Minimalist Linux Distro

I recently had a need (OK not so much a need as a desire) to breath some life back into an old laptop.  I wanted to have an ultra cheap laptop that I could lug around to preview photos from my digital camera, browse the web, check my email, etc.  I wanted something cheap enough that if it got trashed or stolen while travelling that I wouldn’t care.  Since I had an old 233 MHz MMX AMD with a 2GB hard drive and 64MB RAM that was gathering dust in a closet because it couldn’t run any version of Windows newer that Win98 I decided to see what could be done with it.

Since running a newer version of Windows was out of the question I turned to Linux.  I asked around for an ultra light weight Linux distro and some people that I know recommended something called Damn Small Linux.  So I checked it out.  In a 50MB download you get the operating system with a GUI front end and a small package of essential applications.  It includes a simple word processor, an image viewer, a web browser (Firefox), a Windows explorer like file manager and much more.  It will run on truly obsolete hardware, supposedly a 486 with 16MB is the minimum required although I haven’t tried it.

To get started with DSL all you have to do is download the ISO image, burn it to a CD and then boot from CD.  Since DSL is released as a Live CD this will get you up and running immediately as long as your hardware behaves as DSL expects it to.  Getting Linux to run on most laptops can present some challenges, especially if it is an older laptop.  Mine proved to be no exception.  The default display adapter settings just wouln’t work on my laptop.  A bit of digging through the DSL Wiki and a bit of experimentation yielded a solution.  As with any Linux, there are a plethora of options that can be supplied at boot time to modify the operating system’s default behaviour.  The option that saved my butt was the one that altered the default display settings.  I had to force the display adapter to 800×600 24 bit colour by using the vga=789 option.  The boot options are documented here and the VGA settings, in particular, are documented here.

Not content with making a really lean Live CD the good folks at DSL also made it easy to install the OS to your hard drive.  To do this you just need to partition your hard drive and then run an installation script.  The way I did it was to open an shell and do everything from the command line.  There are probably other ways to do the same thing, but this is what worked for me:

  • Open a shell window
  • Changed to root using sudo -s
  • Partition the hard drive using cfdisk /dev/hda. You will need to create a swap partition (type 82) of at least 128MB and a Linux partition (type 82) . Make the Linux partition bootable.
  • Reboot DSL (remember to re-enter your boot options)
  • Open a shell window and change to root using sudo -s
  • Activate the swap partition using mkswap /dev/hda1 (use the proper device for you swap partition here) and swapon /dev/hda1
  • Execute the install script dsl-hdinstall
  • Answer the questions as appropriate for your hardware and needs

When the script finished, DSL is installed on your hard drive and you are almost ready to go.  Before rebooting from your hard drive you need to make your boot options permanent.  The means to do this vary.  Since I selected to use LILO as my boot manager I will describe the process for LILO here.  If you used GRUB you are on your own.   To make my dispaly adapter settings permanent, I needed to modify /etc/lilo.conf.  I changed the vga= line to read vga=789, the same as the option that I entered when booting.  Then I needed to execute lilo to update the boot files.

Now just remove the CD from the drive and reboot.  Your system should boot from the hard drive and away you go.

Next we need to get networking up and running but that is a subject for a future post.

5 Responses to “Minimalist Linux Distro”

  1. AndrewBoldman Says:

    Hi, good post. I have been wondering about this issue,so thanks for posting.

  2. Kelly Brown Says:

    The best information i have found exactly here. Keep going Thank you

  3. Antonia Says:

    Thanks a lot!! a very useful topic!!

  4. Tavira Says:

    Very useful information

  5. Joanna Says:

    This is absolutely perfect. Thanks a lot, I’ve been looking for something like this for a long time.

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