Click here to close now.

Welcome!

Linux Authors: Carmen Gonzalez, Roger Strukhoff, Elizabeth White, Liz McMillan, Jason Bloomberg

Related Topics: Linux, Open Source

Linux: 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
P2P RTC will impact the landscape of communications, shifting from traditional telephony style communications models to OTT (Over-The-Top) cloud assisted & PaaS (Platform as a Service) communication services. The P2P shift will impact many areas of our lives, from mobile communication, human interactive web services, RTC and telephony infrastructure, user federation, security and privacy implications, business costs, and scalability. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Robin Raymond, Chief Architect at Hookflash, will walk through the shifting landscape of traditional telephone and voice services ...
Explosive growth in connected devices. Enormous amounts of data for collection and analysis. Critical use of data for split-second decision making and actionable information. All three are factors in making the Internet of Things a reality. Yet, any one factor would have an IT organization pondering its infrastructure strategy. How should your organization enhance its IT framework to enable an Internet of Things implementation? In his session at Internet of @ThingsExpo, James Kirkland, Chief Architect for the Internet of Things and Intelligent Systems at Red Hat, described how to revolutioniz...
For IoT to grow as quickly as analyst firms’ project, a lot is going to fall on developers to quickly bring applications to market. But the lack of a standard development platform threatens to slow growth and make application development more time consuming and costly, much like we’ve seen in the mobile space. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Mike Weiner is Product Manager of the Omega DevCloud with KORE Telematics Inc., will discuss the evolving requirements for developers as IoT matures and conduct a live demonstration of how quickly application development can happen when the need to comply...
Container frameworks, such as Docker, provide a variety of benefits, including density of deployment across infrastructure, convenience for application developers to push updates with low operational hand-holding, and a fairly well-defined deployment workflow that can be orchestrated. Container frameworks also enable a DevOps approach to application development by cleanly separating concerns between operations and development teams. But running multi-container, multi-server apps with containers is very hard. You have to learn five new and different technologies and best practices (libswarm, sy...
SYS-CON Events announced today that DragonGlass, an enterprise search platform, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 16th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. After eleven years of designing and building custom applications, OpenCrowd has launched DragonGlass, a cloud-based platform that enables the development of search-based applications. These are a new breed of applications that utilize a search index as their backbone for data retrieval. They can easily adapt to new data sets and provide access to both structured and unstruc...
Converging digital disruptions is creating a major sea change - Cisco calls this the Internet of Everything (IoE). IoE is the network connection of People, Process, Data and Things, fueled by Cloud, Mobile, Social, Analytics and Security, and it represents a $19Trillion value-at-stake over the next 10 years. In her keynote at @ThingsExpo, Manjula Talreja, VP of Cisco Consulting Services, will discuss IoE and the enormous opportunities it provides to public and private firms alike. She will share what businesses must do to thrive in the IoE economy, citing examples from several industry sector...
With major technology companies and startups seriously embracing IoT strategies, now is the perfect time to attend @ThingsExpo in Silicon Valley. Learn what is going on, contribute to the discussions, and ensure that your enterprise is as "IoT-Ready" as it can be! Internet of @ThingsExpo, taking place Nov 3-5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, is co-located with 17th Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the most profound change in personal an...
The security devil is always in the details of the attack: the ones you've endured, the ones you prepare yourself to fend off, and the ones that, you fear, will catch you completely unaware and defenseless. The Internet of Things (IoT) is nothing if not an endless proliferation of details. It's the vision of a world in which continuous Internet connectivity and addressability is embedded into a growing range of human artifacts, into the natural world, and even into our smartphones, appliances, and physical persons. In the IoT vision, every new "thing" - sensor, actuator, data source, data con...
Disruptive macro trends in technology are impacting and dramatically changing the "art of the possible" relative to supply chain management practices through the innovative use of IoT, cloud, machine learning and Big Data to enable connected ecosystems of engagement. Enterprise informatics can now move beyond point solutions that merely monitor the past and implement integrated enterprise fabrics that enable end-to-end supply chain visibility to improve customer service delivery and optimize supplier management. Learn about enterprise architecture strategies for designing connected systems tha...
There's Big Data, then there's really Big Data from the Internet of Things. IoT is evolving to include many data possibilities like new types of event, log and network data. The volumes are enormous, generating tens of billions of logs per day, which raise data challenges. Early IoT deployments are relying heavily on both the cloud and managed service providers to navigate these challenges. In her session at Big Data Expo®, Hannah Smalltree, Director at Treasure Data, discussed how IoT, Big Data and deployments are processing massive data volumes from wearables, utilities and other machines...
SYS-CON Events announced today that the "First Containers & Microservices Conference" will take place June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City. The “Second Containers & Microservices Conference” will take place November 3-5, 2015, at Santa Clara Convention Center, Santa Clara, CA. Containers and microservices have become topics of intense interest throughout the cloud developer and enterprise IT communities.
Buzzword alert: Microservices and IoT at a DevOps conference? What could possibly go wrong? In this Power Panel at DevOps Summit, moderated by Jason Bloomberg, the leading expert on architecting agility for the enterprise and president of Intellyx, panelists will peel away the buzz and discuss the important architectural principles behind implementing IoT solutions for the enterprise. As remote IoT devices and sensors become increasingly intelligent, they become part of our distributed cloud environment, and we must architect and code accordingly. At the very least, you'll have no problem fil...
IoT is still a vague buzzword for many people. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Mike Kavis, Vice President & Principal Cloud Architect at Cloud Technology Partners, discussed the business value of IoT that goes far beyond the general public's perception that IoT is all about wearables and home consumer services. He also discussed how IoT is perceived by investors and how venture capitalist access this space. Other topics discussed were barriers to success, what is new, what is old, and what the future may hold. Mike Kavis is Vice President & Principal Cloud Architect at Cloud Technology Pa...
SYS-CON Events announced today that MetraTech, now part of Ericsson, has been named “Silver Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 16th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 9–11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York, NY. Ericsson is the driving force behind the Networked Society- a world leader in communications infrastructure, software and services. Some 40% of the world’s mobile traffic runs through networks Ericsson has supplied, serving more than 2.5 billion subscribers.
The 4th International Internet of @ThingsExpo, co-located with the 17th International Cloud Expo - to be held November 3-5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA - announces that its Call for Papers is open. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the biggest idea since the creation of the Worldwide Web more than 20 years ago.
The 17th International Cloud Expo has announced that its Call for Papers is open. 17th International Cloud Expo, to be held November 3-5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, brings together Cloud Computing, APM, APIs, Microservices, Security, Big Data, Internet of Things, DevOps and WebRTC to one location. With cloud computing driving a higher percentage of enterprise IT budgets every year, it becomes increasingly important to plant your flag in this fast-expanding business opportunity. Submit your speaking proposal today!
Since 2008 and for the first time in history, more than half of humans live in urban areas, urging cities to become “smart.” Today, cities can leverage the wide availability of smartphones combined with new technologies such as Beacons or NFC to connect their urban furniture and environment to create citizen-first services that improve transportation, way-finding and information delivery. In her session at @ThingsExpo, Laetitia Gazel-Anthoine, CEO of Connecthings, will focus on successful use cases.
The explosion of connected devices / sensors is creating an ever-expanding set of new and valuable data. In parallel the emerging capability of Big Data technologies to store, access, analyze, and react to this data is producing changes in business models under the umbrella of the Internet of Things (IoT). In particular within the Insurance industry, IoT appears positioned to enable deep changes by altering relationships between insurers, distributors, and the insured. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Michael Sick, a Senior Manager and Big Data Architect within Ernst and Young's Financial Servi...
The recent trends like cloud computing, social, mobile and Internet of Things are forcing enterprises to modernize in order to compete in the competitive globalized markets. However, enterprises are approaching newer technologies with a more silo-ed way, gaining only sub optimal benefits. The Modern Enterprise model is presented as a newer way to think of enterprise IT, which takes a more holistic approach to embracing modern technologies.
One of the biggest impacts of the Internet of Things is and will continue to be on data; specifically data volume, management and usage. Companies are scrambling to adapt to this new and unpredictable data reality with legacy infrastructure that cannot handle the speed and volume of data. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Don DeLoach, CEO and president of Infobright, will discuss how companies need to rethink their data infrastructure to participate in the IoT, including: Data storage: Understanding the kinds of data: structured, unstructured, big/small? Analytics: What kinds and how responsiv...