Some Linux distributions are more just clever tricks than anything useful.
Take, oh I don’t know, the Free60 Project, which means to bring Linux to the Xbox 360 game console. Interesting to do? Sure, for those with a hackerish turn of mind. Useful if, like 99.9 percent of all Xbox 360 buyers, you want to play Call of Duty 2? I don’t think so.
Then, there are those distributions like Damn Small Linux (DSL), which may sound like it’s just a neat trick, but which is actually darn useful.
DSL, for those of you who don’t know it, is one of several “mini-Linux” distributions. Of the set, it’s probably the most well thought of since it actually manages to pick a GUI into its goodness and, having turned version 2.0 recently, it’s the most mature of the mini-Linuxes.
So how small is it? You can run it on as little as a 33 MHz 486 PC with 32 MB of RAM. I know, because I’ve done it.
The site says you can do in as little as 16 MB of RAM and I see no reason not to believe this.
At a mere 50 MB of operating system and programs, you can load, and run, DSL off business-card CDs, USB pen drives… whatever. Heck, if it holds more data than a floppy diskette, chances are you can run DSL off it.
Don’t think that because DSL only takes up 50 MB of space you’re getting a bare-bones Linux system with a command line as the only interface and only a handful of utilities for programs. No, you actually get the FluxBox GUI, and pretty much all the basic applications you’ll ever need.
FluxBox drives some users crazy because it doesn’t have a taskbar and start button. If that’s you, you can just grab a copy of IceWM, another small GUI that does include those screen luxuries, and use it instead. For directions on how to do that, visit Steve Litt’s DSL guide.
No matter which GUI you end up using, you’ve got some nice applications to work with.
For example, for Web browsing you can either use Firefox, or the far more obscure but amazingly fast Dillo. For word processing, you have flwriter. If all you need is basic text editing, there’s the editor I always use anyway, vim, plus two others.
The list goes on and on. Email, ftp, DHCP, the kitchen sink. If it can fit snuggly in with everything else and still total under 50 MB it’s in there.
If you have more than enough computer to run DSL, you can also use it to add other programs that will never fit into its 50 MB limit like OpenOffice.org 2.0. If you want, you can use it to install a full-featured, full-sized Debian/Knoppix style Linux on your system.
OK, so that’s all very nifty, but so far it probably still sounds more like a clever trick than something useful. What takes DSL from the realm of neat toy to useful program is that you can use it as the foundation for a dandy system repair operating system.
With programs like Midnight Commander, one of my favorite file and directory toolkits, and Bash Burn, a CD Burning application, you can dig into a dead box’s hard drive and pull out useful data.
For more on the basics of how to do this, may I recommend this older, but still useful, article on using Knoppix to find lost data in the smoking wreckage of dead machines by Carla Schroder.
In short, DSL makes a fine PC rescue system that you can literally keep in your wallet or shirt pocket.
And, that my friend, makes DSL one damned useful distribution — and far from being just a toy.
A version of this story was first published in DesktopLinux.