AutoTux 2.0One of the most difficult barriers to overcome when migrating to a new operating system is getting it installed. There are time zones to select, disks to partition, and user accounts to set up. It can be a daunting task for inexperienced users and even computer veterans can face challenges getting a distribution installed.
AutoTux is a Debian-based distribution which attempts to address these challenges. AutoTux claims to automate almost the entire install process. We simply download the project's ISO file, transfer it to an optical disc or USB thumb drive, and boot from it. The distribution is supposed to then take over, installing itself on the computer without further intervention. Afterwards we should have a copy of Debian 10 running the Xfce desktop.
I downloaded AutoTux 2.0 which is available as a 2.5GB ISO file. We are told on the project's front page that our default login credentials will be the username "tux" with password "tux". I downloaded the ISO file, transferred it to a USB stick and plugged it in to see what would happen.
What happens is we are presented with a text screen. At the top of the page is a banner which indicates the Fully Automatic Installation (FAI) is running. Below we are shown status information as the disk is partitioned, packages are checked, and the system is configured. The process is, as the name suggests, entirely automatic. We are not prompted at all, there is no confirmation before the installer goes to work. This is what the distribution is designed to do, but I want to underline the point once more: do not put the AutoTux media in a computer that has information on it you want to keep; the hard drive will be wiped and the partitions replaced.
When it is finished we are asked to press Enter to reboot the computer without removing the media.
When the computer reboots the status messages scroll by very quickly. It's hard to tell at first if additional configuration steps are taking place or if the install is happening over again. There is no indication of which step we are on or progress indicator, apart from the steady march of package management messages on the screen. After a while it became clear the install was happening over again from scratch as familiar messages started to scroll by. I'm not sure why we are told to not remove the install media before rebooting when leaving it in just causes OS to be re-installed each time the computer restarts.
The second time through, I ignored the request to keep the disc in my computer and ejected it before restarting the machine. This time the distribution booted to a graphical login screen. We can then sign into a default account using the username and password "tux".
The default desktop environment is Xfce and it is presented with a thin panel placed across the top of the display. There is an application menu in the upper-left corner of the screen and a system tray in the upper-right corner. There is a dock at the bottom of the display with launchers for commonly used applications. Icons on the desktop can be used to access the file manager. The default theme and icon style result in desktop that somewhat resembles macOS.
A fresh login uses about 250MB of RAM and AutoTux consumes about 8GB of disk space, installed on an ext4 filesystem. The system also sets up swap space, about 3GB worth in my case.
For all practical purposes the operating system is Debian 10. The boot menu and software builds all identify the system as being Debian. The packages mostly appear to be pulled from Debian's Stable repositories. There is quite a large collection of software included for us to try. We are treated to the Firefox web browser and the Chrome browser. TeamViewer, FileZilla, and qBittorrent are all included. There are some other popular applications such as LibreOffice, the Atril document viewer, the GNU Image Manipulation Program, FreeCAD, and Inkscape.
There were a few surprises too, including DOSBox for playing old DOS games, the Parole and Quod Libet media players, and a series of development tools, including BlueJ and Brackets. Rounding out the selection we find VirtualBox, the Thunar file manager, the Synaptic package manager, and the GNU Compiler Collection. I also found Java is installed for us. In the background we find systemd's init software and version 4.19 of the Linux kernel. It is quite a varied group of software and I suspect the development team has tried to provide a little bit of something for everyone.
The included software generally worked as expected, though I found Synaptic couldn't be launched from the application menu. Synaptic prompts for the root password, which is not set by default. We need to either open a terminal and launch Synaptic with administrator access or set a password on the root account in order to operate the venerable package manager.
Once AutoTux is up and running it is very close to running Debian 10 with Xfce installed and a macOS-style theme in place. The key feature of the distribution is less about what we end up with and more about how we get there. In other words, the focus of the project is the install process and I feel that is what we should look at when evaluating its merit.
To its credit, AutoTux does what it claims to do. It almost entirely automates the install process. We transfer the ISO file to removable media, boot from it and the installer is entirely automated. All we need to do is remove the disc at the end and press Enter to restart the computer. It really does not get much more streamlined than that. In the end, we end up with a solid, Debian-based install with a wide array of default applications that should allow most people to get straight to work. This is a fast way to get up and running with a general purpose operating system.
I have just two concerns when it comes to AutoTux. The first is the message we are shown when the install is over which asks the user to leave the install media in the machine when pressing Enter to reboot. Following this direction results in an endless loop of the system being installed over and over. It may seem like a small detail, but when a project's install process is just two manual steps, having one of them include a misleading prompt is an unfortunate oversight.
The other concern I have is AutoTux is very streamlined. It does exactly what it sets out to do: provide a fully automated install. We just put in the disc and it goes to work. Which is efficient and technically well executed. My concern is that it means if someone boots from the install media not knowing what is on it (say when revisiting a collection of distributions on old USB thumb drives), AutoTux will immediately wipe their hard drive without warning. In my opinion it is really not a good idea to have unprompted destructive behaviour built into software.
In other words, AutoTux does what it claims to do, but I question whether doing it so well is really a good thing? I personally don't want to have DVDs and thumb drives laying around my home or office that, if booted from, will immediately wipe the computer without a prompt asking "Are you sure?" Yes, it is a powerful, useful tool in some situations, but it is also one which should probably be placed in a box with a big warning label on the cover.
* * * * *
Kaisen Linux 20200307
Kaisen Linux is a rescue system based on the Debian GNU/Linux distribution. It is a complete operating system whose originality is to provide a set of tools dedicated to system administration and covering all the needs for diagnosing and dealing with faults or failures of an installed system and its components.
Kaisen Linux is available for 64-bit (x86_64) computers exclusively. The sole ISO available for download is 3.3GB in size. Booting from the distribution's media offers us three main options: booting with French language support, booting with English support, and installing the operating system. The install option lets us launch either the text-based or graphical versions of the Debian installer. Kaisen is a rescue distribution and probably not something people are going to install, but the option is there if we want to use it.
Taking the live desktop option loads the MATE 1.20 desktop. The desktop features two panels. One panel is placed along the top edge of the screen and provides access to the Applications, Places, and System menus. There is also a system tray located in the upper-right corner of the display. The second panel rests at the bottom of the screen and provides us with a task switcher. There is a Conky status panel on the desktop along with icons for launching the file manager, a terminal, and the Firefox browser.
Like AutoTux, Kaisen is based on Debian 10 "Buster", but with some more up to date packages. For instance, Kaisen's kernel (Linux 5.4) appears to be pulled from Debian's Testing branch.
Kaisen's application menu is split into two parts. One is called "User applications" and contains the typical MATE menu with its own sub-categories of software and launchers. Here we can find the Firefox web browser, LibreOffice, an image viewer, terminal, and file manager.
Kaisen Linux 20200307 -- Exploring the Kaisen application menu (full image size: 361kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The second section of the Applications menu is called "Kaisen Linux" and it is further divided into three sub-sections: "Services", "Tools for administrators", and "Tools for technicians". The Services sub-menu contains categories all named after services, such as NTP, SSH, CUPS, and so on. Inside each service name sub-menu are launchers to enable or disable the given service. This means we can start the Clam anti-virus software by clicking on the Applications menu, going to Kaisen Linux, then Services, then Clam, then selecting the Enable launcher. Some of these launchers work and some did not. For instance, the secure shell (SSH) service could not be enabled through this menu, the service failed to start when the launcher was clicked. The CUPS printing service could be enabled, but there was no graphical printer configuration tool to use it, making the service somewhat moot. On the other hand other services, including ClamAV, did run and function.
The tools in the other two sub-menus, the ones for technicians and administrators, are mostly launchers for command line utilities which will run in a new virtual terminal window. This typically means we click a tool, like du, a terminal opens, runs the command without parameters and this results in an error message being printed in the window, followed by a command prompt.
There are some graphical tools and a few text-menu-driven tools. Graphical tools include the ClamAV front-end, along with FileZilla and gFTP for transferring files. There are some text-menu-based tools like Clonezilla too, but most launchers are for command line programs. One tool which was conspicuous by its absence was GParted, the partition manager. It is a useful and commonly used tool, yet it was not included among the links to tcpdump, dd, and gpart.
Kaisen has a few good things going for it. The distribution includes a lot of useful tools which would certainly be helpful when repairing, restoring or recovering a damaged operating system. There are lots of utilities which an experienced administrator could use to check for viruses, repair the boot loader, or image the system. Having the multi-level application menu, while it takes a while to drill down through, is well organized and makes it easy to find the specific tool we need.
There are, as I see it, two problems with Kaisen which make me reluctant to use it as my day-to-day recovery tool. One is that, while it includes a lot of useful tools, it doesn't include many more than any other mainstream live distribution does these days. I can typically get by using something like Linux Mint to recover files, re-install the boot loader or image a drive. I'm not sure that I need a whole other, larger distribution just for the few extra tools it includes. In some cases there may be extra items I want, but it is rare a live disc doesn't include enough basics to get the job done.
My other issue is Kaisen was oddly slow to respond. MATE is typically a snappy desktop in my test environments and Debian has a well-deserved reputation for performance, but the combination of services and configuration Kaisen ships with slow it down noticeably.
In the end, I think if you know you need a specific tool Kaisen ships, or if you do a lot of on-site recovery and repair, then this distribution is a good option. However, if you only need to do minor repair work, restore a few files, or image a drive, then most mainstream Linux distributions will provide the same tools in a smaller package.