Home-office – anywhere

OS in a pocket

This article will not contain any highly sophisticated scripts, tricks or whatever like that. But I decided to write it because I was in hard situation sometimes due to absence of my home PC or powerful laptop. There was a PC at the place where I was at the moment but I wasn’t able to log on, there was no necessary software installed, etc. So I wasn’t able to help my colleagues, friends or whoever.

I had problems even at home with an old laptop (Celeron 1.3 GHz; 512MB RAM – really old) which is used sometimes by my wife who don’t  want to change the operating system on that to something else than the good old XP. So I decided to deploy my own operating system working almost everywhere, and fitting in my pocket.

Portable Linux for true mobility

The problem is well-known for many years and I also tried it several times. The very first one was the well-known Knoppix distro. It was really good for that time, but I frequently had problems with drivers, network protocols (PPTP in particular) and other stuff, so the “pocket Linux project” has failed several times. But last years Linux distributions and their graphical environments were developed so much that I decided to give one more try. This time with full success…

Which distribution to use?

When deciding which distribution to use I took in account four considerations:

  1. Easy-to-use graphical environment
  2. High compatibility level with most of the machines I can use
  3. Rich software library
  4. Stable and easily configurable networking (mainly VPN and WiFi)
Several big distributions offer Live CD versions which all were good candidates for my pocket Linux. After trying out some of them I put my two cents on Linux Mint 11 LXDE Live CD edition. It is equipped with LXDE graphical environment which is really modest on resource usage and very user-friendly at the same time. Points 3. and 4. were not even under question because Linux Mint inherited the best from its predecessors: the Debian and Ubuntu distributions.
After creating my pocket Linux I tried it on several different pieces of hardware including the old laptop. It worked flawlessly on each of them with different (sometimes quite exotic) WiFi adapters. So point 2. was also fulfilled.

Which mobile device to use?

At the first round I used a 8GB pen-drive for my Linux as it is usually recommended by how-tos of Live distributions. But it turned out that I used my new Linux system almost daily. As we know, pen-drives are very reliable for storing and reading data, but they slower and less reliable for writing. Even more, due to technology used, they can survive a limited (although quite large) number of write operations. As a result, I had to rescue the file system on the pen-drive several times. Those file-system errors usually led to some partial data loss. It is a painful situation in an operating system.

The straightforward way to avoid such situations is to use USB attached external hard drive instead of a pen-drive. The best choice for that is a 2,5 inch HDD powered directly from the USB port. Although it requires a bit larger pocket, it will be faster, much more stable and will have much larger storage capacity than a pen-drive.

Creating your mobile Linux on a Windows machine

In this part I will concentrate only on aspects differing from detailed descriptions you may find about installation of Live Linux distributions on a pen-drive. First thing to do is to prepare the USB storage for the installation. Three partitions should be created on it: >700MB FAT32 for the Live distribution data; partition for persistent data and Linux swap. Except those additional partitions may be created for data storage or whatever other reason, but those three are necessary for the operating system.

Linux Mint 11 LXDE Live uses a file or partition named “casper-rw” for storing persistent data. The image of the operating system will be read-only as if it was on a CD. Swap partition is not mandatory, but will make the system much faster in many situations. (1-2GB of swap should be enough)

A really great tool to prepare partitions of any type under Windows is the “MiniTool Partition Wizard Home Edition”:

Partitions for mobile Linux on a USB hard drive

The second tool we need is the “Universal USB Installer” from pendrivelinux.com. Usage of that tool is explained very well on the pendrivelinux.com site. I want to underline only the difference due to installation on the USB disk.

During preparation of the disk the first FAT32 partition got a drive letter in Windows. That drive letter has to be chosen in the USB Installer. The software will recognize that it isn’t a pen-drive and will pop up a warning message. Be really careful, because after you confirm that it is really the drive where you want to install your Linux, USB Installer will not take care about safety of your disks any more. So if you will make an error at this point you may change your Windows to a Live Linux. That is scarcely the thing you want to do.

Installing Live Linux

After this point your Linux is ready to boot almost on any PC

Recommended software

As I stated earlier that my choice regarding the graphical environment was the LXDE. It is really lightweight and comfortable at the same time. But I had to be careful during the installation of additional software on my new system.

The software management utilities allow to install practically any program available in the repository. It is true also for ones designed for and depending on KDE. Those programs will be installed together with their dependencies. Such an installation can lead practically to a KDE system working behind the LXDE desktop. Although some KDE-based programs are very popular and great ones, due to them the system will partially lose benefits provided by LXDE. In other words it will be resource intensive almost like you would use KDE desktop. So if you intend to use your Linux on low-end machines, avoid deploying anything based on or designed for resource intensive desktop environments (Mainly KDE – Gnome was OK in my experience) You can easily track dependencies to be installed using Synaptic Package Manager.

At the end I recommend a list of additional software to be deployed which will really make the life easier for an IT guy like me:

  • PuTTY
  • Remmina (Remote desktop clients)
  • Google Chrome
  • Libre Office
  • TeamViewer WebConnector (Use with your browser)
  • Samba4 clients
  • NTFS Configuration Tool
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Author: bithajcsar

I am a system architect with decades of experience behind. During that time I learned that only the continuous development of knowledge and skills can keep a specialist on the cutting edge of his profession. And only those will move the World forward! Another thing I noticed that the stupidly used ICT (Information and Communication Technology) moved people far from each-other, when the goal of the whole thing should be the opposite. A modern computer may provide too many "instant experience and happiness" and chain users - mainly kids - to their monitors. Just a step away from the Matrix! After all those thoughts I decided to share my knowledge and experience in a form understandable for anyone who wants to know more about devices and systems we use every day. My primary targets are kids. They are curious and they can learn so fast that it sometimes seems unbelievable for us. Maybe they will just know a bit more about ICT and will use that in a more clever way. But who knows? Maybe they will go further and later will move the World forward. I hope that I will be able to help them to find a right way and go much further we could imagine now.

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