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5 ways to use bootable Linux live discs

By Logan Kugler
July 20, 2010 06:00 AM ET

2. Recover aging hardware

Linux in general has lower system requirements than other contemporary operating systems, but there are a few distributions that are specially designed to take advantage of old, even ancient, computer hardware, letting you squeeze a few more years of life out of systems you wouldn't even think of running Windows on -- including machines with broken hard drives.

Both Damn Small Linux (DSL) and Puppy Linux are designed for older systems, requiring only a Pentium 486 or equivalent CPU and 128MB of RAM to run well. DSL can even run with just 64MB of RAM. Both launch a usable, if somewhat stripped down, user interface that's perfect for tasks like sending and receiving e-mail, creating documents and surfing the Web -- in other words, basic administrative tasks.

Puppy and Damn Small Linux desktops
Puppy Linux (upper left) and Damn Small Linux are optimized for older hardware, turning ancient machines into functional workstations.

3. Secure your network

Linux is already one of the more secure operating systems, since it was designed from the start as an Internet-connected system. Running it from a live CD makes it even more secure, since the disk image cannot be modified. Several distributions take advantage of the inherent security of the live CD to transform old computer equipment into powerful secure gateways for your network.

Zeroshell can be installed on any PC with a 233-MHz processor and 96MB of RAM to transform it into a fully featured gateway router and firewall. All the advanced features you'd expect from a modern gateway are present, including authentication via RADIUS server, quality-of-service monitoring and traffic-shaping, VPN and the ability to act as an 802.11a/b/g router on machines with the appropriate wireless cards.

Zeroshell Linux
Redeploy aging hardware as a full-featured Internet gateway and router with Zeroshell.

After the sidebar: Using live Linux for hardware troubleshooting

Creating a live USB drive from a live CD image

Although live CDs have a lot of advantages, they don't fit in your pocket easily, which means you may not always have one around when you need it. Fortunately, most live CD images can be installed onto a USB flash drive, giving you most of the benefits of a live CD.

Since most modern computers can boot from a USB drive, live USBs can be used in almost all of the situations a live CD can. The fact that a USB drive can be written to is both a benefit and a drawback -- on one hand, it isn't as resistant to intrusion as a read-only CD, but on the other hand, you can save configuration details, store documents and other files, and download and install new software to a USB drive, which you can't do with a live CD.

If trading a bit of security for the portability of a flash drive seems worthwhile to you, there are several tools that will easily install a live CD image to a USB drive. Two of the easiest to use are the Universal USB Installer and the Linux Live USB Creator, both of which walk you step by step through the process of converting a CD image to a USB drive.

They have each been tested with various versions of Linux -- though the two lists of versions that each one has been tested with differ slightly -- and you can try any untested system with either and it might still work. However, there are just too many versions of Linux out there for either to guarantee 100% compatibility. One nice feature both offer is the ability to configure a USB-based Linux to run in a Windows-based virtual machine, so you can effectively launch Linux within Windows -- that's useful if you're using a public machine that you're not able or allowed to reboot.

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