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Flipping the Linux switch: Damn Small Linux - Not

Last week we took a look at Puppy Linux, a small Linux distro optimized for installation on a flash drive. There are (many) others, of course. One of the most well known, Damn Small Linux, has been around for quite some time. Over the years, the developers of Damn Small Linux (DSL), have masterfully kept that little distribution under 50 MB. This means several things: it is lightweight, and can run on many machines nothing else can run on. It also means it has bypassed some of the programs you might want on your "desktop on a stick."

Enter Damn Small Linux - Not. (Yes, Damn Small Linux Not is most definitely not Damn Small Linux.) DSL-N is a bigger, more modern variant of DSL, but with a similar philosophy: DSL-N hates bloat.

This is a double-edged sword for DSL-N. On the one hand, it's a bigger, more functional distribution. You're more likely to use it on a regular basis. On the other hand, it's still fairly limited in areas one would expect more support.

At the risk of anthropomorphizing your hardware, DSL-N runs best on middle-aged computers. Case in point: Our youthful AMD X2 computer built in late 2007 had many, many more issues with DSL-N than our longer in the tooth 2001 P4 chip box. We'd imagine (though we had nothing older to test it on), that it would run reasonably well on significantly older machines, provided there was enough memory.

If you plan on using your flash drive in brand new machines, it might be a good idea to forego DSL-N in place of an another distro.

The reason for this, pure and simple: Driver support. The main issue with our 2007 box was the use of the "forcedeth" kernel module. (For the record, forcedeth is the ethernet driver, not an 80's hair band). Though the forcedeth drivers were present, and typing "modprobe forcedeth" didn't return any errors, we couldn't seem to get any sort of recognition from DSL-N that it could see our card. Our older boxes did not have this problem.

To install to a flash drive, as with Puppy, we needed to burn a liveCD, and then reboot into the DSL-N desktop. Once on the desktop, we were able to right click anywhere to call up the main menu.

This is where things get a little confusing. We find the installers under the Tools menu. There are several options for installation: Frugal Install, and Install to ZIP-Flash and Install to HDD-Flash. Frugal install is geared to IDE compact flash drives, and can be safely ignored during the USB flash drive installation.

Interestingly enough, the HDD-Flash option, though it seemed to install fine on our flash drive, just wouldn't boot. Choosing ZIP-Flash got us a bootable install.

There are a few things to be aware of when installing DSL-N to your flash disk. It's not a particularly difficult procedure, but it can go really very wrong if you're asleep at the switch.

It is extremely important, once your flash drive is inserted in the appropriate port and you're ready to install, to run this command and verify the name and location of your drive:

dmesg | grep scsi -A 3

Why? Many Linux systems (such as the one above) see flash drives as /dev/sda. In fact, the DSL-N installer suggests the name of the flash disk be sda by default. A problem arises when a Serial ATA hard drive is on the system. They are usually named sda by default (and the flash drive becomes sdb, or sdc).

Yes, accepting the default blindly here, can and will overwrite your main SATA hard disk, should you have one. Please, don't ask how we know this.

A terminal window leads you through the process of installing the distro to the flash disk. It's a much faster procedure than with Puppy, and generally only takes a minute or so.

So which optimized-for-flash distro would we recommend, and why? For those new to Linux, and those who want a no-fuss desktop that allows for maximum functionality with minimum effort, Puppy is our hands-down winner.

But that's not to say that DSL-N isn't a beauty in its own right, and a real gem for the right user. Like Puppy, DSL-N can be remastered, extended, tweaked, and made into the distro you want it to be. That means, with a little time and inclination, we could get those forcedeth drivers working reliably. Because it is more of a barebones distro than many of the others that can be put on a flash drive, it has a lot of flexibility when it comes to older or less than optimal hardware.

We'd also like to point out that DSL-N, like DSL, is available in a embedded version, so it is possible to run inside another operating system (such as Windows).

Neither distribution seem to really be what you need? Be sure to check out Knoppix, SLAX, or PCLinuxOS TinyMe.

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