A Crash Course in Minimalist Linux Systems

At my Rolla, Missouri, home, I have a desktop computer running Red Hat Linux and a laptop running Windows 2000. They are networked and I lived happily with that for a long time. This summer I had to stay in California for six
weeks so I decided to take the laptop with me and send the desktop from Mailboxes Etc.

Editorial notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of osnews.com


When the desktop arrived, it would not boot. It took me a little bit too
long to figure out that the primary IDE controller on the motherboard was
damaged. I had to get on with my work, so my mission was to rescue my data
from that computer. My resources: one Windows 98 computer (at my temporary
summer home) that I bought at Tiger Direct a long time ago for only $500,
connected to the Internet at roughly 48 Kbps; one Red Hat Linux computer that
won’t boot; and one Windows 2000 laptop. The Linux box had 3 hard drives in
it. One contained the operating system and applications (13 GB), another
contained all my data (100 GB, but not full), and the third was small and I
used it exclusively for the swap file. Because my data disk was formatted
with ext2, I couldn’t just plug it into the Windows computer. I needed
something that will read ext2.

I don’t know of any ext2 adaptations for Windows (if you do, let me know!)
so my plan was to search the web for a minimalist Linux distribution, use it
to boot the broken box, and rescue my data. I needed a Microsoft-readable
storage space, too. I decided to use the 13 GB drive that contained my copy
of Red Hat, since it’s easy to replace.

The Distributions

The first distribution I tried is called HAL91. It is no longer maintained
but, I thought, that doesn’t mean it won’t work. Using RAWRITE, I copied it
to a floppy and then tried it in the broken box. It started without any
problems and I was able to mount my ext2 and my vfat disks. All I had to do
now was copy the data. As you can guess, this being only the beginning of
the article, that part wasn’t so easy. HAL91 comes with a program named
STAR, which will only extract from archives presented to it on stdin. It
won’t create archives. HAL91 also comes with a program named ZCAT, which
will only extract files from stdin. It won’t create archives. The cp
command has a recursive option, but it has very strange bugs, and I couldn’t
even use my own executables because they were compiled with a different
version of libc and there’s not much I can do about that from Windows.

The second distribution I tried is called Pocket Linux. Unlike HAL91, this
one has the real sh, and even real tar and gzip binaries. I thought I was
done, but I had trouble mounting the large data disk. The error message I
got said that the ext2 filesystem on that disk was using unsupported
features. I think it meant that it can’t read the logical drives listed in
the partition table. Pity.

The third distribution I tried is called BasicLinux. It has a full-fledged
shell, easy network setup, a word processor, and even games. Unlike the
first two distributions I tried, which fit on 1 disk, this one needed two
disks. BasicLinux is based on Slackware 3.5 so it also felt more familiar
than the other two, which had a ground-up feel to them. I thought to
myself, “not a big deal – 2 disks, but I’ll be saved”. Wrong again. This
one also didn’t have support for the logical drives.

The fourth distribution I tried is called AlphaLinux. Like BasicLinux, it
requires 2 disks. The messages from the boot process made me hopeful,
because my drives were detected. However, right after I put in the second
floppy to mount the root filesystem, the sky fell and AlphaLinux claimed
that it couldn’t open a console. Shot down.

The fifth distribution I tried is called Grey Cat Linux. This one takes two
disks and uses LOADLIN. I didn’t get a chance to try it out because it had
trouble mounting its root vfat filesystem.

The sixth distribution I tried is called tomsrtbt. I liked it right away
because making the floppy was easy: switch to DOS mode, put the floppy in,
run install.bat, and away it goes. This is important beause after five
distributions and a few hours, patience is a limited resource. I put it in
the broken box and touched the power button. Tom put a funny comparison of
his distribution to others in the bootup process, showing a small penguin to
represent his and a big one to represent others. The bootup process went on
without a hitch and I was able to log in. I was even able to mount all my
hard drives. Finally… I love stuff that works.


One floppy is better than two. I think it was only coincidence, but it’s
amusing that none of the 2-floppy distributions I tried could even get off
the ground. There are many other distributions out there and they come in
many different sizes (and shapes! I glanced at a page of one that is
intended for those business-card CDs. cool). I kept the tomsrtbt disk and
put it in my laptop case so it can follow me to other adventures. I’m
impressed by the work of all those people out there making minimalist
distributions of Linux. Back in the days when a DOS rescue disk was the best
thing ever, I never imagined that there could be a system that crammed tons
more stuff into the same space.

About the Author:
Jonathan Buhacoff is 22 years old, a senior in computer engineering at University of Missouri-Rolla. He is very into practical automation for the home, currently using a PC with Linux to coordinate microcontrollers. Favorite words are
“open source”.


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