Thursday, July 11, 2013

Review: Ubuntu Gnome from a LIve CD

For the last few days, I've been playing with Ubuntu Live CDs to run as a secured workstation. It's a very interesting way to work. I use this setup to conduct work related research, log my activities and note important events while I'm at work since I have not been assigned my own PC, but need one to work. I have checked this out with my employer and they are OK with this setup, for anyone wanting to know.

There are some good reasons for doing this. One is that I didn't want to create any security problems on the company network. Part of the solution provided by employer is direct network access to the internet which will keep traffic from my computer off of the business network. It's probably through a router and that's nice, but Windows machines are notoriously easy to hack. An un-patched Windows machine won't last more than a minute when directly connected to the internet before it's been compromised. So, using the Linux boot CD is a security measure while accessing the internet to protect the image that is on the hard drive.

Two, I can run on my preferred platform, Gnome 3 on Ubuntu. I am seriously anti-mouse. I won't use the mouse unless absolutely necessary and, as it turns out, there is a good reason to avoid it. I just naturally prefer to use the keyboard rather than the mouse and Gnome 3 is particularly well suited for this kind of work. For example, when I want to launch an application, I just press the Windows key and type the first few letters of the application name. Then the application appears, usually as the first entry on the list, then I press enter to run the application. This makes it easy for me to find and launch applications and it is much faster than the menu driven approach used in KDE, Windows and Gnome 2.x.

Three, if they need this computer, I can always find another older computer to work from. I don't have to worry about re-installing a good setup on another machine since I only need to boot to a CD. Since the work I do stays in the cloud at Google Docs, I have no worries about any work product being left on the hard drive.

To summarize, this is what I'm doing:
  • Use an unassigned computer as my temporary workstation.
  • Boot that workstation with an Ubuntu Live CD.
  • Install Chrome temporarily for my work.
  • Browse the Internet to do my research.
I've tried using two different forms of live media: USB flash drive and CD/DVD.

I've found the USB drive to be painfully slow, but it does offer persistence, something that I don't have while running a live CD. Persistence allows me to keep settings and applications after shutting down and rebooting the computer. Persistence also allows me to save files to the USB drive that I can gather again later. I can even booth the USB drive on another computer and my settings will be there.

For example, on a USB drive, I can install Google Chrome and know that it will be there on the next boot. Space permitting, any applications that I install will remain on the USB drive. While this is convenient, it is still painfully slow. It appears that caching data to the USB drive is slow for read/write compared to working from a hard drive. I wonder how an external SSD might work, but I may wait awhile for the prices to come down before I try them out.

On the other hand, running Ubuntu from a Live CD is much faster, much more responsive and a far more enjoyable experience. The only problem is that if I want to run Chrome, I have to re-install it over and over again with each boot. Considering the performance gains over the USB drive, that is not much of an inconvenience. Besides, I'll always be on the latest version of Chrome with each re-install.

Where are the programs installed? Good question. The CD is read-only, so no programs will be installed there. What the live CD will do is take a part of the host machine's hard disk that has no data on it, and write to the disk to cache information needed to run Ubuntu. Any programs installed will be saved there. But on reboot, they won't be there later, thus, I have to re-install them for use again.

It's not so bad to run this way. I don't mind re-installing the packages as they're small and don't take that long to install. In fact, running the live CD and installing what I need is much faster than waiting for the USB drive to load and run Chrome starting with multiple tabs.

The Gnome interface is very snappy on the live CD. It's easy and quick to move from virtual desktop to virtual desktop. Applications load fairly quickly from a CD and they run quick once they're loaded.

The most interesting aspect of my live CD experience is noting how quick and nimble Google Apps will run from the live CD. Gmail, Blogger, Google Drive and Google Docs run great. I have a large text document that takes forever to load on the USB drive, but on the Live CD, it loads quick. It feels very much like a desktop and I find that I'm very comfortable working this way.

There is a big difference in speed between the Live CD and the USB drive. The Live CD is actually faster than the USB drive, something that I did not expect. The USB drive was so slow that I just gave up on it in frustration and switched to the Live CD instead. I suspect the speed is due to caching the data on the hard disk rather than the USB drive which is much slower than the hard disk.

There is a security caveat that should be noted about both USB drive and Live CD sessions of Ubuntu. With USB drives, there is room for persistent files to be stored. The entire configuration of Google Chrome, for example, is stored in the space for persistence. Chrome is very good about syncing the settings of the browser from computer to computer. Chrome settings on my home computer sync wherever I happen to sign into Chrome on another computer. This is very convenient and presents no security risks as long as I decline to save the password and as long as I log out when I'm done with my session and close the browser. But on a USB drive, browser syncing presents certain security risks.

For example, any passwords saved in Chrome at home will transfer to Chrome running from a USB drive while working away from home. If the USB drive were lost and someone else picked it up, I'd have to change all the passwords affected by the loss. I'd need to do this before the person who found the USB drive figures out what to do with it, too. When it comes to security, I feel much more comfortable with a Live CD.

With a Live CD running Ubuntu, there is no worry about potential security problems with persistent settings. Once you shut down the computer, all the programs you've installed, and their settings, are gone forever from that machine. This is reassuring in that I won't have to worry about leaving my data on any drive anywhere. When the CD pops out, the data that I was caching on the hard disk is gone.

The use of a Linux Live CD is not limited to work. I could use it while on vacation, away from the home computer. If I need to write extensive email correspondence while away from home the Live CD can help. If I need to check my online banking while away from home, the live CD comes in handy.

A few years ago, I read a story about a businessman who understood the security risks relating to Windows, so he used a Mac instead. He used his Mac for his business and personal computing. One day, he needed to access his bank account online, but he was away from his office, and so, didn't have immediate access to his Mac.

To save time, he used a Windows PC at a friends house to access his online bank account. When he attempted to access his account later that day, he found that he had been cleaned out to the tune of more than $100,000. Turns out that his friend's computer was infected with malware that had installed a keylogger. The keylogger captured his keystrokes and sent them to a server where black hats could pick it up and hack into his bank account. He was not able to recover his funds from the bank or the thieves.

Note: I do not use the term "hacker" to identify the bad guys. Linux comes from a hacker community and they are definitely good guys. To identify the bad guys, I use the term "black hats". They are the bad guys who want your money.

A Linux Live CD can prevent losses like the one sustained by the businessman above. We're not going to see a Live CD for MacOS in our lifetimes. Windows live CDs are not considered secure in my opinion. But Linux, an operating system built on security from the get-go, has many flavors of live CDs to choose from, provides an escape from the monoculture that is Windows or Mac. The diversity of the live CD makes them especially hard for black hats to anticipate in order to compromise secured communications or accounts. That makes a Live CD ideal for use as a way to access an online bank account or other secured resource when the computer I normally use is not available.

The Linux Live CD also makes a fine temporary workstation. Here are some examples of Live CDs you might like to try:

Linux Mint
Fedora Project
Ubuntu Gnome

If you're new to Linux, a live CD is a great way to put your toes in the waters of free software as well as a great temporary workstation.
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