October 31, 2002

A crash course in minimalist Linux systems

- By Jonathan Buhacoff -

A tale of a computer that wouldn't boot after shipping, and attempts to make it work again -- with success in the end -- that is really a review of six "tiny" Linux distributions in narrative form...

At my Rolla, MO, home, I have a desktop computer running Red Hat Linux and a laptop running Windows 2000. They are networked and I lived happily with that for a long time. This summer I had to stay in California for six weeks so I decided to take the laptop with me and send the desktop from Mailboxes Etc.

When the desktop arrived, it would not boot. It took me a little bit too long to figure out that the primary IDE controller on the m
otherboard was damaged. I had to get on with my work, so my mission was to rescue my data from that computer. My resources: one Windows 98 computer (at my temporary summer home) that I bought at Tiger Direct a long time ago for only $500, connected to the Internet
at roughly 48 Kbps; one Redhat Linux computer that wouldn't boot; and one Windows 2000 laptop. The Linux box had 3 hard drives in it.
One contained the operating system and applications (13 GB), another contained all my data (100 GB, but not full), and the third was
small and I used it exclusively for the swap file. Because my data disk was formatted with ext2, I couldn't just plug it into the
Windows computer. I needed something that will read ext2.

I didn't know of any ext2 adaptations for Windows, so my plan was to search the web for a minimalist Linux distribution, use it to boot the broken box, and rescue my data. I needed a Microsoft-readable storage space, too. I decided to use
the 13 GB drive that contained my copy of Red Hat, since it's easy to replace.

The distributions

The first distribution I tried is called HAL91. It is no longer maintained but, I thought, that doesn't mean it won't work. Using RAWRITE, I copied it to a floppy and then tried it in the broken box. It started without any problems and I was able to mount my ext2 and my vfat disks. All I had to do now was copy the data. As you can guess, this being only the beginning of the article, that part wasn't so easy. HAL91 comes with a program named STAR, which will only extract from archives presented to it on stdin. It won't
create archives. HAL91 also comes with a program named ZCAT, which will only extract files from stdin. It won't create archives. The cp command has a recursive option, but it has very strange bugs, and I couldn't even use my own executables because they were co
mpiled with a different version of libc and there's not much I can do about that from Windows.

The second distribution I tried is called Pocket Linux. Unlike HAL91, this one has the real sh, and even real tar and gzip binaries. I thought I was done, but I had trouble mounting the large data disk. The error message I got said that the ext2 filesystem on that disk was using unsupported features. I think it meant that it couldn't read the logical drives listed in the partition table. Pity.

The third distribution I tried was called BasicLinux. It has a full-fledged shell, easy network setup, a word processor, and even games. Unlike the first two distributions I tried, which fit on 1 disk, this one needed two disks. BasicLinux is based on Slackware 3.5 so it also felt more familiar than the other two, which had a ground-up feel to them. I thought to myself, "not a big deal - 2 disks, but I'll be saved". Wrong again. This one also didn't have support for the logical drives.

The fourth distribution I tried was called AlphaLinux. Like BasicLinux, it required 2 disks. The messages from the boot process made me hopeful, because my drives were detected. However, right after I put in the second floppy to mount the root filesystem, the sky fell and AlphaLinux claimed that it couldn't open a console. Shot down.

The fifth distribution I tried was called Grey Cat Linux. This one took two disks and used LOADLIN. I didn't get a chance to try it out because it had trouble mounting its root vfat filesystem.

The sixth distribution I tried was called tomsrtbt. I liked it right away because making the floppy was easy: I switched to DOS mode, put the floppy in, ran install.bat, and away it went. This was important beause after five distributions and a few hours, patience was a limited resource. I put it in the broken box and touched the power button. Tom put a funny comparison of his distribution to others in the bootup process, showing a small Penguin to represent his and a big one to represent others. The bootup process went on without a hitch and I was able to log in. I was even able to mount all my hard drives. Finally. I love stuff that works.

Conclusion

One floppy is better than two. I think it was only coincidence, but it's amusing that none of the 2-floppy distributions I tried could even get off the ground. There are many other distributions out there and they come in many different sizes (and shapes! I glanced at a page of one that is intended for those business-card CDs - cool). I kept the tomsrtbt disk and put it in my laptop case so it can follow me to other adventures. I'm impressed by the work of all those people out there making minimalist distributions of Linux. Back in the days when a DOS rescue disk was the best thing ever, I never imagined that there could be a system that crammed tons more stuff into the same space.

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