One or two of the five distros I mentioned yesterday had been labeled as “lightweight” either by their designers or the community around them, and I was probably pushing that definition just a little bit when I gave them the chance to run at 150Mhz on 32Mb of memory.
I knew full well that some of them just couldn’t compete there, but it wasn’t spite or a sense of self-denigration that made me try them all; I genuinely wanted to see if they could at least support — if not handle — a machine as old as 1997. The benefit of the doubt, so to speak.
And if they couldn’t, it wasn’t a reflection on the distro necessarily. I would only be disappointed if a distro advertised itself as a solution for an older machine, but clearly wasn’t. And even then, I take into account that my definition of “old” is very different from some.
Let’s hear the bad news first.
- You’ll laugh, but I tried an alternate install CD of Ubuntu 10.04, and got as far as the disc menu and was able to start the installer. Shortly afterward I got a lovely kernel panic though and the machine locked. But the computer seemed to be happy for as long as it was hovering at the boot menu.
- A little more disappointing was FreeNAS‘s analogy to the Ubuntu stunt: It failed to boot with a message, “cbb2: Cannot allocate I/O; RTC BIOS diagnostic error 20(config_unit)”. I take that to mean it ran out of memory, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.
- Deli Linux also failed to boot; for some reason this time the CD was invisible to the system. I tried it in another machine and there was no problem at all, and I also double-checked my ISO file, but for some reason the Mebius wasn’t booting from the Deli Linux disc. Curiouser and curiouser. …
- Puppy Linux in its vanilla flavor struggled to boot, finding its way to a graphical desktop once out of three attempts, but only then giving me a plain arrow pointer against a black background, and locking up at that point. Again I suspect this was a low-memory issue, since until then all the prompts and menus worked fine. As soon as it reached the graphical desktop though, everything went pear-shaped.
A couple of others landed somewhere in the middle of the fray, between successful and not so successful.
- ttylinux, which I want very much to adopt on some older machines, boots fine and behaves much in the way I expect for the i486 version. Unfortunately, it lacks network support for just everything I can use in the Mebius, which means I would have to rebuild the kernel and remaster the ISO and then maybe get it working. To be honest, any time I work with a distro and find myself moving toward kernel-level adjustments, I feel I can do just as well by going back to Crux, which I am more familiar with. But just to be clear, ttylinux worked fine but would have required even more effort to work great.
- As for Tiny Core and its redheaded stepchild Micro Core, both would boot but Tiny Core still can’t give me a graphical desktop. Both do well with my network card though, so they should both be good starting points for console systems. Of course, Tiny Core without a GUI is really just Micro Core, so maybe I should say it should be a good starting point for a console system. Again, just to be clear, I think the failing is not with Tiny Core, but with the esoteric video card in this computer.
- Just to be wacky, I tried running (console-only) Slitaz from floppy disks, and it worked great. I reached a command prompt and had a proper network and could install the system to the hard drive. For some reason that system wouldn’t boot though, but that’s probably my fault since I had been tweaking and fiddling with the system before I tried to transfer it to the host disk.
At this point you’re probably thinking anything running slower than 200Mhz is doomed to run pocket floppy-based Linux distros or console-only systems built up from something else. But in fact there was one big winner in this little adventure.
Wouldn’t you know it, when all hope of a full-blown graphical system is lost, Debian comes crashing through to save the day. That’s Lenny installed off the netinst image, and running IceWM and Xfe and so forth, in attempt to make you think it’s a Windows system. I do that sometimes.
The funny thing is, I couldn’t be happier or more surprised at this. An X desktop can run with less than 6Mb of swap space used, but too many things running at once becomes a little stuttery. Network access seems to be fine though, although I strictly avoid any browser at all, and don’t expect I would use it for surfing anyway.
The i486 Debian packages are clean and swift, even if aptitude itself runs slow as molasses at 150Mhz on a 4200rpm hard drive. Everything fits snugly in a single partition on a 2Gb drive, with only about 192Mb set aside for swap.
And while it’s only marginally functional, it definitely functions. I should mention that I did have to tear out the trident driver for X before this would work; the older software that Debian is using here requires hal (blech) and the driver just doesn’t work with this video card.
But there you have it: Debian comes out the winner in this round. I will have to try bumping the machine up to testing, but that might take more time, effort and drive space than I can really afford, just to get a newer version of rtorrent than 0.7.9.
Some notes for the future: I plan to hunt down a proper lightweight or console-driven Puppy, spend a little more time in Micro Core and see if it is a good idea for a console-based system, and possibly try building images for a few other distros in Qemu before
dd‘ing them to the drive via USB. Such a luxury, having a USB port on a Pentium machine. …
P.S.: ttylinux plus Tiny Core plus Micro Core plus Slitaz plus Debian equals five.