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Tony Pearson is a Master Inventor and Senior IT Specialist for the IBM System Storage product line at the
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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.
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.
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!
Tomorrow, according to the [Mayan calendar], the end of the 5,125 year cycle rolls over, so it only makes sense to party like it's 1999!
Of course, if you were in the IT industry 13 years ago, you may remember similar hoopla around [Year 2000] when the Gregorian calendar rolled over from "99" to "00". Some of us were asked to work right up to the last day of 1999, and be on-call the first week of 2000, just in case! Tomorrow may prove to be more or less a repeat of that.
Fortunately, there was plenty of other reasons to celebrate these past few weeks.
Birthdays in December Party
The IBM Tucson employees and contractors of building 9070 got together for a combination party, celebrating both the end of 2012 and for three people with birthdays in December: my former manager Bill, my colleague Kris, and myself. Here is our birthday cake! Afterwards, we allVacation movie.
(Note: This was sponsored by my third-line manager, David Gelardi, who one way or another, is responsible for all the IBMers in this building. Thank you David! )
This will be the last year for us to do this, as we are planning to move over to join the employees of building 9032 next year!
IBM Club Event
The IBM Club had its final event at [Golf N' Stuff] family fun park. Over 700 IBM employees and their family members came to eat breakfast burritos and play miniature golf and other games. It had rained earlier in the morning, so the go-kart track was wet, and the staff were trying to dry with leaf blowers. The rest of the park was fully operational, and the weather cleared up nicely. Mo, Rafael and I played golf but the turf was still wet in a few spots. There were also video games, bumper boats, and batting cages.
IBM volunteers dressed up as fictional characters for the kids to take pictures with.
I was proud to be a member of the seven-person IBM Club board for 2012. When I was nominated, I didn't think I stood a chance to be elected, as I was running against five or six other well-qualified candidates, but somehow it happened. I am glad to have been part of the 19-year tradition of the IBM Club history.
(Note: I didn't campaign for this position, but many IBMers in Tucson knew that I had previously owned and managed Tucson Fun & Adventures that organized 15-25 events every month for hundreds of single adults in the Tucson area. This might have helped my chances for election a bit!)
Next year, the IBM Club transitions to the more-efficient "Club Central" model, which is both board-less and cash-less. Instead of a seven-person board organizing events that are fully-funded or partially-subsidized by IBM, events will now be organized by IBM volunteers who post the details on Facebook. All participants simply pay for the events they attend directly to the venue or facility involved.
While the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA] has put out videos and press releases these past 10 days to assure us [there will be a 2013], this shouldn't stop anyone from having a good time! If you did anything special to celebrate the end of the Mayan Calendar, please comment below!
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!