DSL - The Biz-Card Desktop
The "Damn Small" concept
As its name suggests, Damn Small Linux (DSL) is a damn small distribution! The ISO is just 50MB and it fits on a business card CD so you can carry it with you wherever you go. It also acts as a Live CD so you can run the system without installing it on the machine. The idea is to access your Linux environment from any computer, thanks to a tiny CD that would fit in your wallet. Traditional Live CDs are great, and so is DSL, but they don't fit in your wallet! :)
Thanks to its small size DSL can also be put on a bootable USB key. Of course, depending on the size of the key it might not fit in a wallet that way, but the device could be writable and give more flexibility than the small CD.
Finally, and this is a real innovation: DSL can boot from another operating system, so you can run it directly from any Windows box when you're not at home.
The Debian Heritage
DSL is based on Knoppix and therefore Debian. From these distributions it inherited a very stable system with efficient hardware recognition. From the Live CD, you can install DSL on your hard-drive and enjoy a full Debian system.
DSL can run fully in your computer's RAM and this makes the system really fast. Speed is often a problem when it comes to live distributions, but since this one is small it usually fits entirely into the memory. The DSL website claims that performance is good on a 486DX with only 16MB of RAM.
I downloaded both the embedded and the CD versions in order to make an opinion of my own.
Running DSL 3.0.1 from Windows
You can download the embedded version of DSL 3.0.1 from here: http://ftp.heanet.ie/mirrors/damnsmalllinux.org/current/dsl-3.0.1-embedded.zip
The ZIP file contains the QEmu emulator and an embedded version of DSL bundled together. It also contains a Windows .bat file and a Linux shell script which make it easy to launch the emulation under these two platforms.
A look at what's in the Embedded DSL folder...
In Windows, you can simply double click on the .bat file, and a QEmu window appears on your screen with DSL booting inside it. If you're not familiar with virtualization, think of it as a virtual computer running inside one of your windows.
Embedded DSL 3.0 booting in QEmu
The embedded version of DSL is configured to automatically use the place it is stored in for saving and restoring data. For instance, I extracted the ZIP file on my USB key, and ran the embedded DSL 3.0.1 under Windows 2000 directly from the USB key. Once in DSL 3.0.1, I created a file in my home folder and changed a few things. I then rebooted the embedded DSL, and was happy to see that my file and settings had automatically been saved and restored. In fact they were saved on the USB key itself. If I moved the embedded DSL folder to my hard-drive and ran it from there, DSL would use my hard drive for saving and restoring data. In fact there is a "harddisk" file in the subfolders of Qemu. I suspect it's using that file as a hardware storage device.
Embedded DSL 3.0 running within a Window.
Inside DSL 3.0.1
DSL is using Fluxbox by default and this makes it extremely fast. The embedded version of DSL is fast as well despite the fact that it runs within QEmu. And if you're running from the CD, you can tell DSL to load itself into your RAM by typing "dsl toram" at startup. The startup phase was reasonably fast: On my machines the embedded version of DSL took 36 seconds to boot from the BIOS to the desktop, the CD version took 1 minute and 23 seconds.
It's hard to be objective when it comes to artwork. You can decide for yourself by looking at the screenshots. I personally thought DSL was horrible looking. The first thing I did was to change the background and the Fluxbox theme.
The Boot Menu, from here you can decide to use mydsl, toram or other handy options
The Boot process, Knoppix Style
When you start DSL, Dillo shows you how to get started with the distribution
The default DSL 3.0 desktop
DSL is based on Knoppix which is quite famous for its hardware recognition. However, on a Centrino laptop it didn't recognize the IPW2200 wifi card and it didn't manage to show X in full resolution (1280x768 on an Intel 855 card).
Default Set of Applications
For the distribution to fit on a 50MB CD, DSL had to rule out big applications. Firefox is included but it's an old 1.0.6 version. XMMS 1.2.8 is here as well. There are a lot of small applications as well: Beaver, Siag, Sylpheed, VNC, Microsoft Office viewers, XPDF, GPhone, a collection of games.. etc. To be honest, the selection is not impressive at all. Fortunately you can extend it by using "mydsl". DSL packaged some applications which are not included in the distribution by default. You can get these packages and place them in the root folder of the CD and that way they become part of it. At startup you can also define a partition on which DSL will find extra applications to include. For instance, if you stored MYDSL packages on /dev/hda you can type "dsl mydsl=/dev/hda". The MYDSL repository is available here http://distro.ibiblio.org/pub/linux/distributions/damnsmall/mydsl/ and you can use it to download applications such as Thunderbird, Xchat, Skype...etc.
Although DSL 3.0 comes with MP3 support by default, the Flash and Java plugins are not installed and it doesn't play DivX files or DVDs.
In the DSL Control Panel, you can find something called Netcardconfig. It provides basic functionalities to setup your network using DHCP or static IP addresses. You can also select the DHCP client in order to renew your IP address in collaboration with a DHCP server. I got some error messages when I used it first and the Control panel interface is not intuitive at all. In fact I found these tools very poor.
The DSL Control Panel
Also, the default user doesn't have the permission to use ping, so you have to become root by typing "sudo su -" just to make sure you can ping google.com (you can also use sudo of course). It's only a detail but I found that annoying.
Damn Small Linux is a very interesting project and it brings an entirely new way to use Linux. If you're always on the move DSL is made for you, may it be in your USB key, as an embedded operating system running under Linux or Windows, or even as a business card Live CD that you carry around within your wallet. The concept is great, it's all about mobility and it works very well. Then come the problems. The default DSL has a poor selection of software, an ugly design and lack good configuration tools. But it's configurable. If you give it a bit of time you can learn how to remaster the CD and use the MyDSL extensions. Then you could potentially make it a really nice distribution, maybe a little bit bigger than the original, but still very interesting.