BackTrack: The Big Picture

BackTrack is a free, well-designed penetration-testing Linux workstation built and refined by professional security engineers. It has all the tools necessary for penetration testing, and they are all configured properly, have the dependent libraries installed, and are carefully categorized in the start menu. Everything just works.

BackTrack is distributed as an ISO disk image that can be booted directly after being burned to DVD, written to a removable USB drive, booted directly from virtualization software, or installed onto a system’s hard drive. The distribution contains over 5GB of content but fits into a 1.5GB ISO by the magic of the LiveDVD system. The system does not run from the read-only ISO or DVD media directly. Instead, the Linux kernel and bootloader configuration live uncompressed on the DVD and allow the system to boot normally. After the kernel loads, it creates a small RAM disk, unpacks the root-disk im- age (initrd.gz) to the RAM disk and mounts it as a root file system, and then mounts larger directories (like /usr) directly from the read-only DVD. BackTrack uses a special file system (casper) that allows the read-only file system stored on the DVD to behave like a writable one. Casper saves all changes in memory.

BackTrack itself is quite complete and works well on a wide variety of hardware without any changes. But what if a driver, a pen-testing tool, or an application you normally use is not included? Or what if you want to store your home wireless access point encryption key so you don’t have to type it in with every reboot? Downloading software and making any configuration changes work fine while the BackTrack DVD is running, but those changes don’t persist to the next reboot because the actual file system is read-only. While you’re inside the “Matrix” of the BackTrack DVD, everything appears to be writable, but those changes really only happen in RAM.

BackTrack includes several different configuration change options that allow you to add or modify files and directories that persist across BackTrack LiveDVD reboots.