March 26, 2002

DemoLinux: A painless way to try Linux

- By Russell C. Pavlicek -

Do you remember the first time you used Linux? If you are like many
folks, you have vivid and perhaps painful memories of the installation.
Maybe you used FIPS or Partition Magic to make room on your hard disk.
Maybe you felt anxious over the idea that if you did something wrong, you
might destroy the system on your hard drive. And you needed to do all
this just to try an operating system you probably knew very little about.

There's got to be a better way to test drive Linux. And there is.

Enter DemoLinux. First offered at Linux Expo Paris in February 2000,
DemoLinux allows people to test drive Linux without needing to install the
operating system. Just boot it from the CD. No hard drive partitioning.
No lengthy installation process. No up-front work at all.

DemoLinux version 1.0 was based on Mandrake 5.3, while version 2.0
switched to a pre-release of Debian "Potato." Now at version 3.01,
DemoLinux tries to create an extremely pleasant user experience that
works on most modern PCs. It does a pretty good job at it, too.

DemoLinux is developed largely by three people from Paris VII University
in France. Perhaps owing to that fact, relatively few people in the United States
seem to know of its existence or its importance. It is an excellent means
of introducing people to Linux without the usual labor and fears
associated with installation.

Getting started

According to the DemoLinux Web page, DemoLinux requires a minimum of 32 MB to use a simple graphical environment (twm), 64 MB to use an advanced graphical environment (KDE or GNOME), or 128 MB to use
StarOffice. Why so much memory? Because the system is never installed,
there is no swap space available (unless you "anchor" the system; more on
this later). By default, the entire operating system and all active
components must fit into memory at all times.

DemoLinux requires the presence of a CDROM drive (the faster the better),
but a hard drive is optional. You will also need a standard PS/2 or
serial mouse (other mice might work, but you will need to check the
Web-based manual for instructions).

DemoLinux is available in English, Spanish, and French versions. There
are also versions with or without StarOffice. The Web page has pointers to
several mirrors that stock the ISO images. Simply download the
appropriate version, burn the CD, and you are ready. Of course, because the
ISO images range in size from 500 to 700 megabytes, you had better
have a fast link available.

To boot up, just insert the CD into the CDROM drive and set the system's
CMOS to boot from the CDROM. Alternatively, you can boot from DOS, provided that you have the appropriate CDROM driver loaded under DOS (and if
you are running Windows 98 or earlier, which allows rebooting under real
DOS mode).

Boot up asks a few simple questions, such as the language and keyboard to
use. It asks if it should use a DHCP server to determine network
parameters or if you would prefer to input the information manually. All
in all, the process is painless.

Taking a test drive

When the system boots up, you may notice that the system seems somewhat
sluggish. This is to be expected. Since all the programs are loading
from the CDROM, there is a noticeable lag compared to normal Linux systems
that run from a fast hard drive. If you are prepared to trade off some
speed for the ease of not doing an installation, I doubt you will find the
experience unpleasant. I fully expect, however, that a user who gets used
to running DemoLinux will eventually want to graduate to a normal Linux
distribution to get the speed that this CD-based system lacks.

I noticed that the execution speed of my wife's AMD K6-2 550 MHz box felt
about the same as my 1 GHz Athlon. This is likely the case because the
drag of the CDROM I/O greatly outclasses the relative differences in
CPU speed.

To log in to the system, one need only click on the "demo" user icon,
select session type (such as KDE2, GNOME, or twm), and click the
"go" button. Neither the "demo" or "root" usernames require a
password.

Most people are familiar with KDE and GNOME, but twm is a flash from the
past. Twm, the "tab window manager" (sometimes called the "tiny window
manager"), is a classic minimalist X Windows window manager. It uses no
icons, so you need to click on the background to raise menus to get things
done. It is very lightweight, though, so if your machine is under-endowed
with memory, you may need to use twm instead of KDE or GNOME.

If you have the memory to use KDE or GNOME, you may find the graphics
pleasing. The DemoLinux team has taken great care to create custom
wallpaper and a color scheme to make the desktop experience anything but
mundane. The desktop icons included something that surprised me: icons
for all the usable Windows (and Linux) partitions on your hard drive.
People running DemoLinux on a Windows PC will be able to save files to any
supported Windows partition (I don't think that includes NTFS yet, but I
don't have an NTFS partition to test it on).

Another interesting feature is the ability to "anchor" DemoLinux to your
Windows box. By pressing the "anchor" icon, you will be given the chance to
create two files on a Windows partition that will provide DemoLinux with
swap space and work space. If you decide to create the anchor files, you
won't have to answer any questions on subsequent reboots and files saved
to your home directory will be saved to disk. And don't worry about the
impact this will have on your Windows system. To deinstall the anchor,
simply delete the two files from your Windows drive. That's all that is
required.

A few problems

Given the fact that DemoLinux has the ambitious goal of providing one
CD-based system that will run on most every system, you have to expect
occasional problems, especially in hardware detection and setup. For
example, DemoLinux could not automatically set up the sound card on my
wife's AMD K6-2 system. That didn't surprise me much, because the sound
hardware on that system is relatively new.

The most serious issue I found was that I needed to edit /etc/resolv.conf
to point to my DNS server. I would have thought that the network
questions during startup would have asked for the DNS server, but they
didn't. Even when using the DHCP client instead of a fixed network
address, the nameserver never appeared in the file (the route to the
gateway never as created either). This is the only issue that I found
that could be a "showstopper" for a Linux novice running on a network.
Instruction in how to correct this needs to be in the DemoLinux
documentation until a fix is created.

Other problems with the system were very minor. Under KDE, I found the
arrangement of the icons on the desktop to be less than thrilling. With a
couple of clicks, however, I rearranged the icons into the vertical format
that I prefer.

Upon anchoring the system, I discovered that the "demo" account lost its
DemoLinux wallpaper. It was annoying, but it didn't change anything of
consequence.

If you choose to anchor the system, correcting any of these network or
desktop issues is a one-time matter since the /etc and /home directory
trees are preserved in the anchor files.

The rest of the system seemed to work well. If you experience problems,
check the FAQ on the Web site. It covers a number of hardware-related
issues that you might encounter.

Impact

I found the system to be quite useful. The system effectively combines
the usual Open Source base you find in a Linux distribution with the
gratis tools (notably StarOffice 5.2 and Netscape 4.76) that a new user
might look for. There are the usual programs: Internet chat (gaim, kicq,
ksirc, etc), email (kmail), dial-up networking (kppp), Web development
(Quanta), software development (KDEstudio, gcc, Python, Tcl, etc), and
multimedia apps (XMMS, aKtion, etc.), along with a wide assortment of
games. While a single CD cannot give everyone everything they ever
wanted, DemoLinux gives the user a taste of the many possibilities
available for Linux.

The result is a very functional desktop computing environment. And, if
you choose to anchor your system, you have the ability to install
additional packages on your system. That's definitely a nice feature from a
distribution that seeks to be as minimally invasive as possible.

DemoLinux has another feature that software producers will appreciate. By
incorporating your product in the structure of DemoLinux, it is possible
to create product demo CDs that can showcase your Linux products without
the customer needing to install Linux at all. With a bit of work on your
part, you can create standalone demo disks that just about any modern PC
can run. That could be a powerful tool for promoting your Linux-based
product or service offering.

Summing it all up

DemoLinux is a nice distribution that accomplishes something that
many other distributions cannot touch: It provides a feature-rich,
simple Linux desktop environment with an absolute minimum of anxiety and
hassle. People who want to test drive Linux without touching their
current system software now have a simple solution at their fingertips.

The DNS issue I mentioned is the only real fly in the ointment here if
a newbie wants to put a DemoLinux machine on a network. That can be
overcome with a little hand holding, but the problem should be corrected in
the distribution.

You may not want to run your business on DemoLinux, but you might want to
test drive DemoLinux in your business to see what Linux offers you.

Click Here!