Welcome!

Linux Containers Authors: Elizabeth White, Cameron Van Orman, Liz McMillan, Pat Romanski, Jason Bloomberg

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 N3N will exhibit at SYS-CON's @ThingsExpo, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. N3N’s solutions increase the effectiveness of operations and control centers, increase the value of IoT investments, and facilitate real-time operational decision making. N3N enables operations teams with a four dimensional digital “big board” that consolidates real-time live video feeds alongside IoT sensor data a...
Mobile device usage has increased exponentially during the past several years, as consumers rely on handhelds for everything from news and weather to banking and purchases. What can we expect in the next few years? The way in which we interact with our devices will fundamentally change, as businesses leverage Artificial Intelligence. We already see this taking shape as businesses leverage AI for cost savings and customer responsiveness. This trend will continue, as AI is used for more sophistica...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Enroute Lab will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Enroute Lab is an industrial design, research and development company of unmanned robotic vehicle system. For more information, please visit http://elab.co.jp/.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Mobile Create USA will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Mobile Create USA Inc. is an MVNO-based business model that uses portable communication devices and cellular-based infrastructure in the development, sales, operation and mobile communications systems incorporating GPS capabi...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Suzuki Inc. will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Suzuki Inc. is a semiconductor-related business, including sales of consuming parts, parts repair, and maintenance for semiconductor manufacturing machines, etc. It is also a health care business providing experimental research for...
Real IoT production deployments running at scale are collecting sensor data from hundreds / thousands / millions of devices. The goal is to take business-critical actions on the real-time data and find insights from stored datasets. In his session at @ThingsExpo, John Walicki, Watson IoT Developer Advocate at IBM Cloud, will provide a fast-paced developer journey that follows the IoT sensor data from generation, to edge gateway, to edge analytics, to encryption, to the IBM Bluemix cloud, to Wa...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Massive Networks, that helps your business operate seamlessly with fast, reliable, and secure internet and network solutions, has been named "Exhibitor" of SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo ®, which will take place on Oct 31 - Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. As a premier telecommunications provider, Massive Networks is headquartered out of Louisville, Colorado. With years of experience under their belt, their team of...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Nihon Micron will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Nihon Micron Co., Ltd. strives for technological innovation to establish high-density, high-precision processing technology for providing printed circuit board and metal mount RFID tags used for communication devices. For more inf...
SYS-CON Events announced today that mruby Forum will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. mruby is the lightweight implementation of the Ruby language. We introduce mruby and the mruby IoT framework that enhances development productivity. For more information, visit http://forum.mruby.org/.
In his session at @ThingsExpo, Greg Gorman is the Director, IoT Developer Ecosystem, Watson IoT, will provide a short tutorial on Node-RED, a Node.js-based programming tool for wiring together hardware devices, APIs and online services in new and interesting ways. It provides a browser-based editor that makes it easy to wire together flows using a wide range of nodes in the palette that can be deployed to its runtime in a single-click. There is a large library of contributed nodes that help so...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Ryobi Systems will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Ryobi Systems Co., Ltd., as an information service company, specialized in business support for local governments and medical industry. We are challenging to achive the precision farming with AI. For more information, visit http:...
SYS-CON Events announced today that SIGMA Corporation will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. uLaser flow inspection device from the Japanese top share to Global Standard! Then, make the best use of data to flip to next page. For more information, visit http://www.sigma-k.co.jp/en/.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Daiya Industry will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Daiya Industry specializes in orthotic support systems and assistive devices with pneumatic artificial muscles in order to contribute to an extended healthy life expectancy. For more information, please visit https://www.daiyak...
SYS-CON Events announced today that B2Cloud will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. B2Cloud specializes in IoT devices for preventive and predictive maintenance in any kind of equipment retrieving data like Energy consumption, working time, temperature, humidity, pressure, etc.
SYS-CON Events announced today that NetApp has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. NetApp is the data authority for hybrid cloud. NetApp provides a full range of hybrid cloud data services that simplify management of applications and data across cloud and on-premises environments to accelerate digital transformation. Together with their partners, NetApp em...
What is the best strategy for selecting the right offshore company for your business? In his session at 21st Cloud Expo, Alan Winters, U.S. Head of Business Development at MobiDev, will discuss the things to look for - positive and negative - in evaluating your options. He will also discuss how to maximize productivity with your offshore developers. Before you start your search, clearly understand your business needs and how that impacts software choices.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Interface Corporation will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Interface Corporation is a company developing, manufacturing and marketing high quality and wide variety of industrial computers and interface modules such as PCIs and PCI express. For more information, visit http://www.i...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Keisoku Research Consultant Co. will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Keisoku Research Consultant, Co. offers research and consulting in a wide range of civil engineering-related fields from information construction to preservation of cultural properties. For more information, vi...
SYS-CON Events announced today that MIRAI Inc. will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. MIRAI Inc. are IT consultants from the public sector whose mission is to solve social issues by technology and innovation and to create a meaningful future for people.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Fusic will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Fusic Co. provides mocks as virtual IoT devices. You can customize mocks, and get any amount of data at any time in your test. For more information, visit https://fusic.co.jp/english/.