Mastering the Art of Remastering
Since the dawn of the distribution, there have been ways to remaster, re-spin, and otherwise rework a Linux flavor into something slightly different -- something that could be replicated and installed across multiple machines. These remastering tools are usually distribution specific (I first tried my hand with this several years back with Knoppix and the Debian live-magic live image creator) and vary in how forgiving (and permissive) they are when new users get too enthusiastic in choosing packages to add and remove.
TechRadar recently featured InstaLinux, a web interface utilizing the Linux Common Operating Environment (LinuxCOE) SystemDesigner. This application allows for the creation of network and media (including USB) installation images using a number of "core" Linux distributions as a base.
TechRadar reported that though their installation image wasn't without its issues, but none of the glitches were disastrous. It seems that TechRadar got a bit further than I did (the InstaLinux SystemDesigner kept timing out as I tried to download my image), but the technology and theory is sound, and the number of very different Linux distributions available for re-spinning under this single utility make it worth a look.
InstaLinux prompted me for a target hostname or IP address. The InstaLinux instructions recommend if these aren't absolutely certain (if the machines in question pull down IP addresses via DHCP) that it's better to leave these fields blank (the installer lets the end user set these, as well). This is also where I could choose my distribution to re-spin -- Fedora, CentOS, Debian, Ubuntu or openSUSE -- in a variety of past (and relatively current) releases and architectures.
InstaLinux also asks what kind of installation I'd like (network or media based), install methods, what type of image I'd prefer (CD or USB) and what device I would be using on the target machine to connect to the internet, if necessary.
Localizations for the installation process and target system can be specified (although TechRadar said the localization information was requested again with their Ubuntu-based install).
The package selection page is reasonably detailed. Could it be moreso? Yes, but seeing as InstaLinux covers a number of distributions, and package selection is often what determines the ultimate success (in terms of intended use, and stability) of a re-spin, generalities are usually safer than specifics. Each package group links to the included packages, so I could tell what exactly I was getting. I could also select any single official package from the distribution, if I wanted one application and not the whole package group.
Unfortunately, when I tried to set my partitioning methods things slowed considerably and I was ultimately unable to get the image. The partitioner configuration menu options offered, though, could potentially make this utility worth its weight in writable media. Setting up multiple (identical) machines with specific, complicated partitioning and disk parameters isn't just repetitive, it leaves room for error (nothing infuriates like a missed tickbox). Having to click through partitioning options for ten machines intended to run one distribution -- on a single partition -- is time consuming.
InstaLinux provides an MD5 checksum with each image, and verification with the md5sum command is recommended (if only to verify that any unexpected results are truly odd, and not a corrupt image). InstaLinux is very vocal about the supplied images being installation images, not live images. If you are opting to install your image on an existing machine in a dual boot configuration, with any advanced disk partition options. or have information on the target machine that is vital, backing up is strongly recommended.