The Ultimate In Small Linux (Cooking with Linux)

This column, by Marcel Gagné, first appeared in the August 2005 issue of Linux Journal.

Honestly, François, why does ultimate always have to mean bigger, faster, and more resource intensive? Mon Dieu, sometimes all this speeding up just seems to make things work slower. While I think your idea of building a supercomputer cluster in the restaurant would be a wonderful idea for this month Ultimate Linux Box issue, there just isn't room. The wine cellar? Non, François, the wine cellar is for wine and I would like to keep it that way, and I'm sure our guests would agree. Speaking of which, they will be here at any moment.

Ah, François, they are already here. Welcome, everyone, to Chez Marcel, home of the world's greatest wine cellar and of course, the best in fine Linux fare. Your tables are ready. Please sit and make yourselves comfortable. François, to the wine cellar! Please bring back the 2003 Auslese Riesling from Germany. Vite!

While my faithful waiter fetches the wine, let us take a look at another definition of what constitutes the ultimate Linux box. François suggested a supercomputer. I was thinking of something much smaller, but nevertheless extremely useful, something small enough to fit in my pocket. On more than one occasion, I've been saved by having a copy of Linux with me. Actually, the person saved was usually a user of that other OS who found themselves in the kind of trouble that only a Linux system could help them out of. The mini-distributions I carried with me tended to be single diskette (sometimes two or three) distributions with basic text based tools. Today, I want to introduce you to a couple of excellent ways to take Linux with you wherever you go. These mini distributions are no longer stripped down sets of text-based tools, but fully graphical, fully networked, distributions that can still fit in your pocket or wallet. Best of all, they can run entirely from a live mini CD or USB key.

Nice to have you back, François. Please, pour for our guests.

The first item on the menu is one of my personal favorites, the cleverly named Damn Small Linux. Damn Small Linux (DSL) is a Debian based distribution built using Knoppy live CD technology. The whole thing is under 50 MB and can fit on a business card sized CD (which you can get at your local computer/office store). Damn Small Linux is available from Download your ISO image, burn it to a CD (it can easily be a standard CD as well as the business card size), and reboot your PC.

DSL is extremely light and fast (it uses Fluxbox for a window manager). You can run it on very modest hardware with very little memory — as little as 16 MB. DSL comes with a number of desktop applications, all of which are designed to be equally light and fast. There's the Dillo and Firefox Web browsers, Sylpheed for e-mail, an instant messaging and IRC client (Naim), XMMS for music, Xpaint for graphical editing (and screenshots), FLwriter for word processing, Siag for spreadsheets, and a host of others (check out figure 1 to see DSL in action).

Figure 1 : DSL provides a rich but still resource-lean desktop experience.

There is no program starter button in the lower left hand corner with this distribution. To bring up the menu, right-click anywhere on the desktop and the top level application menu will appear offering you several sub menus covering everything DSL has to offer. To banish the menu, left click on a blank portion of the desktop.

One of the first things you will probably want to do is set up networking. Right-click to bring up the menu, select System, then Net Setup. The options there include dial-up, network card configuration, DSL (the other DSL), and some wireless support as well. ndiswrapper is included for those cards that only support Windows drivers. All of these network choices are menu driven. Just fill in the blanks.

Speaking of the System menu, look under Daemons and you'll discover another, rather amazing aspect of DSL. There's an SSH server, NFS, a Web server, and and FTP server as well. Printer daemon support is also available using classic LPD.

In all of this, DSL still manages to pack some desktop eye-candy. From the Desktop menu, navigate over to Styles and you can choose from a small handful of alternate looks.

Before I move on to the next item on today's menu, let me direct you to the Tools menu under Apps. Look near the bottom and you'll see an option to install DSL to a hard drive (which can be pretty tiny), as well as one to install to a USB pen drive so that you can carry it with you. There are also menu items to enable apt and Synaptic so that you can easily install other packages. The usefulness of this is obvious if you install to disk, but look back up to the top of the tools menu for another reason.

The option is labeled "Make myDSL CD remaster" and with it, you can create your own custom DSL distribution. When you click on this option, another window will appear with instructions on how to change to runlevel 2 to remaster. In effect, you need to reboot and type dsl toram 2 at the boot prompt. Then, when the shell prompt appears, you type mkmydsl. This process is somewhat beyond the space I have alloted, but I will direct you to if you want to roll your own DSL.

Ah, François, this seems like an excellent time to refill our guests' glasses, and mine as well. Thank you, mon ami.

Another tiny graphical Linux you might want to look at is Puppy Linux. This fully networked distribution also comes with a bevy of applications. In terms of networking, Puppy comes with Mozilla for Web browsing as well as sending and receiving e-mail (Sylpheed is also included), SSH for remote admin, Gphone for VOIP calls, VNC and rdesktop clients to control remote desktops, and much more. Abiword is included for word processing, as is the Scribus desktop publishing application. There are file managers, graphic editors, HTML editors, a spreadsheet program, personal finance, and more.

There's also a small handful of games. Bubbles (somewhat reminiscent of Frozen-Bubble) is a lot of fun as is gtkfish. That last one is a strange little game were you go fishing with a tissue paper net. If the fish move too fast when you catch them, they break the net. Click the left mouse button to drop the net below the water and go for the slow moving fish. Release the mouse button to catch the fish. Very strange and yet strangely addictive.

Getting yourself a copy of Puppy Linux means taking a visit to and downloading the latest ISO image. Use your favorite CD burning tool (I tend to like K3b) and create your CD. When you have your freshly burned CD in hand, pop it into the drive and reboot your system.

When Puppy Linux starts up, the first thing you'll see is a keyboard selection screen. I scrolled down to "us qwerty" and pressed Enter. It then asks you for your mouse type. In all likelihood, you can just accept the default choice made for you, in my case, "ps/2". The program then asks you if you have a scroll wheel. Immediately after this, the graphical desktop will start, offering you a chance to select the video mode you want to use whether it be 648×480, 800×600, and so on. The resolution will change on the fly and you can lock it in by clicking OK at any time. That's it. Your Puppy Linux system is up and running (figure 2). You can even remove the CD at this point.

Figure 2 : Haven't you always wanted a Puppy . . . Linux, that is?

On the Puppy Linux page, there's a statement that effectively says you can install Puppy to anything whether it be a hard drive, a Zip disk, on a network (to boot a thin client) or a USB key (much like DSL). That's the one that really got me excited. I kind of like the idea of carrying a fully graphical Linux system in my pocket. Besides, Puppy, in its default configuration, is too big to fit on a 50 MB business card without some tweaking (more on that).

Click the Start button then head to the Setup menu. Under that heading and near the bottom, you'll find some rather interesting options, one of which is to install Puppy to USB card. Choosing this will bring up a dialog that takes you through the various steps from plugging in your USB key to selecting a drive (if you have more than one plugged in), choosing a partition, and finally copying the files. The copy itself can take place from local files on the hard disk or the live Puppy CD that you booted from.

The next step takes a few minutes while various files are copied (vmlinuzimage.gz, and usr_cram.fs). After the copy is complete, you are asked to choose a default keyboard language. I chose "us" and pressed Enter. You have one more choice to make after this point and that's to decide how the Puppy file system is stored. The first choice is a vfat partition mounted as /root with no other changes. The second creates a small ext2 file system on the partition. This is the preferred choice and a more efficient one. The first option does have the advantage however, that its files can be seen under Windows. I chose option 2 and pressed Enter.

Now that Puppy is installed to your USB key, you can edit the bootup script to provide a password to an encrypted file system. This is an excellent idea if you want an additional level of protection in case your USB key is ever lost or stolen. Finally, your USB drive is made bootable and you are ready to take your Puppy for a walk (figure 3).

Figure 3 : The definition of take-anywhere Linux.

A word of caution though. Not every PC knows how to boot from a USB drive although you may be able to change the boot device settings in your BIOS if it doesn't immediately work. If your PC still doesn't support a USB drive boot, there is still hope . . . assuming you have a diskette drive. On the Puppy site at, there is a boot image (called boot2pup.img.gz) that you can copy to a diskette. Uncompress the image, then copy it.

gunzip boot2pup.img.gz

dd if=boot2pup.img of=/dev/fd0

Now, just make sure you carry this diskette with you as well.

Before I wrap up this exploration of Puppy Linux, I want to tell you about another great little features. Under that Setup menu is an option labeled Remaster Puppy live-CD. This is a simple script that takes your through the various steps necessary to copy your existing CD into RAM (so you need at least 256 MB for this), edit the filesystem, recreated the image, and finally, burn it to a CD.

It takes a couple of tries to get the hang of it, but all in all, it's not a bad process. There is one strange step where you are asked to confirm your CD burner and reader. It is at this point that Puppy will reboot (yes, I know it sounds strange for a live CD) in order to turn on SCSI emulation. When the system is back up, go back to the Setup menu and restart the remaster program. It should jump immediately to step three where you'll be asked to insert the CD into whichever device you identified as the reader. What follows is a question and answer session that lets you define just how you would like your next version of Puppy to appear.

As I mentioned, it can take a little time to get the hang of this, but treat it as a hobby project and you'll be a pro in no time. When you have finished creating the new ISO image, Puppy launches the Gcombust CD burning program to let you finish the job.

Mon Dieu! Is it that time already. The clock seems to be telling us that closing time has arrived. No need to rush though. Relax a little longer as I am sure François would be more than happy to refill your glasses. Grab one of those business card CD blanks and cook yourself up a little Linux to take home with you. Please raise your glasses, mes amis, and let us all drink to one another's health.

A votre santé! Bon appétit!


Damn Small Linux

Puppy Linux

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