March 7, 2006

My desktop OS: GRML

Author: Mark Gjerde

The best discoveries emerge from obscurity. My favorite discovery of last year was GRML Linux. You won't find this gem in the top 100 at Distrowatch, but if you ask me, it works better than all the usual names.

GRML says it's for "users of texttools and system administrators," but GRML actually offers more. It's Linux that "just works." My users are not geeks, but GRML makes all our lives easy.

Think of GRML as desktop-agnostic Debian with Knoppix-style hardware detection. GRML uses the latest Linux kernel. GRML doesn't violate Debian standards the way Knoppix and Ubuntu do, and compared to Knoppix, it has a less extreme focus on the CD format. Knoppix is hard-wired for CD and tricky to configure on much else. GRML supports many Knoppix cheatcodes, but boots from any device that your BIOS supports (and soon all the rest via chainboot). A nice script called grml2hd does hard drive installation. It creates a standard Debian Linux system with hardware autodetection.

Many distributions fork over desktop environments: Ubuntu/Kubuntu, Knoppix/Gnoppix. GRML doesn't ship GNOME or KDE, but contrary to popular belief, desktop agnosticism is a blessing. It's still easy to put a desktop on GRML. Debian package management is your friend. GNOME, for instance, installs with one command: apt-get install gnome-desktop-environment (include -t experimental for the very latest GNOME release).

Agnosticism means something else. GRML development stays focused on kernel and driver issues. There's no wasted effort on desktop design; GRML leaves that job to desktop developers. However, the basic infrastructure is there; GRML ships lightweight window managers like Fluxbox, and offers X11 configuration.

Still, why select "Linux for sysadmins" for desktop use? Well, think about personal data mobility. Some users don't like to have their personal data tied to one PC. They want data on the road, at conventions, between work, home, and school, at a friend's house, and at client work sites. They want their personal desktop wherever possible. Many productivity factors roll into desktop configuration -- hotkeys, menus, icons, applications, Internet settings, folder trees -- and these are lost when you borrow a machine.

One obvious solution is a laptop computer. Laptops are expensive, fragile, heavy, power-hungry, and more awkward than stock PCs. Laptop screens and keyboards are smaller. They lack ports and expansion options. Sometimes they suffer driver problems. They take extra desk space. They need to be synchronized with stationary desktop PCs.

Another solution is to put data on the Web. Web-based email is simple enough. Still, it's hard to create a Web-based "personal desktop" with your application programs, application files, OS settings, and icons -- and forget about privacy if your data lives online.

The live CD approach can work. GRML is a live CD. All live CDs have one basic problem, though -- they're read-only, so you can't customize them. In theory, you could burn a customized version with personal desktop and applications. That task is unpleasant, tedious, and would have to be repeated if you made the smallest change.

A live CD with a "persistent home" is closer to ideal. A persistent home is a read/write directory on a hard drive that works in tandem with a live CD. GRML supports this technique. However, it presents problems to the mobile user. Where exactly do you keep your persistent home? You must somehow carry it on your person, along with the live CD. You could use a USB device, but if you're going to carry a USB device, why not boot from that?

A bootable USB device is the ultimate mobility solution. These devices are cheap, small, and lightweight. GRML offers a small version specifically for flash memory sticks. Flash sticks are cute, and have valid uses. However, at today's price/performance levels, they don't support mobile users very well. They are too cramped. They can barely boot a desktop Linux, leaving little room for applications or data, and forget about MP3 files.

A compact, rugged, USB hard drive suits mobile users far better. It can hold an entire Linux system. USB hard drives overwhelmingly beat flash memory sticks whether you compare price per megabyte, read/write speeds, media lifespan, data capacity, or almost any other metric. At present, the only metric favoring flash is physical ruggedness, but you can obtain ruggedness in a cheap USB hard drive. It won't endure extreme abuse like a fob, but it will outperform flash in every other way. So the tradeoff is reasonable unless you drive trucks over your boot device. A hard drive gives plenty of room and speed in a portable format that can be reasonably rugged. USB drives are much less cumbersome than laptops and fit in the palm of your hand.

So much for hardware. What about software? The drive must boot on any available PC, so it cannot know the PC hardware in advance. Here GRML's automatic hardware configuration shines. Linux advocates do not promote this aspect of Linux nearly enough. Windows just can't do it. Driver setup is the most common support issue. GRML does it automatically. You run grml2hd and reboot. VoilĂ , the USB drive can boot practically any PC in 90 seconds. Configure and tweak your mobile Linux any way you please. It's just Debian, after all. You will see your changes the next time you boot, no matter whose PC you use.

Automatic hardware detection helps even on one PC. Sysadmins constantly swap expansion cards in and out of test units. GRML can auto-configure no matter what changes you make.

GRML is clean and fast. On my fastest machine, booting an Ubuntu live CD took seven times longer than GRML CD. And Ubuntu removes hardware detection from disk installations; GRML leaves it in place.

Finally, the GRML development team is sized just right for its mission. It's not a one-man show like some other distributions, nor a giant committee meeting.

My interest is in satisfying users with nice, cheap, portable desktops running standard, open source, Debian Linux. GRML has been a big hit for us.

What's your desktop OS of choice? Write an article of less than 1,000 words telling us what you use and why. If we publish it, we'll pay you $100. (Send us a query first to be sure we haven't already published a story on your favorite OS or have one in hand.) In recent weeks, we've covered SimplyMEPIS, Xandros, Mac OS X, Fedora Core 3, Ubuntu, White Box Enterprise Linux, Mandriva PowerPack 2006, Slackware, and SUSE.

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