Welcome!

Linux Containers Authors: Elizabeth White, Sanjay Zalavadia, Pat Romanski, Liz McMillan, Tim Hinds

Related Topics: Linux Containers, Open Source Cloud

Linux Containers: Article

A Closer Look at Damn Small Linux

The take-along operating system

In this article you will learn how to turn a blank CD and an inexpensive USB keydrive into a powerful, portable, take-along operating system complete with modern applications like Firefox, a Web server, and multimedia tools. All this can be done using free Open Source Linux software.

We'll start with the latest version of a distribution called Damn Small Linux (hereafter referred to as DSL) and work through the steps of getting and "burning" an image, booting it, setting up networking and applications, and saving customizations and files to the USB media. You can do all of this even with an old PC from yesteryear, turning it into something snappy and new. One possible outcome is what you see in Figure 1.

The resulting bootable CD and USB keydrive storage work great without having to install, partition, reformat, or even modify the hard drive on the host system. This highly portable computer system based on DSL will enable you to walk up to almost any PC and boot into your very own familiar Linux desktop, get on the Internet, send e-mail, blog, play games, even listen to Internet radio, and save your work, shut it down, and take it all of it with you without leaving a trace. It will be lightweight, fast to boot, and can breath new life into almost any computer, old or new. You can even use this technique to create low-cost Internet kiosks and Web servers, as an alternative to carrying a laptop, or just to impress your friends and colleagues.

The DSL distribution of Linux has long set the standard for fitting maximum functionality into a small 50MB footprint. The discipline of keeping the entire distribution to this size has resulted in a compact and versatile Linux (derived from the venerable Knoppix, itself based on Debian Linux) that can run efficiently even on older PCs while recognizing a wide assortment of hardware. Through the innovative "MyDSL" subsystem, nearly unlimited customization and system expansion are possible.

There's a lot to look at inside this unusual little operating system, not all of it beautiful. This article will help you find the best of DSL and ignore the rest. Best of all, you'll discover how to shape and customize DSL into something useful and appealing, perhaps even something unique.

Getting Started: Obtain, Burn, Boot
Get the Latest DSL Image
Downloading the latest stable version of DSL is free and easy. If you have a high-speed Internet connection it can be done in minutes. Simply follow these instructions:
1)  Visit the URL www.damnsmalllinux.org/download.html
2)  Click on one of the mirror sites under "where to download"
3)  Look for a directory called "current" and click on that to see its contents
4)  Look past most of what you see and download the file "dsl-<version>.iso"

Where I've written <version> above you'll see something like "2.4" depending on when you read this article. The current stable version is 2.3. Save your download in a place where you can find it as you move to the next step.

Burn the ISO onto CD
The file you just downloaded has an "iso" extension after the ISO standard format used on CD-ROMs. Some operating systems - such as OS X - can mount an image file like this and show you its contents. We don't really have to do that but if you're curious go ahead and see if your computer can mount the disk. You'll need a writable CD-R disk and a CD burner for the next step. Use your favorite CD-burning software to create a disk from this image.

One important note here. The DSL disk image is much smaller than the CD's capacity and that's expected. At only 50MB you could fit about 15 copies of DSL on a standard CD-R. DSL was originally configured to fit on the smaller 50MB "business card" CDs that were briefly popular. This size constraint now offers great advantages for this little operating system. As you'll see, DSL is so small that the entire operating system can boot up into the memory on just about any PC without even accessing the hard drive.

When you burn your CD remember that you're dealing with a bootable ISO image. Rather than just burning a copy of this file onto a CD (which won't boot properly in the next step), you'll want to instruct your CD burner to recognize the ISO and burn a disk image.

Boot from CD (or Use a Helper Floppy)
This step could be as simple as putting your newly minted DSL CD into the drive on your computer and rebooting. You should try that first before reading any further. By the way, many people get nervous about doing anything experimental with a working computer and rightly so. In my experience I've seen no risk in booting a PC into DSL. This little operating system will detect much of the hardware attached to your computer including your network, but it will completely ignore your hard drive and data until you tell DSL to do differently. If you're still not sure, just dig out that old PC in the closet and try DSL on that first. An old machine running DSL may surprise you as it comes back to life. Now let's get back to the boot. If your PC recognizes the CD as bootable and begins a boot sequence, skip to the next section.

Most PCs can boot from a CD (the CD booting standard has been out for over 10 years), but they may not be configured to do so. To find out you'll have to get into the BIOS settings at boot time and check. As your machine starts up, look for a message that says something like "Press F-10 for BIOS Settings" and use whatever key you are instructed to press.

Next, while in the text-based BIOS menu system, look for a section on boot devices and boot order. Make sure that the CD-ROM is somewhere in the order of boot devices ahead of the hard drive (usually it goes in the order of floppy, CD, then hard drive). Find a way to put the CD-ROM in the boot sequence, save your changes then try a reboot.

At this point I should mention that one of the machines I used to prepare this article (and even write some of it) is a 10-year-old Pentium 150MHz with only 96MB memory. It can't boot from a CD so I used a helper floppy that can recognize and boot the CD. If you need such a thing, you can create one by following these steps:
1)  Download the boot floppy boot image file for DSL
Download: bootfloppy.img
From Site: ftp://ibiblio.org/pub/Linux/distributions/damnsmall/current
Save As: boot.img
2)  Create a boot floppy using a blank 1.44MB floppy disk
If running Windows
Download: rawrite.exe (or other suitable variant for your OS)
From Site: www.fdos.org/ripcord/rawrite/
Run Command: rawrite -f boot.img -d A
If already running a version of Linux:
Run Command: dd if=boot.img of=/dev/fd0 bs=1440k

Once your computer is booting from the CD (or a combination of floppy/CD) you're ready to begin exploring the world of DSL, customizing it to your liking, and creating a configuration that you can easily return to on your next boot.

Advanced Topic: Bootable USB Keydrive
(aka Pendrive, Flashdrive, Etc.)
You may have heard about bootable USB keydrives or know someone who has one. With DSL there are at least two ways to get your USB-capable computer to boot from a keydrive. The first works without having to reformat the keydrive. The second approach will dedicate the entire USB keydrive to running DSL by creating a boot partition and a data partition.

You can skip this section entirely or return to it later if you decide that booting from a keydrive is for you. Regardless of how you end up booting, the rest of this article will assume that you're simply booting from a read-only device and intend to use a keydrive for take-along storage. This way everyone can come along with or without a bootable USB drive.

Quick and Easy Install to Keydrive
(Requires Helper Floppy)
The simplest and least disruptive approach to booting from a keydrive is just to make the keydrive look like the CD you used to get started. I made this work by copying all of the files from the DSL CD (mounted as /mnt/cdrom) to the root directory of a keydrive (it will have to be mounted as /mnt/sda1, as shown below) already formatted with the MS-DOS file system. Of course you'll need at least a free 50MB on the USB keydrive before you copy the files.

If you don't know how to copy files in Linux, first bring up a terminal window by clicking on "ATerminal" on the DSL desktop. Next type the following:

$ sudo mount /dev/sda1
$ cp -r /mnt/cdrom/* /mnt/sda1

If you're allergic to the command line, these two steps can be carried out intuitively using the "Emelfm" file manager also available on the DSL desktop.

This approach to booting will preserve the data you already have on the keydrive. It won't make the drive into a genuine Linux boot disk (we'll do this in the next section), so you will need a helper floppy to get the machine booting from this USB keydrive. I made a USB boot floppy while running DSL itself. This is simpler than the manual approach described above but note that you'll need a different boot image (bootfloppy-usb.img) than we used before.


More Stories By Russ Ethington

Russ Ethington is an enterprise software architect and developer with 15 years of experience in numerous programming languages on Unix and other platforms. His technical interests include distributed computing, programming languages, and music synthesis.

Comments (4) View Comments

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.


Most Recent Comments
manmathsahu 09/09/07 11:47:48 PM EDT

DSL is a good minimalist distro. If you are looking for a more usable distro you should try a lighter PCLinuxOS versionsuch as PCLinuxOS Junior or PCLinuxOS TinyMe.

charles 08/27/06 03:11:52 AM EDT

this is grait but what if you want to use a disk on chip?

Linux News Desk 07/11/06 03:01:15 PM EDT

In this article you will learn how to turn a blank CD and an inexpensive USB keydrive into a powerful, portable, take-along operating system complete with modern applications like Firefox, a Web server, and multimedia tools. All this can be done using free Open Source Linux software.

Linux News Desk 07/11/06 02:00:26 PM EDT

In this article you will learn how to turn a blank CD and an inexpensive USB keydrive into a powerful, portable, take-along operating system complete with modern applications like Firefox, a Web server, and multimedia tools. All this can be done using free Open Source Linux software.

@ThingsExpo Stories
SYS-CON Events announced today that Avere Systems, a leading provider of enterprise storage for the hybrid cloud, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 18th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Avere delivers a more modern architectural approach to storage that doesn’t require the overprovisioning of storage capacity to achieve performance, overspending on expensive storage media for inactive data or the overbuilding of data centers ...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Pythian, a global IT services company specializing in helping companies adopt disruptive technologies to optimize revenue-generating systems, has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 18th Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 7-9, 2015 at the Javits Center in New York, New York. Founded in 1997, Pythian is a global IT services company that helps companies compete by adopting disruptive technologies such as cloud, Big Data, advanced analytics, and DevO...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Alert Logic, Inc., the leading provider of Security-as-a-Service solutions for the cloud, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 18th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Alert Logic, Inc., provides Security-as-a-Service for on-premises, cloud, and hybrid infrastructures, delivering deep security insight and continuous protection for customers at a lower cost than traditional security solutions. Ful...
Fortunately, meaningful and tangible business cases for IoT are plentiful in a broad array of industries and vertical markets. These range from simple warranty cost reduction for capital intensive assets, to minimizing downtime for vital business tools, to creating feedback loops improving product design, to improving and enhancing enterprise customer experiences. All of these business cases, which will be briefly explored in this session, hinge on cost effectively extracting relevant data from ...
SYS-CON Events announced today that iDevices®, the preeminent brand in the connected home industry, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 18th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. iDevices, the preeminent brand in the connected home industry, has a growing line of HomeKit-enabled products available at the largest retailers worldwide. Through the “Designed with iDevices” co-development program and its custom-built IoT Cloud Infrastruc...
There will be new vendors providing applications, middleware, and connected devices to support the thriving IoT ecosystem. This essentially means that electronic device manufacturers will also be in the software business. Many will be new to building embedded software or robust software. This creates an increased importance on software quality, particularly within the Industrial Internet of Things where business-critical applications are becoming dependent on products controlled by software. Qua...
As enterprises work to take advantage of Big Data technologies, they frequently become distracted by product-level decisions. In most new Big Data builds this approach is completely counter-productive: it presupposes tools that may not be a fit for development teams, forces IT to take on the burden of evaluating and maintaining unfamiliar technology, and represents a major up-front expense. In his session at @BigDataExpo at @ThingsExpo, Andrew Warfield, CTO and Co-Founder of Coho Data, will dis...
The Quantified Economy represents the total global addressable market (TAM) for IoT that, according to a recent IDC report, will grow to an unprecedented $1.3 trillion by 2019. With this the third wave of the Internet-global proliferation of connected devices, appliances and sensors is poised to take off in 2016. In his session at @ThingsExpo, David McLauchlan, CEO and co-founder of Buddy Platform, will discuss how the ability to access and analyze the massive volume of streaming data from mil...
WebSocket is effectively a persistent and fat pipe that is compatible with a standard web infrastructure; a "TCP for the Web." If you think of WebSocket in this light, there are other more hugely interesting applications of WebSocket than just simply sending data to a browser. In his session at 18th Cloud Expo, Frank Greco, Director of Technology for Kaazing Corporation, will compare other modern web connectivity methods such as HTTP/2, HTTP Streaming, Server-Sent Events and new W3C event APIs ...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Men & Mice, the leading global provider of DNS, DHCP and IP address management overlay solutions, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 18th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. The Men & Mice Suite overlay solution is already known for its powerful application in heterogeneous operating environments, enabling enterprises to scale without fuss. Building on a solid range of diverse platform support,...
Eighty percent of a data scientist’s time is spent gathering and cleaning up data, and 80% of all data is unstructured and almost never analyzed. Cognitive computing, in combination with Big Data, is changing the equation by creating data reservoirs and using natural language processing to enable analysis of unstructured data sources. This is impacting every aspect of the analytics profession from how data is mined (and by whom) to how it is delivered. This is not some futuristic vision: it's ha...
Silver Spring Networks, Inc. (NYSE: SSNI) extended its Internet of Things technology platform with performance enhancements to Gen5 – its fifth generation critical infrastructure networking platform. Already delivering nearly 23 million devices on five continents as one of the leading networking providers in the market, Silver Spring announced it is doubling the maximum speed of its Gen5 network to up to 2.4 Mbps, increasing computational performance by 10x, supporting simultaneous mesh communic...
The cloud promises new levels of agility and cost-savings for Big Data, data warehousing and analytics. But it’s challenging to understand all the options – from IaaS and PaaS to newer services like HaaS (Hadoop as a Service) and BDaaS (Big Data as a Service). In her session at @BigDataExpo at @ThingsExpo, Hannah Smalltree, a director at Cazena, will provide an educational overview of emerging “as-a-service” options for Big Data in the cloud. This is critical background for IT and data profes...
With the Apple Watch making its way onto wrists all over the world, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a staple in the workplace. In fact, Forrester reported that 68 percent of technology and business decision-makers characterize wearables as a top priority for 2015. Recognizing their business value early on, FinancialForce.com was the first to bring ERP to wearables, helping streamline communication across front and back office functions. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Kevin Roberts...
Cognitive Computing is becoming the foundation for a new generation of solutions that have the potential to transform business. Unlike traditional approaches to building solutions, a cognitive computing approach allows the data to help determine the way applications are designed. This contrasts with conventional software development that begins with defining logic based on the current way a business operates. In her session at 18th Cloud Expo, Judith S. Hurwitz, President and CEO of Hurwitz & ...
One of the bewildering things about DevOps is integrating the massive toolchain including the dozens of new tools that seem to crop up every year. Part of DevOps is Continuous Delivery and having a complex toolchain can add additional integration and setup to your developer environment. In his session at @DevOpsSummit at 18th Cloud Expo, Miko Matsumura, Chief Marketing Officer of Gradle Inc., will discuss which tools to use in a developer stack, how to provision the toolchain to minimize onboa...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Interoute, owner-operator of one of Europe's largest networks and a global cloud services platform, has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 18th Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 7-9, 2015 at the Javits Center in New York, New York. Interoute is the owner-operator of one of Europe's largest networks and a global cloud services platform which encompasses 12 data centers, 14 virtual data centers and 31 colocation centers, with connections to 195 ad...
Join us at Cloud Expo | @ThingsExpo 2016 – June 7-9 at the Javits Center in New York City and November 1-3 at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA – and deliver your unique message in a way that is striking and unforgettable by taking advantage of SYS-CON's unmatched high-impact, result-driven event / media packages.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Commvault, a global leader in enterprise data protection and information management, has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 18th International Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 7–9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY, and the 19th International Cloud Expo, which will take place on November 1–3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Commvault is a leading provider of data protection and information management...
With an estimated 50 billion devices connected to the Internet by 2020, several industries will begin to expand their capabilities for retaining end point data at the edge to better utilize the range of data types and sheer volume of M2M data generated by the Internet of Things. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Don DeLoach, CEO and President of Infobright, will discuss the infrastructures businesses will need to implement to handle this explosion of data by providing specific use cases for filte...