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A tale of two Linux bootable business cards

By on March 28, 2002 (8:00:00 AM)

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- 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 Showcase.

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 entirely.

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 current state.

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?"

Similarities

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.

Differences

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.

Conclusion

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.

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on A tale of two Linux bootable business cards

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Where is it

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 29, 2002 03:13 AM
Where can one download this newer version?

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Re:Where is it

Posted by: Russell Pavlicek on March 29, 2002 03:31 AM
Click on the links in the 5th paragraph.

http://lbt.linuxcare.com/
http://www.lnx-bbc.org/

-- Russ

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Re:Where is it

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 29, 2002 03:26 PM
Hmm, if you can't figure that out, these tools are probably not for you.
The text contains the links.

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Re:Where is it

Posted by: Tweeks on March 30, 2002 03:50 AM
IMHO... The new Johnny-come-lately Linuxcare BBC is pretty weak...

When I boot into an emergency recovery environment, I like to have all possible filesystems pre-mounted... The LNX-BBC sees all SCSI cards, all RAID cards,, etc..

The Linuxcare distro just comes up with a text GUI, just sits there, and you're lucky if any of your drive/server hardware is recognized.

Tweeks

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Bootable business card for other OS's?

Posted by: gocyclones on March 29, 2002 03:25 AM
Anyone seen anything like this for IBM AIX, or Sun Solaris. If I could have 3 credit cards to slip in my wallet that I could emergency boot off of that would be awesome! We have the cards to do this, just not the time to slim down the other distros. You can get 25 blank business card CDR's for about $30 at labelgear.com.

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Re:Bootable business card for other OS's?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 29, 2002 04:31 AM
See the PDF file http://www.sun.com/blueprints/0301/BuildBoot.pdf
for directions on building a bootable Solaris CD from your install disks. Don't be put off by the mention of Jumpstart. Remember it's easy to exit the jumpstart gui into a shell environment.

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GPL Compliance

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 29, 2002 04:44 AM
One of the issues not touched upon in this article is that neither BBC provides the sources from which their BBC is built.

This is partially because both were originally built from a combination of sources and already built binaries.

It does remain, however, that both BBCs are probably in violation of the GPL.

The good folks on the LNX-BBC project are well aware of this deficiency and are diligently working to resolve it and to provide complete sources for their BBC.

LinuxCare, on the other hand, seems blithely unaware of and/or unrepentant about their GPL obligations.

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Re:GPL Compliance

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 29, 2002 12:07 PM
You make it sound as if they "have" to comply with the GPL. Wrong! The GPL states in plain english that you can do whatever you want with the source/final product. Give it up. Just because they make changes and give it out as an .ISO doesn't mean they have to give you a thing! It's their perrogative to do what they may with the modifications they've done.

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Re:GPL Compliance

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 29, 2002 09:13 PM
Wrong!
If they used gpl stuff
and are now giving away modified binaries
the have to make the source to the modified binaries available.

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Re:GPL Compliance

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 29, 2002 10:14 PM
You make it sound as if they "have" to comply with the GPL. Wrong!


Actually, they do have to comply with the GPL. Otherwise, they're in violation of copyright law.


Can you say DMCA?

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Re:GPL Compliance - Wrong

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 30, 2002 02:42 AM
You are quite wrong. The GPL clearly states that sources must be offered for any binaries that are distributed. This means the original source and any patches that were applied.

Please stop acting like you understand the issue when you obviously do not.

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Re:GPL Compliance - Wrong

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 03, 2002 01:43 PM
No, the source must be offered to those who have the binaries, not to all and sundry - that is purely optional.

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Re:GPL Compliance

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 30, 2002 08:39 PM
Um, you would be thinking of the BSD/MIT license.

Under the GPL if you modify GPL'd source code and distribute the changed version, you MUST at a minimum place the source code of your changes under GPL and offer to distribute the original source code as well as the source code to your changes to those to whom you've distributed the changed version.

The BSD/MIT license, on the other hand, states in plain english that you can do whatever you want with the source/final product.

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Re:GPL Compliance

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 30, 2002 04:22 AM
The GPL does not require complete source release in the case of aggregation. Could you be more specific as to your charges? In what way is LinuxCare violating the GPL, understanding that nothing in the GPL requires release of GPL and non-GPL software together, and does not require source be made available for the non-GPL parts? What parts does the GPL require them to release the source to that they are not releasing the source to?

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Creating a BBC

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 30, 2002 01:11 AM
I've never burned a BBC-format CD. How difficult is it?

Does a standard CD-R drive recognize the odd physical format and write it properly, or do you have to do some special setup to tell it where there is actually plastic to write to?

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Re:Creating a BBC

Posted by: Russell Pavlicek on March 30, 2002 01:39 AM
I burned these onto minidisks (the diameter of a credit card, but circular in shape) using the normal Linux tools. I did absolutely nothing different than I normally do when burning a full size CD.

-- Russ Pavlicek

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Re:Creating a BBC

Posted by: Tweeks on March 30, 2002 03:39 AM
It's a cinch...

If on Windows.. just DL the iso image and burn it..

If on Linux... download the iso and use either plain cdrecord or Xcdroast.

I have not had any problems with the drive trying to recognize the smaller (uncommon) sized CD-R media. In fact... it's set to 740MB when I start the burn. It simply stops burning at around 47MB (the size of the ISO) and the burner software seems fine with it (speaking for Xcdroast... I don't run any Windows voluntarily.. ;).

Mail me off line if you have any problems..
I run the LNX-BBC mirror site:

        http://xcssa.org

        http://xcssa.org/files/lnx-bbc.html

tweeksjunk at theweeks dot org

Tweeks

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Re:Creating a BBC

Posted by: Tweeks on March 30, 2002 03:42 AM
p.s. check out the cool little CD-R Media that I've started using... It looks MUCh cooler.. has a protective scratch resistant raised ring, plus stays in the cd trays MUCH better that than plain old CD-cards...
http://www.cyberguys.com/cgi-bin/sgin0101.exe?T1=1 54+0490

Tweeks

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Re:Creating a BBC

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 31, 2002 12:04 AM
Erm... Sorry I wasn't clearer in my initial question, I thought it was obvious from context. :(



The smaller round CD-R disks won't be a problem if you're not trying to exceed their capacity. I was wondering about the rectangular business-card form-factor CD-R "disks". After all, this article is about "Bootable Business Cards".



How do you tell the CD-R drive not to write on the parts of the disk that have been chopped off to make it rectangular?



Thanks!

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Re:Creating a BBC

Posted by: Russell Pavlicek on March 31, 2002 02:18 AM
I believe the writable portion of a business card is circular. The rest is unused.

Note that the circular CDs of the same size have a much greater capacity despite not having a significantly greater surface area. I believe most of the capacity increase is found in the now-usable area of the CD.

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Re:Creating a BBC

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 31, 2002 05:37 AM
The blank CD itself tells the burner software how much data can be put on it. And data is written and read from the inside out, so even without knowing the capacity, you'd simply write until you run out of space or data, whichever comes first.

Or maybe you're confused by the shape... the card-shaped CDs have a lot of wasted surface area, and only the circular area with a diameter equal to the widt of the smallest side is useful for data. The extra area making longer sides is unused.

- Rob Funk

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Re:Creating a BBC

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 31, 2002 12:30 PM
Ah! Okay, yes, I was assuming some filesystem trickery allowed storage of data on the ends that "stick out." I was rather impressed by this. Pity it isn't the case...

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BBC's are great

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 01, 2002 07:14 AM
I have both of the bootable toolkits, and must say I prefer the LNX toolkit. I have used these on two occasions to help windows machines, once to diagnose a USB scanner, and the second to help a figure out the problem with a network card (The problem turned out to be the Network Nazi's at my school clever use of IP blocking illegal traffic and DHCP)

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Re:BBC's are great

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 08, 2002 05:42 AM
I prefer the Linuxcare BBC, it's designed for professionals where the LNX BBC seems to be targeted at kids.

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