Bootable Linux Distributions as a troubleshooting tool?
My current cable company, Charter, is in the process of “selling the franchise” to a new company called Wave Broadband. The infrastucture is in the process of being cut over — the underlying network is already cut over (going thru Noanet instead of Charter’s regional NOC in Kennewich WA, otherwise known as the middle of freakin nowhere), now they’re talking about IP address changes, new mail and web servers, the whole nine yards. The “official” date Charter is giving customers is 22 Feb 2004, though I’ll believe it when I see it.
Anyway, I was talking with someone at Wave about various network things when we digressed onto supporting cable customers. The support reps have to deal with people who barely know where the on switch is and expect support for just about anything on their computer. This may include stuff like a misconfigured Windows installation, Norton Firewall blocking connections, something on their broadband router (e.g. Linksys) is not configured right, and so on. My expectations are pretty realistic. About the only reason I call my ISP is if I can’t reach the Internet. I don’t even care if the mail or DNS servers are working because I run mail elsewhere and a DNS server locally. The only time my DNS server “goes down” is if I lose power, the Internet, or both. Of course, I get frustrated when I give them hard proof the connection is horked and they don’t properly escalate it (or don’t know how).
During this conversation, something dawned on me: why not eliminate all configuration issues with the end user’s PC by booting into a known good state? The fact is: you don’t really have any idea what people are running on their PC. By booting into a “known good state,” you can effectively eliminate any configuration-related issues. Does it work in the known good state? It does? Well then you’ve got a problem with your Windows installation, not the Internet. How does one boot into a known-good state? Boot off of CD. Can’t really boot Windows off of CD, except to install it. But you can boot Linux…
“Live-CD” Linux distributions (i.e. ones you can boot from and immediately use without installing) are becoming numerous. The first popular bootable CD distribution of Linux is called Knoppix, and it is based on Debian Linux. There are several other small distros available. See Distro Watch for a list. I am currently playing with Flonix, which will actually fit on a USB Flash Drive or a business card-sized CD. It’s based on “Damn Small Linux,” yet another small distro.
Knoppix (still my favorite so far) packs an amazing amount of software into a 700mb CD. You can essentially put this CD into your CD drive, configure your computer to boot from CD (almost anything made in the past 5 years or so can), and you’re up and running. Knoppix auto-detects your hardware, configures your network adaptor for DHCP, and boots into a graphical user interface (if at least 96mb of RAM is available). There are plenty of programs pre-installed, including games, word processors, web browsers, scanning software, and a lot more. Your hard drives are never touched (they are “readable,” but not writable by default). You can opt to install Knoppix to your local hard drive if you so desire, but if you don’t, a simple reboot will bring back your Windows (or whatever) installation.
In any case, my suggestion was: send a bootable Linux CD to your customer base. If you run into issues, have them reboot with the CD. If they have connectivity with the CD, then it’s not an ISP issue. Who knows, it might even get a couple of people to “convert” to Linux. Of course, there are plenty of potential issues with that (really old computers that can’t boot from CD, the really odd network card that’s not detected, etc), but it’s a start.