If ever there was a universal tincture in the realm of Information Technology, it would have to be the boot disc (followed closely by the prybar, but I’ll save that discussion for the next episode). The popularity of boot discs seemed to explode in the mid-2000s, with a disc for just about any situation you could find yourself in. Many a SysAdmin has saved their retirement plan from a hasty rollover action with the aid of a well-chosen boot disc. The love affair between SysAdmins and their boot discs is still going strong, of course, and with good reason – they are phenomenally handy things to have to hand. With that in mind, here are ten of the most useful boot discs you can have ready for action, which will help propel you into the quixotic realm of SysAdmins who are not chemically dependent on antacids:
- The Ultimate Boot CD: With a name like that, how can you go wrong? The Ultimate Boot CD (or UBCD as its known) has over 100 tools packed onto it, including many vendors’ hard drive tools, like Seagate’s SeaTools and GateWay’s GWSCAN. The disc doesn’t win any awards for a beautiful user interface, but that’s entirely beside the point. With just a few clicks on the keyboard you can delete data, recover data, test your CPU and memory and so much more. There’s even AVIRA’s AntiVir Rescue System on it. Which brings me to my next point…
- Anti-virus scanner: For a while, it seemed as if the open source ClamAV was the only game in town as far as anti-virus boot discs were concerned. However major A/V vendors got their collective acts together, and now most of them, such as Kaskpersky and Avira to pick two examples,offer their own branded boot disc for free. The catch (of course there’s a catch) is that you need to read the EULA, because some could disallow their usage in a business environment without purchasing the commercial product.
- Security / Hacking Tool: Sometimes you just need to go all ZeroCool and crash & burn a few things. Okay, that movie was lame, and I repent for referencing it. Moving along, the need for a choice suite of security tools is very important for most administrators. I don’t think you can do much better than back|track, as virtually every conceivable security tool you could ever want is included in this distribution. From VOIP / Telephony analysis (SIPcrack, Smap, etc.), Digital Forensics (Autopsy, Magicrescue, Vinetto, etc.), Reverse Engineering (Hexdump, GDB GNU Debugger, console and server, etc.) and network security (including wireless, wired and bluetooth tools). Did I mention almost 50 tools just under the category “privilege escalation”? Vulnerability Identification including Fuzzer, OpenSSL-Scanner and Absinthe? I could go on and on and on. Get this tool. You will lose many nights tinkering with it.
- Trinity Rescue Kit: In this world of IT, stuff happens. And by “stuff” I mean “career limiting events”. Actually, this point doesn’t have to be restricted to your career; it can include personal incidents as well. According to the official website, “Trinity Rescue Kit, or TRK, is a free live Linux distribution that aims specifically at recovery and repair operations on Windows machines”. You can reset Windows passwords, perform virus scans (which is a recurring theme among many live CDs), wipe temporary data, undelete files, recover lost partitions and more. It even support setting up an SSH / SAMBA server to access across the network. Needless to say, if you find that your bacon has been saved as a result of TRK, please donate to the project.
- Knoppix: Ah, Knoppix. As a result of this long-time Live CD quite a population of netizens have test driven Linux that might otherwise have passed it by. Quite a sample of that population were Windows admins. First started in the year 2000, Knoppix remains updated and relevant, and with it you can do many of the things offered by the other Live CDs listed above. Take a look at the Knoppix package list by going to any Knoppix mirror and searching for either packages.txt or packages-dvd.txt. Knoppix offers a great way to learn about Linux, or have a perfectly functioning instance quickly up and running with a plethora of useful and versatile packages. If I could only have one Live CD with me at all times, it would be (and is) Knoppix.
- CloneZilla Live: CloneZilla is a FOSS project that has several branches. One of them is the server edition, which helps to image many machines simultaneously (which I would not recommend; instead use FOG). Another is CloneZilla Live, which is a boot disc to be used on individual machines. You can save a disk image, restore an image, and perform a disk to disk clone. It’s a great way to make quick, image-based backups of PCs as you work on them.
- Windows PE: This tool used to be restricted to Microsoft customers that held enterprise licenses. Now it is released free of charge as part of the Windows Automated Installation Kit (WAIK). It can be used to recover passwords (anyone remember ERD Commander? Yeah, this is it’s up-to-date manifestation) and perform various troubleshooting and recovery tasks. If you deal with a Windows environment, you should probably keep this handy.
- Firewall Disc: Strange things happen… and sometimes you may need to use a PC as an impromptu firewall. Or even a longer term solution is needed. In either case, you can use one of several great bootable firewall CDs such as m0n0wall, pfSense (a fork from the m0n0wall project), or even a firewall that can fit on a single floppy disk, aptly named floppyfw . Configurations can be saved to removable media. Make sure to read the documentation first.
- Wireless Hotspot: This one might seem a little farfetched, but just think for a minute; no matter where you go, people want a wireless network. If you had a hotspot CD always at hand, you could potentially set up a safe, simple wireless network in no time using old hardware. The catch is that the best of the hotspot live CDs are not free. However, one in particular, Public IP, is on the inexpensive side. You could even turn it into a side-business for yourself if you were sufficiently business-minded…
- 10. Dedicated Forensics: Many of these live CDs have forensics tools on them, but it could be handy to keep a tool around that is actually dedicated to computer forensics. One of the best CDs that I’ve found for this is Helix, but the various editions of Helix are not free. Take a good look at what Helix offers to see if you can justify the price, but if you can’t afford it, look at Ubuntu Rescue Remix instead, which was named as one of the “Ten Essential Linux Admin Tools” by Linux Magazine.
- DBAN: Yes, this is an eleventh and yes, it’s a bit redundant. I am incapable of speaking of boot discs without mentioned DBAN. The name alone incurs +10 cool points; “Darik’s Boot And Nuke”. Other boot disks mentioned above have data destruction tools, and the Ultimate Boot Disc even includes DBAN, but there is nothing quite as satisfying as having a disc dedicated to a tool that has the word “nuke” in it. Plus, at 10MB, you can easily burn it to a business card sized disc. It will wipe your hard drive down to clean, shiny metal. It’s awesome, it’s ruthless and it has the word “nuke” in it. SysAdmins rejoice!
Keep in mind when looking at these “CDs” that they’re merely ISO files, and could just as easily be put onto a USB drive as a disc. Some of the boot discs, such as the Trinity Rescue Kit, can even be booted from a PXE NIC. Imagine that for one glorious moment. Someone’s Windows machine is hosed, you tell them to calm down while you reboot the PC and netboot from a PXE server. Within minutes of troubleshooting, without having to leave the user’s office, all is well. Such is the life of the well prepared SysAdmin. Think of these discs like little antacid tablets, stopping disaster-borne stomach ulcers before they start.