A few days ago, I tried to give a general introduction to Linux, not from a techie perspective, but from a big picture perspective.
I mentioned that I was reluctant to try Linux until I had a spare computer to throw at it. Like almost anyone, I didn’t want to take a working computer and put something on it that I’d never tried and maybe end up with a mumble-hundred-dollar paperweight. But there’s a way to sample Linux without installing it. . . .
Most major Linux distributions offer “Live CDs.” A live CD is one that you can pop into your CD drive. When you reboot your computer, it boots to the CD and creates a drive image in RAM. The computer actually boots to this ramdisk, which exists only in volatile memory, without ever touching the hard drive.
Note: It may be necessary to change some BIOS settings to enable the computer to boot the the CD. More about that at some future date.
This gives someone who is curious about Linux the opportunity to see what it looks like, play with a few programs, and generally muck about without making a commitment. When you shut down the computer, the Linux environment goes away.
Take out the CD, reboot, and you are back to your old computer. (A side effect of this is that any changes you make, say, by creating a text file or downloading something from the Internet, are lost on shutdown because they are not saved to the hard drive.)
Perhaps the best known Linux Live CD is Knoppix. When I first explored Linux, I stumbled over Knoppix, downloaded the *.iso, burned a CD, and rebooted my personal laptop to it. I liked what I saw and decided that I was going to explore Linux more deeply. When I took out the CD and rebooted, my XP box was back.
Knoppix is designed solely as a Live CD. It provides a complete functional environment, but one that is severely stripped down. I have also learned that, because it is so stripped down, it doesn’t take kindly to some older hardware.
For example, I recently booted my PIII to the latest Knoppix and had trouble: I was using ten year old monitor and Knoppix didn’t like it. I had to pass special parameters to the Knoppix boot to get the monitor to work; this is because, if Knoppix faces a trade-off between functionality and robustness, it chooses functionality. (In other words, it prefers having strong programs and utilities to having lots of drivers. I have booted other Linux Live CDs to the same hardware and had them work flawlessly.)
Knoppix is very popular with sysadmin types. If they have a broken server, for example, they can boot to Knoppix, navigate to the computer’s hard drive, fix what’s broken, then get out. (Knoppix does not use the hard drive, but it gives persons who know what they are doing the ability to access it, for example, to edit or replace a corrupt file. If the harddrive itself is physically damaged, Knoppix or similar tools may not be able to help. The only option may be to fdisk that puppy down to bare electrons, do a drive check, and start over.)
Knoppix is not designed to be installed to the hard drive. But, for someone who has relatively modern hardware and wants to see what Linux looks like, it’s my first recommendation.
In later posts, I’ll talk about some of the other distributions and Live CDs I’ve tested.
Here’s a link to the Knoppix site.