Click here to close now.

Welcome!

Linux Authors: Pat Romanski, Yeshim Deniz, Hovhannes Avoyan, Roger Strukhoff, Carmen Gonzalez

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
Dave will share his insights on how Internet of Things for Enterprises are transforming and making more productive and efficient operations and maintenance (O&M) procedures in the cleantech industry and beyond. Speaker Bio: Dave Landa is chief operating officer of Cybozu Corp (kintone US). Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Dave has been on the forefront of the Cloud revolution driving strategic business development on the executive teams of multiple leading Software as a Services (SaaS) application providers dating back to 2004. Cybozu's kintone.com is a leading global BYOA (Build Your O...
WebRTC is an up-and-coming standard that enables real-time voice and video to be directly embedded into browsers making the browser a primary user interface for communications and collaboration. WebRTC runs in a number of browsers today and is currently supported in over a billion installed browsers globally, across a range of platform OS and devices. Today, organizations that choose to deploy WebRTC applications and use a host machine that supports audio through USB or Bluetooth can use Plantronics products to connect and transit or receive the audio associated with the WebRTC session.
There are lots of challenges in IoT around secure, scalable and business friendly infrastructure for enterprises. For large corporations, IoT implementations are one of the top priorities of the decade. All industries are seeing a competitive need to sustain by investing in IoT initiatives. The value addition comes from improved customer service, innovative product and additional revenue streams. The data from these IP-connected devices can be leveraged for a variety of business applications as well as responsive action controls. The various architectural building blocks of an IoT ...
As enterprises move to all-IP networks and cloud-based applications, communications service providers (CSPs) – facing increased competition from over-the-top providers delivering content via the Internet and independently of CSPs – must be able to offer seamless cloud-based communication and collaboration solutions that can scale for small, midsize, and large enterprises, as well as public sector organizations, in order to keep and grow market share. The latest version of Oracle Communications Unified Communications Suite gives CSPs the capability to do just that. In addition, its integration ...
Chuck Piluso will present a study of cloud adoption trends and the power and flexibility of IBM Power and Pureflex cloud solutions. Speaker Bio: Prior to Data Storage Corporation (DSC), Mr. Piluso founded North American Telecommunication Corporation, a facilities-based Competitive Local Exchange Carrier licensed by the Public Service Commission in 10 states, serving as the company's chairman and president from 1997 to 2000. Between 1990 and 1997, Mr. Piluso served as chairman & founder of International Telecommunications Corporation, a facilities-based international carrier licensed by t...
The IoT Bootcamp is coming to Cloud Expo | @ThingsExpo on June 9-10 at the Javits Center in New York. Instructor. Registration is now available at http://iotbootcamp.sys-con.com/ Instructor Janakiram MSV previously taught the famously successful Multi-Cloud Bootcamp at Cloud Expo | @ThingsExpo in November in Santa Clara. Now he is expanding the focus to Janakiram is the founder and CTO of Get Cloud Ready Consulting, a niche Cloud Migration and Cloud Operations firm that recently got acquired by Aditi Technologies. He is a Microsoft Regional Director for Hyderabad, India, and one of the f...
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!
While not quite mainstream yet, WebRTC is starting to gain ground with Carriers, Enterprises and Independent Software Vendors (ISV’s) alike. WebRTC makes it easy for developers to add audio and video communications into their applications by using Web browsers as their platform. But like any market, every customer engagement has unique requirements, as well as constraints. And of course, one size does not fit all. In her session at WebRTC Summit, Dr. Natasha Tamaskar, Vice President, Head of Cloud and Mobile Strategy at GENBAND, will explore what is needed to take a real time communications ...
SYS-CON Media announced today that @ThingsExpo Blog launched with 7,788 original stories. @ThingsExpo Blog offers top articles, news stories, and blog posts from the world's well-known experts and guarantees better exposure for its authors than any other publication. @ThingsExpo Blog can be bookmarked. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the most profound change in personal and enterprise IT since the creation of the Worldwide Web more than 20 years ago.
The world's leading Cloud event, Cloud Expo has launched Microservices Journal on the SYS-CON.com portal, featuring over 19,000 original articles, news stories, features, and blog entries. DevOps Journal is focused on this critical enterprise IT topic in the world of cloud computing. Microservices Journal offers top articles, news stories, and blog posts from the world's well-known experts and guarantees better exposure for its authors than any other publication. Follow new article posts on Twitter at @MicroservicesE
SYS-CON Events announced today that robomq.io will exhibit at SYS-CON's @ThingsExpo, which will take place on June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. robomq.io is an interoperable and composable platform that connects any device to any application. It helps systems integrators and the solution providers build new and innovative products and service for industries requiring monitoring or intelligence from devices and sensors.
Containers and microservices have become topics of intense interest throughout the cloud developer and enterprise IT communities. Accordingly, attendees at the upcoming 16th Cloud Expo at the Javits Center in New York June 9-11 will find fresh new content in a new track called PaaS | Containers & Microservices Containers are not being considered for the first time by the cloud community, but a current era of re-consideration has pushed them to the top of the cloud agenda. With the launch of Docker's initial release in March of 2013, interest was revved up several notches. Then late last...
Wearable technology was dominant at this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) , and MWC was no exception to this trend. New versions of favorites, such as the Samsung Gear (three new products were released: the Gear 2, the Gear 2 Neo and the Gear Fit), shared the limelight with new wearables like Pebble Time Steel (the new premium version of the company’s previously released smartwatch) and the LG Watch Urbane. The most dramatic difference at MWC was an emphasis on presenting wearables as fashion accessories and moving away from the original clunky technology associated with t...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Litmus Automation 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. Litmus Automation’s vision is to provide a solution for companies that are in a rush to embrace the disruptive Internet of Things technology and leverage it for real business challenges. Litmus Automation simplifies the complexity of connected devices applications with Loop, a secure and scalable cloud platform.
In 2015, 4.9 billion connected "things" will be in use. By 2020, Gartner forecasts this amount to be 25 billion, a 410 percent increase in just five years. How will businesses handle this rapid growth of data? Hadoop will continue to improve its technology to meet business demands, by enabling businesses to access/analyze data in real time, when and where they need it. Cloudera's Chief Technologist, Eli Collins, will discuss how Big Data is keeping up with today's data demands and how in the future, data and analytics will be pervasive, embedded into every workflow, application and infra...
From telemedicine to smart cars, digital homes and industrial monitoring, the explosive growth of IoT has created exciting new business opportunities for real time calls and messaging. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Ivelin Ivanov, CEO and Co-Founder of Telestax, shared some of the new revenue sources that IoT created for Restcomm – the open source telephony platform from Telestax. Ivelin Ivanov is a technology entrepreneur who founded Mobicents, an Open Source VoIP Platform, to help create, deploy, and manage applications integrating voice, video and data. He is the co-founder of TeleStax, a...
As Marc Andreessen says software is eating the world. Everything is rapidly moving toward being software-defined – from our phones and cars through our washing machines to the datacenter. However, there are larger challenges when implementing software defined on a larger scale - when building software defined infrastructure. In his session at 16th Cloud Expo, Boyan Ivanov, CEO of StorPool, will provide some practical insights on what, how and why when implementing "software-defined" in the datacenter.
How is unified communications transforming the way businesses operate? In his session at WebRTC Summit, Arvind Rangarajan, Director of Product Marketing at BroadSoft, will discuss how to extend unified communications experience outside the enterprise through WebRTC. He will also review use cases across different industry verticals. Arvind Rangarajan is Director, Product Marketing at BroadSoft. He has over 19 years of experience in the telecommunications industry in various roles such as Software Development, Product Management and Product Marketing, applied across Wireless, Unified Communic...
SYS-CON Events announced today that MangoApps 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., and the 17th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 3–5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. MangoApps provides private all-in-one social intranets allowing workers to securely collaborate from anywhere in the world and from any device. Social, mobile, and easy to use. MangoApps has been named a "Market Leader" by Ovum Research and a "Cool Vendor" by Gartner...
So I guess we’ve officially entered a new era of lean and mean. I say this with the announcement of Ubuntu Snappy Core, “designed for lightweight cloud container hosts running Docker and for smart devices,” according to Canonical. “Snappy Ubuntu Core is the smallest Ubuntu available, designed for security and efficiency in devices or on the cloud.” This first version of Snappy Ubuntu Core features secure app containment and Docker 1.6 (1.5 in main release), is available on public clouds, and for ARM and x86 devices on several IoT boards. It’s a Trend! This announcement comes just as...