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Thursday, 17 January 2013

Jibbed - NetBSD Based Live CD (Updated 19/01/13)

There aren't exactly many live CD's based on one of the BSD's around, and unfortunately over the years several more have gone the way of the Dodo. One such project was TrueBSD which is now described as dormant, not having seen a release in 4 1/2 years, and no Final for even longer. It seemed promising and I had high hopes for it, but C'est la vie. The developers and a few hardcore users still keep an IRC channel active and refuse to admit that it's dead, but don't hold your breath.

Another one is Freesbie, a fantastic little live CD during its time that has been officially discontinued. Yes, it came with Fluxbox or Xfce in a CD size image under 700 MB and lots of useful software. It also came with Conky on the desktop to satisfy that monitoring itch, which was probably most useful to check up on ram on those more limited machines of the day, free disk space and information on running processes. At least the download link for the last release 2.0.1. still works so you can try it out, but as it's from 2007 it is seriously old. Frenzy is another one based on FreeBSD and it is thankfully still alive, with v.1.4 not even a year old and dating from May 2012, but it's only available for i386/32-bit at present. If you can't wait I encourage you to try it out, it's an extremely useful tool for auditing and penetration testing and other security related tasks as well as network administration, in line with Linux distributions like Backtrack and Wifislax.
As it turns out, the latest release offers only lite images without a GUI like previous ones did up to 2010 which used the light and nimble Fluxbox, so this is not a satisfactory desktop replacement either and I will now not be reviewing it until that changed. This is a sparse universe indeed.

There's also GhostBSD as a more general purpose desktop live medium, but that's pretty much it for desktop ready live images in BSD-land. Ok, VirtualBSD offers a VMware ready image that even comes with Skype and is probably the most complete replacement for a general purpose home setup, and PCBSD is a massive project in comparison that offers live and now also virtual images, but both of them suck RAM and have their own drawbacks determined by their very nature. All of the above products are built on FreeBSD and one can easily gauge the popularity of the three BSD branches here.

Then there's Jibbed, which just had a new release shortly before Christmas 2012. Jibbed 6.0 is based on NetBSD 6.0 that came out in October of last year. Interestingly, it's only available for the x86_64 architecture and, like many good projects, the developers have decided on Xfce for the default user interface. The image is a handy 695 MB, you can download it from the links above. As I'm about to finally give the BSD's more consideration I couldn't wait to give this standout offering a little spin, and what a good experience it was.

The release announcement stated that the "live CD show cases a complete NetBSD environment, including compiler sets" and it is able to simulate read-write access while in live mode, which means that the user can update it and install additional packages while running, for example to adapt to specific tasks where additional tools are needed or as a learning environment. For instance, one might want to check out the package manager and familiarize oneself with commands before committing to and installing NetBSD.

The announcement also said that Jibbed 6.0 runs well in VirtualBox, VMware or Qemu. Against all expectations the first did not quite work for me in VB 4.1.8 which complained about a missing video driver module. BSD has always had problems in virtual environments, and in contrast the latest VMware Player worked well so I won't hold this against it. I did not try and run Jibbed in Qemu.

Jibbed comes with the older Xfce 4.6.1 for the desktop
Next up was the live session. After hitting enter or letting the countdown time out the system boots up and after some red text scrolling by logs you straight into an older Xfce 4.6.1 desktop. This might not be preferable to some users given that both FreeBSD and OpenBSD and most Linux distributions have switched to 4.10 by now, but there is nothing wrong with that older version per se. It is useful, fast and familiar if you have used Xfce before, in particular Slackware users should be well at home considering the length of time Slackware has included the 4.6 series, but the use of the Rodent set of icons makes it feel more antiquated than necessary.
Apart from that, what's it like running Jibbed day to day? You're running as user 'live' by default but repair tasks to installed systems are certainly possible and made easy, all you need to do is enter 'su' and a check with the 'whoami' command reveals you have now become root.
Jibbed includes an impressive amount of software. Many of the usual utilities of the desktop environment are included, even a screenshot applet. Firefox and Filezilla for internet and file transfer needs, the GIMP and Ristretto for graphics editing and picture viewing, Mplayer for multimedia, Pidgin and Xchat for all your messaging and support channel acessing, the BSD-LPR printing backend accessible through xfprint, and several programs in the office section. These are Abiword, Emacs and Vim, the Xpdf reader and the Orage calendar. No Gnumeric, but perhaps more people need text editors and a capable word processor than are actually using spreadsheets. Taken together with the tools Xfce has to offer like Mousepad and Terminal a good and light roundup. The best is though that Jibbed includes all necessary codecs with Mplayer and it's possible to start watching movies on your hard drive straight away. Flash also seems to be included but Mozilla's Firefox crashed every time I tried to open  a video.

I tried Jibbed on my more challenging Acer Aspire laptop with Broadcom 43225 wlan chip, ATI 4250 HD discrete graphics and a Phenom X3 with 4 GB memory. While the hardware was more than enough to run it and Jibbed felt snappy even when running from optical disc the Broadcom wireless posed a problem, as expected. Most distributions still do not offer support for this one out of the box. There was no problem though with the Intel chip in my Dell laptop.

The project's website is minimal and clearly laid out and is easy to navigate. The short FAQ's page lists the minimum requirements as 256 MB and a 686 capable processor. This seems slightly outdated given that  the latest release is x64 only, but there are some useful tips nevertheless. There's also a screenshots section and the front page leads to a video of the system in action that the developer has posted to Youtube. No other documentation and no user forum are available.

On balance Jibbed seems like a good way to get into BSD and NetBSD in particular. It feels light weight, fast and stable, and definitely Unix in the way only very few Linux distributions convey these days. It's great as a training ground or as a live system on the go if your preference is BSD for some reason, and according to the site a graphical installer is in the works for the next release which would make installing NetBSD a breeze and provide a sane base for a desktop.
For an overview of the differences and similarities in package management between the three BSD flavors there's a good article here on informit. You can add packages intuitively with pkg_add in the usual way.

Updated 19/01/13 with information on Frenzy 1.4.

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