June 13, 2005

The Debian legacy

Author: Nick Myra

Last week's 3.1 release makes this a great time to give Debian GNU/Linux a whirl. Debian's popularity has inspired dozens of variants, including many that circumvent your hard disk and run directly from a combination of CD-ROM and computer memory. Here's a look at some of the celebrities in the Debian family tree.

Debian is an open source operating system developed by volunteers and freely available via the Internet. Capable of running on a variety of hardware platforms, Debian is also a great representation of the power of open source software. It offers around 10,000 software packages that are maintained by about 1,000 developers.

Klaus Knopper adapted Debian to run directly from CD-ROM. By combining Debian with the El Torito boot method and the Cloop compression algorithm, Knopper was able to create a version of Linux he called Knoppix, which runs directly from a combination of CD-ROM and computer memory without the need for a permanent hard disk installation. This live CD version enables you to do a test run before undertaking a permanent hard disk install. It can also serve as a system rescue disk for saving precious data or troubleshooting hardware. The partitioning applications alone make Knoppix a valuable tool for any users, especially those using multiboot machines.

Furthermore, the ability to store data from a live CD session enables you to use Knoppix for applications such as word processing or Web research and save the results to any removable media, thereby eliminating the need for a hard drive.

Following in the footsteps of Knoppix, Linux live CD systems began popping up all over. While Knopper's work cannot be credited with influencing them all, there is no question that it was the forerunner and catalyst for many of the systems that exist today. These systems run the gamut from generic end user solutions to highly specific and specialized systems for professional use. Furthermore, the evolution is continuing, as new distros spawn a variety of spin-offs.

For example, there are commercial distros such as Xandros and Linspire that contain extra proprietary software. Ubuntu is a popular user-friendly distribution, though recently there have been questions as to Ubuntu's ongoing compatibility with Debian proper. And Progeny, the company formed by Debian creator Ian Murdock, offers customized Linux solutions for commercial use.

Customized versions of the Knoppix CD exist for medical applications, education, multimedia, security, and more. Public IP's Zone CD enables you to easily set up managed wireless hotspots. Knoppmyth is a live CD version that can turn your PC into a high-powered personal video recorder.

Beernix is a general distribution that has the coolest name around. Oralux is helping to improve the state of GNU/Linux for the visually impaired. And BioKnoppix is tailored for that special molecular biologist in your life.

Several live CD versions of Linux exist specifically for the production and distribution of audio and video. Four popular examples are Streambox, Movix, Mediainlinux, and Dyne-Bolic. Movix is particularly interesting in that it can build a Linux distro around a movie file, thus creating a bootable movie playable in most PCs.

Other popular derivatives have inspired specialty customization. Take for instance Damn Small Linux. Several interesting projects have evolved from these "50 megabytes of penguin power." X-DSL is a variant that allows the Xbox video game system to function as a complete desktop computer. ELE is also for the desktop user but is more honed for the paranoiac in all of us, as it focuses on personal privacy.

The usefulness of all these systems stems from the openness of Debian. In fact, the term "open source" was practically coined by folks involved in the Debian project years ago. The Debian Free Software Guidelines, drafted by Bruce Perens, eventually evolved into the Open Source Definition.

This style of developing software holds true to the spirit of Linux and the GNU General Public License. By letting developers build on this freely available infrastructure Debian has given the world much more than an operating system and some applications.

Debian GNU/Linux and its Knoppix derivatives have encouraged the current growth in Linux users. Debian helps show that Linux and its broader social, political, and economical implications are a force to be reckoned with.


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