Monday, October 1, 2007

Using the Ubuntu Feisty Live CD as your primary OS

I had one of the most dreaded computer woes happen last week - my hard drive crashed.

Well, it didn't crash completely. I have about a 70% boot rate. It makes a load noise like the bearings aren't well lubricated when the drive won't boot. I figured it was better (and less frustrating) to stop using the drive and just wait until the new hard drive arrived.

Luckily, I use unison over SSH to backup my files, so everything was already mirrored on my Debian file server at home, even though I was across the country when the failure occured. I've reminded myself that I needed to have my data backed up if something catastrophic ever happened to my laptop. In my mind the scenario was that my laptop was going to be run over by a truck (gotta think big), but I knew the hard drive crash was probably inevitable. Unison is a good tool to sync two file systems, however it does work best if you manually sync. If you want something to automatically back up files, set up rsync as a cron job on your system.

Coping with the problem


At first, I thought I should just go without my laptop for a few days (oh the horror!). Newegg ships fast, right? I should have known myself better than that. I immediately started thinking of how to run my system with a broken hard drive. Naturally, the idea of using a Linux Live CD came to mind.

To preserve the old hard drive, I physically removed it from the laptop. After that, I remembered I had ordered some Ubuntu 7.04 pressed CDs a while back so I popped one in.

To my surprise, Ubuntu 7.04 (Feisty) as a Live CD rivals my normal hard drive install in terms of performance! The bootup time is quite slow, but once it has started, it runs nicely. Since I spend a lot of time using Firefox, I don't experience the spin-up-spin-down as often as I remember in previous Live CD usage. I think Feisty must also do a good job of caching programs in RAM when you first access them because I hardly ever hear the CD drive spin up unless I'm starting a new program.

The other nice thing is that the laptop fan almost never turns on. The old hard drive ran somewhat noisy and warm, causing the fan system to kick on about 75% of the time. I've really enjoyed the cool, quiet performance of running on a Live CD. The laptop is absolutely silent.

The only real obstacle I've faced is that I can't shutdown my laptop unless I want to spend time re-setting up my Thunderbird profile and re-installing Firefox extensions. I guess you can't have everything.

Why not switch completely?


If this setup works so well, I thought to myself, why not just switch to always using a Live CD and save $60 on a new hard drive? After thinking about it, I've decided that I would be willing to switch if a few conditions were met:

  1. A decent amount of persistent storage were possible

  2. I could install updates and new software without losing them each time I reboot

  3. Most or all of the OS could be loaded in RAM at boot


I could probably accomplish #1 with a USB drive and a persistent home directory. I think #2 would be harder with the USB drive - like what happens when you move between systems with the same flash drive - but still possible. In the end, I think I would be happiest by buying a Compact Flash to IDE adapter and a large (16GB or more) Compact Flash card. These are nice because you get the cool, quiet operation and persistent operation. I considered doing this instead of getting a new hard drive, but in the end I figured I would get much more storage but the price (80GB @ $60 or 16GB @ $150 or more). In the future I think many laptop hard drives will be completely flash based memory.

As for #3, I wish that Ubuntu Feisty had the ability to use the "toram" kernel boot option and load the OS into RAM during boot. I've done this with Knoppix CDs in the past. The speed increase is amazing. Granted, less RAM is available for program execution, but RAM is cheap enough these days that the productivity gain is worth the extra couple of dollars.

All in all, I give the Ubuntu Feisty Linux Live CD a surprisingly high thumbs up for everyday use.

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