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Knoppix 5.3.1

By Edgar Howell

At the recent CeBIT computer fair, Klaus Knopper finally released a new version of his popular Knoppix live-CD/DVD variety of GNU/Linux. The initial version was fine for the CeBIT crowd but had some problems, the most obvious of which was a mixture of languages in menus if you booted with the parameter "lang=" (by the way, it is now "lang=us" rather than "lang=en"; this will take getting used to after many years of using "lang=en".)

The vital statistics on the post-CeBIT version, 5.3.1, are:

The DVD is close to full and the software is distributed between 2 compressed directories. This DVD should include just about everything but the proverbial kitchen sink.

New to me (absent appropriate hardware) but not new to the 5.x.x Knoppix series is recognition of dual-core CPUs: on boot, Knoppix shows you Tux twice. However, new to 5.3 (at least since 5.0) is the use of a key that for me has always been a dead-key: the "flag" to the left of "alt" to the left of the space-bar. This key now activates the start menu as if you had clicked on the icon at the far left of the panel. Those who have learned to use the keyboard ought to appreciate that progress away from mouse-dependency.

To my knowledge virtualization is also a new topic with this release. You will find KVM as well as a XEN-kernel and VirtualBox. I played briefly with VirtualBox, and it was necessary to load the 'vboxdrv' module manually before starting the graphics interface.

For what it's worth, during the last nine months or so everything I've done in the office here other than USB and burning CD/DVD has been under VMs. It is a topic well worth investigating, particularly in this environment.

By now, most readers certainly have heard about Knoppix and ought to have some idea of what it is all about - and this was the first time that I encountered any significant problems with a new release of Knoppix. So, I think that topic deserves some comment this time around.

Linux has a certain reputation - it's supposed to behave well on older hardware. While this is indeed true in large measure, if all you have is Knoppix on a DVD, you won't be able to do much with it on a machine that can't boot from DVD or doesn't even have a DVD drive! But this was the first time that I ever had trouble with hardware that has worked fine with various distributions for many years.

And it was a strange experience indeed. The desktop failed in two ways, both error messages from KDesktop: "Unable to create io-slave" and "Signal 6 SIGABRT". Unfortunately the former error didn't prevent Konqueror from starting and hiding the small window with the error message which I initially missed because I am typically busy with other things as Knoppix boots from DVD. These errors occurred to one degree or another on a 5-year-old PC, a 3-year-old notebook and a notebook I've only had for a couple of weeks. In desperation I even tried the beta of KDE 4 to no avail.

As it turns out, KDE development seems to be moving in a direction that I have no use for anyhow: the best I can say about 'compiz' is that it seems to be a significant waste of developer's time and CPU cycles. Trying to re-position a window is like trying to push a wet noodle. The floppy window and flames that delay closing don't make much sense to me either. Fortunately, Knoppix lets us set the "no3d" parameter.

The beta of KDE 4 was a turn-off from the start menu. It looks just like SuSE 10.3 for crying out loud! Why!? Why would any sane person think it reasonable to use 5 times as much space as necessary for a line of text in a menu? This just forces some entries into another level in the hierarchy thus hiding things deeper and more mouse-clicks away. That makes about as much sense as adding another level of bureaucracy to the government...

So, the time had come to abandon KDE and re-master the standard release of Knoppix with a default configuration that I like. Isn't that why we all use Linux? Because we are in charge?

Re-mastering a distribution may sound like pretty heavy-duty guru-type stuff, but it needn't be difficult at all. If you want to add software to one of the standard locations (rather than just putting it somewhere on the DVD) it is pretty much a 2-pass algorithm since you have to add something to a directory that then is converted into a compressed file which then has to fit along with everything else into an iso-image - not too big for the DVD or CD. But in this case, all that is necessary is to make a tiny alteration to a boot parameter.

Here are the commands needed, to be executed as root as usual:

mount -o loop /media/hda3/KNOPPIX_V5.3.1DVD-2008-03-26-EN.iso /mnt
mkdir KNOPPIX_master
cp -Rp /mnt/* KNOPPIX_master/
vi KNOPPIX_master/boot/isolinux/isolinux.cfg
/usr/bin/mkisofs -pad -l -r -J -v -V "Knoppix 5.3.1" -P "Linux Gazette"   \
                 -no-emul-boot -boot-load-size 4 -boot-info-table         \
                 -b boot/isolinux/isolinux.bin -c boot/isolinux/boot.cat  \
                 -hide-rr-moved -o knoppix.iso KNOPPIX_master/ 

This is what's going on here:

For my purposes it was sufficient to add the following part (bold text) at the end of the second line of "isolinux.cfg":

APPEND ramdisk_size=100000 init=/etc/init lang=us apm=power-off \
  vga=791 initrd=minirt.gz nomce highres=off loglevel=0         \
  libata.atapi_enabled=1 quiet SELINUX_INIT=NO nmi_watchdog=0   \
  BOOT_IMAGE=knoppix keyboard=de desktop=icewm

After having made this change, and burning the ISO-image to a DVD of course, booting from the DVD without entering any parameters at all brings up Knoppix with the keyboard needed and IceWM as the desktop.

Given the parameters one can use when booting Knoppix, re-mastering really isn't absolutely necessary. But as easy as it is to do and as convenient as it makes later use of Knoppix, why not?

An alternative to re-mastering would be to create a USB-device with persistent settings; I've used this technique in the past and it works nicely. But on one occasion a release change introduced an incompatibility and I decided it is just as easy to have a USB-device with a script or two that can be executed as needed: if the notebook is attached to the office LAN and there is a need for the network printer then it is easy to run the script that sets up CUPS.

So when all is said and done in spite of a couple of "minor" problems I am still an enthusiastic user of Knoppix. It definitely belongs in every toolbox.

And the fact that I don't like what is happening with KDE is absolutely irrelevant: the world is a big place, there is room for lots of different opinions. It's just a matter of taste. You might like it; you might not want to re-master - that's great too. Someone else might want Gnome instead of IceWM. The point is that with Linux, you have options. Go for it!

Talkback: Discuss this article with The Answer Gang

Bio picture Edgar is a consultant in the Cologne/Bonn area in Germany. His day job involves helping a customer with payroll, maintaining ancient IBM Assembler programs, some occasional COBOL, and otherwise using QMF, PL/1 and DB/2 under MVS.

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Copyright © 2008, Edgar Howell. Released under the Open Publication License unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 150 of Linux Gazette, May 2008