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Damn Small Linux plus pendrive equals portable paradise

By Rui Lopes on April 11, 2006 (8:00:00 AM)

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I recently acquired a 256MB USB pendrive that I use for storing personal documents and work-related stuff. As a Linux fan who wanted to make the most of his new toy, I went looking for the simplest, smallest distro I could find that could boot from a pendrive. I found Debian-based Damn Small Linux, whose long list of bundled applications fits into a meager 50MB. The more I use it, the more I like it.

You can test DSL in a variety of ways: you can boot it from a business card CD, install it on the hard drive, run it from a USB pendrive, or even run it from within Windows (using Qemu). After a quick search on the project's wiki, I found the section related to booting from USB. The simplest way to create a bootable pendrive is to burn DSL to a CD, run a live CD session with it, and choose the desired install option from the desktop menu. I decided to download the .iso and instead try to install it directly on the pendrive. For guidance, I used the excellent guide on the Debian wiki.

The installation finished without problems. I had to play around with the various USB boot devices in the BIOS until I found one that worked. In my case, I had to choose USB-ZIP as a boot device; it may be a different option with other motherboards.

DSL offers a variety of boot parameters, and some of them are quite handy, such as "toram," which allows you to run DSL completely from memory -- which, according to some, makes it even faster. After changing the settings of the BIOS on my Shuttle system (running on an old 900MHz Celeron), I was rewarded with the boot screen of DSL.

The kernel version for the 2.2 release of DSL is 2.4.26. The project had kernel 2.4.31 in the 2.1 release but decided to changed it back: "For maximum hardware support on older computers, kernel and modules were changed back to 2.4.26 including legacy SCSI and zipdrive support." The reason for using the 2.4 kernel series instead of 2.6 is basically the same. For more information, check out the project FAQ.

DSL correctly recognized all my hardware, including that pest of a soundcard that gives me headaches with other Linux distributions, and booted directly into the X server. The window manager it runs by default is Fluxbox, an excellent choice for slower systems. If you want to, you can switch to the JWM window manager from within the Fluxbox session; just choose the corresponding option from the menu.

After running the distro for only five minutes I could already see a noticeable improvement compared to running it from a CD. It was faster, it had fewer glitches, and I could save all my data or change system options on the fly. (By the way, one important file for people running a live session with DSL from a pendrive is .filetool.lst, which is a hidden file in your home directory. It contains the directories for which changes made to content will be kept upon next boot; if you need to add a directory to the list, you can edit the file.)

I decided to give DSL a spin on the hard drive of a 266MHz Pentium II I had lying around, to see how fast it would run on old hardware, and to see the DSL hard drive installer. After a few basic steps I was done. DSL makes you install the root filesystem as Ext3, but I was pleasantly surprised that it recognized and allowed me to mount my XFS partition, where I keep all my personal data and media files.

DSL's developers have done a good job of walking the line between a cluttered workspace and an minimal one. DSL uses Xtdesk to manage the icons, torsmo to monitor the system resources, Fluxter to move windows between workspaces; and for mounting and unmounting devices. You'll find at least one application for each type of task, including Beaver for text editing, XPaint for image manipulation, Siag as a complete office package, XMMS for playing audio and video, Dillo for browsing (although Firefox is also available), Sylpheed for email, Emelfm or Midnight Commander for managing files, and CDW for burning CDs and DVDs. For a more complete list (with links), check this page. If you need to install more stuff, you can enable APT from the desktop menu and use Synaptic to install applications from the Debian package tree. You can also install applications and extensions pre-packaged specifically for DSL using myDSL. Check the help page displayed when you open Dillo -- it's got tons of useful information about myDSL and other things related to the distro.

Another thing that distinguishes DSL from a typical Debian system is the custom scripts written by the developers to deal with many cumbersome tasks in the fastest and most practical way. They cover stuff such as enabling NFS, SSH, formating a diskette, configuring your network, changing your keyboard layout, and changing your X server settings or your wallpaper. All of the scripts are accessible through the desktop menu, just one or two clicks away. I usually do these kinds of tasks through the command line, but using these neat little tools considerably speeded up my workflow.

There is one downside to the extensive tweaking its developers have done to DSL. Most of the way DSL acts and looks is configured through custom scripts, most of which are either in the home directory or in /opt, and sometimes you can't know for sure if one of the settings you change in a regular configuration files isn't being overridden somewhere by a custom script.

If you need help with installing or configuring DSL, your main source of information will be the project's wiki and forums. If you really dig DSL, you can show your support either by donating or by buying some of their stuff. There's an option to buy a USB pendrive with DSL already installed on it, or the customary CD, or even a Mini-ITX system.

My conclusion: DSL is a great little distro. I can hardly imagine spending a day now without my trustworthy DSL-powered pendrive. Pendrive-based distros beat live CDs because they let you quickly save your session preferences and data on the same medium as the operating system. I won't use live CDs anymore except on older systems that don't support booting from a USB device, or for trying new distributions.

The distribution's quick release cycle shows that the developers working on the distribution non-stop. Their careful attention to details makes a world of a difference to users.

Rui Lopes is a Portuguese Web designer and filmmaker who has a wide range of interests in the technology field.

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on Damn Small Linux plus pendrive equals portable paradise

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The author uses AAA

Posted by: Fletch on April 12, 2006 08:55 PM
...and that's Another Ambigious Acronymn, not Automobile Association of America. This is simply mini rant, but I wish people would think before using acronymns for technology that already has one. DSL = Digital Subscriber Line, not Damn Small Linux. Maybe he or she could have used DSLnx? I dunno, but I read half through the article before the light bulb went off (granted I had no sleep the night before).



Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 15, 2006 08:47 AM
AAA=Anti-Aircraft Artillery not Another Ambigious Acronymn, or Automobile Association of America. You can go back to sleep now.

Back on topic, DSL is pretty cool I've been using it since 0.8.4, mainly for surfing the net (using rc.firewall and TOR) and silly stuff like shredding and reformatting hard drives. MyDSL extensions install with one click and apt is also an option. It's a good rescue cd, I never leave home without it.


I second this...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 11, 2006 10:04 PM
Thanks for a good article on DSL. I have it installed on my 512Mb pendrive, and actually boot into it most days on my main desktop PC (the machine has RH9 installed, and I think I'll upgrade soon).

DSL is a snappy performer on the systems I've tried it with. It provides a handy Linux environment (SSH, VNC, X11, etc.) in a device you can carry in your pocket, and... well, I just find it fun to tinker with, learning more about Linux along the way.

The only catch I've found about booting DSL from a pendrive (as the author mentioned) is that not all PCs support USB booting in the first place, so it might be handy to have a live CD-R as a backup if - say - you're off to a friend's house to rescue their PC. This is not DSL's fault, more that of the hardware - it's a good trick to show off to Windows users with when it works!

Give DSL (or any of the other 'micro-distros' like Puppy, Feather, etc.) a go - they're fun, educational and yes, even useful.


Lack of pilot utilities cripples DSL

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 13, 2006 04:50 AM
Lack of Palm pilot* utilities cripples the use of
DSL. I'd rather use Knoppix with Kpilot or older
versions of Knoppix with Jpilot.


Re:Lack of pilot utilities cripples DSL

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 18, 2006 11:13 PM
Install DSL on your USB stick. Then
# apt-get install pilot-link


Re:Lack of pilot utilities cripples DSL

Posted by: Administrator on April 14, 2006 11:14 PM
You should qualify your statement with a solid "for me" so that people will understand that it really isn't a crippled distro. It's just lacking one specific feature that you want to have.


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