Damn Small Linux Makes Darn Big Impression

Monday Sep 17th 2007 by Kenneth Hess

At a mere 50MB, Damn Small Linux seems like it would be more at home in the realm of rescue disks instead of Desktop OSs. After booting up into full graphical mode, you may be hooked on this tiny distribution forever.

At a mere 50MB, Damn Small Linux (DSL) seems like it would be more at home in the realm of rescue disks instead of Desktop OSs. After booting up into full graphical mode, you may be hooked on this tiny distribution forever. I am impressed with the number of applications and the fact that DSL has two choices for graphical interfaces (Window Managers): Fluxbox and jwm (see Figures 1 and 2). DSL is based on the Debian Linux distribution.

The DSL website boasts "a very versatile 50MB mini desktop-oriented Linux distribution." I have to agree since it contains all of the following:

  • Two graphical Internet browsers: Dillo and Firefox.
  • Netrik: Command line Internet browser.
  • Three Instant Messaging Clients: Naim, ICQ, and IRC.
  • The Ted Word Processing program.
  • Three Text Editors: Vim, Beaver, and Nano.
  • Remote Connectivity: Rdesktop, VNCViewer, and SSH/SCP.

Also included is a spreadsheet (Siag), PDF Viewer (XPdf), an email program (Sylpheed), graphics editor and viewer programs (Xpaint and xzgv), printer support, DHCP client, and even a webserver (Monkey). Refer to the website for a complete list of applications and features.

DSL, though small, feels complete and it correctly detected all of my hardware--including my USB mouse. When you first boot up into DSL, you will be presented with the default Window Manager: Fluxbox. Frequently used applications are represented by icons on the desktop. Other applications are available via the handy right-click menu or the standard task bar menu. You will also notice a system monitor, torsmo, that "floats" in the upper right corner of the desktop.

This utility displays various system parameters like uptime, kernel version, disk space, CPU usage, memory usage, number of currently running processes, IP address, and hostname. Torsmo settings can be customized by changing or editing options in the .torsmorc file in your home directory. If you don't like torsmo, you can disable it by commenting out the line:

torsmo 2>/dev/null & 
in the .xinitrc file, also located in your home directory.

Next: Installation Options »

DSL provides several installation options depending on your needs and habits. All installation options are under Tools in the Start Menu. The first, Install to Hard Drive, requires at least 200MB of unpartitioned disk space. Second, the Frugal Install has two options: Frugal Grub Install or Frugal Lilo Install. Unless you have some compelling reason for not doing so, always use Grub (GRUB). GRUB is more versatile, has fewer limitations and is easier to troubleshoot and repair. Third and finally, you are given the option of Install to USB Pendrive that comes in two flavors: For USB-ZIP Pendrive and For USB-HDD Pendrive. USB-HDD or USB-ZIP would be chosen based on your computer's BIOS settings for USB booting. This is a BIOS option not a particular type of USB Pendrive.

Unless the hard drive you are installing DSL on is already formatted as a Linux filesystem, you are probably better off installing DSL as follows:

  1. Boot the DSL Live CD and type install boot prompt as shown in Figure 3.
  2. Figure 4 shows you the text-based installation menu (DSL Install Options). Select option 12, Partition Tool cfdisk, by typing 12 at the prompt and press Enter.
  3. You are prompted for a partition or drive to use with the example: hda.
    The default first drive is hda so enter hda and press Enter. If hda is the incorrect drive, cfdisk will give an error message and you will have to repeat the step 2 and try hdb, etc. until you find the correct drive device name.
  4. Once you have chosen the correct drive device, you will receive the message:
    No partition table or unknown signature on partition table.
        Do you wish to start with a zero table [y/N]? 

    Type y and press Enter.

    You are presented with the screen shown in Figure 5. This screen displays disk drives and the current partitioning scheme. Shown is an unpartitioned 300MB disk drive.

Note: If you proceed with these steps, all of the data on the partition or drive you specify will be wiped out and you can't recover it. Be sure to select the correct partition or drive.

Use your arrow keys to select the following options in this order:

New, Primary, Bootable, Write, Quit.
New: Create a new Linux partition.
Primary: Make the partition a primary disk partition.
Bootable: Sets the bootable flag so that the hard drive can be booted.
Write: Writes the partition information to the disk.
Quit: Exits cfdisk and returns to the DSL Install Options Menu.

Note: You may have to reboot your system if the installation doesn't proceed in the next steps. This allows your hard drive's partition table to be reread by DSL.

Figure 6 displays your newly partitioned disk drive. This drive is now ready for installation. Notice how cfdisk has changed the device name from hda to hda1. This tells DSL that you have one disk drive, hda, with one partition, 1.

From this point on, you will be selecting the type of DSL image you want installed on your hard disk: Install to Hard Drive or Frugal Install.

Pendrive installations work in the same general way.

Next: Installation »

For this demonstration, I chose Install to Hard Drive (Option 3 on the DSL Install Options Menu).

  1. Select Option 3 from the DSL Install Options Menu to perform the Hard Drive Install and press Enter. The Install script starts with a series of questions. You are presented with the screen shown in Figure 7.
  2. Enter the target partition: hda1
    Multi-user logins: If you want the ability to have ordinary user account on your system, enter y.
    Use journalized ext3 filesystem: I chose to say no to this option because this is a slower system.
    Continue?: Proceed with the options you have chosen, y.
    The hard drive is formatted with the ext2 (standard) filesystem.
  3. Figure 8 shows the completed installation and a prompt to install a boot loader, y.
  4. You are prompted for a specific boot loader (GRUB or LILO). As recommended, I chose GRUB, g, as you can see in Figure 9.
  5. Answer y to reboot your new DSL system. And press Enter at the notice to remove the Live DSL CD as shown in Figure 10.
  6. Figure 11 is the Boot Screen for your new DSL system. Here you select the screen resolution of your Desktop. As shown, I selected DSL fb800x600 for my Desktop.
  7. Your system boots and presents you with a prompt to enter passwords for the root (Administrative) user and dsl (an ordinary user account). See Figure 12. Once you enter the passwords for both users, your system drops to a login prompt shown in Figure 13.
  8. After login, you may be taken to another series of Xsetup screens to configure your monitor settings, mouse, and desired screen resolution. As shown in Figure 14, select Xvesa and continue through the screens until you are presented with your DSL Desktop.

You now have a fully functional Linux system based on the Debian distribution. Your new system occupies about 100MB of space on your disk drive. This may come as a surprise since your Live CD only needed 50MB. The Live CD was frugal since it uses RAM for part of its storage. A disk drive installation doesn't need to utilize RAM in this way so everything is placed on the disk.

To make your new system more like a standard Debian distribution, on the right-click Menu, select Tools, then select Upgrade to GNU Utils and Enable Apt. These enhancements will allow you to automatically update your system and give you the enriched versions of the installed applications. For more information, please go to http://www.damnsmalllinux.org .

Kenneth Hess is a freelance technical writer who writes on a variety of subjects including: Linux, MySQL, SQLite, PHP, and Apache. You may reach Ken via his website at http://www.kenhess.com.

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