Three’s the charm

I’ll give you the good news first: Yes, I do have a Linux installation in place and running on my new toy. The bad news is, it’s not Ubuntu.

Not that it matters, of course. It would be nice if a vanilla command-line Ubuntu installation was the winner this time, just for kicks, but as the machine is now, I’m afraid that’s not an option.

See, 16Mb just isn’t enough for Ubuntu’s kernel. It reaches a kernel panic within seconds of starting up, with an “Out of memory, no killable processes” message, and that’s the end of the show. Every Web page I found while searching for an answer said either add more memory, or make a smaller kernel.

I plan on adding memory at some point (I believe this takes EDO DRAM, a single stick of up to 32Mb) but for now I’m curious to see how much I can get done with only 16Mb.

Next stop was the obvious DSL, and as a matter of preference I dropped back to the 3.1.x version (I forget exactly), because I had worked with that in the past. I think I installed it right, but for some reason this time the Grub menu for a frugal installation was just showing the word “Grub” … and then nothing. Lockup and hard restart. Perhaps I should have picked a newer version.

Well, if DSL wasn’t the answer, and more memory is still a little way into the future, and the only other option is a custom kernel … I went for the trifecta: I grabbed the i586 version of Crux and built a clean 2.4 system.

And after a few false starts, I have a console Crux system squeaking by on only 16Mb of RAM, but working. Actually it drops a few processes during startup — hotplug, most notably — because there’s just no more space to work with, and it hasn’t mounted a swap partition yet (odd, I wonder why?). Once it’s up and booted, it’s golden.

(Mind you, all these installations are being done by transplanting a spare hard drive into my Inspiron, and redirecting the installation sequences to the secondary drive. It’s a bit of a pain, but without an optical drive, there’s not much of another option. And chances are this little monster won’t run any live environment anyway. So that’s all there is.)

Of course anything I do with it causes it to page out. I am recompiling a kernel now (mostly to see how long it takes) with everything stripped out, and the drive light is just on. Not flickering at all — just on. What’s that tell you? 😛

Oh, and by the way, for all you Gnome-heads out there running full Ubuntu desktops on Pentium 4 machines, this thing goes from Grub to the login in under 43 seconds. That’s a 100Mhz machine, too. So dump the desktop, friends. CLI or die.

A few other points worth mentioning:

The Xircom Realport card I often use on laptops for a wired connection won’t work on this machine because of the way the PCMCIA ports are made. It’s hard to explain, but the card is a Type III card, which means it’s a double-height card, but it tapers at the connection end to the height of a Type II card.

The problem is that the card mount has a divider between the two sets of pins, and it blocks that tapered edge. It’s the dumbest thing in the world to have to admit defeat to, but what else can you do? Grab the Corega FEther II PCC-TXD off the shelf, and try to find the module that makes that work, I guess.

Another point: The hard drive I’m using right now is a leftover 40Gb Samsung drive that’s nice and quiet, and has lots of space. Of course, this computer was made when a big hard drive was about 1Gb, and the original drive is only 810Mb. 😯

Problem being that my first attempts at Ubuntu didn’t get past Grub because the BIOS couldn’t deal with the size of the partition, and spat out an Error 18. In other words, the default Ubuntu partitions on a drive this size were confusing to the BIOS, and as a result Grub quit.

Solution, of course, is to set up a boot partition that keeps the BIOS happy, because once the kernel is in memory, it doesn’t care if you’re working with 800Mb or 800Gb. That’s the beautiful thing about Linux; I can remember trying to dodge BIOS drive size limits in Windows, and it was a huge pain.

Anyway, if you’re setting up your old computer with an oversize drive, take note that so long as the boot partition is under the limit of the BIOS drive check, the rest of the drive is immaterial.

That’s about it. I’m going to see if my new kernel can boot without chipping away at itself in the process, and after that, I’ll consider a few other additions to my new toy. Stay tuned.


8 thoughts on “Three’s the charm

  1. Peterix

    Hi, I have a similar machine – only slightly older. It’s a Siemens-Nixdorf PCD-4ND (486, 75Mhz, 20MB ram, 800MB harddrive) and I just can’t bring byself to wipe W95 from it.

    It’s great for playing all those old DOS games 😀

  2. Josh

    You made an interesting statement that caught my attention:

    …and redirecting the installation sequences to the secondary drive.

    So just to be clear: You put the laptop’s primary drive in another computer as the secondary drive, and just ran the installer to point to the secondary drive? Seems easy enough, but what do you do when it comes time to install GRUB? Debian (the only distro I’m familiar with) wants to drop GRUB on the MBR, which would be problematic.

    FYI, I dearly *love* your blog, especially your emphasis on minimalism. I also would like to see more write ups on light apps that aren’t Ubuntu-specific. (For example, my favorite post: all of the links go not to the homepages, but to Ubuntu package searches!)



  3. K.Mandla Post author

    Josh: The Ubuntu (and Debian too, I’m sure) Grub installation step pauses when it senses system software on the other drive, which means you get the chance to point it at another hard drive. It’s kind of like building a dual boot, except when the system acknowledges the presence of another installation, you tell it to send Grub to the secondary drive. Ta-da!

    You do end up with an extra set of boot options at startup (because it lists the extra system it found on the host machine), but that should disappear when the first kernel update comes in, or when you manually update Grub, since those kernels are no longer visible on the target machine.

    Cheers! 😀

  4. matero

    Did you try delilinux ( ) ?

    I’ve a _beautiful_ desktop machine with a p133, 16mb of RAM, icewm / blackbox /dwm (depending on the mood of the day)

    The las release is based on pacman (i believe its the arch package manager, which you should known better than me :P).

    xlinks2 + centericq + irsii + orpheus + workbone + nedit + urxvtc/d + elinks + rtorrent + dillo + (x)zgv + feh + … and now too, you should known better than me what kind of apps can be run in this little monster 😛

    i use it for the fun of seeing my friends face when i tell them its a P133 😛

    BUT i’m using the 6.1 release, which is based on slack 7.2. For me its better than DSL / Puppy.


  5. Anjinsan

    I think your posts are evidence linux is becoming mainstream. Ubuntu works great on my thinkpad r51.. except for those annoying freezes.. but I’m sure someone’s compiled a thinkpad r51 specific kernal with drivers and it works great. In a perfect world that would be available for download to other thinkpad r51… lovers. But my point is that though compliling might be as lonely now as it ever was, flavored operating systems appear to be the salvation of computer manufacturers. Fukk vanilla.. Let’s go organic.

  6. K.Mandla Post author

    Yes, I’m going to look into DeLi linux, as well as some of the floppy-based distros. I was even picking over Kolibri a few minutes ago.

    However, I’ve invested a day compiling a kernel 😯 so I want to spend a little more time with Crux. I think tomorrow I’ll have enough time to experiment a little more, and hopefully have more news to report. 😉


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