Adventures with Linux

While I’ve used Linux for years in the virtual machine space,primarily as a “native” location for many of the UNIX-style commandline tools (even if I’m using them against an SMB share on thenetwork, they’re still extremely helpful), it has never been aprimary operating system on any of my PCs outside of novelty “let’ssee what stage they’re at” usage. Where I did use a Unix variant,it was always FreeBSD.

I’ve decided to give it another go, this time in an “InternetAppliance” of sorts.

This opportunity arose when a hard drive in an old eMachinesAthlon 2400+ 512MB WXGA laptop I had kicking around died. Itwas running warmer and warmer until finally it stopped runningaltogether. Now it’s just lounging on a park bench.

DSC03324Given that the laptop sawlimited use — mostly for my daughter to play PeepAndTheBigWideWorldgames online — this didn’t cause too many tears, and it gives mean opportunity to pursue the internetappliance desire (perhaps in the kitchen. Something that iszero maintenance or security worry, hopefully low power, and thatallows for rich web browsing for the family and guests) that I’vebeen thinking about for some time. What I’m considering is runningthe laptop diskless (meaning no hard drive or floppy drive, thoughthere will be an optical drive — unfortunately this particularlaptop – an M5312 – can’t boot off of the USB key, though I’mkeeping my eye out for possible bios options. Note that I donot want a hard drive, so I’m not looking for replacementoptions for it. This is a fun effort, and as I already have anotherworking modern laptop, I just think a diskless device, minus thenoise, heat and power consumption of the hard drive, would bepretty cool).

After some futile efforts with Knoppix, my initiatives thwarted bythe fact that it refused to work with the Broadcomwireless (either with the native driver or with thendiswrapper driver), I switched over to Ubuntu‘s “LiveCD” desktopversion and it works amazingly (though the wireless worked muchbetter with ndiswrapper and theWindows Broadcom bcm43xx driver). With little hassle the machine isbooted from the CD, the wireless is operating (withWPA and everything), Firefox is updated with Shockwave andvarious updates, and it’s brilliantly usable with complete mobilitythroughout the home, low power, low noise, and limited heat. Icould duct-tape it to a wall if I wanted to.

The only problem is that it’s a temporal state, and once I shutdown (or there’s a power outage), I need to start from the delta ofthe CD image once again. The latest release of Ubuntu does have arather sketchy persistentoption where, with a bootup option (which is lame), itbasically loads everything from the CD, overlays the contents of aUSB key image, so you’re still starting from the base and thenconsuming some of the ghost filesystem with the delta. This is ontop of the fact that the persistent functionality uses the USB keyalmost like a R/W filesystem, purportedly constantly writingchanges, which would lead to a very short key lifespan. Also Ireally don’t want to save continually changing state, but ratherwant to choose a perfectly configured point and solidfy it, witheach reboot starting exactly there.

What I’d really like to do is to configure the machine andsomehow persist that onto a new boot CD, such that thestarting state is exactly what I want (realizing that in thefuture, I may need to make newly updated CDs). Indeed, it ispossible to makeyour own Ubuntu bootup CDs, and I’ve successfully done so tosome success. However I need to get the changes from this live,no-persistent storage laptop onto the image for burning onto CD(many of the configuration steps are making changes unknown to me,so I can’t just modify a couple of /etc .conf files). So I’ve got aUbuntu virtual session running*, and I’ve extracted the boot-imagefilesystem, but it’s the process of getting the laptop image overto the image for burning that I’m unsure of. I’ve tried rsync todismal failure.

If anyone has any ideas, I’d greatly welcome them. The laptophas a 1GB USB key which it can access, and working wired andwireless connectivity. On the other end is a Ubuntu session withplenty of RAM and storage, ready with a decompressed image to beprepared for burning into the ultimate, personalized LiveCD.

* – the process described to make a custom Ubuntu boot CD –such as creating a filesystem within a file, and then copying overfrom the compressed filesystem, completely borkedVirtualPC…multiple times. Not to mention that performance ingeneral was atrocious. I then tried under VMWare Server (the freeproduct) and it worked absolutely perfectly, and the performancewas enormously faster.

Normally I’m a fan of VirtualPC, but from here on in I’ll bedoing all Linux work under VMware.