Booting Your Business Card: Linux-BBC 2.1

by Glenn Stone

I have to admit, I have a bit of a fascination with small Linuxes. So when my usual troll of Freshmeat revealed that Linux-BBC released a new version, naturally I had to try it. Now, small is a relative term; at 48MB, Linux-BBC actually is medium-sized amongst small distributions. The spectrum of the category ranges from miniwoody, at 180MB, to any of the various things that fit on a single 1.44MB floppy.

That said, there's a lot here; Linux-BBC is a combination system administrator's triage disc and portable workstation-on-a-CD. At bootup, the first thing I noticed was a copy of Memtest86 3.0. It boots straight from ISOLINUX and is a handy way to see if the boot crash you're getting is due to bad memory. I was happy to see they're using V3.0; not only does this version not have the 2GB RAM limit, it also handily tells you what chipset is on the motherboard. The latter attribute can make things a little less mysterious when you're dealing with a machine for the first time.

Rebooting into character mode, I started poking around. The hard drive partitions are mounted automatically at bootup as read-only under the /mnt/discs directory. Unlike Red Hat's system administration disc, Linux-BBC doesn't make any assumptions about what partitions go where. It simply mounts everything as /mnt/discs/discN/partM, where N and M are the logical disc number and partition number, respectively. It may be mildly annoying to remount everything into a tree on a simple system, but for an überhacker's multiboot, shared-partition box, this works.

Setting up networking was a breeze. I ran trivial-net-setup; it autoprobed my tulip card, asked me whether I wanted DHCP (I did), ran dhcpcd as a dæmon and I was on the Net. For the console types, links, screen, ncftp and GPM are all available. Sorry, there's no full-out Emacs, but nano, pico and joe are available for those who like that sort of thing. For those in the opposite camp, Vim fills the role.

A number of other tools are present on Linux-BBC that I wouldn't expect to find on a mini-Linux distribution, including dc, wc and less. These are the types of things you don't think about not having on a normal Linux setup, but items you wouldn't find in, say, tomsrtbt. There are no man pages, however. Linux-BBC is very much a "we expect you to know what you're doing" kind of distribution. After all, you can run screen, ssh out to a working system, read the fine manual and cut-and-paste code back into the local host.

You say the network isn't working? Oh, that must be why /sbin has a number of Ethernet diagnostic binaries hanging around, from things as common as the ne2k and eepro100 to some of the more obscure types, such as alta and yellowfin. Impressive. Fscks are present for everything common (that Linux can write to): the isovfy tool from the cdrecord suite, minicom for checking your modem, LVM tools, a couple different varieties of this point the little grey cells began to boggle, so it was time to see if X worked.

Because my poor aging peepers can't read normal text at 1280 x 1024, even on a 19" screen, I fired up the 1024 x 768 framebuffer mode on reboot. After logging in, I ran startx, which came up in a hurry (having run discover during the boot process) with an xterm, an rxvt (so you'd have your choice) and a small clock. Right-clicking revealed a menu tree that includes the ability to configure Hackedbox, a window manager to do "sloppy focus". That is, focus follows the mouse but stays in the last window moused if the cursor goes to the root window. It's handy to keep the cursor out of the way, yet not have to click to type in a window. Other choices included terminals, the BrowseX Tcl/Tk-based browser, Ethereal, a few games and the workspace list. The workspace list also can be accessed with the middle button. After using BrowseX a while, I found it to be fast, light and capable of rendering complex pages quickly and correctly. I might write more about this browser at a later date.

A few non-Linux but related tools are included on the CD as well, including copies of PuTTY and PSCP for Windows. One could use these in conjunction with sshd from Linux-BBC to help rescue a machine, but don't forget to give root a password before trying to log in from remote. It won't work if you don't, and it politely tells you as much when you start sshd. Windows copies of rawrite for both DOS and Win32 are provided, so you can make a boot floppy for those machines that won't boot ISOLINUX, along with .exe files for tar and gzip.

I didn't see a copy of GRUB lurking about, though I did see LILO. This isn't a big deal, though; under most circumstances one needs to edit grub.conf or use the GRUB binary kept on the underlying system. You do have to crank up GPM, the portmapper (for NFS mounts), sshd and thttpd every time, unless you hack the disc--an entirely reasonable thing to do if you've gotten this far. I also didn't see a GUI CD burner program, though cdrecord is available.

All of these really are minor annoyances, however; the idea of being able to walk up to J. Random PC and have this much Linux goodness in something wallet-sized is worth it. I might actually have to find some business card CD-Rs specifically for this purpose. I don't think they would hold up too well in a wallet, but it sure would get clients' attention to hand them something with your name on it that was useful for more than scratch paper once the print on the front is transcribed. And these CDs would go well in the business card slot in a laptop or palmtop case. In addition, nothing prevents you from using a more standard form factor for the physical media; the 3.5" (180MB) minidisc size often works where something squared off does not. Whatever you put it on, it's a whole lot of bang for 48MB worth of bandwidth bucks. Score Linux-BBC a 9.5 in-category.

Linux-BBC 2.1 is available from It is GPLed as an anthology, but the individual packages carry their own licenses.

Coming Up: Last week, we said Glenn's next article would be about low-noise cooling components as tested on our Ultimate Linux Box (ULB) test-bed machine. Unfortunately, it didn't arrive in time for Glenn to do the testing and write today's article. Next week, though, we're back on track with the ULB.

Glenn Stone is a Red Hat Certified Engineer, sysadmin, technical writer, cover model and general Linux flunkie. He has been hand-building computers for fun and profit since 1999, and he is a happy denizen of the Pacific Northwest.


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