ExpertConsultant

PC on a PenDrive

This article is mostly aimed at the fellow consultants but at the same time could be useful for many IT professionals responsible for providing services to the commercial users especially at the managerial level. In fact it is based on a “tool of trade” that I’ve developed for myself in order to make consultant's life a bit easier. It is about an interesting concept of the computer on the USB memory stick and portability of applications.

Many consultants as well as business people need their software and data here and now regardless of the location; being it in the office, on the move, with potential clients, in the Internet Café or hotel room. Best solution is always a laptop but you are not supposed to tie a laptop to your back and carry it around wherever you go. At the same time memory sticks are cheap and cheerful and you could easily slip one into your shirt pocket to have handy whenever you need it. Many people do use them nowadays and carry their data around, but data and computer is not the same thing, therefore that person has to adjust to every workstation he uses and hope that it has the necessary software installed. If talking about pure USB computing, when you boot into your own computer from the USB stick, then it should definitely be a Linux box. You can find a large number of articles on how to create such a computer at http://www.pendrivelinux.com. The easiest way is probably to use a loopfile installation (see the “Quick and easy Pendrivelinux 2008 install from Windows” on the above website) but I would greatly recommend a casper-persistent method with Ubuntu, like in the article “USB Ubuntu 7.04 persistent install”. This takes a little bit more time and effort but if you follow clear instructions on the website then it shouldn’t be a problem and at the end you will have a nice Ubuntu Linux box on the stick with probably the highest hardware compatibility in the whole Linux family. But when installing just make a small change to the recommended partitioning, use larger memory stick and create a FAT partition at least twice the size mentioned in the above article. So at the end you should have an Ubuntu installation, bootable and with persistent features. Why do we need a larger partition? Simple, we are going to add second computing environment with the help of the software from the company called Mojopac. You can check it at the http://www.mojopac.com. I would recommend first evaluating their free version called MojoPack Freedom which is available from the download section. Mojopac is actually an interesting virtualisation concept that uses Windows XP user profile system which allow applications to be installed differently for different users. It stores the entire profile together with the application and data on the pendrive and at the same time takes advantage of the common resources from the host computer. After downloading follow the instructions and install it on the top of your Linux virtual computer. Configure MojoPac and add all the applications and data that you might need from the Windows environment and make sure that it is fully operational. Now boot from the pendrive into Linux and install applications you might need there including webservers, PHP, MySQL, etc. If you are not very confident with Linux or if making this device for someone who hasn’t got Linux experience then I would recommend putting Wine environment and installing all the familiar Windows applications on the top of it and bringing “shortcuts” to the desktop.

This is, in a few words, a device that uses a piggyback approach to the truly portable computing. When possible you just plug it in into a working Windows XP workstation for using a familiar desktop in order to demonstrate features to a client, use the software which might not be on that particular machine or even make on the spot Project adjustments. If it is not possible to use Windows XP computer or in order to demonstrate life and working websites with all the interactive features and data handling, then you could do a full clean boot into the Linux box where the familiar server system is running and showcase or work in the real web environment. At the same time for non Linux literate people even second option creates a fully working familiar system with Windows applications running in the Wine environment.

Just note that Linux will see the data on the Windows partition of your pendrive but Windows would not see a casper part of the Linux.

This simple and elegant solution is worth all the effort put into creating a universal pendrive as it could be a real life-saver in many situations and invaluable tool for almost any type of work away from your desktop PC.

This article only describes a principle of creating a working piggyback USB pen drive as you or your client would most probably need their own set of software and data, so I am not getting into too much details. I also want to remind you that this type of configuration is highly vulnerable to loss or theft but I believe it should be obvious for everyone that all important and confidential data should always be encrypted on any portable device, being it a memory stick or a laptop. There are several free and commercial software titles available for both operating systems therefore just choose one which is most suitable for your needs

February 2008

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