The Year of the Penguin - Part Four

Linux-PenguinBy Andrew Frame

One popular selling-point used by Linux fans is that it works well on older hardware. “Older” is at best, a relative term. Bleeding-edge gamers think anything without multiple-core CPU’s is obsolete. But, a copywriter could still find a perfectly good workday on a ‘486 running ProWrite.

SOHO servers are often built on older hardware and Linux running without a GUI. Many a Linux based firewall is a ‘486 chip machine. But really, in the audio production business, if you have a machine that old, perhaps it’s time to reconsider a new, less technologically driven line of work. For the purposes of this series, we’re staying with a SOHO desktop machine that runs current versions of web browser, LAN browser, e-mail, office suite, and audio editor.

Like its commercial counterparts, the Linux GUI eats up most of the hardware power. The advantage you have with Linux is that, at the kernel, everyone builds from the same bit of code. There are roughly six major distributions developed out from that kernel. By the time you get to the level of the GUI, there are more than a dozen distro’s (distribution versions) to select from.

First, you need to find the version that will work with your hardware. Then, you find the GUI that keeps it all from bogging down. The best way to do that is with one of the most useful technician’s tools, a Live CD.

A Live CD allows you to run a version of Linux, without loading it to the hard drive. In your search for a Linux distribution, you can test-drive as many as you want without having to go through the time-consuming hard drive installation process for one distro after another. Performance is slower since you are running off a CD or flash drive, but you can sample every feature of every version until you find the one that makes you smile. LiveCDList.com has an extensive set of links to the various versions. And, like all distro’s, they are free for the download.

But wait. There’s more.

No hard drive? Bad hard drive? Corrupt OS files? Boot a Live CD, and do anything you want to do since the OS is only installed to RAM. You can load the image to a flash drive if your machine is capable of booting from a USB port. In service work, you can load a Live CD, go to a hard drive that will not boot, extract all the customer data to external storage, then proceed with a system recovery. Or, repair damaged boot sectors, fix or move partitions, whatever the need is.

A Live CD is also very helpful if you happen to be in a place where you would like to leave as little record of your presence, say a public kiosk or a private office. If you can access the CD/DVD drive or USB port, and can reboot the machine, and you can have a private session where no record of what you did is stored locally. (A network monitor may keep the transaction, but not the local machine.) No accidentally saved passwords, no search results, nothing. You run the whole session off the Live CD and when done, pop out the disk and reboot to the kiosk OS.

And, for forensic work, it’s a way to glean data off most any kind of data storage device and leave no traces that you were ever there. The last thing you want to do with forensics is compromise evidence. A Live CD runs independently of the storage device (a hard drive, for example), and leaves nothing behind after you have obtained what you’re looking for.

Now you know what a Live CD is, and how it can be handy. On older hardware, it provides the opportunity to find a distribution that runs well, and the opportunity to test-drive one of many GUI’s.

The “feature-rich” desktops are Gnome, and KDE. Lots of eye-candy, visual effects, and lots of RAM and processor speed needed to run. You don’t necessarily need a cutting edge dual- or quad-core CPU, but the more robust the chip and the more RAM accessible, the more toys Gnome and KDE will unleash upon your eyeballs.

When I rebuild a Windows machine for my customers, I take out most of the eye-candy – sliding menus, full display drag-and-drop, etc., to put less of a load on the machine. This makes it run a bit faster and more stable under load. But, that’s about all you can do with Windows; turn off functions. With Mac, you really can’t do much of anything.

With Linux, you have a choice of the “feature-rich” desktops – Gnome and KDE – along with a GUI’s that demand significantly less from the hardware. XFCE, LDE, Fluxbox, Ice, Puppy and others give you gobs of speed with a variety of features; from minimal to the luxurious.

So the Live CD, or Live flash drive, will let you find:

The distribution that works with our hardware, old or new, and…

A GUI that gives you the feature set you want, balanced with performance.

All without needing to load to your hard drive, and all free for the download. It’s about as close to a free lunch as you get.

Even though I was sure to stay with Ubuntu, I did run it as a Live CD to check out the new features and visual appeal. Going from 9.04 to 10.04 wasn’t a significant difference in the actual day-to-day experience. Menus are in the same place, system trays and running application panels work the same, most of the software included was updated versions of the same. There were some applications added and others dropped. There was nothing I couldn’t tweak around if it annoyed me.

I stay with Ubuntu because Linux, being Open Source, is generally a do-it-yourself tech support item. And Ubuntu’s community support is huge. Often, if you cannot find the exact solution to the problem you’re having, other users similar problems will fill in enough of the puzzle to help figure it out.

Most distro’s have some level of community support, large or small. Like the distro itself, it’s worth taking a little time to review the support system as well as the actual OS to make sure it’s a good “fit” for your personal level of experience.

You can load Linux and have it “just work.” With Live CD’s and the selection of distributions available, finding a version to put to work in your SOHO is now easier than ever.

SIDEBAR: Myth: “Linux is hard to install. And, it doesn’t recognize my camera/printer/gadget...”

Demythtified: Just a few years ago this was true, in a way that pushed many of the OS-curious away. Now, it's just not true, depending on what you want to do. Most of the major distributions are as easy to install as Windows or Mac. Pop in a disc, answer a couple of questions, and sit back for twenty minutes. When done, you have a ready-to-go desktop. Plug in your printer, camera, scanner, and start using them.

We have multiple computers networked between home and home office. So there were additional steps in configuring the network, setting up shared folders, and the like. This step was more difficult than Windows or Mac.

My laser printer did have a specific Linux software suite that I had to download. Since most manufacturers will only send Windows and Mac drivers with their products, Linux users will often need to download drivers.

Since Ubuntu (for example) is continually updated, it's often already set with drivers for your productivity hardware (printers, etc.) and your toys (cameras, etc.). Generally speaking, if your computer and whatever you are plugging in to it are at least six months old, hardware and driver support are a non-issue. If you like spending your money on the bleeding-edge of consumer technology, be prepared for a little work.

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