June 23, 2006

DSL-N: Damn Small Linux gets bigger

Author: Mayank Sharma

According to Distrowatch.com, Damn Small Linux is the most popular microLinux distribution. What began as a toy project to stuff the maximum software inside a 50MB ISO file has matured into a refined community project known for its speed and versatility. DSL includes the ultra-lightweight FluxBox window manager, two Web browsers, Slypheed email client and news reader, xpdf PDF viewer, XMMS with MPEG media file support for playing audio and video, BashBurn CD burner, XPaint image editing, VNCViewer and rdesktop to control Windows and Linux desktops remotely, and more. If they could do all this in 50 megs, imagine what they could do in more space. Last month the DSL developers released DSL-Not, a.k.a. DSL-N 0.1 RC1. It's 83.5MB of DSL coated with GTK sugar. Yummy!

DSL-N sports a 2.6 series kernel instead of the 2.4 in DSL for better hardware support. It picked up the ATI card in my test desktop and the inexpensive USB-to-PS/2 converter on my laptop, along with the wireless hardware. It's also got a lot of "mainstream" GTK2 applications. Gaim takes over from naim for instant messaging, AbiWord replaces the Ted editor, Gnumeric spreadsheet preempts Siag, MPlayer replaces XMMS, and the CUPS printer drivers take the place of Apsfilter. The Mozilla suite takes care of your Internet browsing, email, and HTML editing needs.

A Linksys wireless PC Card adapter worked straight off the block. I configured the wireless card on the desktop through the built-in Ndiswrapper installation wizard.

DSL-N uses the Lua/Fltk graphical toolkit to develop fast and lightweight GUIs for various command-line tools, making them accessible to new users.

Installing applications on DSL-N is a piece of cake through its MyDSL extension system. Though DSL-N is still in the early stages of development, it uses the same extensions as DSL, and all the applications I tried installing worked. Since you can install applications while running from the live CD, adding packages could be quite burdensome for some machines -- or so I thought. By stripping each app down to the essentials, the downloads are relatively small; XMMS is just 665KB, Firefox is around 7MB, and OpenOffice.org can be had for 66MB. To save even more resources, some applications need just to be mounted.

Using DSL-N

You can use DSL-N in different ways. Many people will burn the downloaded ISO onto a disk and run it as a live CD, or install into a USB pen drive or CompactFlash card, but you can also install it on a hard disk.

I tried the option to copy the CD on the hard disk using the tohd=cheatcode. Once completed, this option, with the fromhd= cheatcode, on subsequent boots frees your CD-ROM drive. On one of my old desktops, which doesn't allow USB pens to boot, I booted off the CD and tried saving my work to the pen drive. Once I had created some text files, browsed a little, bookmarked several sites, grabbed my POP email using the Mozilla email client, and downloaded XMMS, I decided to quit and save everything on the plugged-in USB stick.

I couldn't find any tutorial for doing this, so I headed over to the DSL-N forums and the DSL wiki, since doing things in DSL-N isn't all that different from doing them with DSL. DSL-N keeps USB device under /dev/uba instead of /dev/sda. To save stuff onto the pen drive I had to use the Backup/Restore utility and direct it to make backups under uba1. Backups happen on logout, when DSL-N creates a backup.tar.gz file. To back up MyDSL applications, which are by default download to /tmp on the ramdisk, copy the .dsl or .uci files onto the pendrive as root. On subsequent reboots, boot DSL with the restore= and mydsl= cheatcodes to specify the location of the backup tarball and the extensions, respectively.

Next, it was time to test USB booting. I grabbed my 256MB Sandisk Cruzer Mini USB 2.0 pendrive and booted into DSL-N using the CD-ROM. There are two USB installs supported, USB-HDD and USB-ZIP, under Tools -> Install to USB Pen Drive menu. Which one to use depends on your BIOS; USB-HDD worked on my laptop. After asking basic questions like the location of the device and whether I wanted to upgrade my installation or have a fresh one, it took around five minutes to format and copy the kernel and other files to the pen drive.

Booting from a USB drive wasn't dissimilar to the CD boot. On exit, all my work was backed up onto the tarball automatically, but since the MyDSL apps were again downloaded under /tmp, I had to copy them to the stick, as root, as before.

Next, I tried a hard drive install. I booted from the CD-ROM, navigated to the Frugal GRUB Install (there's a LILO option also available) under Tools -> Frugal Installs, pointed the installer to install under /dev/hda1, and let it format a partition and copy over the kernel and files. After it was done, I restarted, only to find my GRUB replaced by DSL-N. No sweat -- editing GRUB is easy.

I pick up the first default option under GRUB's boot menu, which booted up just fine, detecting and configuring hardware, then halting at X configuration. Select the desired resolution and mouse options, and you are done.

Once at the desktop, I went about the normal routine of installing MyDSL extensions, browsing, and changing wallpapers. There is a marginal speed difference between the USB and hard disk option, although both are much faster than running from the live CD. On restarting, I was surprised to be prompted for the X settings again, and then shocked to be staring at a virgin DSL-N installation; my wallpaper, my work, my Internet history, my emails, were all gone!

A visit to the forum later, everything was OK. The speed difference was negligble because even with a hard disk install DSL-N works from the ramdisk. You have to use the Backup/Restore tool to ask DSL-N to keep backups under your installation partition -- hda1 in my case. This has to be done just once. And to ensure MyDSL apps too are saved, download them straight to /cdrom instead of /tmp. On subsequent reboots, all my data and apps were saved and restored automatically. The only minor irritation was being asked to remove the disk, close the tray, and press Enter to shutdown, even though I was booting from the hard disk.

Whatever the method, as you accumulate more files that need to be backed up, the startup and shutdown times will start going up. But even after a week of testing, flooding the installations with additional programs and data, both on the pen drive and hard disk, I couldn't slow down the application launch times. It's safe to say a normal desktop user would never stare at an unresponsive DSL-N desktop, though more RAM might come in handy if you plan to run big applications like OpenOffice.org, which requires 384MB of memory.

Like DSL, DSL-N is all about speed. Big applications like AbiWord and Mozilla take around five seconds to load the first time and less than two seconds thereafter, while smaller applications like the Ted text editor load almost instantaneously. DSL-N also uses a modified emelFM file manager, which couldn't load audio and video files properly into MPlayer. In addition to normal file managing operations, emelFM can be used to install MyDSL extensions and mount UCI applications.

The distro's developers are working on both DSL and DSL-N in parallel, and are fairly active on their forums. Support for ReiserFS was added when many users asked for it. There's also talk of upgrading to a newer kernel.


DSL-N is still in its infancy. At RC1 stages most distributions are too unstable to use, but DSL-N is impressive. If you haven't yet tried DSL, and care for more mainstream applications and have a not-so-recent computer stuffed somewhere, make it usable; download and try DSL-N. You'll enjoy it thoroughly.


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