through a Web application. Today, it won't automatically resolve dependencies; you have to add them yourself. But once you are done, click the link to download the .ISO and you get a custom Slax install delivered to you. I took all of 10 minutes to create a custom ISO weighing in at 192 MB, download it, and have it running.

In 13+ years using various Linux distributions, I have seen and performed a number of installs. I spent more time than I care to count burning images to floppy disks though the easier CD installers from Slackware and Red Hat back in the '90s, Gentoo's custom download and compile installer, to the full-blown DVD install found in Ubuntu. My first Linux install was under 30 MB; my latest, Ubuntu, required 4-GB partition. Customizing a Linux installation can be a minefield of resolving dependencies, updating system files, and integrating into your preferred desktop, especially if you go off the distributions approved package list.

Customization like this should be a game changer.

How many times have you rebuilt your computer after a crash? I know it takes me at least two days to get all my applications installed, configured, licensed, and my data restored. Most of that time is spent transferring files and clicking through dialog boxes, all while trying to get work done. What I wouldn't give for a menu of options that would let me select a custom Windows-based installation, including all the applications, download it, and be done. No answering questions like where I want the installation to go, programs should go to c:\Program Files\ on Windows, or confirming my choices. Let me select what I want, you go build it, and tell me when you're done. These are the kinds of repetitive tasks computers are good for.

Why don't we have something similar for Windows? Granted, Tomas Matejicek, the Slax and Linux Live scripts maintainer, is in a unique position to build this kind of automation. Any Linux distro maintainer is, for that matter, because Linux-based applications tend to follow well-defined conventions for file locations and naming conventions. Where applications diverge from convention, the applications are easily alterable through configuration files or recompiling.

With the cost per byte for hard drive space dropping through the floor, I'd love to see the day where a system recovery partition -- the place on the hard drive computer manufacturers put the installable OS and other cruft -- is expanded and a way to add arbitrary applications to the recovery partition. If your current installation goes belly up, press the big red button and everything is reinstalled. Sure, it might take a few hours, but you can do something more productive than swap disks and press buttons.

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