Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Setting up Wolvix GNU/Linux with no hard drive

In this post I will outline the basic steps necessary to create a HDD-less computer that can be used to do all the basic things you need a computer to do on a daily basis.

By storing your changes to a "persistent save" file on a USB thumb drive, you can create a system that can be booted entirely from the CD, yet allow you to install packages, customize your desktop, and remember everything that has been added or updated, even if the computer is shut down and restarted.

You can even take the CD and the thumb drive with you, and boot your Wolvix "installation" on any computer that will allow booting from the CD ROM.

By following these instructions, you should be able to set up a similar system for your own use. I have tried to go into enough detail to allow someone without a whole lot of experience with Linux to be able to successfully set up a system following my instructions, but if I were to include every little detail, this blog post would be way too long, and its already much longer than I would have liked it to have been.

Disclaimer: Please be aware that all the instructions provided here utilize a beta version of Wolvix (Version 2.0.0 Beta 2). Beta software is by nature a "work in progress", and isn't perfect.
I am basing this basic tutorial on my experience with the beta version because thats the version I chose to use for my setup. I wanted the newest packages and the most functionality.
I chose to use the beta release because I wanted all the latest versions of all the included packages, but I am sure that if you were to download and burn the current stable Wolvix release (version 1.1.0) you would get a system that will be less prone to odd behavior or lockups, and still provide a system with all the functionality you need.

Get and burn a Wolvix ISO
Download Wolvix 2.0.0 Beta 2 here or visit the Wolvix website at www.wolvix.org, and click on "Get Wolvix!". Under the heading "Download the ISO", choose one of the sources for the ISO and download the file. Depending on the speed of your internet connection and the download source you chose, be prepared to wait. Remember it's an entire 650MB CD.

After the download completes, calculate an MD5Sum and compare it to the one published on the Wolvix site. For caculating an MD5Sum in Windows, I recommend winMD5Sum , a free Windows application that will calculate MD5Sums from source .iso files.

Burn the ISO to a CD. I believe in keeping things simple, so I use
CDR Tools Front End to quickly burn ISO image files in Windows. Its free software, and runs quickly and efficiently. Make sure you burn the disk at no more than 4X, or you are will find yourself with a nice coaster instead of a bootable CD.

Now that you have a successfully burned CD, all that is left to do is reboot the computer with the CD. Make sure that you have configured the BIOS to boot from the CD-ROM first.

Boot from the Wolvix live CD
Reboot the computer with the CD, and wait patiently through the boot sequence. Remember this is a complete operating system on CD, and it's being read from a CD-ROM (generally pretty slow) and being loaded entirely into memory. It might take as long as 10 minutes on anything with less than a 1Ghz processor. My computer is an AMD Athlon XP 2400 with 512MB RAM and it takes about five minutes to boot to the login prompt.

At some point during the boot process, the loader will begin to load X (the graphic environment), and your screen may go black for 30 seconds or so, but don't panic. The system is just determining your graphics card and preparing what it needs to be able to run under X.

When the boot is complete, you will be presented with a login screen. Remember that the whole system is running in memory, so the only user the system has is the root account. Log in with the username "root" and the password "toor".

After about a minute or so you should be presented with a complete desktop, with a menu bar chock full of icons and a complete library of installed and ready to run applications. Congratulations! You have successfully booted your CD based Wolvix operating system!

If you are connected to the internet via a wired network connection, you should be able to open Firefox and freely surf the internet. If you are connecting via wireless, you may have to use the Network Manager (in the toolbar at the bottom of the screen) to configure your wireless connection.

I am going to assume that you were able to establish a working internet connection at this point.
I am keeping this tutorial basic and simple, and resolving connection issues is beyond its scope. If you are having problems getting a connection to the internet, I would recommend looking for help on the Wolvix forum if you need assistance.

Setting up a persistent save file
Booting Wolvix into memory from a live CD creates a wonderful system that can be used to do all the normal things you need a computer to do, but it has limitations as well. For one, if you reboot the computer or turn it off, none of the changes you made will be there next time you reboot. Not always terribly convenient.

This issue is easily resolved through through the use of a "persistent save" file, a file stored on a USB thumb drive or other USB device that contains all the changes made to the system after the system is booted from the CD. But before Wolvix can store these changes, you need to create the file itself, named wolvixsave.xfs .

The Wolvix documentation seems a little fuzzy on whether or not the WolvixSave file has to be stored in a partition formatted for Linux (ext2, ext3, etc..) but I was unable to successfully create the save file without first creating a linux partition on my existing USB thumb drive.

Wolvix conveniently includes GParted, a disk partitioning tool that makes repartitioning and formatting storage devices a snap. The USB thumb drive I own is only 1MB, so I repartitioned the 1MB FAT16 partition into a 400MB FAT16 partition and a 600MB ext3 partition that I could use to store my persistent save file.

Wolvix includes a really nifty control panel (WCP for short) that makes creating the persistent save file easy. Open the WCP from the menu at the bottom of the window, and click the Storage tab. Click on Create WolvixSave. Choose the ext3 partition on the USB thumb drive you created in the last step from the drop-down menu, decide how big you want the save file to be, (mine was 512MB, but I would suggest at least 1024MB, if not larger) and click create.

USB thumb drives are not generally the fastest devices around, so be prepared to wait a while for the file to be created. After it finishes creating and formatting the WolvixSave file, you are ready to reboot! Chick on the quit icon on the menu at the bottom of the screen, and choose Restart.

During the boot process, Wolvix will automatically locate the persistent save file you created in the last step and from now on, any changes you make to the system will be saved and remembered each time you boot the computer, assuming you have the USB thumb drive plugged in.

Final Setup
All that is left to do now is install Flash, create a user or users, install any additional packages you may use on a daily basis, and customize the desktop to your liking!

After the computer has finished rebooting and you are again at the login screen, log in as root again. Since any changes made to the system will now be saved, you can install Flash and it will stay installed, even if you reboot the computer. Double click the Install Flash icon on the desktop and follow the prompts. It's a painless install and should be complete in less than a minute. If you want to test your Flash install, you can point your browser at http://www.adobe.com/software/flash/about/.

At this point, the system still only has one user, the root account. Wolvix was designed to be used logged in as root, but that's generally a big no-no in the Linux world. I felt a lot more comfortable creating a user for myself using the WCP. One extra step that was necessary was modifying the /etc/sudoers file so my newly created user had sufficient rights to run apps like the WCP.

All that is left to do now is log out of the root account and log in as the new user you created. Non you can set your home page in Firefox, change your desktop wallpaper, screen resolution, et cetera to your personal preferences, and they will all be saved and used when you reboot the computer.

Final Notes/Thoughts

I have had the system up and running for about three weeks at this point, and there are a few problems I have had to contend with.
  • A 512MB persistent save file really isn't large enough. I can only install a few choice packages without filling it up. I made the mistake of updating ALL the installed packages to current, which overflowed my save file and corrupted it, forcing me to erase it and start from scratch. When I get some extra money, I am going to invest in a 4MB USB thumb drive so the system has a little more "elbow room".
  • For whatever reason, sometimes the simple act of logging out corrupts the save file as well. After the THIRD time I had to build the save file from scratch, I started making a backup of the save file to my server so I could restore the file if it got corrupted.
  • Applications don't always open from the menu bar on the first click. Clicking on an application doesn't change the cursor to a "wait" icon in Xfce while the app is loading, and because the system runs entirely from the CD, apps like Firefox take 10-15 seconds to open after you click on the icon. When the app doesn't open on the first click, I end up sitting and waiting for an app that never opens. I have learned to watch conky's CPU monitor to see if the CPU is busy as a sign the app is really opening.
Overall, I am quite pleased with the way it has turned out, and may continue to use the system even after I can afford a hard drive!


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