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I've gotten suggestions to upgrade the memory and disk storage, and how to fine-tune the Microsoft Windows XP operating system. Others suggested replacing the OS with Linux, and to use the Cloud to avoid some of the storage space limitations.
But first, I have to mention the latest in our series of "Enterprise Systems" videos. The first was being [Data Ready]. The second was being [Security Ready]. The now the third in the series: the 3-minute
[Cloud Ready] video.
So I decided to try different Cloud-oriented Operating Systems, to see if any would be a good fit. Here is what I found:
(FTC Disclosure: I work for IBM and own IBM stock. This blog post is not meant to endorse one OS over another. I have financial interests in, and/or have friends and family who work at some of the various companies mentioned in this post. Some of these companies also have business relationships with IBM.)
Jolicloud and Joli OS 1.2
I gave this OS a try. This is based on Linux, but with an interesting approach. First, you have to be on-line all the time, and this OS is designed for 15-25 year-olds who are on social media websites like Facebook. By having a Jolicloud account, you can access this from any browser on any system, or run the Joli OS operating system, or buy the already pre-installed Jolibook netbook computer.
The Joli OS 1.2 LiveCD ran fine on my T410 with 4GB or RAM, giving me a chance to check it out, but sadly did not run on grandma's Thinkpad R31 with 384MB of RAM. According to the [Jolicloud specifications], Joli OS should run in as little as 384MB of RAM and 2GB of disk storage space, but it didn't for me.
Google Chrome and Chromium OS Vanilla
Like the Jolibook, Google has come out with a $249 Chromebook laptop that runs their "Chrome OS". This is only available via OEM install on desginated hardware, but the open source version is available called Chromium OS. These are also based on Linux.
Rather than compiling from source, Hexxeh has made nightly builds available. You can download [Chromium OS Vanilla] zip file, unzip the image file, and copy it to a 4GB USB memory stick. The compressed image is about 300MB, but uncompressed about 2.5GB, so too big to fit on a CD. The image on the USB stick is actually two partitions, and cannot be run from DVD either.
If you don't have a 4GB USB stick handy, and want to see what all the fuss is about, just install the Google Chrome browser on your Windows or Linux system, and then maximize the browser window. That's it. That is basically what Chromium OS is all about.
Files can be stored locally, or out on your Google Drive. Documents can be edited using "Google Docs" in the Cloud. You can run in "off-line" mode, for example, read your Gmail notes when not connected to the Internet. Music and video files can be played using the "Files" app.
If you really need to get out of the browser, you can hit the right combination of keys to get to the "crosh" command line shell.
Like Joli OS, I was able to run this from my Thinkpad T410 with 4GB of RAM, but not on grandma's Thinkpad R31. It appears that Chromium requires at least 1GB of RAM to run properly.
Android for x86
While researching the Chromium OS, I found that there is an open source community porting [Android to the x86] platform. Android is based on Linux, and would allow your laptop or netbook to run very much like a smartphone or tablet. Most of the apps available to Android should work here as well.
Unfortunately, the project has focused only on selected hardware:
ASUS Eee PCs/Laptops
Viewsonic Viewpad 10
Dell Inspiron Mini Duo
Lenovo ThinkPad x61 Tablet
I tried running the Thinkpad x61 version on both my Thinkpad T410 and grandma's Thinkpad R31, but with no success.
Peppermint OS Three
Next up was Peppermint OS, which claims to be a blend of Linux Mint, Lubuntu, and Xfce, but with a "twist" of aspiring to be a Cloud-oriented OS.
Rather than traditional apps to write documents or maintain a calendar, this OS offers a "Single-Site Browser" (SSB) experience, where you can configure "apps" by pointing to their respective URL. For documents, launch GWoffice, the client for Google Docs. For calendar, launch Google Calendar.
Most Linux distros have both a number and a project name associated with them. For example, Ubuntu 10.04 LTS is known as "Lucid Lynx". The Peppermint OS team avoided this by just calling their latest version "Three" which serves as both its number and its name.
The browser is Chromium, similar to Google Chrome OS above, and uses the "DuckDuckGo" search engine. This is how the Peppermint OS folks make their money to defray the costs of this effort.
Peppermint OS claims to run in systems as little as 192MB or RAM, and only 4GB of disk space. The LiveCD ran well on both my Thinkpad T410, as well as grandma's Thinkpad R31. More importantly, when I installed on the hard drive, it ran well.
The music app "Guayadeque" that came pre-installed was awful. It couldn't play MP3 music out-of-the-box. I had to install the Codec plugins from various "ubuntu-restricted-extras" libraries. I also installed the music app "Rhythmbox", and that worked great. Time from power-on to first-note was less than 2 minutes! However, the problems with the Guayadeque gave me the impression this OS might not be ready for primetime.
I contacted grandma to ask if she has Wi-Fi in her home, and sure enough, she doesn't. Her PC upstairs is direct attached to the cable modem. So, while the Cloud suggestion was worthy of investigation, I will continue to pursue other options that do not require being connected. I certainly do not want to spend any time and effort getting Wi-Fi installed there.
Wrapping up my series on a [Laptop for Grandma], I finally have something that I think meets all of my requirements! Special thanks to Guidomar and the rest of my readers who sent in suggestions!
I could have called this series "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly". The [Cloud-oriented choices] weren't bad per se, but expected persistent Internet connection. The [Low-RAM choices] were not ugly per se, but had limited application options. The ones below were good, in that they helped me decide what would be just right for grandma.
Linux Mint 9
One of my readers, Guidomar, suggested Linux Mint Xfce. At LinuxFest Northwest 2012, Bryan Lunduke indicated that [Linux Mint] is the fastest growing Linux in popularity. You can watch his 43-minute presentation of [Why Linux Sucks!] on YouTube.
The latest version is Mint 14, but that has grown so big it has to be installed on a DVD, as it will no longer fit on a 700MB CD-ROM. Since I don't have a DVD drive on this Thinkpad R31, I dropped down to the latest Gnome edition that did fit on a LiveCD, which was Mint 9.
(In retrospect, I could have used the [PLoP Boot Manager CD], and installed the latest Linux Mint 14 from USB memory stick! My concern was that if a distribution didn't fit on a CD-ROM, it was expecting a more modern computer overall, and thus would probably require more than 384MB or RAM as well.)
Linux Mint is actually a variant of Ubuntu, which means that it can tap into the thousands of applications already available. Mint 9 is based on Ubuntu 10.04 LTS.
One of the nice features of Linux Mint is that there are versions with full [Codecs] installed. A codec is a coder/decoder software routine that can convert a digital data stream or signal, such as for audio or video data. Many formats are proprietary, so codecs are generally not open source, and often not included in most Linux distros. They can be installed manually by the Linux administrator. Windows and Mac OS are commercially sold and don't have this problem, as Microsoft and Apple take care of all the licensing issues behind the scenes.
The installation went smooth. It would have gladly set up a dual-boot with Windows for me, but instead I opted to wipe the disk clean and install fresh for each Linux distribution I tried.
Running it was a different matter. The screen would go black and crash. There just wasn't enough memory.
Since [Peppermint OS] was partially based on Lubuntu, I thought I would give [Lubuntu 12.04] a try. The difference is that Peppermint OS is based on Xfce (as is Xubuntu), but Lubuntu claims to have a smaller memory footprint using Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment (LXDE). This version claims to run in 384MB, which is what I have on grandma's Thinkpad R31.
There are two installers. The main installer requires more than 512MB to run, so I used the alternate text-based Installer-only CD, which needs only 192MB.
The LXDE GUI is simple and straightforward. As with Peppermint OS, I did have to install the Codec plugins. However, the time-to-first-note was less than two minutes, so we can count this as a success!
Linux Mint 12 LXDE edition
Circling back to Linux Mint, I realized that my problem up above was chosing the wrong edition. Apparently, Linux Mint comes in various editions, the main edition I had selected was based on Gnome which requires at least 512MB of RAM.
Other editions are based on KDE, xFCE and LXDE. Linux Mint 9 LXDE requires only 192MB of RAM, and the newer Linux Mint 12 LXDE requires only 256MB. I choose the latter, and the install went pretty much the same as Mint and Lubuntu above.
The music player that comes pre-installed is called [Exaile], which supports playlists, audio CDs, and a variety of other modern features, so no reason to install Rhythmbox or anything else. Grandma can even rip her existing audio CDs to import her music into MP3 format. Time-to-first-note was about two minutes.
The best part: the OS only takes up about 4GB of disk, leaving about 15GB for MP3 music files!
Lubuntu and Linux Mint LXDE were similar, but I decided to go with the latter because I like that they do not force version upgrades. This is a philosophical difference. Ubuntu likes to keep everyone on the latest supported releases, so will often remind you its time to upgrade. Linux Mint prefers to take an if-it-aint-broke-don't-fix-it approach that will be less on-going maintenance for me.
A few finishing touches to make the system complete:
A nice wallpaper from [InterfaceLift]. This website has high-res photography that are just stunning.
Power management with screen-saver settings to a nice pink background with white snowflakes falling.
A small collection of her MP3 music pre-loaded so that she would have something to listen to while she learns how to rip CDs and copy over the rest of her music.
Icons on the main desktop for Exaile, My Computer, Home Directory, and the Welcome Screen.
Larger Font size, to make it easier to read.
Update settings that only look for levels "1" and "2". There are five levels, but "1" and "2" are considered the safest, tested versions. Also, an update is only done if it does not involve installing or removing other packages. This should offer some added stability.
I considered installing [ClamAV] for anti-virus protection, but since this laptop will not be connected to the Internet, I decided not to burn up CPU cycles. I also considered installing [Team Viewer] which would allow me remote access to her system if anything should every fail. However, since she does not have Wi-Fi at home, and lives only a few minutes across town, I decided to leave this off.
Once again, I want to thank all of my readers for their suggestions! I learned quite a lot on this journey, and am glad that I have something that I am proud to present to grandma: boots quickly enough, simple to use, and does not require on-going maintenance!
Happy Winter Solstice everyone! The Mayan calendar flipped over yesterday, and everything continued as normal.
The next date to watch out for is ... drumroll please ... April 8, 2014. This is the date Microsoft has decided to [drop support for Windows XP].
While many large corporations are actively planning to get off Windows XP, there are still many homes and individuals that are running on this platform.
When [Windows XP] was introduced in 2001, it could support systems with as little as 64MB of RAM. Nowadays, the latest versions of Windows now requires a minimum of 1GB for 32-bit systems, with 2GB or 3GB recommended.
That leaves Windows XP users on older hardware few choices:
Continue to run Windows XP, but without support (and hope for the best)
Upgrade their hardware with more RAM (and possibly more disk space) needed to run a newer level of Windows
Install a different operating system like Linux
Put the hardware in the recycle bin, and buy a new computer
Here is a personal example. A long time ago, I gave my sister a Thinkpad R31 laptop so that she could work from home. When she got a newer one, she passed this down to her daughter for doing homework. When my neice got a newer one, she passed this old laptop to her grandma.
Grandma is fairly happy with her modern PC running Windows XP. She plays all kinds of games, scans photographs, sends emails, listens to music on iTunes, and even uses Skype to talk to relatives. Her problem is that this PC is located upstairs, in her bedroom, and she wanted something portable that she could play music downstairs when she is playing cards with her friends.
"Why not use the laptop you have?" I asked. Her response: "It runs very slow. Perhaps it has a virus. Can you fix that?" I was up for the challenge, so I agreed.
(The Challenge: Update the Thinkpad R31 so that grandma can simply turn it on, launch iTunes or similar application, and just press a "play" button to listen to her music. It will be plugged in to an electrical outlet wherever she takes it, and she already has her collection of MP3 music files. My hope is to have something that is (a) simple to use, (b) starts up quickly, and (c) will not require a lot of on-going maintenance issues.)
Here are the relevant specifications of the Thinkpad R31 laptop:
The system was pre-installed with Windows XP, but was terribly down-level. I updated to Windows XP SP3 level, downloaded the latest anti-virus signatures, and installed iTunes. A full scan found no viruses. All this software takes up 14GB, leaving less than 6GB for MP3 music files.
The time it took from hitting the "Power-on" button to hearing the first note of music was over 14 minutes! Unacceptable!
If you can suggest what my next steps should be, please comment below or send me an email!
In my last blog post [Full Disk Encryption for Your Laptop] explained my decisions relating to Full-Disk Encryption (FDE) for my laptop. Wrapping up my week's theme of Full-Disk Encryption, I thought I would explain the steps involved to make it happen.
Last April, I switched from running Windows and Linux dual-boot, to one with Linux running as the primary operating system, and Windows running as a Linux KVM guest. I have Full Disk Encryption (FDE) implemented using Linux Unified Key Setup (LUKS).
Here were the steps involved for encrypting my Thinkpad T410:
Step 0: Backup my System
Long-time readers know how I feel about taking backups. In my blog post [Separating Programs from Data], I emphasized this by calling it "Step 0". I backed up my system three ways:
Backed up all of my documents and home user directory with IBM Tivoli Storage Manager.
Backed up all of my files, including programs, bookmarks and operating settings, to an external disk drive (I used rsync for this). If you have a lot of bookmarks on your browser, there are ways to dump these out to a file to load them back in the later step.
Backed up the entire hard drive using [Clonezilla].
Clonezilla allows me to do a "Bare Machine Recovery" of my laptop back to its original dual-boot state in less than an hour, in case I need to start all over again.
Step 1: Re-Partition the Drive
"Full Disk Encryption" is a slight misnomer. For external drives, like the Maxtor BlackArmor from Seagate (Thank you Allen!), there is a small unencrypted portion that contains the encryption/decryption software to access the rest of the drive. Internal boot drives for laptops work the same way. I created two partitions:
A small unencrypted partition (2 GB) to hold the Master Boot Record [MBR], Grand Unified Bootlloader [GRUB], and the /boot directory. Even though there is no sensitive information on this partition, it is still protected the "old way" with the hard-drive password in the BIOS.
The rest of the drive (318GB) will be one big encrypted Logical Volume Manager [LVM] container, often referred to as a "Physical Volume" in LVM terminology.
Having one big encrypted partition means I only have to enter my ridiculously-long encryption password once during boot-up.
Step 2: Create Logical Volumes in the LVM container
I create three logical volumes on the encrypted physical container: swap, slash (/) directory, and home (/home). Some might question the logic behind putting swap space on an encrypted container. In theory, swap could contain sensitive information after a system [hybernation]. I separated /home from slash(/) so that in the event I completely fill up my home directory, I can still boot up my system.
Step 3: Install Linux
Ideally, I would have lifted my Linux partition "as is" for the primary OS, and a Physical-to-Virtual [P2V] conversion of my Windows image for the guest VM. Ha! To get the encryption, it was a lot simpler to just install Linux from scratch, so I did that.
Step 4: Install Windows guest KVM image
The folks in our "Open Client for Linux" team made this step super-easy. Select Windows XP or Windows 7, and press the "Install" button. This is a fresh install of the Windows operating system onto a 30GB "raw" image file.
(Note: Since my Thinkpad T410 is Intel-based, I had to turn on the 'Intel (R) Virtualization Technology' option in the BIOS!)
There are only a few programs that I need to run on Windows, so I installed them here in this step.
Step 5: Set up File Sharing between Linux and Windows
In my dual-boot set up, I had a separate "D:" drive that I could access from either Windows or Linux, so that I would only have to store each file once. For this new configuration, all of my files will be in my home directory on Linux, and then shared to the Windows guest via CIFS protocol using [samba].
In theory, I can share any of my Linux directories using this approach, but I decide to only share my home directory. This way, any Windows viruses will not be able to touch my Linux operating system kernels, programs or settings. This makes for a more secure platform.
Step 6: Transfer all of my files back
Here I used the external drive from "Step 0" to bring my data back to my home directory. This was a good time to re-organize my directory folders and do some [Spring cleaning].
Step 7: Re-establish my backup routine
Previously in my dual-boot configuration, I was using the TSM backup/archive client on the Windows partition to backup my C: and D: drives. Occasionally I would tar a few of my Linux directories and storage the tarball on D: so that it got included in the backup process. With my new Linux-based system, I switched over to the Linux version of TSM client. I had to re-work the include/exclude list, as the files are different on Linux than Windows.
One of my problems with the dual-boot configuration was that I had to manually boot up in Windows to do the TSM backup, which was disruptive if I was using Linux. With this new scheme, I am always running Linux, and so can run the TSM client any time, 24x7. I made this even better by automatically scheduling the backup every Monday and Thursday at lunch time.
There is no Linux support for my Maxtor BlackArmor external USB drive, but it is simple enough to LUKS-encrypt any regular external USB drive, and rsync files over. In fact, I have a fully running (and encrypted) version of my Linux system that I can boot directly from a 32GB USB memory stick. It has everyting I need except Windows (the "raw" image file didn't fit.)
I can still use Clonezilla to make a "Bare Machine Recovery" version to restore from. However, with the LVM container encrypted, this renders the compression capability worthless, and so takes a lot longer and consumes over 300GB of space on my external disk drive.
Backing up my Windows guest VM is just a matter of copying the "raw" image file to another file for safe keeping. I do this monthly, and keep two previous generations in case I get hit with viruses or "Patch Tuesday" destroys my working Windows image. Each is 30GB in size, so it was a trade-off between the number of versions and the amount of space on my hard drive. TSM backup puts these onto a system far away, for added protection.
Step 8: Protect your Encryption setup
In addition to backing up your data, there are a few extra things to do for added protection:
Add a second passphrase. The first one is the ridiculously-long one you memorize faithfully to boot the system every morning. The second one is a ridiculously-longer one that you give to your boss or admin assistant in case you get hit by a bus. In the event that your boss or admin assistant leaves the company, you can easily disable this second passprhase without affecting your original.
Backup the crypt-header. This is the small section in front that contains your passphrases, so if it gets corrupted, you would not be able to access the rest of your data. Create a backup image file and store it on an encrypted USB memory stick or external drive.
If you are one of the lucky 70,000 IBM employees switching from Windows to Linux this year, Welcome!
Earlier this year, IBM mandated that every employee provided a laptop had to implement Full-Disk Encryption for their primary hard drive, and any other drive, internal or external, that contained sensitive information. An exception was granted to anyone who NEVER took their laptop out of the IBM building. At IBM Tucson, we have five buildings, so if you are in the habit of taking your laptop from one building to another, then encryption is required!
The need to secure the information on your laptop has existed ever since laptops were given to employees. In my blog post [Biggest Mistakes of 2006], I wrote the following:
"Laptops made the news this year in a variety of ways. #1 was exploding batteries, and #6 were the stolen laptops that exposed private personal information. Someone I know was listed in one of these stolen databases, so this last one hits close to home. Security is becoming a bigger issue now, and IBM was the first to deliver device-based encryption with the TS1120 enterprise tape drive."
Not surprisingly, IBM laptops are tracked and monitored. In my blog post [Using ILM to Save Trees], I wrote the following:
"Some assets might be declared a 'necessary evil' like laptops, but are tracked to the n'th degree to ensure they are not lost, stolen or taken out of the building. Other assets are declared "strategically important" but are readily discarded, or at least allowed to [walk out the door each evening]."
Unfortunately, dual-boot environments won't cut it for Full-Disk Encryption. For Windows users, IBM has chosen Pretty Good Privacy [PGP]. For Linux users, IBM has chosen Linux Unified Key Setup [LUKS]. PGP doesn't work with Linux, and LUKS doesn't work with Windows.
For those of us who may need access to both Operating Systems, we have to choose. Select one as the primary OS, and run the other as a guest virtual machine. I opted for Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6 as my primary, with LUKS encryption, and Linux KVM to run Windows as the guest.
I am not alone. While I chose the Linux method voluntarily, IBM has decided that 70,000 employees must also set up their systems this way, switching them from Windows to Linux by year end, but allowing them to run Windows as a KVM guest image if needed.
Let's take a look at the pros and cons:
LUKS allows for up to 8 passphrases, so you can give one to your boss, one to your admin assistant, and in the event they leave the company, you can disable their passphrase without impacting anyone else or having to memorize a new one. PGP on Windows supports only a single passphrase.
Linux is a rock-solid operating system. I found that Windows as a KVM guest runs better than running it natively in a dual-boot configuration.
Linux is more secure against viruses. Most viruses run only on Windows operating systems. The Windows guest is well isolated from the Linux operating system files. Recovering from an infected or corrupted Windows guest is merely re-cloning a new "raw" image file.
Linux has a vibrant community of support. I am very impressed that anytime I need help, I can find answers or assistance quickly from other Linux users. Linux is also supported by our help desk, although in my experience, not as well as the community offers.
Employees that work with multiple clients can have a separate Windows guest for each one, preventing any cross-contamination between systems.
Linux is different from Windows, and some learning curve may be required. Not everyone is happy with this change.
(I often joke that the only people who are comfortable with change are babies with soiled diapers and prisoners on death row!)
Implementation is a full re-install of Linux, followed by a fresh install of Windows.
Not all software required for our jobs at IBM runs on Linux, so a Windows guest VM is a necessity. If you thought Windows ran slowly on a fully-encrypted disk, imagine how much slower it runs as a VM guest with limited memory resources.
In theory, I could have tried the Windows/PGP method for a few weeks, then gone through the entire process to switch over to Linux/LUKS, and then draw my comparisons that way. Instead, I just chose the Linux/LUKS method, and am happy with my decision.