Searching for Linux

7, Dec 2008

Contents

I recently acquired an old computer from a friend for free. Now, you don't usually hear about people going around giving computers away, but in this case it kind of makes sense. I now have an extra computer that dates back to around 1999. It's running on a Pentium III 448MHz processor with 128Mb of RAM. I want to use it as a local server to hold all my work, and experiment with.

When I got my new computer, it was running Windows XP...But since I've decided that I want to do everything I can with Linux, I decided to wipe the hard drive and install something new on there. Since it is so out of date, I've been looking around for lightweight Linux distributions to try using on it.

DSL - Damn Small Linux

My first foray into miniature Linux distributions was Damn Small Linux. Also known as its less offending acronym, DSL. All in all, it was fairly nice. DSL is downloadable as a 49.9Mb .iso file from the distribution's website. It is their stated goal to never take the OS above 50Mbs. The install was fairly simple, and easy to follow. The installer recognized all the hardware on the box without any extra configuration (it even identified the model and make of the hard drive and graphics card that were in there - nice for me to know).

Once installed, DSL quickly booted up and showed off its speed on a slower machine. Before I had decided that my only option was using a much reduced Linux distribution, I had tried to install Fedora and Ubuntu on the computer first. Since I run Fedora on my laptop, that was my first choice to install on the new/old tower as well. However, since that failed miserably - the Live CD wouldn't boot fully. I next tried Ubuntu. That went over much better, and I was actually able to complete a complete install on the system, but once again, it was running way too slow to be of any practical use.

Fluxbox

DSL put both of those to shame. It runs just as faster than Fedora 9 runs on my laptop. DSL runs on the Fluxbox window manager, which I've actually come to like a fair bit. Its way of accessing the menus I think is very convenient - they're always hidden, but easily available at any time. I also really like the simple system monitor that comes default with the installation. The well known Conky system monitor, conveniently displays the process count, CPU and RAM usage, plus hard drive space. In addition, it lists the name of the machine, and its IP address, as well as your user name.

One annoyance I had with the Fluxbox window manager however, was that the panel only shows the current active window, instead of listing all the windows on the current workspace. Also, the available resolutions did not match the monitor that I was using for the system, which causes some distortion of the display.

Server Set-up

It was also very easy to set-up the system to run a server. The install comes with the Monkey Webserver, and it was only necessary to activate that from the Control Panel to get things running. DSL also provides a SSH server that can also be activated from the control panel to allow SSH access into the box.

To make sure that both of these services are also started during the boot process, you need to edit /opt/bootlocal.sh and add

/etc/init.d/ssh start
/opt/monkey/bin/banana start

This easily ensures that as soon as your machine boots up, the web server will be up and running, and you can SSH into the computer remotely.

Persistence

The biggest problem that I have had with DSL is its persistence issues. DSL is not really supposed to be run as a main OS. DSL installs in what's called a 'Frugal Install'. This means that any changes to the file system are not actually made until it has been explicitly backed up. Setting up the backup/restore points is very easy - an option is provided in the control panel to do so. However the entire process was very annoying, and things would not automatically back themselves up on shut-down, so I decided to search elsewhere for a new distro to run.

TinyMe

The next Operating System I tried on my quest for a good miniature OS was TinyMe. TinyMe comes in a 200Mb live CD. It boots up with a nice graphical start screen, however I was informed that it was unable to mount the live CD. It told me that the probable cause was due to a bad download or bad burn, so I re-burned the CD after verifying the ISO download.

That worked, and I was able to boot up from the live CD. The login screen comes with a water theme, which looks very nice, and then it boots to a a good looking desktop. The OS correctly identified both my video card, and screen resolution - however, it incorrectly placed part of the desktop off screen.

I decided to install anyway, as I figured it would be easier to fix that from a hard drive install than on the live version. The install was easily started by a short cut provided on the desktop that runs through a simple wizard that allows you to set all the options necessary. As an extra touch, you can choose a user icon from a fairly large gallery to represent your account. The wizard also allows for multiple user accounts to be created during install. Once the users are created, the system must be restarted.

During the restart process, the computer locked up after the Live CD disk was removed, and required a manual power off. However, things quickly booted up without any problems after that.

TinyMe provides many different window managers to choose from - the default is OpenBox, which is very similar to FluxBox. TinyMe also provides a default Conky system monitor. The distribution also provides Opera as its default browser. Also, TinyMe provides a very nice package manager called Synaptic which lists everything imaginable. It seems like TinyMe could easily become not quite so tiny.

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