Jun 22 2009

Lose the CD library, fellow troubleshooters!

One thing I have always hated about being an IT guy is being expected to have CDs on hand for a million pieces of software (Microsoft, especially!), to be ready for any occasion when called on to do some bit of troubleshooting. Partly because CDs are bulky and there’s too damn many of them to have to lug around “just in case”, but mostly because CDs are way too fragile a media to have to rely upon when you’re expected to keep 150+ computers operational. As always, I have a fix for this.

CDs get slowly scuffed up when inserting them into strange drives. They also get mishandled if you forget them in an end user’s workstation and invariably end up sitting on top of the dirty computer, where the disrespectful users put their muddy feet, but they also get put there label-side-down, because users believe that scratching the plastic on the “data side” is worse than scratching the label. While scratching a CD anywhere is obviously detrimental, scratches on the label side are actually quite a bit worse. The data is actually printed on a thin foil under the label, and a thick layer of plastic is applied to the data side to allow for a tiny bit of scratching with minimal data integrity loss. Any scratching label-side is actually more likely to damage the data — you can’t just apply toothpaste and grind out the scratches on that side to recover your data.

So, needless to say, CDs are a bad choice for your media needs. However, most OS-related software will only run if burned to disc, e.g. any version of Windows. And since Microsoft has three types for each version of each piece of software they put out — OEM, Retail and VLK, with each installed software license only working with one of the above — and my installation base is anything but consistant, with regard to what specific version of Windows or Office they have installed, I’m expected to lug around literally dozens of discs just to service, as an example, Microsoft Office 2003.

The solution? Well, I have two, actually, for different situations. Both of them involve ripping all of the dozens of CDs to ISO disc images, though.

As you can imagine, there’s a panoply of third-party software you can get for Windows that allows you to rip ISOs and burn them, but I’m not planning on talking about them, because I’m a Linux guy and I work in Ubuntu on my work laptop primarily, and all the tools necessary for ripping, mounting and burning are already preinstalled in most Linux distros. For what it’s worth, on the one Windows system I use at work, I have these two tiny programs: LC Iso Creator, a 150kb standalone EXE with no installer, for ripping; and Alex Feinman’s ISO Recorder Power Toy, which unfortunately requires installation, for burning.


In Ubuntu, copying a CD is as easy as popping it into the drive, right-clicking on the desktop icon that represents the CD, then choosing “Copy Disc…” This will bring up a Brasero disc-copying dialog. The top drop-down gives it the source for your copying, in this case the CD; the second gives you a choice between burning to a new disc, or copying it into a “disc image”, which means it’ll create an ISO for you. If you don’t like the default path or file name, click Properties to change where it’ll save your new ISO file.


Once you’ve created the ISO, what do you do with it? Well, store it in some partition on your hard drive that’s particularly sizeable, since you’ll be converting your whole library of CDs in short order, for one. Once your library is converted, carry with you a decent-sized USB key (I recommend at least 2 gigs), and a CD-RW. A few blanks can’t hurt, to give copies of software (e.g. Ubuntu) to people who need it. On the USB key, keep a copy of the two aforementioned ISO-management tools, and also a copy of Daemon Tools Lite (just be careful not to install any of the bundled foistware any time you deploy this program!). This way, when faced with a computer that has no CD drive, you’re not up the creek as long as you can use USB. And for those situations where you have to burn a disc to boot to a particular piece of software, you can burn to your RW and not have to worry about buying more media constantly.

To burn a disc in Ubuntu, it’s just a simple matter of right-clicking on the ISO file, choosing “Write disc…” from the menu, and throwing in your blank. It honestly couldn’t be any simpler. Well, at least I can’t think of a way. Plus, the fact that this is built into Ubuntu makes me happy beyond belief. Dealing with a plain XP installation with barely even support for zip files is already a pain in the posterior, but to have to find and install software to be able to install other software just plain sucks.

On the off chance you need to mount the disc from within Linux, say to grab a file or if you want to play around with getting the software working under WINE, you can do so quite easily from the terminal. First, create a folder you want to mount the image to. Let’s say, ~/mountiso:

mkdir ~/mountiso

Then to mount it, it’s a simple matter of issuing the following command:

sudo mount -o loop -t iso9660 ~/Downloads/ubuntu-9.04-desktop-amd64.iso ~/mountiso/

Replace, of course, with the path to your ISO, and the path for your mountpoint. When you’re done with the CD, don’t forget to unmount:

sudo umount ~/mountiso

Nautilus has functionality allowing you to integrate user scripts into it simply by putting them in ~/.gnome2/nautilus-scripts/ where you can right-click on a particular file, then run the script on it. In a future post, I’ll write up a tutorial on how to do so. If you want to skip ahead, here’s two hints on how to integrate them into Gnome better — gksudo makes shell scripts run a Gnome-based version of sudo for prompting for the password, and zenity --question allows you to make an OK/Cancel dialog box that you can use to confirm an action. I believe there’s also a tutorial on how to do this somewhere out there on the interwebs already if you’re both impatient and unwilling to experiment.

A few quick recommendations for discs to keep in your repertoire outside of the standard plethora of Microsoft installers. Always keep a Linux boot disc handy. Ubuntu 9.04 comes with NT read/write capabilities, and since I’m already an Ubuntu user, it’s quite familiar. One really handy tool to have is NTPasswd, which lets you reset a Windows administrator password without knowing it. You just have to boot to the disc, and you’re a few keystrokes away from having root access to the box. (This is why they say if you have physical access to a box, you have root on it.) And finally, if your morals run toward being okay with a grey-ish piece of software due to tons of copyright infringement, go try to find David’s Ultimate Boot Disc, which contains, among other things, a fully functional live XP installation with a bunch of commercial software installed. It should be your last resort, but if you’re desperate, some of the tools on it can save you a lot of time and headaches.

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