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Friday, 30 December 2011

Meet Grml 2011.12, Basic Debian Respin for Sysadmins

Today we're looking at another more specialized distribution spin called grml that apparently has its origins in Austria, not that it mattered much when technology allows us to work pretty much from anywhere. Is it grml because those mountain folks up in the Alps are always grumbling and grumpy, or is it that life as a sysadmin is turning people into muttering zombies?

Grml has just had their latest release  for the i486 and x86_64 architectures on 23-12-2011, which according to a now popular naming convention is makes it release 2011.12. This release is named 'Knecht Rootrecht', a word play on Knecht Ruprecht which is a German expression for Santa Claus.

Grml is a Debian-based bootable live CD with a collection of GNU/Linux software and scripts useful to system administrators, with automatic hardware detection. I tried both the x86 and the x64 bit edition which come in at a handy 315 MB and a 348 MB download respectively and they seem identical by all accounts in terms of set up and included applications. You can go straight to their download page. I was unable to notice any difference in performance on my AMD Phenom X3 Acer Aspire. The project also provide a 700 MB hybrid image on their download page, together with instructions how to copy to and boot from USB stick, daily images, links to older releases and the source code as part of GPL compliance.

Booting into the Desktop

Due to its minimal size there isn't really a great deal to say about this distribution, or distrolet as these small respins of bigger distributions are often called. Grml comes with Fluxbox, Openbox and WMii for your desktop perusal, it boots into Fluxbox by default. The initial boot loader screen gives you several options, including running a hardware detection tool. Under boot options you have the possibility to disable framebuffer for example, disable kms, enable SSH, load the system into RAM or with persistent mode enabling storage of settings. Further options are to boot in German language or to enter forensic mode. That's quite a bit for such a small download, but under Addons you can even boot a PXE server or start FreeDOS which is also part of the live image.


After you made your choice a wall of text scrolls by, in other words no consumer friendly boot splash, and be warned, with a lot of beeping you arrive at the text prompt, so better to not load grml up in your local library. Despite the small size it is not one of the faster boots, which may have to do with the fact that a lot of software is extracting in the background.



From here you can configure the network before you log in, set your keyboard layout (not the language), show more information about grml, start X and go to the desktop or start the installer.


It's also possible to configure the network adapter later from the desktop, so no rush. However, I found if you select grml-network it will get stuck in a loop indefinitely, so it is better to choose to configure the card directly with the netcardconfig option.

Keep working from the terminal or start the graphical interface, and you are logged into the desktop. Here are some more screenshots at the project page. Grml is using zsh instead of the bash shell that most linux distributions come with by default and they have preconfigured it with what the team call 'a powerful completion mechanism'. Zsh is described as a scripting language as well as a shell, not that you couldn't script with bash, but to understand more it's worth it checking out the pages at Sourceforge, in particular 'A workshop on Zsh by Larry P. Schroff' under Introduction. Here's a link to a brief overview of 'Why zsh'. The grml project has also put together a section with plenty of information on their default shell which will most likely be enough to get you started. It is available in English and in German.

Couple of remarks about running the grml desktop. The only graphical tools you are getting will be Iceweasel aka Firefox and Gparted to prepare your partitions for install. That is about all the nod to user-friendliness you can expect.
Apart from that you get the xterm terminal and about five different popular and not so popular shells, a terminal server, the nano and zile text editors, Python and Ruby for programming, several utilities interesting for system administrators who it is after all built for like Htop, Pstree, a Telnet client, IPTraf for network traffic monitoring, and USB View. Orphaner is already on board to keep your system in shape should you decide to install it and more, and Aptitude and apt-get for package management. Midnight Commander is the only tool included for text based but still strangely comfortable file management.


Unfortunately the console is near unreadable in this release due to its dark green and light grey on grey color scheme. I appreciate the symbolism of dark green for Christmas tree this time of year, but it just isn't working that well. A higher contrast would be better. That would be the only minor problem, except of course the already mentioned loop issue with network-config. Wpa_supplicant is there for your wireless needs, but more on this later.

It's a basic but neat desktop that has everything to get you started, and it strikes me as a good base to customize from here. Grml is using Squashfs to pack about 2 GB of software into this small image according to their site. This release features the latest 3.1.6 kernel. It is also easier now to create remasters with grml-live and existing grml ISO images. You can read the full release announcement here. As obvious from the choices, grml can be used for network and systems analysis and management and for forensic and rescue tasks. For example Clam-AV is also on the CD, as is a whole host of software not visible from the menu, like Wireshark, Smart hard drive monitoring tools, Mercurial, Subversion, Postfix and even Samba. For a minor complaint I was missing the inclusion of something like Chrootkit or Tripwire. A terminal based recover mode can be started from the Fluxbox menu.

Installing

Grml includes a basic installer but you'll have to prepare partitions before, and Gparted is included if you haven't already set them up.
The system supports formatting and running from the ext3, ext4, reiserfs, XFS and JFS file systems. The basic text installer expects to find formatted partitions.
Here you can also choose to install and get updates from the stable repositories, or from the more bleeding edge Testing and Unstable repositories. By default this release of grml is based on the current Debian Stable "Squeeze".

One of the first things to add after successful hard drive install, or to a customized image, would be  a graphical file manager and Wicd for easier network connectivity and wireless management. I wished this or a similar, even text based, tool would be included from the start as currently it seems there is no way of setting a wireless connection without specifying a password, not accounting for roaming or open networks.

Documentation and Support

You can find several links to get more help and support on the web page, documentation is also included on the CD image. The website sports a blog, press and release notes, a documentation and separate FAQ section, a bug reporting system via web (which needs registering) or email and a small Wiki.
Interestingly, there's also a page on how to report bugs effectively, an issue which I think should be given more prominence in distributions and documentation.


The home page also claims to provide out of the box support for users with visual impairment needs but I did not see or hear in this case any evidence of screen readers or other such tools.

Conclusion

Grml is a capable base designed for system administration tasks. It is clearly an advanced system for people who are confident with the command line, and probably best used on a machine with wired Ethernet connection, or at least with one clearly defined network, not in a roaming capacity. Although wireless support is included you get the idea that this is meant to be used on a stationary machine in a professional setup. Being based on Debian it gives you access to a huge universe of packages even outside what is in the repositories as most software packages that are distributed for linux are also available for current Debian releases. On top of that, if you choose to install, you can actually opt to install anything from old-stable "Lenny" to the Testing and Unstable branches, although repositories are by default set to the stable release.

If you're planning to set up a workstation for the tasks grml is intended for and add your own graphical tools like Nagios for network management and monitoring on top this may serve you better than for example starting from an even more minimal Debian netinstall. On the other hand, if you don't have any use for many of the tools included here and Fluxbox is not your thing, it may be better to go down a different route. As always, YMMV. All a matter of preference.

2 comments:

  1. I've been a happy grml user for years now and while I think that while this review is fair, you got the wrong idea in some instances.

    1. "user friendliness". A GUI is not "friendly"; it's just "easy to figure out if you've seen/user other GUIs". "User friendly", to me, means "allows a competent user to work efficiently"; thus, vi is more user friendly than, say, nano or gedit. For most of the tasks you'd want to use grml for, a GUI is neither necessary nor does it provide an advantage. I hardly ever start the GUI on grml at all.

    2. the point. The point of grml (which your review seems to largely miss) is, as I see it, to provide a very full-featured, user friendly (in the above sense) environment for system recovery, maintenance and "installation" -- not the installation of grml on the hard drive, but the installation of Debian or Ubuntu on the hard drive.

    I use grml instead of the official Debian installer exclusively to install Debian. This allows me to easily create complex RAID+LVM+LUKS setups using familiar command line tools instead of the clumsy installer (which may not even be capable of creating some of the more complex setups). Then I use debootstrap (or the grml wrapper, grml-debootstrap) to install Debian on the pre-assembled storage; afterwards, I go through a checklist to configure stuff before booting into the new system from the hard drive, and reboot. This alone has saved me probably several days' worth of frustration with the Debian installer.

    In addition to this, I love the grml zsh config so much that I install it on all my Debian systems as well. :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. @Andras
    Hi Andras,

    in relation to user-friendliness (1) I was trying to make the point that it is not a distro for the typical desktop user, aka mint or even a standard Debian install, and requires familiarity with the terminal and editing config files.

    Maybe the point as you raised in (2), although I mentioned the main purposes of grml, did not become clear enough.

    Anyway, I appreciate your additional insights as a long-term user. Thanks!

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