May 4, 2006

GNU/Linux training with Damn Small Linux manual

Author: Andrei Raevsky

Books about GNU/Linux have become so numerous over the past decade that it is pretty hard to find anything original among them, but the recently published DSL -- Linux Operating System in Less Than 50 MB by Mike Weber, published by a GNU/Linux training company, achieves this feat.

First, it centers on Damn Small Linux (DSL), a distro which fits on a credit card-sized 50MB mini CD. Second, the book was originally written for "an elite group of grade school students," a group that's technically inclined, if not yet technically skilled. Third, rather than coming in regular book format, this manual is published as a binder that can receive regular updates. Finally, this hands-on manual is replete with practical tips and tricks and concludes with a valuable series of projects, such as creating a backup server, building an embedded system, and building an $18 computer.

Background on DSL

According to its Web site, DSL can boot from a business card CD as a live CD, from a USB pen drive, from within a host operating system (it can run inside Windows), from an IDE CompactFlash drive via a method called "frugal install," or from a traditional hard drive install, which transforms it into a Debian OS.

DSL runs light enough to power a 486DX with 16MB of RAM. It can run fully in RAM with as little as 128MB. DSL has a nearly complete desktop, and many command-line tools, and can act as an SSH/FTP/HTTPD server right off of a live CD. All this within 50MB!

The main reason why author Weber picked DSL, however, was its ability to run on very old hardware. "Small is beautiful" (and fast) permeates Weber's approach to computers. Weber is a Master Certified Novell Engineer who has been doing training in technology for about 10 years in school systems, training centers, and online.

Once, while teaching a group of skilled second- and seventh-grade students, he was given a batch of old Pentium 166MHz machines with 32MB of RAM that were considered trash. After experimenting with several other distros -- including Slackware and Deli -- he found that with DSL he could create a fast and fully functional system. In 10 hours, Weber and his students installed their systems and the kids took them home. This success convinced Weber to further explore DSL's capabilities.

Content

Weber's book is the product of these explorations. It is in no way an "official" DSL book, but rather a manual on GNU/Linux, illustrated with examples from DSL -- helping the reader to fully master the DSL tool set.

The manual's chapters include all the basic stuff -- a short intro to GNU/Linux, its desktop and commands, and configuring a network -- that most GNU/Linux books cover. It goes much further, however, including a good description of computer hardware with plenty of clear photos showing various computer parts, thereby encouraging readers to stick their hands inside their machines.

Security is also covered, including topics such as the Secure Shell (SSH) and various security evaluations. By learning about such tools, readers can go beyond DSL and acquire the basic proficiencies to run any GNU/Linux system.

Although DSL fits into 50MB, users can extended it either by downloading a large selection of applications from a special DSL repository, or by installing apt-get (DSL is a Debian- and Knoppix-based distribution). The manual makes full use of these DSL extensions by introducing tools such as nmap, Audacity, and the GIMP.

Reservations

As good as this manual is, it is still a work in progress. For one thing, it badly needs an editor to clear up numerous typos and inconsistencies. Some of the chapters are a little on the chaotic side, reading more like class notes than a professional publication. It is also a work in progress; Weber plans to add additional projects which, according to him, are "where I am headed as a major focus." The manual ships with two CDs: one with a recent version of DSL and the other with more than 60 short training movies on various topics covered in the book.

While I admire Weber's work, I also have two personal regrets. My first is the choice of the non-free Flash format for the training movies -- viewing these movies requires users to download Flash from the Macromedia site. According to Weber, he researched a great many other movie format options but none "work as well and are as universal as Flash." But this choice sends a bad message to newcomers to GNU/Linux, placing technical convenience over the freedom that makes all of free software possible. Also -- ethical issues aside -- my experience shows that the use of proprietary software or formats always turns out the be the wrong solution in the long term.

Second, the DSL CD shipped with the manual is a regular-sized CD, not the credit-card-sized 50MB mini CD DSL is designed to fit in. Though the latter are more expensive, and while not all CD drives are good at handling them, I would have preferred to see each GNU/Linux and DSL newbie fitted with his own wallet-size DSL CD. I never leave home without mine.

With these reservations, which I hope will not apply to future editions of the manual, I can recommend Mike Weber's book to everybody from the first-time DSL user to the experienced sysadmin.

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