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grml, the No-Frills Linux Rescue CD--USB

Serious Tools for Serious Admins

November 16, 2010

You want a good end-user live CD? Go with Knoppix. You want an admin's toolbox with minimal fluff and maximum usability? Go with grml, a Debian-based live CD/USB that packs in more than 1,700 applications and utilities.

If you've only used standard Linux distros, you're going to be in for a treat with grml — and also a few surprises. Most distros default to Bash as a shell, but grml uses zsh. (One of the grml taglines is "Linux for zsh lovers," so they really must dig zsh.) Be aware that you won't get a standard desktop experience. By default grml will start at the command line with a menu of options, including starting X.

Booting grml

You don't lack for options with grml. The boot menu not only offers the standard options to get into grml, but a FreeDOS option, a minimal BSD (MirOS bsd4grml), PXE boot, hardware detection tool, and Memtest. You also can choose to load grml entirely into RAM in case you need the CD-ROM for something, and it's faster. You can use it on a USB stick instead of a CD. There are several failsafe options if you have trouble booting grml due to incompatible hardware. In short — you have options.

Check out the many options. In addition to the obvious menu choices, grml offers a slew of "cheatcodes" you can pass at boot time to define services, and even enable accessibility services for visually impaired users.

Using grml

The full version comes with over 1,700 utilities and packages. There are also a grml-medium and grml-small if you want a smaller image. You'll find the typical set of apps that you would want on a live CD — Web browser (IceWeasel), xterms, Vim and Emacs, irssi, Wireshark, and so on. You won't find stuff like OpenOffice.org in the default grml images. And with good reason — this isn't a distribution for word processing, it's a distro for system administration and rescue. It has the standard tools that any admin would want to use for recovering data, checking a system after it's been cracked, or performing system rescue after a update has left it wrecked.

You also get more minimal window managers than you might be used to. I'm partial to Fluxbox on grml, but you have the choice of quite a few, including Openbox and FVWM.

I won't try to detail all of the standard tools that come with grml. But I do want to mention some of the custom scripts that you'll find. Open a terminal and type grml- and hit Tab. You'll notice two things. One, grml is indeed running zsh. Its tab completion behaves a bit differently. Two, there are a lot of scripts that start with grml-.

For instance, you'll use grml-network to set up your wireless card, or IDSN, modem, whatever. If you're on a wired (Ethernet) connection, it should just work automagically.

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