Skip Evans sent me a link for a page that presents a long list of LiveCDs — CD-ROMs that your computer can boot from (if your computer can boot from CD-ROM, a fairly common capability for machine manufactured from the mid-1990s onward).
There are venerable LiveCDs, including Knoppix that boots a Debian Linux OS, and FreeSBIE that boots to FreeBSD 5.3. But there are a plethora of other LiveCDs listed, ranging from 2MB boot images to rescue CDs to firewalls to servers and pure gaming CDs. These boot to an operating system without requiring you to change anything in your current computer setup. They can let you try out a different operating system, or do some specific function without the need to install anything to your hard disk.
I’ve used Knoppix, FreeSBIE, and Chronomium LiveCDs before. Chronomium is a LiveCD that boots Linux, downloads virus definitions over the internet, and checks a Windows machine for viruses. That is utterly cool, since sometimes you simply do not want to boot an infected Windows machine. While I haven’t run FreeSBIE through all its paces yet, it has nearly everything I’d be looking for in a desktop FreeBSD installation. Knoppix has proved useful in several circumstances as a test platform. Its autodetection routines give an early heads-up on hardware problems. I also used Knoppix to partition and format twenty 4GB compact flash cards to use FAT16 with a 64K cluster size so that the Pocket PCs Diane is using in her field research can access the whole space.
One LiveCD that I just downloaded this evening is the Insert LiveCD. It is a “rescue” type system, slimmed down to fit on a credit card sized CD media. I’ll burn off a couple of those to put one in my wallet and another in my backpack, so that I have a basic test and recovery tool on-hand everywhere I go.
The Quantian LiveCD also looks interesting. Its reason for being is to provide a scientific research LiveCD. It comes with the GNU R statistics system and all its Unix compatible modules, the Octave matrix manipulation application (similar to Matlab), and has computer clustering code as part of the CD. So if you want to put together your own cluster for supercomputing on the cheap, this is one way to do it.
Check it out…