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I had attended this conference the past four years, but sadly will not be attending the one this year. If you are attending this conference for the first time, perhaps a quick look at my blog posts from last year will help you get oriented:
For the past three decades, IBM has offered security solutions to protect against unauthorized access. Let's take a look at three different approaches available today for the encryption of data.
Approach 1: Server-based
Server-based encryption has been around for a while. This can be implemented in the operating system itself, such as z/OS on the System z mainframe platform, or with an applicaiton, such as IBM Tivoli Storage Manager for backup and archive.
While this has the advantage that you can selectively encrypt individual files, data sets, or columns in databases, it has several drawbacks. First, you consume server resources to perform the encryption. Secondly, as I mention in the video above, if you only encrypt selected data, the data you forget to, or choose not to, encrypt may result in data exposure. Third, you have to manage your encryption keys on a server-by-server basis. Fourth, you need encryption capability in the operating system or application. And fifth, encrypting the data first will undermine any storage or network compression capability down-line.
Approach 2: Network-based
Network-based solutions perform the encryption between the server and the storage device. Last year, when I was in Auckland, New Zealand, I covered the IBM SAN32B-E4 switch in my presentation [Understanding IBM's Storage Encryption Options]. This switch receives data from the server, encrypts it, and sends it on down to the storage device.
This has several advantages over the server-based approach. First, we offload the server resources to the switch. Second, you can encrypt all the files on the volume. You can select which volumes get encrypted, so there is still the risk that you encrypt only some volumes, and not others, and accidently expose your data. Third, the SAN32B-E4 can centralized the encryption key management to the IBM Tivoli Key Lifecycle Manager (TKLM). This is also operating system and application agnostic. However, network-based encryption has the same problem of undermining any storage device compression capability, and often has a limit on the amount of data bandwidth it can process. The SAN32B-E4 can handle 48 GB/sec, with a turbo-mode option to double this to 96 GB/sec.
Approach 3: Device-based
Device-based solutions perform the encryption at the storage device itself. Back in 2006, IBM was the first to introduce this method on its [TS1120 tape drive]. Later, it was offered on Linear Tape Open (LTO-4) drives. IBM was also first to introduce Full Disk Encryption (FDE) on its IBM System Storage DS8000. See my blog post [1Q09 Disk Announcements] for details.
As with the network-based approach, the device-based method offloads server resources, allows you to encrypt all the files on each volume, can centrally manage all of your keys with TKLM, and is agnostic to operating system and application used. The device can compress the data first, then encrypt, resulting in fewer tape cartridges or less disk capacity consumed. IBM's device-based approach scales nicely. IBM has an encryption chip is placed in each tape drive or disk drive. No matter how many drives you have, you will have all the encryption horsepower you need to scale up.
Not all device-based solutions use an encryption chip per drive. Some of our competitors encrypt in the controller instead, which operates much like the network-based approach. As more and more disk drives are added to your storage system, the controller may get overwhelmed to perform the encryption.
The need for security grows every year. Enterprise Systems are Security-ready to protect your most mission critical application data.
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.
Today is my birthday. Another year around the sun.
Actually, there are several other famous people who have December 18 as their birthday as well. Rather than focusing on myself, I thought I would share the love with the others who share the same day. Here are a few of my favorite celebrities:
[Kari] is famous for her role on the TV show Mythbusters. While she still looks like she's in her twenties, I was surprised to learn that we are less than a decade apart in age! The show is credited with helping young students get excited for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) topics.
Most recently, I watched her in the series covering [Punkin Chunkin], an annual contest where teams of engineers design machines to throw pumpkins the furthest across a large field. Some are able to propel the pumpkin over half a mile in distance!
[Steven] is famous for directing some of my favorite movies, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, and Raiders of the Lost Ark and the rest of the Indiana Jones series. He won academy awards for his films Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.
[Christina] is singer/songwriter, and one of the judges on the TV show The Voice. I especially enjoyed her performance of her song "Reflection" in the Disney animated film Mulan.
[Ray] is famous for acting in a variety of movies, everything from a mobster in Goodfellas, to a baseball player in Field of Dreams. I immediately recognized his voice as one the characters in my favorite video game, Grand Theft Auto.
"Stone Cold" Steve Austin
While I am not a big fan of wrestling, I prefer to think of [Steve] in his roles in various action movies, including The Condemned, The Stranger, and The Expendables.
[Katie] is an actress in movies like Abandon and Batman Begins, but is more famous for having married, and then later divorced, Tom Cruise.
[Brad] is famous for acting in a variety of movies, including Seven, 12 Monkeys, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. For those who still don't fully understand "big data" analytics, I highly recommend the movie Moneyball, in which Brad plays the General Manager Billy Beane of the Oakland A's baseball team, during their wildly successful 2002 season.
While I have never met of these celebrities in person, I wish them all a happy birthday today!
Today is the last day of 2012, so it is only fitting to end the year looking forward to the future!
While I have been accused of being a historian, I consider myself a bit of a futurist. Since 2006, I have been blogging about the future of technology, including Cloud, Big Data, and the explosion of information. As a consultant for the IBM Executive Briefing Center, I present to clients IBM's future plans, strategies, and product roadmaps.
(Fellow blogger Mark Twomey on his Storagezilla blog has a humorous post titled [Stuff your Predictions], expressing his disdain for articles this time of year that predict what the next 12 months will bring. Don't worry, this is not one of those posts!)
What exactly is a futurist? Biologists study biology. Techologists study technology. But a person can't simply time-travel to the future, read the newspaper, make observations, take notes, and then go back in time to share his findings.
Here seem to be the key differences between Historians vs. Futurists:
There is only one past.
There are many possible futures.
Only six percent of humanity are alive today, so historians must study history through the writings, tools, and remains of those that have passed on.
Futurists study the past and the present, looking for patterns and trends.
Search for insight.
Search for foresight.
Framework to explain what happened and why.
Framework to express what is possible, probable, and perhaps even preferable.
A common framework for both is the concept of the various "Ages" that humanity has been through:
Around 200,000 years ago, in the middle of what archaeologists refer to as the [Paleolithic Era], man walked upright and used tools made of stone to hunt and gather food. Humans were nomadic and travelled in tribes to follow the herds of animals as they migrated season to season. The History Channel had a great eight-hour series called [Mankind: The Story of All of Us] that started here, and worked all the way up to modern times.
About 10,000 years ago, humans got tired of chasing after their meals, and settled down, growing their food instead. Grains like wheat, rice, and corn became staples of most diets around the world. Civilization evolved, and people traded what they grew or made in exchange for items they needed or wanted.
About 300 years ago, humans developed machines to help do things, and even to help build other machines. While farmers harnessed oxen to plow fields, and horses to speed up travel and communication, these were all based on muscle power.
Machines like the steam engine were powered by coal, petroleum, or natural gas. Today, one gallon of gasoline can do the work of 600 man-hours of human muscle power, or [move a ton of freight 400 miles].
Cities grew up with skyscrapers of steel, connected by trains, planes and automobiles. Communications with the telegraph, telephone, radio and television replaced sending message on horseback.
The forces that drove humanity to the Industrial age clashed with the culture and identity established during the Agricultural age. I highly recommend futurist Thomas Friedman's book [The Lexus and the Olive Tree] that covers these conflicts.
When exactly did the Information age begin? Did it start with Guttenberg's muscle-powered [Printing Press] in the year 1450, or the first punched card in 1725?
Futurist [Alvin Toffler] published his book The Third Wave in 1980. He coined the phrase "Third Wave" to describe the transition from the Industrial age to the Information age.
While IBM mainframes were processing information in the 1950's, many people associate the Information Age with the IBM Personal Computer (1981) or the World Wide Web (1991). Over 100 years ago, IBM started out in the Industrial age, with business machines like meat scales and cheese slicers. IBM led the charge into the Information Age, and continues that leadership today.
In any case, value went from atoms to bits. Computers and mobile devices transfer bits of data, information and ideas, from nearly anyplace on the planet to another, in seconds.
Ideas and content are now king, rather than land, buildings, machines and raw materials of the Industrial age. In 1975, less than 20 percent of a business assets were intangible. By 2005, over 80 percent is.
While the Industrial age was dominated by left-brain thinking, the Information Age requires the creativity of right-brain thinking. I highly recommend Daniel Pink's book, [A Whole New Mind] that covers this in detail.
"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed!" -- William Gibson (1993)
The problem with looking back through history as a series of "Ages" is that they really didn't start and end on specific days. The Agricultural age didn't end on a particular Sunday evening, with the Industrial age starting up the following Monday morning.
There are still people on the planet today in the Stone age. On my last visit to Kenya, I met a nomadic tribe that still lives this way. Huts were temporarily constructed from sticks and mud, and abandoned when it was time to move on.
A short-sighted charity built a one-room school house for them, hoping to convince the tribe that staying in one place for education was more important than hunting and gathering food in a nomadic lifestyle. Some stayed and starved.
In the United States, about 2 percent of Americans grow food for the rest of us, with enough left over to make ethanol and give food aid to other countries.
Sadly, the Standard American Diet continues to be foods mostly processed from wheat, rice and corn, even though our human genetic make-up has not yet evolved from a "Paleolithic" mix of [meats, nuts and berries].
There are still people on the planet today in the Industrial age. American schools are still geared to teach children for Industrial age jobs, but still take "summer vacation" to work in the fields of the Agricultural age? Seth Godin's book [Stop Stealing Dreams] is a great read on what we should do about this.
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!
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!
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!
Continuing my series on a [Laptop for Grandma], I thought I would pursue some of the "low-RAM" operating system choices. Grandma's Thinkpad R31 has only 384MB of RAM.
All of the ones below are based on Linux. For those who aren't familiar with installing or running the Linux operating system, here are some helpful tips:
Most Linux distributors allow you to download an ISO file for free. These can be either (a) burned to a CD, (b) burned to a DVD, or (c) written to a USB memory stick.
The ISO can be either a "LiveCD/LiveDVD" version, an installation program, or a combination of the two. The "Live" version allows you to boot up and try out the operating system without modifying the contents of your hard drive. Windows and Mac OS users can try out Linux without impact to their existing environment. Some Linux distributions offer both a full LiveCD+Installer version, as well as an alternate text-based Installer-only version. The latter often requires less RAM to use.
When installing, it is best to have the laptop plugged in to an electrical outlet, and hard-wired to the internet in case it needs to download the latest drivers for your particular hardware.
A CD can hold only 700MB. Many of the newer Linux distributions exceed that, requiring a DVD or USB stick instead. If your laptop has an older optical drive, it may not be able to read DVD media. Some older optical drives can only read CD's, not burn them. In my case, I burned the CDs on another machine, and then used them on grandma's Thinkpad R31.
To avoid burning "a set of coasters" when trying out multiple choices, consider using rewriteable optical media, or the USB option. If you don't like it, you can re-use for something else.
The program [Unetbootin] can take most ISO files and write them to a bootable USB stick. On my Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6 laptop, I had to also install p7zip and p7zip-plugins first.
The BIOS on some older machines, like my grandma's Thinkpad R31, cannot boot from USB. The [PLoP Boot Manager] allows you to first boot from floppy or CD-ROM, and then allows you to boot from the USB. This worked great on my grandma's system. The PLoP Boot Manager is also available on the [Ultimate Boot CD].
While I am a big fan of SUSE, Red Hat, and Ubuntu, these all require more RAM than available on grandma's laptop. Here are some Low-RAM alternatives I tried:
Damn Small Linux 4.11 RC2
The Damn Small Linux [DSL] project was dormant since 2008, but has a fresh new release for 2012. This baby can run in as little 16MB or RAM! If you have 128MB of RAM or more, the OS can run entirely from RAM, providing much faster performance.
Of course, there are always trade-offs, and in this case, apps were chosen for their size and memory footprint, not necessarily for their user-friendliness and eye candy. For example, the xMMS plays MP3 music, but I did not find it as friendly as iTunes or Rhythmbox.
Boot time is fast. From hitting the power-on button to playing the first note of MP3 music was about 1 minute.
Installing DSL Linux on the hard drive converts it into a Debian distribution, which then allows more options for applications.
Next up was [MacPup]. The latest version is 529, based on Pupply Linux 5.2.60 Precise, compatible with Ubuntu 12.04 Precise Pangolin. While traditional Puppy Linux clutters the screen with apps, the MacPup tries to have the look-and-feel of the MacOS by having a launcher tray at the bottom center of the screen.
Both MacPup and Puppy Linux can run in very small amounts of RAM and disk space. Like DSL above, you can opt to run MacPup entirely in 128MB of RAM. Unfortunately, the trade-off is a lack of application choices.
Installation to the hard drive was quite involved, certainly not for the beginner. First, you have to use Gparted to partition the disk. I created a 19GB (sda1) for my files, and 700MB (sda5) for swap. I had troubles with "ext4" file system, so re-formatted to "ext3". Second, you have to copy the files over from the LiveCD using the "Puppy Universal Installer". Third, you have to set up the Bootloader. Grub didn't work, so I installed Grub4Dos instead.
The music app is called "Alsa Player", and I was able to drag the icon into the startup tray. time-to-first-note was just over 1 minute. Fast, but not as "simple-to-use" as I would like.
SliTaz 4.0 claims to be able to run in as little as 48MB of RAM and 100MB of disk space. Time-to-first-note was similar to MacPup, but I didn't care for the TazPanel for setup, and the TazPkg for installing a limited set of software packages. I could not get Wi-Fi working at all on SliTaz, and just gave up trying.
All three of these ran on grandma's Thinkpad R31, and all three could play MP3 music. However, I was concerned that they were not as simple to use as grandma would like, and I would be concerned the amount of time and effort I might have to spend if things go wrong.