GhostBSD 20.08.04About a month ago the GhostBSD team published a new release. The GhostBSD operating system is based on FreeBSD and focuses on desktop use. It has a graphical installer, some convenient desktop utilities for handling tasks such as installing updates, and ships with the MATE desktop. There is also a community edition of GhostBSD which runs the Xfce desktop instead of MATE. Both editions run on 64-bit (x86_64) machines exclusively.
Apart from updating MATE to version 1.24.0, the new snapshot of GhostBSD introduces one big change: automated boot environment snapshots during package upgrades. This allows the administrator to have snapshots of the operating system's filesystem taken prior to each package upgrade, ensuring that if something breaks, we can reboot and rollback the system to its previous state. This should make GhostBSD secure against broken updates in a similar fashion to openSUSE when the latter is installed on Btrfs.
I downloaded the MATE edition which is 2.6GB in size. Booting from the live media brings up the MATE desktop. At the top of the screen is a panel containing the Applications, Places, and System menus. The right side of the panel houses the system tray. There is a second panel along the bottom of the screen that features a task switcher. On the desktop we find icons for the file manager and system installer.
I tried running GhostBSD in VirtualBox and on my laptop. The system performed fairly well in VirtualBox, responding quickly and running fairly smoothly. The desktop defaulted to a low resolution, 800x600 pixels, but this could be adjusted upwards in the Display module under the System menu.
When I switched over to my laptop, I found GhostBSD worked well with the hardware. My screen resolution was automatically detected, sound worked out of the box, and wireless networking functioned smoothly. The system used about 720MB of Active memory and 190MB of Wired memory when signed into the live desktop.
GhostBSD uses a custom, graphical system installer. The installer begins by asking us to select our preferred language from a list. Then we are asked to choose our keyboard layout and time zone from additional lists. When it comes to disk partitioning we have three basic options: take over the disk with ZFS, guided partitioning with UFS, or manual partitioning.
I ended up going through the installer four times and got to try each of the partitioning options. Taking the manual approach caused the installer to show me the layout of my disk and a partition manager similar to the one used in the Ubiquity and Calamares installers. Then the installer locked up. When I tried the guided UFS option the installer locked up and aborted. I went through the guided ZFS twice. This approach takes over one entire disk and gives us the chance to select GPT or MBR disk layouts, swap space size, and the name of the ZFS storage pool.
When selecting the guided ZFS option, the installer would continue, giving me the chance to pick boot loader settings and make up an administrative password. The last step is to create username and password for a regular user account. This screen gives us the chance to pick our command line shell with the default being fish. We can change this to another shell such as bash, tcsh, ksh, or zsh. The installer then copies its files to the hard drive and exits, returning us to the desktop.
As I mentioned before, I ran the through installer four times. It failed to finish when using either guided UFS or manual partitioning. I made two attempts at using ZFS, once with a GPT disk layout and once with MBR. In both cases, whether I was running my computer in UEFI or Legacy BIOS mode, the system failed to start after the installer had finished its work. The boot process would begin, then quickly report it could not find the boot loader on my fresh copy of GhostBSD. It seems as though the system is trying to find the boot loader in multiple locations and missing it each time. There is a screen in the installer that asks about boot loader settings and I made sure to confirm the FreeBSD boot loader was selected, so I'm puzzled as to why the software could not be found.
I was disappointed in my experience with GhostBSD this time around. I try out the operating system about once every year or two and, in the past, I've typically had positive experiences with it. The project evolves quickly and showcases a lot of good aspects of the underlying FreeBSD platform. I've often recommended GhostBSD to people who want to try a flavour of desktop BSD. However, this time I could not get GhostBSD up and running. I decided to move on to trying another project this week.
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Finnix 121The next project I decided to look at is Finnix. Finnix is a small, self-contained, bootable Linux CD distribution for system administrators, based on Debian. It can be used to mount and manipulate hard drives and partitions, monitor networks, and rebuild boot records. The most recent version of Finnix is based on Debian's Testing branch.
Version 121 introduces a few changes, such as not shipping with the sl command which shows an animation of a train slowly moving across the screen when people mistype the ls command. The LILO boot loader has been removed. The non-zero exit codes of commands are now shown in the command prompt.
The release announcement says "Fixed SSH remote access" though without details as to what this means. That is, I can't tell if there was remote access and it was disabled, or now remote access is allowed, or if the tools to remotely access another computer were fixed. This release also introduces zRAM which uses 50% of the computer's physical memory. Basically, this feature allows Finnix to set aside half of RAM to act as compressed swap space. In theory this allows us to hold more items in RAM while compressing the lesser used pieces of data. Finnix 121 is available as a 509MB download for 64-bit (x86_64) computers exclusively.
In VirtualBox the Finnix distribution booted to a text console and automatically logged me in as the root user. As advertised, any error exit codes are displayed in the console's prompt, making it easier to troubleshoot commands that are misbehaving. The distribution is fairly light, using about 75MB of RAM. Well, 75MB of plain RAM is actively used while 50% of RAM is set aside for the zRAM compressed swap space.
Unfortunately, I found Finnix was unable to boot on my laptop. The distribution failed to show any signs of life at all when booted in Legacy BIOS mode. When I switched to UEFI the Finnix boot menu would appear, but the distribution would run into trouble early in the start-up process. A brief error would appear saying there was a problem concerning the "magic number" and then the system would restart.
Assuming we are able to run Finnix, either in a virtual machine or on physical hardware, the distribution ships with the usual collection of GNU command line tools. Manual pages are installed for us. The distribution runs the systemd init software and is powered by version 5.7 of the Linux kernel.
The interface is entirely command line driven. I tried to find out what specific, special tools might be included to help us troubleshoot problems and rescue crippled systems. There isn't much detail to be found in the project's documentation. It seems as though Finnix mostly provides common command line utilities and assumes the administrator can work out what to use and how to use the tools.
Should we need additional software, we can use the APT command line package management tools to install new programs from Debian's Testing branch. I tried installing a few utilities and they all downloaded and ran as expected.
Earlier I mentioned being intrigued by the "Fixed SSH remote access" bullet point in the release notes. I found no secure shell service running on Finnix. There are no network services running on commonly used ports. The OpenSSH client software is installed allowing us to connect to remote servers.
Finnix is a curious distribution in that it seems to mostly do what it sets out to do - be a minimal, rescue CD distribution - while not really presenting the user with any special tools, characteristics or documentation to help with those tasks. It pretty much just provides a text console, the basic command line tools, and minimal documentation that most distributions offer.
The main draw of Finnix appears to be its small size, it's just 509MB and therefore can fit on a CD, which might help explain its minimal nature. However, other rescue tools, such as GParted Live are smaller, ship more specialized tools, and offer graphical user interfaces. These shortcomings, along with the trouble I had booting Finnix on a platform I have successfully run other rescue tools, makes me hesitant to recommend this distribution.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a de-branded HP laptop with the followingspecifications:
Processor: Intel i3 2.5GHz CPU
Display: Intel integrated video
Storage: Western Digital 700GB hard drive
Memory: 6GB of RAM
Wired network device: Realtek RTL8101E/RTL8102E PCI Express Fast