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Damn Small Linux

© June 2006 Anthony Lawrence

It's been great fun exploring Linux distros with Parallels Workstation. Download an ISO, fire it up with Parallels and off we go. Great stuff, but frankly it has all been very superficial: I haven't demanded much of Parallels or the Linuxes running under it.

Damn Small Linux was the first distro to give me a hard time.

Don't panic, DSL fans. It wasn't DSL's fault. It booted quickly, obtained an IP automatically, and was ready to run. Except..

Cut and don't paste

That Help section that opens up in the Dillo browser at first boot was what threw me. "Where's the Start Button" is its first link, and it goes on to explain that you don't need it: just Right Click anywhere on the desktop for a menu.

Oh, OK. But.. wait a minute, this is a MacBook. I have a track` pad and it only has one click button. How the heck do you right click?

By the way, for those who haven't used a MacBook: the track pad is quite the intelligent boopy. It magically turns into a web page scroller if you put two fingers on the track pad instead of one. It's a wonderful thing and that works inside Parallels too. But DSL needs a right click.

Turns out that by default a Ctrl-Shift click works, but you can also set (in Parallels Preferences -> Hot Keys) a Delayed Right Click - just click and hold and it turns into a right click. That's the same scheme used in the Dock, so I turned that on and now could use DSL's menus.

Cut and paste was the next hurdle. Many of the applications DSL comes with don't have cut and paste menus. That means using Linux left swipe to select, middle button to paste. That implies that you have a three button mouse or will use a two button mouse to emulate it. Well, that's not going to work with a track pad, is it?

If the app you want to paste into has menu selections for pasting, then there's no problem. If not.. well, maybe this is something you can do sshed in from your Mac and use ordinary Mac cut and paste. Otherwise, you have to rely on your own retyping skills.

There seem to be third party utilities for the Mac that might be able to replace the mouse drive to give that capability, but I didn't bother to try any of those. Briefly I thought I might make this work with "gpm -2", but had no luck there either- gpm isn't present by default on DSL but I tried it on Centos without success..

Hard drives for persistent data

Well, let's forget that for the moment.

DSL came up having already configured its nic and with a DHCP obtained IP (unlike Puppy Linux which required manual configuration). The first thing I did was create a hard disk filesystem. There are options as to what to do with that: I could use it simply to store configuration data and extra applications or files, or install DSL right on it (remember to set your boot options to continue booting from CDROM if you aren't installing to the hard drive).

If you create (or already have) a filesystem on /dev/hda1, /home/dsl will be copied to it automatically on shutdown or reboot, but only after you have manually backed it up once. You use DSLPanel->Backup/Restore - don't enter /dev/hda1, just hda1. For an existing hard drive, hda1 is probably your boot partition and may not have a lot of space. You can use another partition, but it needs a Linux filesystem on it. You can change the filesystem used wth DSLPanel->Backup/Restore at any time.

You can add or subtract what gets backed up by editing the ".filetool.lst" file in /home/dsl.

If you do choose to install DSL to a hard drive, you have two basic choices. The first is what they call a "frugal" install, which acts much like the live cd itself. From their help files:

A "frugal" type install mirrors the operation of the LiveCD. It installs the compressed filesystem and associated boot files onto a pre-prepared partition of your choice on your hard drive.
The frugal install offers you a choice of two bootloaders, lilo or grub.

This method offers many benefits to you over the typical linux hard drive install.

  1. Use of the extension repository for adding applications, which are designed to run in the frugal/liveCD environment.
  2. Much easier upgrade path, without needing to reinstall from scratch.
  3. Use of the 'toram' option, while still operating from a hard drive type device. This offers you the maximum performance in DSL, by running your entire OS in ramspace, but getting the load performance and speed the hard drive offers.(requires 128MB ram)
  4. Most all other boottime options are available to you, like persistant home and opt directories, autoloading of applications, setting fresh passwords, encrypting/decrypting your backups, unique hostname, and autorestore/backup of your personal files and settings at boottime and shutdown.
  5. You can easily revert back to a pristine install condition, and extend this feature to uninstall any extension.

So exactly why would you not want this? A "non-frugal" install can be upgraded to "more closely mirror a true Debian system". Well, duh, if you want a true Debian system why start with DSL? I must be missing something somewhere.


One of the annoyances of live cd's has been how to handle anything you've added when a new version of the cd comes out. You have to extract everything, merge your additions in and re-master. You can avoid some of that by keeping your additional stuff on a hard drive (or pen drive of course) and letting the automatic backup/restore take care of it. DSL also offers "myDSL", which is very similar to the data backup that happens automatically, but are preconfigured applications that get merged in automatically.

There are other nice touches. As DSL is ordinarily running entirely in RAM, there may be apps or files that you want available but not necessarily loaded. A "/optional" directory gives that ability.

Another nice little live CD.

Got something to add? Send me email.

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More Articles by © Anthony Lawrence

Mon Jun 12 21:22:12 2006: 2107   drag

""" So exactly why would you not want this? A "non-frugal" install can be upgraded to "more closely mirror a true Debian system". Well, duh, if you want a true Debian system why start with DSL? I must be missing something somewhere. """

Convience mostly. Debian packages are about the best your going to find in a Distro.. They are high quality due to Debian's (relatively, to other distros) strict standards and their quality assurance practices. Also they are very numerious. It's actually pretty rare that when your running a Debian distro that you run into a program that you have to compile from scratch.

So for DSL they are simply leveraging this to be able to supply end users a whole host of software that they simply would not be able to provide otherwise. Also it's got a nice way to download and update your system automaticly.

As far as why you would want to run DSL over Debian is purely convience also. DSL has a nice low resource install that's optimized for smaller/slower machines. Thats fairly easy to acheive in Debian, but it would take you a while to get the install going, and then to upgrade/configure your kernel (DSL offers a newer, more optimized version of the 2.4 linux kernel then what Debian offers), then to uninstall and install the software you need to get to a low resource install. Also if you'd want to run it on a USB flash drive (DSL's claim-to-fame) that would be a bunch more extra work.

So, especially on a old machine, that is several hours of work you'd save yourself by using DSL over Debian.

As far as the 3 button mouse thing I run Debian on a Ibook and I deal with the lack of the proper amount of mouse buttons ;) by using a program called 'mouseemu'. Using it you can setup any sort of key combo to serve as right and middle mouse buttons. By default it uses fn-12 and fn-11 I beleive, but I have it setup for something a bit closer to the mouse pad. Also you can use it to emulate a mouse wheel. It was originally designed for Debian on the powerpc, but it can be used on other distros and hardware platforms. I don't know of a OS X port though. I'd bet it work in DSL on Parrallel though.

If you want another Live cd style linux distro to check out another interesting on is 'Slax'. It's based on Slackware (my 2nd favorite distro) and it's special thing is that it's designed to be low-footprint default install, but you can add modules of software when you burn your live cd or after the fact to add more software. So if you wanted a special purpose cdrom you could use Slax and select which modules you want, or make new modules, and get the configuration you want.

So maybe you could use it to give to people to so that they can boot their home machines to use a special VPN setup for doing work at home. OR setup a custom cdrom for site-specific semi-automated backup, virus scanning, or image restore for a bunch of windows machines to make a admin's assistant live a bit easier. Or make a 'gaming cdrom' for a kid. Something like that.

Slax itself is based on the "Linux Live" project. It's basicly a project to make a bunch of generic system scripts to help you quickly build a Linux live cdrom from a whatever linux system your running on your harddrive at the time.

Mon Apr 28 01:34:34 2008: 4146   shiman6

How exactly did you get DSL to boot on a Mac? This has been puzzling me for 8+ hours.

Mon Apr 28 11:16:44 2008: 4147   TonyLawrence

How exactly did you get DSL to boot on a Mac?

Inside a Parallels VM as I said in the first paragraph.


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