May 6, 2005

My Workstation OS: Kanotix LiveCD

Author: Joseph Slansky

Today, PC system security is paramount. Hackers, viruses, and malware usually target Windows systems, so using Linux moves you off the bull's-eye. Execute from a LiveCD and your system becomes nearly invulnerable; any damage done can be corrected by a simple reboot. That's part of why my current distro of choice is Kanotix 2005-2 LiveCD. I wanted a KDE-based distro for its simple, Windows-like appearance to help the "Windows-only" family members with whom I share the PC. And since we require many applications, we needed a full-featured distro and access to additional applications if necessary.

My short list of candidate distros included Knoppix, SimplyMepis, and Kanotix. Knoppix, the archetypical LiveCD, is a full-blown Linux system compressed onto a single standard CD. However, at the time I was deciding what to adopt, Knoppix did not include Firefox. Also, the most recent Knoppix release has difficulty with my notebook's touchpad and does not include several applications I need.

SimplyMepis is beautiful but is intended for evaluation prior to installation, not long-term LiveCD usage. Current releases lack the "save configuration" feature. I have also encountered some oddities in wireless setup.

That left Kanotix, which detects and configures my system's hardware flawlessly. Kanotix contains the expected complement of desktop applications, including several text editors, the OpenOffice.org suite, the GIMP image editor, the Thunderbird email application, X-Chat and KSirc IRC applications, as well as project management software and personal information management utilities. Kanotix covers multimedia handsomely with applications including the XMMS media player and the user-friendly K3b CD/DVD burner.

However, the additional applications are what make Kanotix especially attractive. FireFox 1.0.2 is the default Web browser. For the security-conscious, Kanotix provides the user-friendly Guarddog firewall. Among the other applications we use are Skype, for free Internet phone calls; Quanta Plus, for Web development; and a BitTorrent client, for large downloads. With Kanotix, I meet all my users' needs without installing additional software.

Should other applications become necessary, Kanotix provides the Unionfs filesystem as well as a klik client. With these, the entire portfolio of Debian applications is available for use in LiveCD mode.

With Kanotix, it is easy to change the default boot options. There's no need to remember cheat codes -- just power up. Kanotix detects and configures hardware and you're ready to rock. It's so simple, my mother uses it.

I modified the distribution so that on boot it searches for a configuration file that contains a setup script for the wireless adapter, printer configuration, and firewall settings, as well as a common set of browser bookmarks. The users don't see any of that; they simply power up the system and everything works. I control the configuration file and make any changes required.

The shared nature of my system means that peripherals come and go. Kanotix detects and configures digital cameras, PDAs, and various storage devices on the fly. My system is wireless for network access and printing. Kanotix provides ndiswrapper and CUPS, the Common Unix Printing System. Wireless printer configuration with CUPS is painless.

We don't use a hard-drive-based home directory on the system, though we could set one up. We get a clean slate with each reboot no matter what happened during the session. That means users must explicitly save data on their own external media. "Save it or lose it" is the rule. To further promote security and privacy, all users use Web-based email clients.

The one thing Kanotix lacks is games; only SuperTux is included.

For my purposes, Kanotix LiveCD is ideal. Hardware detection is the best I have seen. Application software is well-considered and easily extended. Releases are frequent -- every two to three months -- and free for downloading. The user forum is active and helpful. There's also a #kanotix IRC channel on irc.freenode.net.

Hats off to distro developer Kano for a truly exceptional distribution.

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