February 6, 2003

Linux gets small: LNX-BBC and DamnSmall Linux

Author: Russell Pavlicek

One of the great things about Linux is its versatility, and that
versatility is rarely as apparent as it is with Linux-based bootable
business cards. Two of these small wonders are especially
interesting: DamnSmall Linux and LNX-BBC.

A bootable business card, or BBC, is a complete operating system contained
on a business-card-sized CD-ROM. These mighty mites normally focus on
utility rather than usability. They are usually self-contained rescue and
recovery tools which can be used to retrieve information or modify damaged
configurations on machines with non-functional operating systems
installed. They require no installation, running live from
CD-ROM. They don't care what operating system is present on the hard
drive. And they do nothing to modify the contents of the drive unless you
explicitly choose to do so.

Because a business card CD-ROM can only hold about 50 MB of software, the
emphasis is on keeping things small. You won't find the typical debates
regarding KDE versus GNOME on BBCs. Both of those desktop solutions
require far too much disk space to be useful in this arena. Instead, you
can expect to employ lightweight window managers like Fluxbox or Blackbox.

A brief BBC history

While it is often difficult to pinpoint the first time something occurs in
the Open Source world, it is usually possible to name the first project to
make waves in a particular area. In the case of BBCs, the first project
to really captivate the imagination was the original Linuxcare BBC.

Started in 1999 by a small group of Linuxcare employees, the Linuxcare BBC
was one of the most memorable giveaways at the earliest LinuxWorld Expo
shows. Pressed on credit-card-sized media, these wonderful little CDs
were a complete toolkit which could be used to repair just about any
damaged PC of the era. Years later, when the employees who built the BBC
left Linuxcare, they forked the project into a new entity known as
LNX-BBC. Linuxcare continued with a BBC project of its own, but that
project apparently fell dormant in 2001.

Back in 2002, I wrote an article comparing Linuxcare BBC and LNX-BBC (A Tale of
Two Business Cards
). Since the Linuxcare
BBC project is no longer active two years later, I will compare the latest LNX-BBC to a
relative newcomer, DamnSmall Linux.

LNX-BBC

LNX-BBC V2.1 is still the classic model of a
BBC. It is designed with the experienced sysadmin in mind and delivers a
powerful set of tools useful for system recovery.

Boot up is simple: select a resolution and go. In keeping with its
recovery focus, the X Window System (X11) is not activated by default.
Instead, a text console instructs the user to log in as "root" with no
password required. Upon login, the user is reminded to type "help" for
instructions. The simple interactive help menu
delivers lots of useful information, including detailed instructions on
how to configure a network, set up PPP, and start X11.

Anyone familiar with using the command line will find a slew of useful
utilities in this distribution. The documentation mentions that more than 1,000
programs
are included. Text-based network utilities include
a variety of Ethernet diagnostics, packet sniffers, wireless sniffers, Web
browsers, and common networking clients. Also included are some small
servers for HTTP, DHCP, Samba, and tunneling. Other useful tools are in
the mix as well, like Windows registry utilities, break-in forensic tools,
and numerous file utilities.

Note that while X11 is included (just use the "startx" command to
initialize it), the focus is mainly on command-line utilities. If you
need a GUI to do your work, LNX-BBC will probably be frustrating for you.
The two main features that require X11 are BrowseX and Ethereal.
BrowseX is a lightweight, cross-platform browser which has come a long way
since I saw it last. It was crisp and quick on the pages I viewed and it
did a palatable job rendering the pages. Ethereal, an excellent graphical
network protocol analyzer, is often one of the key applications in a
network admin's toolkit.

Local disks are automatically mounted in read-only mode. This follows the
notion that a BBC should change absolutely nothing on the system without
the user's explicit approval. Remounting drives for write access is
described by the "help" command.

Additionally, the LNX-BBC project is created in such a way that it can be
enhanced for specific purposes. The project Web site contains lots of
information about the GAR build system, which supplies the sources and
tools to add software and automatically build a BBC ISO file. This is
very nice for organizations looking to build a custom BBC toolkit.

DamnSmall Linux

While a few other BBC projects have been attempted in recent years, one of
the most interesting to arise is the fledgling DamnSmall Linux project.
DamnSmall 0.5.2 is a derivative of Knoppix (which is itself a derivative
of Debian). For those who haven't heard of it, Knoppix is a full-size
LiveCD requiring no installation. It is renowned for its excellent
automated hardware recognition and configuration routines.

DamnSmall's Knoppix roots serve it amazingly well. On a lark, I decided
to try DamnSmall on a somewhat unusual machine: a desktop PC with a PCMCIA
slot and a wireless network card. To my utter amazement, DamnSmall found
the PCMCIA slot, loaded the appropriate drivers for the slot and for the
wireless card, and set up the network with absolutely no user interaction
whatsoever. That's an absolutely stellar performance.

Boot-up requires answering a few questions, such as what type of X server to
use, what resolution, and what type of mouse. Maybe it's not a process
you'd want grandma to go through, but this distribution isn't targeted at
the total novice user. Someone with a little PC experience should have no
problem.

At the conclusion of the boot, I found myself in Fluxbox, which looks
similar to LNX-BBC's Blackbox. Using a right-click to bring up the main
menu, I was drawn to the "Enhance" submenu. Clicking on "Icons" yields an
interesting result: the desktop is suddenly populated with icons for the
major applications found on the CD. Not bad for a live CD
which fits in a shirt pocket.

But more importantly, the types of icons present show that this
distribution is very different from LNX-BBC. Instead of focusing on a
group of utilities which a sysadmin might use for repairing a machine, the
icons and menus of DamnSmall concentrate on providing basic desktop
functions. DamnSmall is less of a focused emergency toolkit for the
professional sysadmin and more of a utilitarian mini desktop.

The distribution provides most of the basic functions for a simple
desktop. Supplied programs include Sylpheed for mail, xpdf for Acrobat
files, Scite for program editing, nvi and Ted for text editing, xmms for
music, xzgv for viewing images, and xpaint for editing images. Other
features include gphone for Internet telephony, cdrecord for burning CDs
and DVDs, parted for partition editing, tcc for compiling ANSI C programs,
and wvdial to facilitate PPP connections. Clients for chat, FTP, and VNC
are present, as well as a simple Web server, SSH server, and NFS server.
It even includes a few amusements, like xpacman and a few cursor toys.

DamnSmall comes with two basic browsers: Dillo and Links. If you have the
network connection, Mozilla Firebird can be installed simply by choosing
it on the menu or double-clicking on the icon. Installation is quick and
painless if you have good bandwidth (in my case, a cable modem
connection).

The only real disappointment I had was the apparent lack of a mixer to
turn off my microphone. For some reason, the microphone seemed to be set
on full volume, so any sound near the mic was instantly amplified through
the speakers. Annoying, but not a showstopper by any means.

Comparing the two

These two BBCs are clearly meant for two different purposes. LNX-BBC is
the power tool for experienced sysadmins involved in hardcore rescue
operations, while DamnSmall is a reasonably friendly miniature general
purpose system. If I had a system that required serious network
diagnosis or intrusion analysis, I would choose LNX-BBC because
of its superb toolkit. If I had a system that needed simple edits to
files or just an alternate operating environment, I'd probably go with
DamnSmall.

LNX-BBC is focused on the command line with X11 as an option,
while DamnSmall is an X11 desktop with command line available.
LNX-BBC does its best to configure the hardware on the system, but the
educated user may be required to manually tweak settings as needed.
DamnSmall, on the other hand, implements the Knoppix concept that hardware
should be recognized and configured with an absolute minimum of
interaction whenever possible. In my case, LNX-BBC could not load a good
driver for my PCMCIA network card on one machine and chose an
inappropriate driver (tulip) instead of the proper de4x5 driver on
another. DamnSmall, on the other hand, loaded and configured the network
interfaces on both machines without so much as a keystroke on my part.

Which one will be added to my traveling toolkit? Both of them. They
both perform useful functions and fit in a very space-conscious form
factor. Both are well worth the download if you can make use of the tools
they offer.

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