posted by Howard Fosdick on Sat 17th Dec 2011 00:26 UTC
IconWithout corporate backing or advertising, Puppy Linux has become one of the world's ten most popular Linux distributions. In the past few months Puppy has whelped a litter of like systems, each with its own unique DNA. This article summarizes Puppy and then describes the new brood.


What's Puppy?

Puppy Linux was first released by Australian developer Barry Kauler in 2005. Since then this community distribution has gone through five releases, with the current crop of 5.x versions coming out starting in late 2010.

Puppy is a general purpose distro that bundles a full range of apps. It's easy to use. What makes it unusual is that it offers high performance on minimal hardware. It is fully functional on lightweight netbooks, thin clients, and older computers. Puppy uses specific technologies to make this happen. For example, it runs from memory by default; it excludes all but the mandatory functions, services, and daemons; its default GUI is the lightweight JWM; and its bundled apps are all selected for low resource consumption.

While there are competing distros that run on low-end hardware -- such as Lubuntu, SliTaz, Tiny Core, and others -- Puppy is probably unique in that it specifically tests and runs on older equipment. If you've ever tried running Linux on an aging computer, you know that lightweight distribution and older computer are two different requirements. Puppy fulfills both. It runs on machines you won't see running other current distros, including P-III's and P-II's. (Some even run Puppy -- with GUI -- on P-I's.) Puppy offers a secure, up-to-date replacement OS for Windows XP, 98, ME, and 2000.

Puppy boots from any bootable device and stores its state on any writeable device. It can span writeable CD's or DVD's when saving its state. Got a computer with a broken optical drive? Or a dead hard disk? Puppy runs fine on such systems. This flexibility makes it popular as a "live" operating system bootable from thumb drives and optical discs. Many use it as a rescue system or as a portable OS.

For more background on Puppy, see this OS News article from May 2011.


My Favorite Puppy Features

Puppy is uniquely effective with slow or unreliable internet connections. It manages connections and prompts servers when problems occur. I have a friend who has poor line quality -- and few options, living in a rural area. He runs Ubuntu 10.04 LTS, Windows XP SP3, and Puppy 5. He favors Puppy because of its more reliable internet connectivity.

Puppy continues to use GRUB instead of GRUB 2. I use it to install GRUB on multi-boot systems so that I can alter the OS menu simply by editing the menu.lst file. This is great when I set up computers for end users.

And GRUB 2? I installed Ubuntu 11 on an end user's system recently and was embarrassed in front of the client by its unintelligible boot-time menu. It's not easy to change this menu. This discussion shows how to remove unwanted entries. If you want to change the entry titles, you're forced to edit the bash scripts. See this tutorial.

Puppy's not perfect. It has its shortcomings. But I like that its design decisions for ease of use hit the nail on the head more often than not.


Puppy Whelps a Litter

This year's big news is that lead Puppy developer Barry Kauler developed a system called Woof. Woof automates building a Puppy live-CD ISO file. Woof can build Puppy from the packages of other distros, including Ubuntu, Slackware, Debian, Arch, and T2. This means that Puppy supports the applications and software repository of the system from which it's created.

So far the major Puppy releases that have come out of Woof are:

Name:
Current
Version:

ISO
Size:
Built
From:

Focus:





Wary Puppy
5.2.2
132 m T2
Main release for older hardware
Racy Puppy
5.2.2
112 m
T2
Main release for current hardware
Lucid Puppy
5.2.8
130 m Ubuntu
Ubuntu compatibility
Slacko Puppy
5.3
125 m Slackware
Slackware compatibility


Wary Puppy

Wary Puppy is designed specifically for older computers. Wary runs the older 2.6.32.45 kernel, uses X.org 7.3 to support older video, and retains support for dial-up modems. The lack of these features is why competing lightweight distros often fail to run on older hardware. Many older computers won't support the current kernel or newer video drivers.

Wary combines its knowledge of older hardware with current applications and support for modern peripherals (printers, cameras, scanners, digital modems, etc.).

Wary Puppy is guaranteed for long-term support. It is the Puppy community's assurance that users of older computers will not be abandoned. This is critical because so many lightweight distros fall inactive and strand their users (eg: Damn Small Linux, Feather, Beatrix, Tiny Linux, others). Wary should be your Puppy of choice if you have a uniprocessor.


Racy Puppy

Racy Puppy is "Wary on steriods" for those who have current hardware. It features the 3.0.7 kernel and X.org 7.6. Racy boots straight into X on first boot and launches its Quick Setup facility. (In contrast, Wary Puppy runs text-mode configuration dialogs and the Xorg Wizard before starting X.) Racy is a tad smaller ISO than Wary because it strips out dial-up modem support. Racy and Wary share a common package repository, so current apps are common to both systems.


Lucid Puppy

Lucid Puppy was built with Woof from Ubuntu packages. Since it has binary compatibility with Ubuntu's .deb packages, Puppy's own Puppy Package Manager can install apps from the huge Ubuntu software repositories.

Where Lucid differs from Ubuntu is that it retains Puppy's lightweight advantage. Though it's compatible with Ubuntu software, you still get Puppy's performance.

Some who like Ubuntu but need a more performant system opt for its lightweight variant, Lubuntu. In an OS News article on Lubuntu in March 2011, I described Lubuntu and why I like it. But considered purely from the standpoints of performance and resource consumption, Puppy beats Lubuntu hands-down. Lucid Puppy presents another way to gain better performance than Ubuntu while using the Ubuntu software repositories.


Slacko Puppy

Just as the main reason for Lucid Puppy is Ubuntu compatibility, the main reason for Slacko Puppy is Slackware compatibility. Slacko gives you Puppy's small size and speed while allowing you to install any Slackware application.

One question you're sure to have by this point is dependency-checking. Does Puppy provide it against the Slackware software repositories, the Ubuntu repositories, and its own repositories? Yes. This job is split between Woof and the improved Puppy Package Manager (PPM). Woof provides the clean initial build, and the PPM does dependency-checking when you install additional packages. The PPM notifies you when a pre-requisite package is missing, and you click a button to get full dependency lists. Then you click to start the automated download-and-install process. This webpage shows how it works via screen snapshots. I've had 100% success with Puppy's dependency-checker but I tend to stick to basic configurations. Anyone have more extensive experience with it?


Puplets

Puppy has long provided user-friendly software for mastering your own Puppy live CD. Puppy comes with a desktop remastering tool that allows you to take a "snapshot" of your current system and instantly make a live CD of it. Woof is an alternative mastering tool. (It effectively replaces Puppy Unleashed, an earlier tool to create ISO images.) Beginners will prefer the simple CD-Remaster tool while those with more expertise will opt for Woof.

The result of these easy-to-use tools has been an explosion in Puppy Linux variants, commonly called Puplets. There's a Puplet for every interest, demographic, and taste. There are Puplets that default to specific GUIs, Window Managers and browsers; Puplets optimized for specific hardware; stripped down and barebones Puplets; Puplets for different languages and countries; and so on. This webpage lists 20 new Puplets with another 65 available. Pick from the list or develop your own. That's the fun of Puppy.


Is Puppy for You?

Puppy's diversity and flexibility make it a great community-driven system for computer enthusiasts, hobbyists, and tinkerers. They also make for a somewhat disorderly world. You might have to read a bit to figure out which Puppy release or Puplet is for you. Puppy's online documentation is extensive but can be confusing. It's not always clear which docs pertain to which releases. Most users rely on the active, friendly forum for support. I've used Puppy for five years and have never posted a single question that wasn't answered.

What I like best about Puppy is that you can install it on somone's old P-III or P-IV, and they can use that machine to perform any task they could on a current computer. No need to buy new hardware! As long as a knowledgeable person does the initial set-up and configuration, Puppy makes aging hardware useful to the average consumer.

Those of us who enjoy computers sometimes forget that many view them with disdain. What's wrong with it now? Why do I have to buy a new one every four years? Why on earth do they change the interface in every release? Can't it just work?

Puppy is a great solution for these folks. It's up-to-date, free, and easy to use. And now, it supports free applications from the Ubuntu, Slackware, or Puppy repositories. Now that's user-friendly.

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Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who supports databases and operating systems. His hobby is refurbishing computers as a form of social work and environmental contribution. Read his other articles here.
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