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Exploring Lilliput: Is the Cloud Replacing Tiny Linuxes?
Exploring the Distro Wilds
May 26, 2010
In case anyone wondered why I haven't been offering any of my highly-opinionated pieces on Linux Planet lately, it's because I've been exploring Lilliput: sampling for myself a few of the better known small-footprint distros that offer an astonishing amount of computing power packed into a mere handful of megabytes. And though I haven't been at this long enough to try out more than a small fraction of the available ones, some overall characteristics of the breed are beginning to appear. The most interesting feature to me is that there seem to be two main branches of small distros: the Tools and the Products.
I don't mean tools in the sense of Parted Magic or System Rescue. True, those formally deserve the name of Linux distros, but they are really tools only � they make no claims to the kind of versatility a daily-driver desktop needs. The Tools I mean are those that, at a minimum, offer a window manager, a terminal, and a collection of links which, cleverly applied, can help you configure your very own version of Linux that includes everything you want and nothing you don't.
Damn Small Linux
The distro that in my classification could be regarded as the patriarch of the Tools is, of course, Damn Small Linux. Based on the Knoppix kernel, DSL was devised to fit on something as small as a business-card CD (remember those?) which held 50 megabytes. Nevertheless it provides a window manager, a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a browser. It was so slim it could run in RAM alone, but if you wanted to install it on hard drive you could use it to build up as fat and feature-rich a distro as you wished. It is apparently no longer maintained, attention being diverted to its even-slimmer, 10 megabyte descendant TinyCore,, but the original is still available on the website.
Another of what I call Tools is a Swiss product called SliTaz, a still smaller (30 megabytes) distro with an even richer set of applications than DSL, including a ready-to-go server. SliTaz was built from scratch and uses a unique packaging system known as Tazpkg. It has a limited repository (some 2000 offerings), but the documentation assures users (presumably those more clever than I) that there are a number of ways to adapt DEB and RPM products to it.
I call these Tools because the components they contain � especially the word processors � are the extreme minimalist versions of the breed, cut down to preserve economy of scale. DSL's word processor is Ted, barely more than a text editor, but it is the work of a moment to install a more feature-rich application. Similarly, SliTaz has a very slim Abiword to begin with, but a Tazpkg of the large OpenOffice.org is in their repository. In short, I see these two distros as Tools because although they are functional as is, they can be much more useful when enhanced.
The category I call Products consists of distros that really can be used for a wide range of tasks right �out of the box�. For these, the �boxes� are inevitably bigger, running from some 100 megabytes up to near the limit of a single CD. The progenitor of all the Product distros is unquestionably Knoppix, Klaus Knopper's famous Debian-based OS first released a decade ago. Widely regarded as the first successful LiveCD distro, it was constructed by Knopper in a unique form that allows ultra-compressed scripts to run with on-the-fly decompression. A single CD of the current Knoppix, 6.2.1, contains 2GB of compressed material which is so swiftly unzipped in use that my little old 2004 eMachine, with only 384MB of RAM and 128 of dedicated graphics, serenely handles the Compiz cube in all its multi-desktop glory.
Another of the better known among the small distros that fit my definition of Product is Puppy Linux. First released in 2005, it has gained a considerable following in recent years and has helped create what has become almost a fad for similar small, compact distros. Running in RAM from a CD containing a bit over 100 megabytes, it has a GUI rich in programs of all sorts and retains both the look and the feel of a full-size version of Linux despite the meager use it makes of computer resources. Some of the content is not as richly-featured as the versions typically included in full-size distros, but it is a modest yet productive OS with which to put an aging, underpowered computer back to use.
Cloud Replaces Tiny Distros?
Sadly, clever as it is, that on-the-fly decompression approach to minimalist technology no longer offers the huge advantage to users that it did when the creators were first developing the Product distros. As the variety of options available in Cloud computing increase, there is less reason to pack such a large number of space-hungry applications into one's home computer. You can save a lot of space on a CD when you have the opportunity to pick your programs out of the Cloud. And at today's prices, even if you simply prefer to keep all your programs strictly to yourself, it is neither difficult nor prohibitively expensive to find a computer that has ample RAM and hard drive space to accommodate practically any OS on the market.
On the other hand, as the practical advantage of the Product distros has waned, those same technological developments in the marketplace have created a new wave of highly compact Tools-type operating systems like Chrome OS and Android, which exist exclusively to provide a nearly-direct connection between the growing horde of applications in the cloud and your very own home computer or netbook or tablet or phone or as-yet-unheard-of future device.
All of which means that even though small distros were initially devised to address issues that are no longer of immediate concern, the course of technological progress has reached a point where once again a tiny distro is a great advantage. In short, Lilliput is still thriving.