Insomniacs of the World! You may have hit the jackpot. While I’m not guaranteeing this post will put you to sleep, it’s worth a try. What have you got to lose? Heck, even I fell asleep proofing this. As always, good luck.
I just used a very handy Linux utility called remastersys to create my own customized Linux distribution. This Linux distribution is never going to appear in DistroWatch, but that was never the intention. This isn’t the first time I’ve used remastersys, but it is the first time I’m writing about it. Let’s start at the beginning.
I volunteer at the local high school (Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda) to help refurbish donated laptops to give to needy students. The condition of a laptop can range from hopeless to perfect. The hopeless ones, which are usually physically damaged or have failed motherboards, are good for parts. The non-functioning ones usually have bad hard drives. Some need RAM upgrades. Some need wireless cards that are compatible with Linux. Some need new DVD drives. Some need AC adapters. Some need batteries. Many have multiple issues that need to be addressed. I try to save every laptop that comes my way. I have a copious supply of spare parts to deal with these issues.
The laptop program no longer takes XP labeled laptops but only ones marked as Vista or Windows 7. XP labeled laptops were coming to us in worse shape due to their age, and they sometimes don’t have the necessary horsepower.
When the idea of giving laptops to students was first proposed about 5 years ago, I was initially skeptical because a laptop running Windows, owned by a teen, is a virus accident waiting to happen. I speculated that the laptops would be serviceable for a few months at best before becoming terminally afflicted with all manners of spyware and viruses. The goal was to keep these laptops from coming back to us, ever. The recipients of these laptops usually don’t have the financial resources to repair them.
Since Windows obviously was not a good fit, Linux was the perfect (and only) alternative. Linux is almost 100% immune to viruses and comes with thousands of free applications. There were some requirements, of course. There had to be an office suite, multimedia applications, Skype, games, an email client and a decent browser. These are all available in Linux. The office suite is not very important anymore as cloud based applications such as Google Docs become more popular. Most recipients of these laptops are going to use cloud based office applications, and that’s a good idea for reasons of backup and convenience.
Additionally, the Linux distribution had to be what is called an LTS (Long Term Support) version since Ubuntu updates fail with cryptic messages once the support period is over and the update repositories are archived. The latest Ubuntu LTS version is supported for 5 years instead of 9 months for a non-LTS version. Every fourth version of Ubuntu Linux is an LTS release.
The problem for me was one of procedure. I had to customize, over and over in the same exact way, the Linux that was installed in each and every donated laptop. First I did all operating system updates, then removed unneeded applications, then installed necessary applications such as VLC, Thunderbird, Firefox, a few games such as chess and breakout, Skype, and some other things I can’t recall at this moment. Then I customized the desktop environment, such as enabling single-click, wallpaper picture of Whitman High School, etc. Then Firefox was customized with a dozen or so handy links, ad-block, new home page, and several other things. Each PC took many hours to prepare. While the laptop program was still in the nascent phase years ago, I quickly concluded there had to be a better way.
Enter remastersys. This utility has no equivalent in Windows. In fact, it would be illegal in Windows. Remastersys essentially creates a new live-bootable Linux distribution in the form of an ISO file which is then burned to a CD or USB key. It uses as its template the current version of Linux that is installed, plus all the enhancements and changes that the user has made to that distribution. And to top it off, it includes all created users on that Linux system. Imagine on a Windows system that you have created all your users, installed all your applications, and tweaked everything just right. Now you would like to create an install DVD, and install this customized version on every PC in your house. It’s impossible in Windows. But not in Linux.
The base Linux distribution we are now using is Linux Mint 13 Mate Edition, which is based on Ubuntu Linux LTS 12.04 (Precise) and the Gnome2 desktop environment. It’s a robust and reliable Linux distribution, it works well on most hardware, and most of what was needed was already included. After installing it on a laptop and making all the changes listed above, I used remastersys to make a custom Linux distribution and named it “Walt Whitman Linux”, which is the name of the High School. The login screen even says “Welcome to Whitman Linux”. I thought about naming it after me but decided not to.
This is actually the second iteration of Whitman Linux to use remastersys. The first was based on Linux Mint 11 XFCE, but that is now out of date and so has to be replaced. It was unfortunately not an LTS version, however the LTS version available about three years ago only had a support period of three years.
Now a laptop can be prepared and tested in about an hour instead of 5 or 6 hours. That does not include the hardware repair time which is often necessary.
That’s a huge savings in time, as well as increased reliability and conformity, as now each laptop is identically configured. Furthermore, the remastered Linux contains remastersys, so further customizations can be performed as necessary . And the project can also be more easily handed over to someone else, because the bulk of the work is already within the remastered distribution and it’s supported for about four more years by Canonical (creators of Ubuntu). The school principal and administrators of the laptop program have the remastered live USB drive and instructions, so the project is no longer dependent on me should I no longer be available.
There are a few quirks that I have no control over. The major one involves a bug in remastersys. When installing Whitman Linux from a USB drive, the installation process prompts you to create a new user, even though the default Whitman Linux user called “user” has already been created. You can’t circumvent this. You can only play along. My recommendation is to quickly enter a user called “f”, with password “f”, just to make it happy. I chose ‘f’ because your finger is already on it (if you know how to type) and your other hand is on the mouse. The user “f” never shows up once Whitman Linux is installed. I said “quickly” because it has to be done before the install process reaches a certain point. I won’t elaborate. Just do it fairly quickly and everything will install properly.
An upcoming post will be an on-line User Guide to Whitman Linux. This guide will be useful to the recipients of the laptops, the administrators in charge of the laptop program and insomniacs desperate for sleep at 3 AM.