Hands-On: Kali Linux Light (Xfce) and Mini distributions

In addition to their full distribution, Kali Linux offers Light and Mini versions. Here's how I got on with them.

In my previous post, I looked at the Full version of the new Kali Linux 2016.1 Rolling release. That version uses the Gnome 3 desktop and includes a large number of security, forensic, and penetration-testing utilities. In this post I am going to look at the Light version, which uses the Xfce desktop and includes only a few security utilities in the base installation, and the Mini version, which lets you choose your desktop, but includes no additional utilities in the base installation.

It seems to me that there are two reasons for the Kali Light distribution. First, a lot of people don't like using Gnome 3 -- especially a lot of experienced Linux users -- so this offers a popular alternative desktop. Second, by including very few additional security packages, it lets you build up the distribution with just the tools you want and need.

Most of the download and installation procedure is the same for the Light version as for the Full version, so I won't repeat it all here. The big difference is that it all goes a lot faster, because the Light ISO image is less than half the size of the Full ISO. The bad news is that even though it is listed as 0.8GB on the downloads page, it is actually about 1.0GB so it won't fit on a CD. You have to either burn it to a DVD or dump it to a USB stick. By today's standards that is not unusual, and probably doesn't even qualify as bad news. Oh well.

Installation was easy, as expected, the same as it was for the full version, and again there was no problem with UEFI firmware systems. On booting the installed system, it looks like this:

Kali Linux Light

Kali Linux 2016.1 Light (Xfce 4.12)

That's a nice looking Xfce desktop, but it is nowhere near as customized as the Kali Gnome desktop was. I think this is another part of the 'roll your own' philosophy; you can add whatever launchers you want/need to the desktop and panels. My previous post about customizing Xfce gives lots of (hopefully) useful information about that.

Kali Xfce Menu

The Kali Light Xfce menu contains only seven categories of security utilities (compared to 14 in the full version), and each of those categories contains only one or two items, so you can see why this distribution is half the size of the full distribution.

In fact, I find the release announcement misleading about what is included in the Light distribution. It says that it just includes the 'top 10' metapackage but it doesn't look to me like that is true.

First, there are not 10 additional security utilities here, I can only see about 5 and some of the most obvious are missing (John the Ripper and Wireshark, for example).

Second, when I use apt-get to install the package kali-linux-top10, it shows me a huge list of what will be installed and it says that 1.5GB of additional space will be used. Hmm.

So, I am assuming that the top 10 statement in the release announcement was either a mistake or a euphemism for the most common utilities, and was not intended to literally mean the Kali top 10 package.

Anyway, the Light distribution includes a few of the most common programs - nmap, ncat, ncrack, aircrack-ng and sqlmap, but anything beyond that has to be installed from the Kali respositories. If you really want the top 10 utilities, just use apt-get install kali-linux-top10. If you want to pick-and-choose what gets installed, that is perfectly ok as well; apt-get install john or apt-get install wireshark and such work just fine.

Kali Light Xfce Menu

Whatever you install will be added to the Xfce menus in the appropriate categories. Here you can see that after installing the top 10, new categories 07, 09 and 13 have been added, and the Password Attacks category (05) which originally contained only ncrack, now also includes john and hydra.


That is still nowhere near what is included in the full distribution, though. If you want to get the complete contents of the full distribution installed into this Xfce desktop version, use apt-get install kali-linux-full. That will bring in another 1,200 or so packages and use an additional 3GB of disk space.

Installing the full package took a pretty good bit of time, more than 30 minutes on my Acer Aspire E11. When it was finished, I finally had all of the same menu categories that the Gnome 3 version had.

OK, that's enough about the Kali Light distribution. Moving on to the Mini distribution, the news is not quite as good, at least initially.

The Kali Mini distribution is basically the same as the Debian 'tiny' distribution (with the repositories changed, of course). The ISO image is only 32MB - that is really small. It is a net-install image, which means that you must have an internet connection to install it, because that tiny ISO only contains enough to boot and run the installer, it has to get absolutely everything else from the network.

The bad news is that this image will not boot on UEFI firmware systems, unless you change the system to 'Legacy Boot' mode. The good news is that it works just fine on MBR systems. That doesn't help me much any more, because almost everything I have around here is UEFI, and I don't want to use Legacy Boot.

To get around this limitation, I got out the Lenovo T400 which I recently replaced on my desktop, so I was able to load and test it that way.

Booting the Mini ISO, the only option you get is Install - there are no Live options this time. The installation process is similar to the Full and Light versions, but this version installs absolutely none of the security/forensic/pentest utilities - not even the few that were included in the Light base distribution. Again, this means that you can create a system which contains exactly what you want - any only what you want.

In fact, at first glance (or on the first pass through this installer), you might think there is even more flexibility here, because as you go through the installation you will be asked to choose the desktop package(s) you want. The list includes Gnome, Xfce, KDE, Cinnamon, MATE and LXDE. Zowie, how good is that!


Kali Linux 2016.1 LXDE

Well, don't get too excited, yet. I have tried both KDE and LXDE, and got mixed results. The KDE installation didn't really work all that well, but the LXDE installation seemed pretty good, and when I installed the kali-linux-top10 metapackage, everything showed up in the LXDE menus. I didn't try Cinnamon or MATE.

So the bottom line on the Kali Mini distribution is that it can be useful if you want to install from a really, really small image (does anybody remember mini-CD or even credit-card CD media?). It might also be interesting if you want to start from an absolute bare-bones system and carefully pick and choose the utilities that you want to install. But you would have to be really dedicated and really determined to do that.

If you want to think out of the ordinary, what about a Kali Linux installation with the i3 Window Manager? Now there's an interesting thought... As I have said before, the people that I know who work in this area (computer and network security, forensics and penetration testing) tend to be hard-core Linux users with a lot of experience. They usually aren't concerned with fancy window decorations, menus and such. They use a lot of keyboard shortcuts rather than taking their hand away to use a mouse. They very often work with multiple windows open, moving between them frequently, and they want to have at least several, or even better all of them, visible and easily accessible at all times. That sounds a lot like a job for i3 doesn't it? Hmmm...

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