- By Russell C. Pavlicek -
When you work with many different machines in many different
circumstances, you tend to assemble a toolbox of software to aid in
recovering malfunctioning systems. In an earlier
article, I mentioned that there are have been two mainstays in my
person toolbox: tomsrtbt, which I
reviewed for NewsForge in December 2001, and the Linuxcare bootable
business card (BBC).
A little history
The Linuxcare bootable business card has a history that goes back to 1999,
when four Linuxcare employees designed a bootable Linux CD to be used for
rescuing damaged systems. The distribution was compact enough to fit on
the small business card-sized CDs. These CDs quickly became the talk of
the Linux trade show circuit, and the earliest editions of the CD were
among the most sought after giveaways at LinuxWorld and the Atlanta Linux
Much has changed in the Linux world since the initial appearance of the
Linuxcare BBC. Not the least of these changes is the Linuxcare BBC
itself. Over time, the BBC grew a usable X Window System that
was absent in the first edition, but it also grew a second distribution
In a move somewhat reminiscent of the birth of Mandrake Linux, the
Linuxcare BBC has birthed two separate BBCs. In 1998, Mandrake was born
through an effort to integrate the KDE desktop into the downloadable
version of Red Hat Linux. Since then, Red Hat and Mandrake have focused
on different directions, creating two very strong Linux distributions.
In a similar fashion, the original Linuxcare BBC now has two heirs: the Linuxcare Bootable Toolbox
V2 and the LNX-BBC project
V1.618. The four originators of the Linuxcare BBC have departed from
Linuxcare and have continued to work the original codebase with the aid of
other volunteers, creating the LNX-BBC project. The LNX-BBC project no
longer has ties to Linuxcare in any way, but the Open Source nature of the
code allows the developers to continue pursuing their original goal.
Linuxcare, on the other hand, has developed a new direction regarding the
BBC concept. The company wants to construct a modular system that will allow
developers there to keep their BBC current with the newest versions of software. To
this end, Linuxcare has created a new BBC, called the Linuxcare Bootable
Toolbox. Claiming that "LBT is not your ordinary BBC," the Linuxcare
Bootable Toolbox V2 is a developer's release. It isn't meant to be a full
featured entry yet, but my testing reveals that it is quite useful in its
Just what is a BBC?
It is important to note that neither BBC is intended to be an end-user
Linux distribution. There are no fancy desktops, no automatic boot into X
Windows, and no mass of user applications. That is not the intention of
these BBCs. They are both meant to be powertools in the hand of
experienced Linux administrators.
Let me stress the word "experienced." Like a novice running wild in the
root account, an inexperienced user can do serious damage to the target
system using a BBC. The intention of a BBC is to produce a
self-contained, bootable environment that allows you to make repairs on a
malfunctioning system. Most of the available tools are the standard
command line utilities, so if you need to rely on nice GUI tools, these
distributions are not for you.
I have used older Linuxcare BBCs to fix broken bootloaders, like LILO and
GRUB, by reconfiguring and reloading them. I frequently use them to test
newly acquired hardware to see what devices are detected and to give the
basic components a quick test. BBCs can be lifesavers for performing
emergency backup and restore procedures.
They are also very handy when a friend's Windows box is hosed and you need
to copy a corrupted driver across a network to solve the problem. Using
Linux to solve a Windows problem is also a very effective form of Linux
advocacy, by the way. It raises the natural question, "Is it better to
run software that causes problems, or the software that fixes problems?"
At the moment, both BBCs are fairly similar to use. Indeed, anyone with
enough expertise to use a BBC in the first place should be able to
navigate either one successfully.
Both CDs boot up and ask for a screen resolution. Do not take the
straight text option unless you know that you will not want to use the X
Window System at all. The rest of the options invoke framebuffer support,
which makes X usable for most systems.
Once the operating system starts, you can log in as root using the
instructions that appear on the screen. If you want to start X Windows,
you can simply use the "startx" command. Both use the Blackbox window
manager, and despite the lightweight nature of Blackbox, both
implementations allow you to customize the style of the desktop windows.
To configure the network, the "trivial-net-setup" script does it quickly
and easily, especially if you have a DHCP server available on the network.
Once the network is running, both BBCs come complete with the Lynx text
browser, as well as graphical browsers under X Windows.
There are a few differences between the BBCs, though. When you log into
LNX-BBC, you scroll through a text document that explains some of the
more important concepts and commands for using the CD. To review this
document at any time, just use the "help" command.
On the other hand, the Linuxcare Bootable Toolbox places you into a simple
menu when you log in. From the menu, you can mount and unmount disks,
configure the network interface, start X Windows, load PCMCIA devices, and
other basic tasks. You can also access the fledgling diagnostic system
called "Albert" which currently gives you some information about the
system (about the same information you used to get from the "MSD" command
under MS-DOS), but promises to eventually give you more interactive
options in the future. To restart the menu after exiting it, simply use
the "menu" command.
LNX-BBC mounts all Linux partitions in read-only mode upon startup. To
modify files, you will need to remount the partition read-write. LBT, on
the other hand, does not mount any hard drive partitions by default.
But the LBT menu can mount the disks quickly using their
normal mount points off the root partition. Unfortunately, it also
appears that it can delete your mount points under some circumstances,
which is an unwelcome surprise, but easy enough to repair.
Some subtle differences exist under X Windows as well. LBT includes
Mozilla as a browser, while LNX-BBC employs BrowseX. I should note that
this was my first time using BrowseX, and I am impressed. It
renders pages quickly and seems to handle most of them pretty well. I did
hit one email site that would not log in under BrowseX (linuxmail.org),
and another where the frames would get "weird" sometimes (Yahoo).
There were a couple of times when the vertical slider on the page
disappeared (quite annoying), but on the whole, BrowseX shows a lot
promise. It certainly seems like a potentially good choice for machines
that have limited memory.
The choices under the Blackbox window manager vary from one BBC to the
other. LNX-BBC includes the highly useful Ethereal program to monitor
ethernet activity. It also defaults to two workspaces (aka virtual
desktops) and even includes a couple of simple games to pass the time
while running tests. LBT has a simpler set of options, defaulting to a
single workspace with a menu including a couple of xterms, a calculator, a
clock, and Mozilla.
LNX-BBC also includes Memtest86
(which I reviewed in March) as a boot option. This is an excellent tool when
working with a machine that might have questionable memory.
Regardless of the subtle differences, the value of both BBCs remains
about the same. Both can do the essential tasks needed to rescue a
system. They can quickly create an environment where files can be
transported across a network. Hard drives and CDs can be
accessed. Programs can be executed. And all this can be accomplished
regardless of the integrity (or lack thereof) of the operating system
contained on the hard drives.
If you find yourself supporting PCs either at home or on the job, you
really should consider having one of these BBCs in your toolkit. They
give you a lot of power that literally fits in the palm of your hand. In
a world that freely hands out business cards, these are two business cards
that you really should not be without.