June 1, 2006

Multi Distro is Linux times 9 on a single CD-R

Author: Glenn Mullikin

Multi Distro includes nine live CD Linux distributions in one ISO file that you can burn to a single disc. It uses the GRUB boot loader to present the user with a main menu from which they can choose which distro they want to run. By showing you how to make your own live CD composed of multiple live CD distros, Multi Distro packs a big punch.

Version 2.5 of Multi Distro includes Slax, GeexBOX, DamnSmallLinux, INSERT, RIP, Mpentoo, Olive, Grafpup, Limp, and a memory tester. Most of the nine distros offer something you would want to play around with a little bit. Several are serious contenders for daily usage by people who just want to browse the Web and send email.

Several of my machines couldn't run some of the distros -- namely Mpentoo, Grafpup, Olive, and Limp. They were mainly my lower-end machines, the 200 to 300MHz ones, and the problem may have something to do with the machines' BIOSs. I also have a 700 MHz and 900 MHz system, on which I was able to run Mpentoo, Grafpup, and Olive. Limp would not run on any of my machines.

To try to fix the problems, I tried using the included mkiso.sh script to re-master Multi Distro using a boot-load-size setting of 4 instead of its default setting of 32 -- a trick I found after a Google search -- but it didn't have any noticeable effect. The kernel halted at the same places it did before with all the distros.

I had hoped to use Mpentoo (Mini-Pentoo), a Gentoo-based distribution, on one of my lower-end computers. Mpentoo is a network-based penetration testing tool first and foremost. You'll find a few userspace applications, such as Firefox, Gaim, and X-Chat, but not much else for regular users.

After being presented with a nice, usable Enlightenment interface, I snooped around the programs listed in the menu system. Ettercap is a nice little packet analysis application that works with minimal fuss, just a few point and clicks. I was able to see a live listing of active connections that would change their status from active to inactive when they stopped. Mpentoo also offers Nmap FE (a GUI front end to Nmap), Nessus, and Ethereal. There are lots of command-line programs that you can access from the menu system, including some for wireless networking, but there is not much handholding.

GeexBox does only one thing, which is to provide a dumbed-down user interface for playing audio CDs and video clips. While it does that fairly well, and despite the fact that it used only 7MB of disk space, I have no use for it.

My two favorite offerings on the Multi Distro CD-ROM are DSL version 2.3 (the most recent standalone version is 2.4) and SLAX 5.1 Popcorn Edition. SLAX has Mozilla Firefox and Midnight Commander, but it doesn't have much else, not even a dialer for the Internet, but you can download additional modules to extend its functionality. With the addition of Mozilla Thunderbird, WvDial, and Nano, I found that SLAX PE is a powerful little workhorse if your needs are simple.

Grafpup gives you a good look at the Puppy live CD distro, and I really like what I see, which is something so easy to use that almost anyone could start using it right away, configuring their Internet connection via point and click methods, and running programs from the Start menu.

I found the other distros, RIP (Recovery Is Possible) and INSERT, better suited for sysadmin usage than for daily Internet browsing and email, though they do include a number of useful utilities for working your hard drives and networks and are worth keeping if you have space on the CD.

Customizing Multi Distro

The Nautopia alternative
If you want to try more live CDs than will fit on a single disc, consider a script from Nautopia that will put as many distros as you like on a writing DVD. Like Multi Distro, it uses GRUB to create a main menu from which the user can choose which distro to run.

If you want to remove distros from the Multi Distro package, or add additional software, you can use the Multi Distro mkiso.sh script, which uses mkisofs to create a bootable CD image. Since several of the offerings on Multi Distro 2.5 were of little use to me, I decided to remove them and add something else in their place, then use the mkiso.sh script to remaster a disc. This didn't go perfectly but I was able to remove the things I wanted to and add most of the things I needed. If you plan to customize, test after each change you make by using an emulator that can run the images generated, such as Qemu. Also, the more one knows about GRUB, ISOLINUX and boot loaders in general, the better. When you burn a disc, you may want to run cat /dev/cdrom | md5sum and compare the result with the md5sum of the image you are burning. This does not guarantee that there will be no reading problems on the disc, but at least it serves as a simple test to see how readable the disc is.

To remove a distro from Multi Distro, look at which files that distro uses and delete them. Also delete the section in menu.lst that applies to that distro, then run the mkiso.sh script, which is fairly well documented.

After my customization efforts, I have a live CD with DSL 2.3 with backup.tar.gz, SLAX PE with slaxconf.mo, and SLAX full edition with slaxconf.mo. Although I have something that works, there is still a small issue with SLAX. The way I put different versions of SLAX on the same live CD is by putting them in separate subdirectories. The problem is that the modules get loaded out of the SLAX-full directory even when I choose to run the version of SLAX setup under the SLAX-popcorn directory. Thus if I want SLAX to autoload modules, I can set up only one directory and that needs to be in SLAX-full. To use modules in the SLAX-popcorn directory, I have to manually load them. When I removed the SLAX-full directory entirely and remastered, the modules do get out of SLAX-popcorn. Eventually I plan to attempt putting multiple versions of DSL on the same CD.


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