DSL Linux: Small distro that packs a big punch

Use it from a bootable CD or a pen drive

Need a teeny-tiny, business-card-sized, open source operating system that squeezes a lot of software into a little space? Take a look at DSL Linux®. This quick review shows you how to use the miniscule OS, highlights the on-board applications, details how to load and start it, and explains how to save between sessions when using a bootable CD.

The popularity of Linux has grown by leaps and bounds. With so many distributions of Linux out there, selecting the best operating system for your business needs can be a challenge. But if you're looking for a great bundle of software in a small package, look no further than DSL Linux (also known as Demi-Sized Linux or the more common Damn Small Linux), one of the best "mini-Linux" distributions available.

In this quick review, you see how to use DSL Linux, what applications come with the package, how to load and start it on your machine, and how to save between sessions when working from a bootable CD.

How can I use DSL Linux?

You can use the DSL Linux operating system in these ways:

  • Using a bootable CD, and running the operating system from memory

    This method is in the spirit of most LiveCD distributions of Linux, basically a "try it before you buy it" arrangement.

  • Booting from a USB pen drive (if your workstation supports it)

    That's right, a Linux desktop on a stick! And with a USB flash drive of sizable capacity, you can use the remaining available space as data storage. This method gives you the most flexibility. In the event you ever wanted a "roaming" Linux experience, you can plug in your DSL Linux USB pen drive on your favorite system at home, work, or school -- and thus transform any system into your Linux system.

  • Booting from within Windows

    While this method is the most impressive, the operating system's response times diminish quite noticeably. Despite its slower performance, you can boot your USB DSL Linux from inside a Windows® environment using an emulation application called QEMU. No rebooting or shutting down first; just open the emulation window and fire away.

    QEMU is a fast processor emulator that uses dynamic translation to achieve a reasonable speed while being easy to port to new host CPUs. When emulating user mode, it can launch Linux processes compiled for one CPU on another CPU. In full-system emulation, it emulates the whole package, including a processor and peripherals.

What applications do I get?

So how much can you really fit into 50MB? By the looks of it, DSL Linux has optimized its virtual one-room apartment into a spacious and livable, four-bedroom, split-level, luxury Manhattan domicile (probably with an excellent view of Central Park). Let's look at the available applications. (Find links to more information about these applications in the Resources section at the end of the article.)

FluxBox: Lightweight, fast window manager

FluxBox is yet another window manager for X that's based on Blackbox 0.61.1 and even looks like it. It handles styles, colors, and window placement. FluxBox features include configurable window tabs, wheel scroll changes workspace, configurable titlebar, KDE support, a new native integrated keygrabber (that supports Emacs like keychains), partial GNOME support, and extended Window Manager Hints support. Plans are in the works to support such features as session management, windows snapping, and a configurable toolbar.

Browsing for a solution

Rediscover the Web with Firefox 1.5. The Firefox browser, fast becoming a user favorite, delivers Web pages quickly, has an intuitive interface, and blocks viruses, spyware, and pop-up ads. It comes with such useful features as tabbed browsing, Live Bookmarks, and an integrated Search bar. It sports support for open Web standards.

The gtk+-based Dillo browser is completely written in C with a source of less than 365KB and a binary of about 300KB. The DSL version support SSL, tabs, and frames. Oh, and GNOME is not required.

The Links text-based browser, quite handy for browsing from an ssh session or terminal, runs on most flavors of UNIX® and OS/2, supports tables, runs in color or mono modes, and can be configured to automatically invoke graphics viewers (console and X) and other applications.

Get a message in an instant

Naim is a multi-protocol, console instant messenger that supports AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), AOL I Seek You (ICQ), Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and The lily CMC. It includes unique features like zero-configuration peer-to-peer encryption, automatic message queueing, and incoming message modification, as well as powerful dynamic module support. It can be extended by third-party plug-ins for use in embedded monitoring clients and for use as host to automatic clients (or 'bots).

Make mine media

When it comes to media support applications, there are quite a few nice ones:

  • Xpdf is an open source Adobe Acrobat viewer for Portable Document Format (PDF) files (because so much online information is sitting in pdf, a pdf viewer is almost like a second browser).
  • XMMS for CD, MP3, and MPEG media file support (yes, music and video!).
  • BashBurn, the CD burning application who's motto is "It just works!"
  • Xpaint is a color image-editing tool that features most standard paint program options and lets you edit multiple images simultaneously. It supports such formats as PPM, XBM, and TIFF.

And there's more!

Besides SQLite, a small C library that implements a self-contained, embeddable, zero-configuration SQL database engine, DSL Linux is packaged with other applications:

  • VNCviewer/RDesktop is used to control and manage other Windows or Linux operating systems remotely.
  • A host of networking services are available right out of the box, including SSH/SCP, FTP, HTTPD, DHCP client, and NFS.
  • Sylpheed is an e-mail client and news reader based on GTK+.
  • DSL Linux supports USB, PCMCIA, and just recently, wireless support for some WLAN cards.

Plus, Vim (an enhanced Vi), assorted Xbase utilities (like Xcalc), betaftpd (a very small FTP daemon), Nano (a Pico Clone), Microsoft® Office Viewer, and the Monkey Web server.

So, how do I get DSL Linux working on my machine?

It's as easy as one-two-three:

  1. Download the proper .ISO image from the DSL Linux repository mirrors. You have three options:
    • dsl-x.x.x.iso is the image that most downloaders use. According to DSL Linux's Web site, the rule of thumb is to use this image when your host system was manufactured recently, like within the last five to six years.
    • dsl-x.x.x-syslinux.iso is for older machines. For its bootloader, this image uses SYSLINUX, which works better with older, more outdated machines.
    • dsl-x.x.x-embedded.zip is for running DSL Linux from within the Windows or Linux environment.
  2. Booting from a CD is fairly straightforward, and since booting from a USB pen drive appears to be the most enticing, I will assume that most adventurers will want to use DSL in this way. So the next step is to burn the dsl-x.x.x.iso to CD and boot your system with it.
  3. The default window manager is FluxBox, which has no real taskbar; the menu options are revealed when you right-click on the workspace. Select Apps > Tools > Install to USB pen drive and choose USB-ZIP emulation or USB-HDD emulation, whichever is boot-compatible with the host system.

If I'm using the boot CD, how can I save my settings between sessions?

You can back up your custom settings to a file called backup.tar.gz. To create it go to System > Backup/Restore. Enter the device to save to and hit Backup. Then you can reboot, and at the boot prompt, use the dsl restore={<devicename>} switch to reboot to the previous saved state. The include file list is: /home/dsl/.filetool.lst (this states what to back up). The exclude file is: /home/dsl/.xfiletool.lst (this omits any files you want to skip).

Final notes

You can also use DSL Linux as a means of system restoration. You are allowed controlled access to the host system's hard drive in the event you need to offload pertinent data from an otherwise "dead" machine.

Or, if you simply want to give that old Windows 95 system that's stored in your garage new life (or even set up a lightweight Web server), DSL Linux is certainly a way to go.

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