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Knoppix makes a great GUI installer for Debian

Can Knoppix make the dreaded Debian install such a piece of cake that even a doddering old journalist can put it on his laptop?

(LinuxWorld) — I've gotten in trouble with some readers lately. I would prefer to think it is just age and the curmudgeonhood that often accompanies it. But the truth is sometimes I just blow it. I don't mean the angry Windows users who were in denial about Linux being a better install. Nor am I talking about the gamesters (and game resellers) who felt it unfair of me to speculate on the reasons for Epic Games' stealth release of Unreal Tournament 2003 for Linux. I'm talking about someone who was dead right to call me on what I said.

His name is Klaus Knopper. He took me to task for having referred to Knoppix as a "demo distribution." Knoppix, of course, is wildly popular for demonstrating Linux. The Austin LUG, for example, recently gave away 400 Knoppix CDs from their booth at a local computer show.

As Knopper told me, "Knoppix is a real Debian system." I've seen mention of it being used as a rescue CD, as a secure firewall, as a portable network monitor and as a traveling companion that allows you to read e-mail away from home without leaving tell-tale traces on someone else's hard drive. Others have been interested in experimenting with it as a secure Apache server. Knopper has said he is working on a project that will allow it to be used as a terminal server.

Knoppix as a Debian installer

This week, I take a closer look at Knoppix in a different role: as a GUI installer for Debian. I first heard about this use for Knoppix when Knopper mentioned it on a private news server. Then Bill Eastman, a Knoppix user in the Austin LUG, brought the subject up on the LUG's mailing list. The idea intrigued me. What if Knoppix made the dreaded Debian install such a piece of cake that even a doddering old journalist could put it on his laptop?

I scribbled down the instructions from Knopper's post (sudo /usr/local/bin/knx-hdinstall) and went off to boot my trusty Sony Vaio laptop from the Knoppix CD I had just burned from the KNOPPIX-3.1-23-10-2002-EN.iso.

I entered the knoppix desktop-gnome command at the boot prompt to get me to my preferred desktop environment and, sure enough, that is what appeared. After opening an Xterm window, I entered the sudo command noted above, and I was off to the races.

The very first thing to appear was a warning that the hard-disk installation process is very much "under development." You need to be aware that bad things might happen as a result. Do not proceed with the installation if you are at all worried about the contents of your hard drives.

Next the install script launched cfdisk to handle partitioning chores. I selected the only choice I had for the hard disk, then left the partition table as it had been under Red Hat 8. That gave me a smallish partition I could use for boot, a swap partition, and everything else to root.

After exiting cfdisk, I was asked if I wanted a swap partition. I said yes and it asked me if the 256-megabyte partition was the one I wanted to use. I said yes again.

The installer asked me which partition to use as root and showed me the small partition used as boot by Red Hat and the large partition. I chose the large one and the install script created a file system on it.

Then it was time to start copying files. I was warned that it would take 30 or 40 minutes, but in fact it only took about 15. A series of interactive questions and answers followed.

  • Start a mail server (smail) at boot? (No)
  • Start sshd at boot? (Yes)
  • Start Samba at boot? (No)
  • Start kdm at boot? (No)

Then I was asked for a host name and to select the network device. The only option for the device was eth0 so that's what I chose. I said Yes to DHCP.

Next came my Unix and user password. The default user, by the way, was Knoppix. Did I want LILO on the MBR? Yep, but skip the boot diskette if you don't mind. That was it. It took 27 minutes from booting from the CD to complete the basic installation.

I powered the Sony down, removed the CD from the drive, and powered it back up. Amazing! There was a full blown (and configured) Debian system with Internet access! However, there were also a couple of "gotchas." For one thing, everything was in German. By everything, I mean keyboard layout as well as language. For another, Gnome had been replaced with KDE.

I found Bill Eastman on the #knoppix channel on irc.openprojects.net and asked for guidance. He walked me through the language localization change. It's easy if you know where it is. I simply right-clicked on the DE in the bottom right hand corner of the screen and a menu appeared. I chose English and applied it. When I restarted X, I could read the menus and use a familiar keyboard layout again. Eastman later informed me that if I had entered Lang=us at boot time, the language/locale would not have reverted to German.

Eastman doesn't use Gnome so he couldn't help me get my favorite environment back. A quick visit to the #debian channel on the same IRC gave me an easy way to fix that. All I needed to do was apt-get install gdm and restart X. Now I was cooking.

Easy updates too

I decided I would do one more thing before calling it an install. Just as I had done with the Windows and Red Hat installs, I decided to bring the new installation up-to-date with all the latest security patches. I got help again on the #debian channel on how to accomplish this.

Pretty easy, really. I added deb http://security.debian.org stable/updates main contrib non-free to my /etc/apt/sources.list, then ran apt-get update and apt-get upgrade. The whole process took me about 10 minutes.

That means the entire process took less than 40 minutes. Of course, it doesn't include configuring the USB IBM PC Camera that the other installations did, but it does include everything else, including OpenOffice 1.0. Color me impressed.

I don't know whether Knoppix made the Debian installation any faster than a knowledgeable Debian user could have done it, but it certainly saved me a lot of time. The configuration process on a normal Debian installation can be daunting. What Knoppix did was to automagically identify and configure everything for me.

I don't recommend using Knoppix this way for a complete newbie, but if you are halfway familiar with Linux and your PC, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend using Knoppix as a Debian installer. One more use of a truly amazing (and a very real) Linux distribution. My apologies to Knopper and the Knoppix project sponsors at the LinuxTag association for ever saying otherwise.

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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Most Recent Comments
bgfay 03/23/04 08:05:19 PM EST

The installer is great but has a couple bugs. First, it would be great if someone would make Knoppix for US English. Most of it is easy to switch but OpenOffice installs in German. The only way I was able to fix it was to remove that version and install another. Not exactly convenient. There are also some issues with dual booting that were fixable, but not easy to someone like me who has a year or so of experience running GNU/Linux.

I've also got to figure out now how to get the rest of the pieces of the system installed. I have a RedHat 8.0 install at home and it has a whole lot more of the command line stuff installed by default. I know that I can do this with apt-get but I haven't done any of it yet.

All in all, the install was really good and these are just minor issues. As a point of comparison, I couldn't get Fedora to make the network connection on the same machine that Knoppix found immediately and the Mandrake install hung hard every time it tried to read from the CDROM. How Knoppix is so good at detecting hardware, I don't know, but I wish that every distro would copy it.

I can't wait to see the next iteration of Knoppix and I'm hoping that by then I'll understand more of what's going on in Debian. Thanks to the Knoppix crew and to Joe for the article. Because of you folks and a little bit of work on my part, we now have our first working Linux system at school. The kids are intrigued and asking when we can install it on the other nine computers. Cool.

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