Live CDs, DVDs or USB drives let you run Linux without actually installing it. Here are five ways to use them.
1. Test-drive Linux
Over the years, Linux has developed from a usability nightmare into a fairly straightforward desktop operating system. With professional-quality productivity tools like OpenOffice.org for creating documents, spreadsheets and presentations and GIMP for image editing, as well as versions of familiar applications such as Firefox, Thunderbird, Adobe Reader and Flash, most common business tasks can be done pretty easily on a Linux system.
You can see how well adapted Linux is to your business by running several of the most popular desktop distributions from a live CD. Perhaps the most refined and user-friendly desktop system available right now is Ubuntu, which includes just about every application you could ever ask for, from business productivity apps to programs for multimedia editing, web design, running databases, serving up web pages and chatting online.
Ubuntu, one of the most popular desktop Linux distros available, comes preloaded with the open-source office suite OpenOffice.org.
Ubuntu's installation disk is itself a live CD, so if you decide to install the system later you can just run the installer from the Ubuntu desktop.
2. Recover aging hardware
Linux in general has lower system requirements than other contemporary operating systems, but there are a few distributions that are specially designed to take advantage of old, even ancient, computer hardware, letting you squeeze a few more years of life out of systems you wouldn't even think of running Windows on - including machines with broken hard drives.
Both Damn Small Linux (DSL) and Puppy Linux are designed for older systems, requiring only a Pentium 486 or equivalent CPU and 128MB of RAM to run well. DSL can even run with just 64MB of RAM. Both launch a usable, if somewhat stripped down, user interface that's perfect for tasks like sending and receiving e-mail, creating documents and surfing the web - in other words, basic administrative tasks.
3. Secure your network
Linux is already one of the more secure operating systems, since it was designed from the start as an Internet-connected system. Running it from a live CD makes it even more secure, since the disk image cannot be modified. Several distributions take advantage of the inherent security of the live CD to transform old computer equipment into powerful secure gateways for your network.
Zeroshell can be installed on any PC with a 233MHz processor and 96MB of RAM to transform it into a fully featured gateway router and firewall. All the advanced features you'd expect from a modern gateway are present, including authentication via RADIUS server, quality-of-service monitoring and traffic-shaping, VPN and the ability to act as an 802.11a/b/g router on machines with the appropriate wireless cards.
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