Last Updated on April 14, 2017 by Dave Farquhar
I found a couple of interesting things on Freshmeat today.
First, there’s a Linux-bootfloppy-from-scratch hint, in the spirit of Linux From Scratch, but using uClibc and Busybox in place of the full-sized standard GNU userspace. This is great for low-memory, low-horsepower machines like 386s and 486s.
I would think it would provide a basis for building small Linux distributions using other tools as well.
What other tools? Well, there’s skarnet.org, which provides bunches of small tools. The memory usage on skarnet’s web server, not counting the kernel, is 2.8 megs.
Skarnet’s work builds on that of Fefe, who provides dietlibc (yet another tiny libc) and a large number of small userspace tools. (These tools provide most of the basis for DietLinux, which I haven’t been able to figure out how to install, sadly. Some weekend I’ll sign up for the mailing list and give it another go.
And then there’s always asmutils, which is a set of tools written in pure x86 assembly language and doesn’t use a libc at all, and the e3 text editor, a 12K beauty that can use the keybindings for almost every popular editor, including two editors that incite people into religious wars.
These toolkits largely duplicate one another but not completely, so they could be complementary.
If you want to get really sick, you can try matching this kind of stuff up with Linux-Lite v1.00, which is a set of patches to the Linux 1.09 kernel dating back to 1998 or so to make it recognize things like ELF binaries. And there was another update in 2002 that lists fixes for the GCC 2.72 compiler in its changelog. I don’t know how these two projects were related, if at all, besides their common ancestry.
Or you could try using a 1.2 kernel. Of course compiling those kernels with a modern compiler could also be an issue. I’m intrigued by the possibility of a kernel that could itself use less than a meg, but I don’t know if I want to experiment that much.
And I’m trying to figure out my fascination with this stuff. Maybe it’s because I don’t like to see old equipment go to waste.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.
3 thoughts on “More on tiny but potentially modern Linux distributions”
Why mess with this stuff? Because its fun to take those old computers, make them usefull for yourself or others, and then get a little inside chuckle the next time you hear someone complaining about how slow there gigahertz this and that is.
This stuff is fascinating indeed. However, I usually end up simply installing Debian on low-horsepower hardware. If you use the boot CD’s then you can install Debian with 2 diskettes or 6 diskettes if you have to load drivers for your NIC, and then I do a basic installation (w/o dselect and the other crap installation software that is found in Debian) through the network. This will give you a functional Linux installation taking up only 140 megs of space. After installing X, SSH and other necessities you end up with a bit more of course but a 300Mb harddrive can easily contain what is needed. You can still install XFree86 version 3.3.6 in Debian so old hardware can still run X.
But of course you know all this already 🙂
At my place, Hardware that doesn’t even have a 300MB+ disk and memory exceeding maybe 16 megs will either be used for spare parts, or run Freesco or similar software without a harddrive so they don’t go to waste.
The lowest-power machine that I still use is a 100MHz Pentium with 128 megs of memory and a 2 gig harddrive. Believe it or not, it can still be used, especially considering the amount of memory it has. I do testing on that machine as well as simple stuff and of course testing low power hardware with the latest and greatest found today 🙂 As you say, it is fascinating….
Part of the reason for working with older stuff is the challenge. Anyone can get debian running on the newer pc’s, but getting a decent system (with modern progs) running on older hardware can be tough.
I saw some cheap P1 laptops for sale with 830 meg drive, and 32 (?) meg ram. Not sure what distro to use, i may try DSL, peanut, or debian. Debian’s up to 22 floppies for minimal install, but as long as that get’s me apt-get i can install what i need after that. I was thinking of using Vector 4.0 or Freebsd 5.1 but i think they may be a little big for the drive. I’d like to have X and a lightweight window manager if possible.
Getting a 386 going would be pretty difficult, i guess it’s possible with Tiny x and busybox, etc.
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