| DistroWatch Weekly
|DistroWatch Weekly, Issue 140, 27 February 2006
Welcome to this year's 9th issue of DistroWatch Weekly! Written entirely by Robert Storey, this week's issue looks ahead at the upcoming 64-bit Mini-ITX processors, passes on a link to a freely downloadable copy of The Complete FreeBSD, and investigates "bcrypt" and "dm-crypt", the much-loved encryption utilities for the paranoid. In the first looks section, Robert investigates the newest OpenBSD-based live CDs - OliveBSD. Happy reading!
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Whither the 64-bit Mini-ITX?
Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.
- Henry Kissinger
There are times when having less means having more. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the issue of energy consumption.
VIA Technologies - the Taiwanese company best known for its chip sets - is also manufacturer of the ultra-low-power x86-compatible Eden CPUs and their accompanying Mini-ITX motherboards. I previously covered the Mini-ITX in the 18 April 2005 edition of DistroWatch Weekly.
Since that time, I've learned that one popular distribution, Damn Small Linux (DSL), is now selling Mini-ITX components and complete systems as a means of financing their software project. Aside from the financial angle, the fit between DSL and the Mini-ITX makes sense since Eden CPUs are relatively slow. Furthermore, some people build Mini-ITX boxes with no hard drive (DSL can boot from a USB flash drive). Vector Linux would also make sense for this type of hardware, though it will require a hard disk. Details for purchasing the Mini-ITX can be found on the DSL website. Let it be noted that neither I nor DistroWatch have any economic stake in DSL or VIA.
Some people get around the slowness issue by purchasing a dual-processor Mini-ITX. However, the really exciting news will be when VIA finally releases their 64-bit CPU, code-named Isaiah. It's expected to be rolled out in the first half of 2006, but VIA has been strangely silent since the initial announcement in October, 2004. In addition to low power consumption, Eden processors boast a built-in hardware-based security system known as the
VIA PadLock Hardware Security Suite. VIA has assured us that the Isaiah CPUs will have this same feature.
Personally, I think that VIA prefers to keep quiet now about the Isaiah in order to avoid collapsing sales of their existing 32-bit stock. This is always an issue in the fast-moving computer hardware industry.
The Mini-ITX runs on 12-volt DC (5 amps) power, making it ideal for use with a car battery (actually, if the battery is not in a car, you should use a deep-cycle battery - car batteries wear out too fast with frequent discharge/recharge use). It also works well with solar panels (which output either 12 or 24 volts) and wind generators. As long as your electrical source has a 12-volt voltage regulator (mandatory on cars, solar and wind generators) you can plug in the computer directly without needing a power supply. Since the mini-ITX draws 5 amps, the in-line fuse leading to the computer should be rated at least 10 amps (a 5-amp fuse will probably blow). If you're going to add a CD-R or DVD-R drive, it's probably best to connect it externally through the USB port using a case like this one.
In this age of peak oil and ever rising energy prices, a desktop computer that can run off a car battery, solar panel or windmill could be just the ticket. Anyone with a green philosophy or survivalist mentality should give this careful consideration.
* * * * *
The Complete FreeBSD - Now Completely Free
What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.
- Thomas Paine
Almost anyone who has spent serious time with the FreeBSD operating system has a copy of The Complete FreeBSD by Greg Lehey (affectionately known as "Grog"). First published in 1996 under the title Installing and Using FreeBSD, this classic techie tome is now in its 4th edition. In the fast-moving world of software development, most books start to look dated after one or two years. The 4th edition was published in April 2003, and is now starting to get long in the tooth. Unfortunately, Greg is a busy man - too busy to continue updating his fine book (though he was nice enough to give me a few hours of his time to help me when I wrote this article).
Faced with this dilemma, Greg has made the unusual decision to offer his book for download (also available from here) under the Creative Commons License. This allows the author to continue owning the copyright while sharing non-commercial copies with all and sundry.
Although it was extremely nice of Mr. Lehey to do this, there is one catch - the book remains out-of-date. In order to deal with this issue, Greg is asking for volunteers to help with the updating. In keeping with the tradition of the BSD license, contributors can't expect money for this effort, but instead recognition (in this case, in the book's preface).
While The Complete FreeBSD, 4th edition, remains in print, it is still uncertain whether or not dead-tree copies will continue to be available in the future. Note that there are some tough competitors in this space, including FreeBSD 6 Unleashed. There is also The FreeBSD Handbook, available free online or in a somewhat dated print edition.
* * * * *
Bcrypt & DM-Crypt
Tips, Tricks & Hints
Some of you may recall that in the past I've talked about encryption on Linux, notably steganography and loop-AES. However, in keeping with the philosophy that "there's more than one way to do it," I'd like to introduce two other encryption tools - bcrypt and dm-crypt.
Comparing the two, bcrypt resembles steganography in the sense that it can be used to encrypt a single file or group of files, whereas dm-crypt is more like loop-AES which can be used to encrypt an entire hard disk partition. As for which one is better, that depends entirely on your needs.
As a long-term computer addict, I have a large number of files on my hard drive. However, the vast majority of my data would be of no use whatsoever to a thief and therefore does not need to be encrypted. The few files I want to keep secret contain mostly financial data, and I only need to open these files occasionally. Thus, bcrypt works fine for me.
Bcrypt uses a 448-bit blowfish file encryption algorithm. This should be nearly impossible to crack as long as you use a secure passphrase (which can be anywhere from 8 to 56 characters in length). Bcrypt will overwrite input files with random garbage - this is important because there are now inexpensive, widely-available hard disk scanning devices which can easily recover deleted files.
Another good feature of bcrypt is that it is portable across numerous platforms. You can download the source code from SourceForge and compile it yourself. The code has very little in the way of dependencies and should compile without a hitch on practically any Linux, BSD or other Unix-like system. Pre-compiled binaries are available for many distributions. There is even a Windows version, though the developers imply that the code is "ugly."
Once you've encrypted a file, you could back it up to a portable device such as a CD-R or USB flash drive, or even email it to yourself. This is a major advantage that dm-crypt doesn't offer.
Using bcrypt is pretty simple. See "man bcrypt" for details. Just be sure you don't forget your password.
While bcrypt has its advantages, it also comes with some built-in drawbacks. Bcrypt works fine for encrypting a small number of files that you only need to read occasionally, but it would be terribly inconvenient to use with hundreds of files that you need to access frequently. For example, you might have hundreds of sensitive emails in your ~/mail directory, or your company's accounting records, or perhaps a huge porno collection (wait, I didn't say that, did I?). The point is, if you need to secure a large amount of data, and especially if you need to access it often, then you really should use a tool that can encrypt an entire partition.
The already-mentioned loop-AES is an excellent partition-encryption tool for Linux (though not for the BSDs, which have their own proprietary encryption schemes). In the past, Linux users also had cryptoloop, but this has been deprecated in the 2.6 kernel. The new improved version is dm-crypt. Its chief advantage over cryptoloop is speed, cleaner code, and better security. Some also claim that it is easier to use than loop-AES, but I personally feel that neither is especially intuitive.
There is a better than even chance that your favourite distro already has support for dm-crypt compiled into the kernel. If not, take a look at this Gentoo wiki.
To proceed further, you will need to have a spare empty partition. You can create one with the cfdisk command (of course, you need root privileges to do this). It's wise to reboot whenever you modify the partition table.
OK, let's say we've created a new partition, /dev/hda5, and rebooted. Next, we need to create a mapper device for the new partition - we can call it whatever we like, so I'll call mine "secret." The syntax for doing this is as follows:
cryptsetup -y create secret /dev/hda5
Now let's test to see if it worked:
It should display the name of the /dev/mapper device followed by some numbers in parentheses - in my case: secret (253, 0).
Next we have to create a filesystem (or what Windows refugees call "formatting a partition." I suggest using the ext2 filesystem. The command for doing this is as follows:
All that remains to be done is to mount our device. We can mount it on any mount point we choose - create a new directory if you like:
mount /dev/mapper/secret /data
The encrypted /data directory is ready for use. It should contain only one file, lost+found. You can copy all the data you want to it. When you've finished your work, you should unmount the /data mount point and remove the secret device so that unauthorised individuals cannot access the data:
cryptsetup remove secret
If we like, we can go ahead and shut down the computer now. Next time we boot up and we want to access the encrypted data, the procedure is very similar to our original effort except that we won't make a new filesystem:
cryptsetup -y create secret /dev/hda5
Be sure you type the correct passphrase. Then mount:
mount /dev/mapper/secret /data
If you type the wrong passphrase, you'll get an error message saying mount: you must specify the filesystem type. If you do create a new filesystem, you'll wipe out all of your previously saved data! Instead, type cryptsetup remove secret and start over again, this time using the correct passphrase.
It would be nice to have some user-friendly graphical tools to do all of the above, but as yet I am not aware of any.
One final thought. Many laptop computers now come with a hardware-based encryption scheme that can encrypt the entire hard drive. If you want to enable this, poke around in the BIOS configuration. As is often the case in geekdom, there is indeed more than one way to do it.
* * * * *
Just for Fun
It's always nice to end the news portion of our weekly news on a light note. With that in mind, I'd like to call our readers' attention to a couple of stories posted on DivisionTwo.com:
Building a Linux System Even Your Grandmother Could Use
One Child Dead, 3 Wounded in Daycare Piracy Raid
There are, of course, many other articles posted on this humorous site, but most of these are irrelevant to our obsession (open source software). All the articles are the work on one individual, whose name I know but won't reveal. Apparently, the author has received some nastygrams from "dissatisfied customers" and has removed his name from the site. At least, that's what I assume. You can, however, send fan mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a historical footnote, some of you may recall that in 2003 we did publish a link to this site. It caused quite a ruckus because some individuals didn't realize it was a joke. In the 27 October 2003 edition of DWW, we had to publish this clarification:
"It is hard to believe how many people got caught by a fictitious story about the imminent release of BarbieOS, a Debian-based Linux distribution for adolescent girls. Let's spell it out clearly once and for all: it's a joke, guys! There is no such thing as "BarbieOS" or "Barbie Linux" and you certainly cannot download it, so please stop looking for it. Nevertheless, it's a great story and we have added the link to our Fun Distributions
So this time you've been warned in advance. I am, of course, heartbroken that I cannot download BarbieOS.
|First Looks: OliveBSD
First Looks: OliveBSD
Look ma, no hard disk!
A totally free network operating system with ironclad security might seem like a pipe dream, yet it does exist. OpenBSD, the brainchild of Canadian hacker Theo de Raadt (and friends), is so secure that at one time the project received a US$2 million grant from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). That funding was suddenly terminated in 2003 under very peculiar circumstances, but the OpenBSD developers have continued to turn out an impressive new release once every six months. In recognition for his contribution to open security standards, Theo received the 2004 Free Software Award from the Free Software Foundation.
OpenBSD, which came into existence nine years ago, started out life in the finest Unix tradition as a text-mode-only operating system geared primarily toward geeks wanting to run a secure server. However, it wasn't long before it acquired the X Window graphical user interface, and developers started porting the graphical applications that Linux users know and love. Nowadays, you could sit a Linux addict in front of an OpenBSD box and he or she could play for hours without ever noticing that this is not "just another distro." (Note: never call OpenBSD a "distro" on the OpenBSD mailing list, unless you want to be flamed into charcoal).
Although OpenBSD now boasts all the user-friendly features of KDE and other window managers, the installer program is nothing short of user-hostile. Furthermore, system administration tasks (like configuring ADSL or building a firewall) are not for the faint-hearted. If you're hooked on the point-and-click opium of Fedora or SUSE, a sudden plunge into the cold waters of the Unix command line can be a shock.
Enter OliveBSD, created by Gabriel Paderni. OK, it's not OpenBSD for grandma. However, it does greatly simplify the task of installation, mainly because you don't install it - this is a live CD. Just boot the disk and before you can finish your cappuccino, you'll have a working desktop system. OliveBSD is based on OpenBSD 3.8, which is the most up-to-date release.
Of course, these days live CDs have become so common that they no longer elicit the oohs and aahs they once did. However, compared to the cornucopia of Linux live CDs, BSD offerings are still relatively rare. First there was FreeSBIE, soon followed by Frenzy - both are FreeBSD variants. OliveBSD is the second OpenBSD live CD after the recently announced Anonym.OS project.
I first tested OliveBSD on my laptop, an IBM X31 ThinkPad. Booting up took a long time, mostly due to a lengthy search for the network, which failed. I was somewhat distressed to see this message scroll by the screen:
ipw0: could not read firmware
DHCPDISCOVER on ipw0 to 255.255.255.255 port 67 interval 2
send_packet: Network is down
No DHCPOFFERS received.
No working leases in persistent database - sleeping
Interface ipw0 is for my wireless device. Perhaps it's not surprising that OpenBSD doesn't have native support for it since it's an Intel PRO/Wireless 2100 (that is, a Centrino CPU with built-in wireless). There's been a big heated discussion about wireless chipset licensing on the OpenBSD mailing list and forums, and Intel has earned considerable wrath for its lack of cooperation. If you're interested in the topic, take a look here.
In fact, I seldom use wireless and could almost live without it, but more disturbing was the failure to activate my Ethernet port. In Linux this is detected as eth0, but in OpenBSD it would be called fxp0. On the plus side, OliveBSD did detect the port - on the down side, it did not find the network. I was plugged into a router and its built-in DHCP server should have given me an IP address straight away. To put it bluntly, OliveBSD failed to provide me with any network connection whatsoever, the first time I have encountered this problem on any BSD OS.
Once I had a graphic screen, I found a menu called "Network card configuration." I tried this in the hope that I would be able to bring my network to life, but no luck. Opening an Xterm and running the ifconfig command showed the MAC addresses of ipw0 and fxp0, but no IP addresses were assigned and therefore I had no connectivity.
One of the first things I noticed about the OliveBSD desktop is that it uses IceWM, a lightweight window manager (at least compared to the usual behemoths, KDE and GNOME). Another distinguishing feature is the selection of applications. Since CD space is limited, Gabriel wisely chose to have just one of each kind of application, including some that I've never heard of (AxYftp, Abs). As for the question that philosophers have asked throughout the ages - Vi or Emacs? - the surprising answer in this case is SciTE. This is a very user-friendly text editor with pull-down menus, syntax-highlighting support for numerous programming languages, and good online documentation (look for it in the "Help" menu).
I was pleased to find that my USB keyboard worked with OliveBSD. Previous attempts to get this keyboard to work with OpenBSD (and FreeBSD and NetBSD) have failed. I admit though that I have not tested it with OpenBSD 3.8. It has always worked with Linux.
As for the overall appearance of the desktop, I must say that I found the default pure white background to be annoying. It's rather like looking into a light bulb, and it also wastes battery power. IceWM has a menu for "Themes" - I tried this in hopes of finding something better than the default IceQua theme. Unfortunately, all the other themes suffer from the same white background problem.
OliveBSD - a new OpenBSD-based live CD using the IceWM desktop.
(full image size: 118kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Another gripe I have with OliveBSD is that it logs you in as root. This surprised me, especially given OpenBSD's emphasis on security. Most live CDs log you in as an unprivileged user, and if you want root privileges then you must use the sudo or su command.
After about 30 minutes of playing around on my laptop, I decided to try OliveBSD on my desktop machine (an AMD64). Unfortunately, the results were even more disappointing. OliveBSD failed to boot at all. I got as far as the boot> prompt, and the machine would go no further. End of experiment.
To judge from the comments of other OliveBSD users, at least some people had no problems whatsoever. However, on my hardware I found OliveBSD to be disappointing. The inability to make a network connection on my laptop was a nearly fatal flaw. The inability to boot my desktop was even more lethal. To be fair, this was a first release, and it wouldn't be right to expect perfection. Certainly, I couldn't produce a better OS myself, so I don't want to sound like I'm whining. I applaud Gabriel for the hard work he put into this project, and I hope that he will continue to expand on this fine first effort.
|Released Last Week
Devil-Linux has been upgraded to version 1.2.9: "I'm
proud to announce v1.2.9 of Devil-Linux. The changes include lots of
software updates, addition of ipset, PAM, some missing netfilter
modules and netfilter L7 classifier." Among the many update
packages are Linux kernel 2.4.32, Apache 2.2.0, iptables 1.3.5, OpenSSH
4.3p2, Perl 5.8.8, PHP 4.4.2, Postfix 2.2.8, PostgreSQL 8.1.2 and Samba
3.0.21b. Read the brief release announcement and the comprehensive changelog for more details.
A new version of INSERT (Inside Security Rescue Toolkit) has been released: "Here
we go! Finally a new version of INSERT emerges from the depths of the
build machine. The size has grown to near 60MB, since our supplier of
credit-card sized CDs promised me to be able to squeeze 60MB on the
thing; the Linux kernel was updated to 18.104.22.168; Captive was updated to
1.1.7 and can now use the Windows XP driver files from SP2; the native
NTFS driver and tools have write support; a custom build of the latest
version of the great graphical partitioning GUI GParted was added;
Reiser4 is supported." Read the rest of the release notes for further details.
Puppy Linux 1.0.8
Linux version 1.0.8 is released. The biggest news item is the move from
OSS to ALSA sound. A modified version of the alsaconf script is used to
auto-configure the sound at boot-up. Puppy 1.0.7 has the Xvesa and
X.Org X servers, but the latter is stuck on 'us' keyboard layout as the
xkb component of X.Org is missing. Puppy 1.0.8 has a reduced xkb
component that will now give correct keyboard layout and characters for
the major countries. Lior Tubor has greatly improved the original
Blinky taskbar network monitor, and we now have Lior's version 0.6 of
Blinky...." Continued reading the release notes for more details.
GoblinX Mini 1.2.2
A new version of the Slackware-based GoblinX Mini distribution has been released. "Released
GoblinX Mini 1.2.2, the small special edition of GoblinX. GoblinX Mini
1.2.2 is an upgraded release with the addition of new features. The
most special feature is 'liveupgrade' - by using this script you can to
re-master a new distribution, also from RAM memory. We also made a few
changes to the 'goinstall' script, corrected some small errors, and
added several more corrections and upgrades to make this a very nice
release, even though it can be less stable because of Unionfs." Read the rest of release announcement for further information.
The ParallelKnoppix live CD has been updated. What's new? "Open
MPI at version 1.0.1, the pi example for C shows how to use it;
mpich.tar.gz is included in the 'Examples' directory, this shows how to
compile and install software on a running cluster, and lets you run a
very cool parallel Mandelbrot set plotter; Ganglia removed for the time
being; missing MPITB source included; montecarlo.m does dynamic load
balancing and is robust to node failure; tutorial updated." Visit the project's home page to read the release announcement and to learn more about the distribution.
Gentoo Linux 2006.0
The first official Gentoo Linux release of the year is out: "The Gentoo Release Engineering team proudly announces the release of Gentoo Linux 2006.0. Gentoo Linux 2006.0, the first release in the 2006 series, represents improvements across many architectures since the 2005.1 release. Major highlights in the release include KDE 3.4.3, GNOME 2.12.2, XFCE 4.2.2, GCC 3.4.4 and a 2.6.15 kernel. This is also the first release with the Gentoo Linux Installer officially debuting on the x86 LiveCD, which will fully replace the Universal and PackageCD set. The LiveCD also features a fully-fledged GNOME environment." Read the full release announcement for more details.
The main new features of Gentoo Linux 2006.0 are enhanced live CD functionality and graphical installer.
(full image size: 439kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
* * * * *
Development and unannounced releases
|Upcoming Releases and Announcements
Summary of expected upcoming releases
New distributions added to the waiting list|
- Kaboot. Kaboot is a new Gentoo-based live CD/USB distribution. A number of different editions are available, two optimised for size or speed, one for functionality, and one science-based. All contain a host of useful programs able to boot virtually any computer.
- Minimax. Minimax is a Linux mini-distribution based on Arch Linux. Because it fits entirely to an initrd image, it can boot on every system imaginable. It is ultra small (32 MB), but very powerful; it contains a 2.6 kernel with all modules and a balanced set of console utilities, but no X server.
* * * * *
DistroWatch database summary
That's all for today. The next issue of DistroWatch Weekly will be published on Monday, 6 March 2006. See you then :-)
If you've enjoyed this week's issue of DistroWatch Weekly, please consider sending us a tip.
(Tips this week: 0, value: US$0.00)
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