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Thursday, September 23, 2010

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Monday, September 20, 2010

The Top 10 Linux Server Distributions (For Me!)


You know that Linux is a hot data center server. You know that it saves you money in licensing and maintenance costs. But, what are your options for Linux as a server operating system? Listed here are the top ten Linux server distributions -- some of which you may not be aware. The following chararistics, in no particular order, qualified a distribution for inclusion in this list: Ease-of-use, available commercial support and data center reliability.

Ubuntu - At the top of almost every Linux-related list, Debian-based Ubuntu is in a class by itself. It surpasses all other distributions from its simple installation to its excellent hardware discovery to its world-class commercial support; Ubuntu leaves the others fumbling in the dusty distance.

Red Hat - Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) started out as the "little Linux company that could" and is now a major force in the quest for data center rackspace. The Linux darling of large companies throughout the world, Red Hat's innovations and non-stop support will have you coming back for more.

SUSE - Novell-owned SUSE Linux is stable, easy-to-maintain and offers Novell's 24x7 rapid-response support for those who don't have the time or patience for lengthy troubleshooting calls. And, Novell's consulting teams will have you meeting your SLAs and making your accountants happy to boot.

Mandriva - For U.S.-based executive or technical folks, Mandriva might be a bit foreign. This incredibly well-constructed Linux distibution hails from France and claims extreme acceptance in Europe and South America. It is, as its website claims, a worldwide Linux provider. Its name and its construction derive from the Mandrake Linux and Connectiva Linux distributions.

Xandros - If you prefer a Linux distribution with a Microsoft connection, Xandros is the one for you. Rumors aside, Xandros and Microsoft collaborate in what's known in technical circles as "cooperatition." This means that they compete cooperatively. To find out more about this unique perspective, check out the Xandros About page.

Slackware - While not generally associated with commercial distributions, Slackware maintains relationships with several companies that provide fee-based support. One of the earliest available distributions, Slackware has an extensive and faithful fan base. Its developers regularly release new versions.

Debian - If you're confused by Debian's inclusion here, don't be. Debian doesn't have formal commercial support but you can connect with Debian-savvy consultants around the world via their Consultants page. Debian has spawned more child distributions than any other parent distribution including Ubuntu, Linux Mint and Vyatta.

Vyatta - Vyatta is more at home on routers and firewalls than PC-based systems but if you want a commercially-driven distribution for those applications, Vyatta works well for your secure communications needs. Check out the free version of Vyatta Linux.

CentOS - It's true that CentOS isn't strictly commercial but since it's based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux, you can leverage commercial support for it. CentOS has its own repositories and community support and is not the same as Fedora Linux.

Unbreakable Linux - Oracle's Unbreakable Linux is Red Hat Enterprise Linux with some Oracle logos and art. Oracle competes directly with Red Hat with their distribution and quite effectively, since purchased support through Oracle is half the price of Red Hat's equivalent model.

Best Linux Distribution Top 7


There are various approaches to answering this question. The broad answer is: "any of them," but that's not very helpful if you're just looking for a place to start.

The problem is, there never can be one best Linux distribution for everyone, because the needs of each user tend to be unique. Telling someone who's looking for a good introductory distribution to try Gentoo, for instance, would be a mistake because for all its positive qualities, Gentoo is decidedly not a beginner's distro.

All too often, Linux aficionados will tend to list the distributions they like as the best, which is fair, but if they are not aware of their audience, they could suggest something that does not meet that person's needs. Finding a good Linux distribution is like finding a good match in an online dating service: good looks aren't the only quality upon which to judge a Linux distro.
To help users discover the Linux distribution that's best for them, this resource will definitively list the best candidates for the various types of Linux users to try. The use-case categories will be:

Best Desktop Distribution
Best Laptop Distribution
Best Enterprise Desktop
Best Enterprise Server
Best LiveCD
Best Security-Enhanced Distribution
Best Multimedia Distribution

Once you find the best Linux distribution for your needs, you can visit our Linux Migration Guides to assist you in installing and using the one you'd like to try.

Best Linux Desktop Distribution

There are a lot of Linux distributions that have the primary focus of becoming the next best desktop replacement for Windows or OS X. Of all the categories in this list, this is the most sought-after, and contentious, group of distros.

While it would be ideal to include many distributions on this list, the reality is that there really needs to be just one "best" Linux distribution. For early 2010, that distro has to be Canonical's Ubuntu.

Ubuntu edges out its closest contenders, Fedora and openSUSE, because its development team is constantly focused on the end-user experience. Canonical and the Ubuntu community have spent a lot of time and resources on bringing ease-of-use tools to this distribution, particularly in the area of installing Ubuntu and installing applications within Ubuntu.

In addition, Ubuntu's level of support for its desktop products is highly superior, which is important in this class of distributions since it is the most likely to contain users new to Linux. Both the official and unofficial Ubuntu documentation is robust and searchable, a big plus.

Best Linux Laptop Distribution

Laptop distributions almost fall into the same category as desktop users, but there are a number of key differences that make the criteria for evaluating a good laptop distribution important. Power management, docking tools, and wireless ease-of-use are critical to users on the go, as is having a distro that meets those needs.

Right now, the best laptop distribution is openSUSE, one of the lead contenders for the desktop honors. On the laptop, openSUSE shines with great connectivity tools, such as an easy-to-use networking toolset that not only handles WiFi connectivity, but also CDMA/cellular modem connections.

openSUSE also deals with docking stations for laptops very well, including dual-monitor management on the fly. Power management is very granular, which is great for detailing various power needs you might find yourself needing.

Best Linux Enterprise Desktop

This category is replete with great contenders as well, and it's difficult to highlight just one. At the end of the day, though, the nod must be given to SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED).
The reason is simple: while SLED and its primary competitor Red Hat Enterprise Linux Desktop are nearly identical in features and support performance, SLED has the advantage of the openSUSE Build Service, a free and open service that lets applications be built and delivered to SUSE Linux and openSUSE products (as well as Red Hat and CentOS).

This is a very important differentiator in enterprise desktop development, as it means that SLED has the current advantage of application building and deployment in the enterprise arena.

Best Linux Enterprise Server

Again, in this category it really comes down to two main contenders: Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) andSUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES). Given the pick for the Enterprise Desktop category, you might expect SLES to get the "best of" label here.

But, when all factors for the enterprise server are weighed, RHEL is still the king of this particular hill.

Red Hat edges out Novell with its server product, because RHEL users get a deeply mature distribution, and Red Hat's support structure is second to none in the enterprise channels.

Best Linux LiveCD

As Linux technology improves, users can easily choose the LiveCD version of practically any of the Linux distros listed here to get the best LiveCD experience for their needs.

There is a specialized class of LiveCDs, however, that offers users utilities and tools for the specific purpose of repairing existing Linux and Windows installations. These distros are very useful to have regardless of what primary Linux distribution you like to use, because in a crisis they are invaluable to own.

In this class of distribution, KNOPPIX is hands-down the most complete and useful distro. Loaded on a CD or USB storage device, KNOPPIX will let you recover from nearly any rare Linux system crash as well as the much-less-rare Windows breakdowns.

Best Linux Security-Enhanced Distribution

Linux is inherently very secure compared to other operating systems, but there's always room for improvement.

One of the challenges for locking down Linux is if you are not careful, you can take away too much functionality. Another challenge is that the best security-oriented Linux distro, SELinux, is historically known to be difficult to configure correctly. Still, if security out of the box is your priority, this is the best place to begin.

Another approach is the white hat method: using security and forensic tools to examine your existing installation, determine the holes, then lock your system down based on what gaps you find. If you have the time and inclination, this is a great way to do it, because this will get any existing system more secure right away.

For the white hat approach, the best distribution is BackTrack Linux, a dedicated penetration testing distro that will enable you to safely try to crack any system you are caretaking. Its toolset and strong community give it the advantage in this category.

Best Linux Multimedia Distribution

General Linux distributions have come a long way in terms of multimedia performance. Rare is the audio or video file that can't be played on Linux. Music services such as Rhapsody and video sites like YouTube and Hulu are also standards-compliant and accessible to Linux users.
Still, for those users who are multimedia creators as well as consumers, there are Linux distributions that contain powerful tools for audio and video editing.

The best in this class is currently Ubuntu Studio. For audio, video, and graphic production, it contains a very complete set of tools, as well as format and codec support for a huge range of multimedia formats.

The applications contained in Ubuntu Studio are the same or similar to those used by major studios to create cutting edge work, so users are getting the best apps, coupled with the strong support ethos already found in the Ubuntu community.

In Linux there are as many opinions as there are lines of code. This represents one view of the best in Linux. What's yours?

JProject: Create a Live USB Key Linux Distribution


Until world domination is complete, you simply cannot count on Linux being available everywhere you travel. Thus, when you're vacationing or on a business trip and need access to a Linux environment — or get the inevitable PC troubleshooting help request — you'll have to have a bootable distribution with you. A variety of tools can help you tailor a live USB distro to your liking, including data persistence and encryption, so grab an unused USB flash drive from the desk drawer and make exactly what you need this weekend.

The first question you need to answer for yourself is what distribution you wish to use as the basis for your live USB key. Most of the popular desktop distributions provide live CD images for testing or installation purposes, and include a utility to install such an image onto other media, including external hard disk storage or a flash drive. With the rise in popularity of optical-drive-less netbooks and tablets, providing USB as an installation path guarantees that the distributions will continue to make booting from flash a priority. If you are simply interested in building a portable environment like the one you use at home, you should start by looking for such a utility within your distro.

Branching out a little, there are a handful of good multi-distribution live USB creation utilities you should consider if, for some reason, your distribution of choice does not provide the options you need. It is also possible to install a bootable image onto a flash drive manually, and there are several good step-by-step guides to help you through this process. Last but certainly not least, it is important to know what the options are for creating a bootable Linux USB key from within Windows or another operating system — if you find yourself in that situation, familiarity with only the Linux-based tools places you in an uncomfortable chicken-and-egg situation.


Distribution Tools

The distribution-specific tools all vary slightly, both in how they work and in what they require of the installation medium. In most cases, you will need to download the live CD image ahead of time in order to copy it to a USB stick or flash card, and unless otherwise specified, installing a bootable Linux environment on a USB key will mean erasing its existing contents.

The openSUSE utility is called SUSE Studio Image Writer. It is a GUI tool that allows you to drag-and-drop an ISO image into its window, and it will automatically partition and install a bootable live image onto any attached USB storage key. The distribution recommends 1GB minimum for the latest release, 11.3.

Fedora's utility is called Fedora LiveUSB Creator. The distro recommends 1GB minimum of unused storage, formatted as VFAT. The LiveUSB Creator will install an image non-destructively on a key that already has files on it, as long as there is sufficient free space. The GUI can also download a supported live CD ISO image for you in a background process, although you may want to perform the download manually if you intend to build from a non-standard release, such as an Alpha or a Rawhide testing build. It also allows you to set up a persistent storage area on the key in whatever size you choose from the remaining available space.

Ubuntu's utility (also available in Kubuntu and derivatives) is called Startup Disk Creator. It requires you to download the desired ISO image before getting started, but it does give you several install-time options. You can choose to install the image non-destructively or to re-format the USB key, and you can select between creating a persistent storage area or leaving it off entirely.

The Debian project has a GUI tool called Debian Live Magic, with which you can create a bootable USB key using a wide array of options, including distribution (stable, unstable, or testing), hardware architecture, environment (including non-X environments), localization, and package selection. Unlike the other tools already discussed, Live Magic does not simply copy an ISO image onto the USB drive and make it bootable; it downloads current Debian packages and creates a custom virtual filesystem. This takes considerably longer, but is very flexible.

Knoppix, of course, is a distribution designed to run as a live CD out-of-the-box. It has a USB installation tool called flash-knoppix that can install the current live CD image onto a flash drive. It requires FAT formatted media, and does not do repartitioning. As you might expect, however, Knoppix's built-in persistent storage overlay works automatically.

Multi-distro Tools

The above tools certainly do not cover everyone, and they don't really address some of the special-purpose needs that you may be interested in building a bootable live USB key to handle.

The Universal Netboot Installer (UNetbootin) can install a range of different Linux-based systems onto USB storage. The list includes popular distributions (including those listed in the previous section, as well as CentOS, Mandriva, Slackware, Gentoo, and more), various BSD OSes, and any live CD ISO image you have on hand. For the pre-fab distribution options, the application downloads an ISO image automatically.

It also provides a way to build a completely custom installation by uploading a kernel image, initrd file, and specifying command-line boot options. Obviously, in order to have a complete system, you will also need to install the rest of the distribution as well, but this feature of UNetbootin does also enable you to install multiple kernels onto a single USB key, which could come in handy if you are building a hardware diagnosis image and encounter driver woes. There is also a derivative of UNetbootin called FUSBi that, for philosophical reasons, restricts the pre-selected distro image list to only those projects endorsed by the Free Software Foundation.

Multiboot LiveUSB is another Linux-based application for installing a variety of different distributions onto USB storage, but with one important difference. Unlike UNetbootin, Multiboot's main goal is to install multiple bootable images onto a single drive. You can use it to install any combination of distributions from its supported list, which currently includes Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian, MeeGo, Gentoo, and many, many more, including some helpful utility distros such as Clonezilla and Ophcrack Live. Persistence is only available for a few of these, however.

Finally, Portable Linux is a basic, no-frills live USB disk creator. It is approximately the equivalent of one of the drag-and-drop tools from the distribution-specific list above, but places no requirements on what ISO images are supported. UNetbootin and Multiboot offer more options, including multi-distro-installation, but Portable Linux is a good backup option if neither of the above work out for you. At least with USB storage, unlike optical media, you can afford to experiment a few times.

Windows and Web-based Tools

If you get stuck on a Windows machine and need to build a live USB key, you have fewer options. UNetbootin, mentioned above, has a Windows build. The same features are available as on the Linux version, and the same distributions are supported.

The Linux Live USB Creator (LiLi) is a Windows-only GUI tool that allows you to create live USB images from a fixed list of supported distro ISOs that includes several generations of Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, PCLinuxOS, and Gentoo distributions, including derivatives, and several security and rescue CD distributions. It supports persistence and non-destructive installation, but requires FAT or FAT32 as the drive filesystem. One unusual feature is that LiLi can "hide" files from Windows by setting the system (S) and hidden (H) filesystem attributes. They will, of course, remain visible to other operating systems.

Mandriva offers its own Windows live USB creator called Mandriva Seed, released alongside the ISOs for each new version of Mandriva. It is designed to work with the latest Mandriva release, although any Linux ISO should be supported.

Finally, the Slax project is a special case. The distribution itself is based on Slackware, but Slax provides a web-based interface for configuring and building a live USB image. The online build tool breaks the distribution into package modules, including the OS core, X, KDE, KOffice, development tools, and around fifteen different application bundles. As you build the configuration you want, the site gives you a running total of how much drive space your ISO will require.

The Cowboy Way

As you can see, there is an abundance of tools to help you simply load an ISO image onto a USB stick and make it bootable. But if you want to bypass the point-and-drool process and completely customize the software you install onto your drive, you can do that, too.

Naturally, if you need to partition and format the USB key before starting, you can use the standard fdisk and mkfs tools on a flash drive just like you would any other storage medium. You should use a FAT filesystem on bootable USB keys, and therefore create the filesystem with mkdisfs -F 16 /dev/sde1, substituting the appropriate partition name. Note that for drives of 4GB capacity or higher, you will have to use FAT32, a la mkdisfs -F 32 /dev/sde1.

Underneath the hood, what the GUI live USB-creation tools do is copy the raw contents of the ISO file to the USB device. You can do this manually with dd, for example, by running dd if=/home/nate/NateLinux_1.0.32bit.iso of=/dev/sde bs=8M. In that command, if specifies the input file, of specifies the device name (note that this is not the partition name, which would be /dev/sde1 or something similar), and bs specifies a block size. This raw copy preserves low-level information from the ISO — including the Master Boot Record (MBR) that makes the volume bootable — that would be overlooked by simply copying file contents from one device to another.

Where different distributions vary is in what additional steps you need to take to ensure that the bootloader copied from the CD ISO will work when transferred to the USB stick. This depends on the bootloader (Syslinux, GRUB, GRUB2, etc.) and choices made by the distribution. The best plan of attack is to consult a distribution-specific guide. GRUB is very forgiving of different configuration options; essentially if you can place a vmlinuz file somewhere on the drive, you can probably get it to boot. Syslinux is not so kind. OpenSUSE, Fedora, Ubuntu, and Gentoo all provide detailed guides with such low-level instructions.

Whichever approach you take, the USB boot options supported by the host machine's BIOS can throw you for a loop. PCs have been able to boot off of USB media for several generations, but some BIOSes can have settings that keep the computer from looking at USB media — or at least from looking at it before hard disks. Worse yet, Intel-based Mac hardware may not be able to boot Linux from USB media at all, due to discrepancies between Apple's EFI firmware and "legacy" mode BIOS.

Understanding Persistence and Encryption Options

Data persistence of live USB distributions is accomplished by creating a second filesystem that is "stacked" on top of the existing (usually compressed) filesystem with Unionfs. The second, writable filesystem is not simply mounted into the first, they are overlayed on top of one another — any file that exists in the original filesystem can be changed by a new version saved in the second. This allows you not only to store data files in your home directory, but to alter system configuration files anywhere on the filesystem. It is a slick idea, but it comes with two big side effects.

The first is that your flash media gets exposed to far more write cycles than it normally would when used just for file transport. This can significantly shorten the lifespan of the device. The second is that you cannot use an encrypting filesystem such as eCryptfs to secure your home directory on the key: eCryptfs cannot (currently) be stacked.

Thus, if you need to secure some data on your live USB stick, you have to turn to alternative tools like Truecrypt, which creates a large encrypted file that you use as a container for other files, and decrypt after logging in. It is not an ideal solution, perhaps, but then again you are more likely to accidentally misplace a USB key than an internal hard drive, so caution is the word of the day.

But even if you do not use encryption or persistence to achieve secure, portable Linux nirvana, a live USB key is a better totable computing environment than a live CD for a number of reasons. It is less fragile, smaller, fits into almost any device (unlike "business card" CDs), and on top of everything else, its read times are significantly faster.