Monday, July 18, 2005


One of my geekly passions is experimenting with various distributions of Free & Open Source Operating Systems. I think I have about five different flavors of GNU/Linux installed on my HDD at the moment. I have Darwin (or OpenDarwin, whatever) running in the PearPC emulator on my Windows 2000 partition, and now for my latest (running along those same lines)--Damn Small Linux.

I don't know how many times I have downloaded this ultra-compact distro but never bothered actually trying it out. Today was the exception, and since I really did not want to carve out another partition on my HDD for a 50MB distro, I selected the embedded version which is bundled with the QEMU emulator (for Linux and Windows). I just wanted to give it a quick spin and see what makes this little distro so popular.

Now, I have done the QEMU+Knoppix on Win2k before and had decent results on my hardware, so I figured this would be cake. It was! I download the zip file to Windows, checked the md5 sum, extracted it to the directory of my choice, ran the dsl-windows.bat file and the emulator began booting DSL without a hitch. It was as easy as that.

As you can see from this screenshot, DSL uses the Knoppix hardware auto-configuration magic that we all know and love to get the system up and running. Within a few seconds you have a light-weight, fast Linux distro running under Windows!

Here is some of the amazing fun I discovered on my quick tour of QEMU/DSL:

  • First, instant network access from DSL running on the eumlator. I don't have that working with PearPC and Darwin yet, so out of the box this was very nice. Instant net access which I immediately took advantage of through...
  • FireFox! My browser of choice under any OS with a GUI. Nice to see this in the bundle but don't expect a JVM, Flash, or Shockwave, etc. plugins. I suspect these would have bloated the little Penguin to death, and defeated the purpose here (it wouldn't be Damn Small any more...)
  • Sound. You can see XMMS playing a nice piece called my_life.ogg, there again QEMU takes care of sound setup right out of the box. Don't you love it when stuff just works?
  • Now don't expect to run in DSL but they have all of your basic office needs covered with
    • FLwriter a stripped down text editor (which can export to .rtf for portability)
    • Slag: a spreadsheet application
    • Sylpheed for e-mail
    • xpdf for PDF viewing
  • VNC & Rdesktop are available to you for remote desktop control
  • A bash XTerminal is available (a CLUI is always essential to any distribution)
  • Filemanagement tools
  • The ability to install to HDD and expand your application selection with Synaptic or MyDSL. You can even turn it into a full blown Debian distribution if you wish.
  • Configuration options available through DSLPanel
  • The list just goes on & on!
As the DSL site tells us, you can run it fully in RAM (128MB), boot it from a USB thumb drive, business card CD, install it to HDD--even if you have an ancient box laying around, you can install and run it from a 486DX w/ 16mb (which I just happen to have so I will probably give that a spin.) There are a LOT of old boxen in the world destined for the landfill that could use this. You even have the option of running SHH, HTTPD, and FTP servers from this little distro.

No, Damn Small Linux isn't Knoppix (which is a marvel in its own right) but DSL reminds me of the old days when all you had was 16KB to work with and with extreme attention to detail and careful programming you could do some pretty amazing things. 50MB today seems comparable to the 16KB of those long gone days, and you know what? The producers of Damn Small Linux have reminded us that you still can do a quite a lot with a whole lot less, elegant and fast...

My tour of DSL was rather quick today, but my cursory look at this popular distro can be summed up in one word: Impressive! Just how many features can you pack into 50MB? No wonder it is currently listed in the Top Ten on DistroWatch! Take a look for yourself, you'll be pleasantly suprised.

Note: My test box for the QEMU/DSL is an AMD64 3000+ with 1GB of RAM. Your mileage with this type of emulation may vary according to your hardware.

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