A couple of weeks ago I approached Klaus Knopper (Founder of Knoppix) via email asking whether he would be interesting in answering a few questions about the Knoppix project.
Knoppix is one of the oldest distributions, yet it is as relevant today as it was when it was first released.
Without further ado here are the questions I put to Klaus and the answers that he gave.
Please can you introduce yourself with a brief explanation as to how long you have been working with Linux and your relation to the FOSS world?
Because I was never much interested in computers, I started quite late and got interested in writing software only because of my studies in electrical engineering. It was the time when there was no WWW yet, but electronic communication and sharing of ideas and working on projects over the internet caught my interest.
I worked with different Unix systems at that time, and joined the first students Unix association at my university to learn more.
About 1994, Linux came into a very usable stage, and so we adopted it as a project in our group, and founded a dedicated yearly “LinuxTag” expo and conference a few years later (which still exists).
Because the Open Source licenses allowed me to use work of many great authors for creating something new and sharing my own work easily, I was always working with Free and Open Source Software. I don’t use proprietary software much, unless I have to (on very rare occasions related to tasks required by public administration, who did not pick up fully on Open Source software yet, unfortunately).
In general, Unix Systems such as GNU/Linux give me a comfortable, efficient and secure working environment which I am able to adjust to fit my needs due to its open architecture and liberate licenses from the beginning, so I never had to “migrate” from something else.
Today, I’m working as professor for business informatics and information management, teaching software technology and engineering (where open source and ubiquitous computing plays a major role), and also working on various open source software projects as freelance developer.
Knoppix has been around for a long long time. When was the first release and why was it created?
If you can fit a shell and rescue tools on a 20MB medium, it should be possible to have a complete working desktop and development environment on a full sized CD, I thought, and from then on experimented in creating Linux installations that don’t need an immutable computer system and harddisks to start, which means I needed to find ways for autoconfiguration, and later a possibility for overwriting files that come from a read-only medium.
The main goal was to create a system suitable for mobile working on different computers, having your favourite software always with you, with your personal data safely encrypted, rather than carrying around a computer that can get stolen or lost. So, the main difference between Knoppix and other live distros at that time was that Knoppix was designed for real work and fun, rather than just being a “demo” of what you would get when buying “the full product” in commercial distributions.
The first version, still built on RedHat (TM) Linux, I presented at the Atlanta Linux Showcase in 2000. Because of the feedback of conference participants, and in order to get feedback about hardware issues and compatibility, I decided to publish the current working base of Knoppix starting in 2001, and switched the base distribution to Debian, which was easier to upgrade without having to start from scratch on each major upgrade.
Knoppix remains popular after all this time which is impressive considering the number of distributions that come and go every year. Why do you think this is?
Maybe because it’s not designed as a “demo”, but made for real work with a variety of different programs, from data rescue and data forensics, software development and server scripts to just surfing and playing games for fun.
It’s an ongoing experiment that attempts to stay up with current hardware and software development, and adds new features that make your life easier. Plus the fact that, due to the licenses of the
software included, it is distributable without restrictions and can be used for every purpose, commercial and non-commercial, for free.
Knoppix is a distribution designed to be booted straight from portable media such as USB devices, CDs and DVDs, is this correct?
Absolutely. Harddisk installation is possible, if, for example, you need to set up a computer with an autoconfiguring GNU/Linux system quickly, but Knoppix is clearly optimized for running from USB flash disk with a, possibly encrypted, writable overlay partition.
It runs OK from a DVD, which is still the main distribution image, since the compressed filesystem data layout is very read-efficient, but since optical drives seem to disappear from mobile computers slowly, I will probably have to find a way to distribute autoresizing flash disk images that are easily installable from different operating systems in the future, rather than requiring to boot the DVD for flash installation.
Booting Knoppix diskless over the network via PXE is possible, too, which is used often in schools.
Live distros are great in a disaster scenario as they provide many useful tools for rescuing a system. What else is Knoppix commonly used for?
Apart from “normal work”, secure internet access and sometimes first contact to Linux systems, there are also more specialized derivates where Knoppix is used as a starter for Windows programs (because there is no freely distributable Windows live system yet), versions for gaming (sometimes containing proprietary software and drivers), or derivates for scientific research, for security issues and failover scenarios.
There is a list of derivates in the official derivate chart at
How do you keep Knoppix relevant and what is the biggest challenge you currently face?
Working on your own Linux distro can help to learn from others and keep up-to-date with software development, that is probably the most interesting part, plus it’s practical to have a customizable system that you can give away to your students if you are a teacher.
Sometimes I do things with Knoppix that may confuse people, like changing the default Desktop (from KDE to LXDE lately), and the first version of Knoppix in the 6.0 series was booting into talking desktop made for blind computer beginners be default, so people can get an impression of how you can customize a Linux system for special working environments. There was a description of course, that told how to boot into the graphical desktop, but apparently, most first users did not read it, and were frightened to learn that their computer can talk to them and there was no mouse and icons to be clicked on. It’s easier forgiven in the free software world when you do such “shocking effects” occasionally. 😉
The most problematic issues are new computers that are preset not to boot from external media, with or without relation to EFI. Concerning EFI, booting Linux from EFI is not such a big problem by itself,
however, the firmware settings that disallow booting anything that’s not signed by a certain manufacturer, ARE a problem, especially if they cannot be turned off (in violation of the EFI standard that features a “compatibility support module”, CSM, which means “normal boot”). It requires the user to change settings in his computers firmware to regain the capability of booting from DVD or USB flash disk. Very inconvenient, if not dangerous (you could think of malware attacks to the EFI firmware
which may lock the user out of his computer or install spionage software already in the EFI bootloader and pre-boot system drivers, so the operating system does not even know there is something bad running in the background).
How does Knoppix compare to other portable systems such as Puppy Linux or Slax and why would someone use Knoppix over those systems?
Every live or installed Distro has its advantages. You will have to check the feature descriptions in order to find out what fits your needs best. Knoppix had become the way it is, because it fits my (hence the
name) needs best for work and educational purposes, but you could just take Debian, Knoppix or another distro and create a “Newellix” that features things you are excited about personally. 🙂
Occasionally, I have a look on how other distros solve problems, too, and learn from them, and it also works vice versa.
How many people are currently working on the Knoppix project?
Difficult… Mostly me, i.e. I do the main update and integration and testing part, but I get a lot of contributions and ideas for improvements via email and forums, which are then built into packages
and installed. So, let’s say, developer and users work together on Knoppix as a community, like in most Open Source projects. I could not make it without the work of Debians maintainers and all the upstream
authors of software packages included.
How do you decide what is included in each new release of Knoppix?
Depends on the available space on CD or DVD (or if I can replace something), and current events that suggest a change or addition of a package or script to fill a certain need. It’s kind or seasonal. Some
releases just contain updates, some have new features. You may guess from the major version number, which one is the case. 😉
Do you ever read the reviews that bloggers write about your operating system and do you get annoyed if they are less than complimentary?
I am very interested in feedback. Negative feedback with a detailed error description or complaints about things that are not intuitive is actually very valuable for me, it helps me to improve the system or
remove software packages that are not working correctly or are superseded by better ones.
Of course I’m also happy to receive an occasional “everything is working fine” message, or success stories for data rescue or for getting certain hardware to work again, too, but I take complaints and criticism very seriously, and try to analyze problems and help as far as my free time allows, or explain why some things are just as they are and are going to stay that way (like the missing browser Flash plugin and restrictive security settings in Firefox and Chromium, complaint number one, but I’m not going to change this!).
What does the future hold for Knoppix and are there any forthcoming surprises or is it a case of evolution over revolution?
Sometimes I am surprised by myself how things develop in Open Source. I have some ideas like support for running Android apps and Knoppifying Raspbian (Debian for raspberry pi), and apparently, something is happening in the compiz (the 3D desktop used as default in Knoppix) development right now which I’m curious about. So, no fixed release plans for now. I’m also working on a few other projects that may keep me from spending too much time on Knoppix.
If you would like to find out more about the Knoppix project visit the Knoppix website at http://knopper.net/knoppix/index-en.html.
Another really valuable source of information is the Knoppix Wikipedia page which tells you everything you need to know about Knoppix and other related projects.
Before I sign off I’d like to thank Klaus for being open to answering the questions I asked and I hope that you all enjoyed reading his responses as much as I did.
There were some very interesting responses especially with regards to the concerns of EFI and I would be very interested in seeing a version of Knoppix for the Raspberry PI.
Thankyou for reading.
- A full review of Knoppix 7.2