April 22, 2005

My Workstation OS: Damn Small Linux

Author: Nick Myra

Damn Small Linux is much more than the business-card LiveCD that it originated as. It is a desktop computing powerhouse. DSL boasts an impressive and useful software collection while maintaining a slim 50MB footprint. It offers several options to run or boot the system along with simple configuration. Top it all off with a custom extension system, as well as apt-get, and you can begin to see why DSL is my workstation GNU/Linux distribution.

I run DSL on an old Pentium II with 128MB of RAM. With every new release I reinstall the operating system to the hard drive, which admittedly kind of sucks, but since my initial install I have began saving most everything to CD-RW. Running from LiveCD would make the update process easier, or eliminate it all together, but I must put my old 1.2GB hard drive to use somehow.

DSL's default window manager is the ultra efficient Fluxbox. It's lightweight, very customizable, and a perfect match for DSL. No, it doesn't include all the bells and whistles of KDE or GNOME, but the minimalist approach is beneficial to some. I now run Fluxbox on every desktop I use for the added performance benefit.

Want apps? Dig this. DSL includes Beaver for text editing and Xpaint for basic image manipulation. It contains Flwriter, a tiny but useful word processor, as well as equally necessary Word and PDF viewers. You can listen to your MP3 collection or stream audio from the Web with XMMS. All the Internet access applications, including Telnet, FTP, and VNCviewer, are there too. You can browse the Web with Dillo or Links, chat with clients for IRC, ICQ, and AOL Instant Messenger, and exchange email with Sylpheed.

DSL's control panel is one of its coolest features. It lets you easily start your Web, FTP, or SSH server, back up and restore your LiveCD settings and files, set up and configure your Ethernet, modem, and printer hardware, and more. Of course, you could do all this configuration from the command line, but the GUI makes it so easy. DSL has great support for wireless LAN cards too, including wlanconfig, ndiswrapper, and Prism2 support.

I saved the best feature for last. The DSL extension system provides "click and run" access to a ton of great stuff. Simply click on the MyDSL icon on the desktop and Dillo opens to a page with all available stable extensions, with a link on the bottom of the page that takes you to the newer experimental ones. A few of my personal favorites include K3b, OpenOffice.org, and the GIMP. Recently, many gaming extensions have begun to show up in the repository, including the classic Wolfenstein 3D. To use them, you'll need Xfree86 and the kernel source in order to recompile the kernel, both of which are available via MyDSL.

Desktop distros are the current frontier in Linux computing. Sure, there are plenty of bloated distros full of commercial software, but that's overkill. The average home user doesn't need more than Damn Small Linux has to offer, and it's a great starting point for the Linux noob. It helps you get comfortable with the bash shell while still providing a "safe" graphical desktop. The small size of the whole OS makes for easy downloading too, which is good because DSL's developers are constantly cranking out new versions.

As far as community goes, the group can seem a little snooty at times, as is often true of software with a high geek factor.

DSL is small, but dynamite comes in small packages. Easy, powerful, accessible, and fun -- sounds like some of the things that got you interested in the Linux revolution to begin with.

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