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A Closer Look at Damn Small Linux

The take-along operating system

You can create a USB boot floppy with the pre-installed DSL floppy disk tools. Right-click in the DSL desktop to bring up the main DSL menu. Under "Apps | Tools | Make Boot Floppy" select "USB Boot Floppy" and follow the instructions using a blank 1.44MB floppy disk. Once you've created the floppy, leave it in the drive and reboot with the keydrive plugged in.

This new floppy will find the keydrive you've plugged into the USB port and try to boot DSL from it.

Genuine Install to Keydrive
(Still May Require Helper Floppy)
For this approach you have to be prepared to erase and reformat the contents of a keydrive for dedicated DSL use. A 256MB keydrive, which will do nicely, runs less than $20 new. To create a dedicated bootable copy of DSL on a keydrive, read on!

To get this to work you'll also have to know which USB boot standard is implemented in the BIOS of your computer. For computers that can boot from USB drives, the BIOS will support one of two formats. Bring up the BIOS setup utility again (as described above) to find out which, if any, your computer will support. With the setup utility try to put USB-HDD or USB-ZIP before CD-ROM and HDD in the boot order or your keydrive will be ignored when you reboot.

To proceed with the installation you'll need to boot back into DSL from the CD. With DSL running and your keydrive plugged in but not mounted (that just means don't do anything special with /mnt/sda1 after plugging it in) right-click in the DSL desktop to bring up the DSL main menu. Under "Apps | Tools | Install to USB Pendrive" you'll find two choices. These are "For USB-ZIP Pendrive" and "For USB-HDD Pendrive."

Choose whichever standard your computer recognizes and follow the instructions. When prompted for the device name for the installation use "sda." The program will proceed to partition and format the drive as /mnt/sda1 (with all of DSL) and /mnt/sda2 (an empty partition for your files using the remaining storage available on the keydrive).

In the case of my older test PC neither of the boot standards was supported by the BIOS so I created a USB-HDD install and combined that with a helper floppy. Many people have found getting a USB keydrive booting tricky even with a BIOS claiming to support it. If you get stuck making the keydrive boot on its own you can easily create a helper floppy using the instructions in the previous section. This helper floppy works for both forms of USB keydrive installation described in this article. Besides, having that helper floppy will all but guarantee an easy boot on an unfamiliar computer.

Getting on the Internet: Browse, Blog, E-Mail, Chat
By all accounts, DSL seems to do well with most LAN cards and adapters on desktops, many PCMCIA LAN cards on laptops, and with a smaller but growing number of PCMCIA wireless network cards. Both my test machines have PCMCIA adapters (one is a Gateway Tower desktop, the other an IBM Thinkpad laptop). With the Netgear FA411 10/100 Mbps network adapter card I used, DSL was able to recognize the card, configure it, and acquire an IP address automatically via DHCP through my router. I was on the Internet before I even realized it.

Your best bet getting started with DSL is to walk up to a PC that is already wired to a working LAN configured to give out IP addresses using DHCP. If the machine can boot into some version of Windows and get on the Internet, chances are good that DSL will boot and do the same. For those of you who have a different setup (maybe dial-up or a wireless setup with an unrecognized adapter) I have included some helpful configuration resources below.

Check Your Network Connection
If your machine boots right up and jumps onto a network with a direct "line" to the Internet you'll be able to browse right away using the "Dillo" browser. As a test, try to access www.google.com.

Assuming that works you can skip to the next section or read on and learn about some useful diagnostic tools included with DSL. If your first attempt to browse with Dillo didn't work, it could just mean that you're on a network with a proxy server. Check with an administrator or a working computer nearby to see if the browser needs to be configured with proxy settings. In Dillo you do this by clicking the "V" menu, select "Options," and click the "Network" tab to fill in your proxy settings.

To see if your machine can really communicate on a network right-click on the desktop to bring up the main DSL menu. Select System | Control Panel. Click the "System Stats" button and then click on the "Net" tab (see Figure 2). What you see here will be cryptic but informative. There should be a card and driver name followed by one or more "nameserver" entries, one per line. Name servers enable your machine to resolve names like "www.google.com" into real network addresses on the Internet. Further down you should see a section "eth0" containing your computer address listed under "inet addr" as a four-part number like "192.168.1.102." Further along in the same section of text you should find some statistics on the number of bytes transferred by the card since it was booted. This is further evidence of a working network.

On the other hand, you may not find the information described above. In that case your next stop is the "Hardware" tab of the "System Stats" window. This is where your network card, if it was recognized, will be listed. On my test laptop, for example, I see two entries for the hardware:

NETCARD_FULLNAME=''NetGear FA411 Fast Ethernet''
NETCARD_DRIVER=''pcnet_cs''

If you see your card listed but it's not reported on the "Net" tab, you can try using either the "Netcardconfig" tool for a wired network card, or the "Wlanconfig" tool for a wireless networking card. Both are available from the Control Panel. Troubleshooting through these tools is beyond the scope of this article but see Resources for more information:

Fire Up Firefox
Having made a successful test of the Dillo browser (to http://www.google.com), try doing a couple of searches to convince yourself that you're really on the Internet. Before long you'll be ready for a more powerful browser. And you're in luck. Try clicking on the "Firefox" icon on the DSL desktop to bring up Firefox.

Figure 3 shows a screenshot of my DSL desktop running Firefox complete with RSS feeds and a favorite Web site.

You can see that I've been busy customizing the DSL "fluxbox" window manager with styles, applets, a background image, and extra applications. In the next section you'll learn how to do this, but - unless you're already too busy blogging - first why not check out a few more built-in applications for the Internet?

E-mail and Chat Programs
It seems like most people do e-mail with a browser at least part of the time. I use http://gmail.google.com, which has a rich user interface. This application is a good test since it really gives Firefox a workout. Try your favorite e-mail Web site. Or you can bring up and configure the built-in "Sylpheed" e-mail client program.

DSL includes text-based applications for doing text messaging. These support three popular protocols: AIM, IRC, and ICQ. Other more full-featured chat applications are available in the MyDSL application repositories.

Access the MyDSL Application Directory
The MyDSL package system for DSL really sets this little Linux distro apart. It comes to you packed with as many applications as will fit in 50MB. With MyDSL you can download and install (or set aside for later) as many applications as you want or need. These can be saved to a keydrive and brought along wherever your travels take you.

Access MyDSL by clicking the "MyDSL" icon on the DSL desktop. You're presented with a barebones window of buttons, each representing an application category (see Figure 4a). Click a button to get a list of applications in that category (see Figure 4b). Click an application to get a description. Click "Download" to put the application into a temporary (for now) directory and automatically install it in the "MyDSL" menu under the DSL main menu.

In the next section you'll learn how to keep these applications on a keydrive and even have them installed and ready to go the next time you boot up.

Saving for Next Time: Settings, Applications, Data
Accessing that Keydrive
When you insert a USB keydrive into a computer running DSL its contents will appear under the directory /mnt/sda1. The drive must be mounted before you can see your files so don't panic if /mnt/sda1 appears to be empty. Just use the mount tool on the DSL desktop. Click the button marked "fd0" until you see "sda1" and then click the red "unmounted" button once. It should turn green and read "mounted." That's all there is to it. Your keydrive is mounted read/write and ready to use.

Note: if you did create a bootable keydrive, yours will have /mnt/sda1 and /mnt/sda2. Use /mnt/sda2 to save your work and MyDSL extensions since it's created for that purpose.

Next, bring up Emelfm (or a terminal window) and create the following directories under /mnt/sda1 (or /mnt/sda2):

  • mydsl - DSL will look here automatically for MyDSL apps.
  • myfiles - I use this as a good place for other files I want to keep.
Installing Themes and Applications
To get interesting desktop and menu themes, you can visit the "Themes" area of MyDSL. When prompted for a place to save your theme use the full path to your "mydsl" directory you created above. Themes you download will become available under the menu: Desktop | Styles. Figure 4c shows a theme download to the writable storage of a bootable keydrive.

Installing applications works the same way only these will appear under the menu called MyDSL. If you want to download some applications but don't want them installed every time you reboot you can create a subdirectory under /mydsl called /optional. When you save MyDSL applications to the "optional" directory they appear in a separate sub-menu named "Install Optional Extensions" ready to install.


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.

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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.

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