July 7, 2003

Saving an old laptop with Knoppix

by Peter Johansson

An old laptop of mine fubared its Linux partition beyond (easy)
repair so I decided a clean install was the way to go. When I went to
install a recent Debian system I had trouble with PCMCIA under the
2.2 kernel, and XFree gave me a blank screen under 2.4. Knoppix,
however, made everything work automagically (with the exception of
sound).

I thought for a minute... hmmm... I can compile a custom
kernel for the box as I had always done in the past, or I can simply
copy the Knoppix CD-ROM with its compressed filesystem onto the hard
disk. Since the box has only 1.5 GB of disk available, things have
always been a tight squeeze, but with Knoppix I would get a pretty
complete install in only 700 megs, albeit with the cost of some speed
to decompress applications on startup.

So I gave it a shot, and sure enough, it worked pretty darn well.

The only problem was the lack of persistent configuration. Knoppix
supposedly has some tools that will allow you to save configuration
info, but I haven't played with them yet. But it is pretty trivial to
write a script to tweak things after the fact.

The only "problem" with Knoppix is that the CD-ROM is updated every few
weeks and that there is no way to download just the changes -- the
complete ISO image must be downloaded for each upgrade.

In any case, getting a compressed Knoppix to run from your HD is as
simple as the following:

  1. Copy the contents of the CD-ROM to your hard disk. I created a 750
    meg partition for this, but strictly speaking I'm not sure this is
    necessary. (Knoppix seems to scan for its compressed disk image,
    so you might be able to stash that anywhere)
  2. Mount the boot.img file via a loop mount point to copy off the
    kernel and initrd files.
  3. Configure grub or lilo to boot with these. You'll probably want to
    specify some boot options, at the very least, changing from the
    default German keyboard and language.
  4. Reboot. Then magic happens.

This is, without a doubt, the quickest and easiest O/S install I have
ever performed, and the "magic" part is that it was on an old laptop with such a small hard drive it would be almost impossible to make any other full-featured Linux distro and a full set of useful applications work on it.

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