Lighter-weight linux distributions

The linux world, in its fight to act like a point-for-point rebuttal to the Windows and Mac worlds, are busily adding features and bloat to desktop offerings. However, in the process, a regular mainstream Linux distribution like Mandrake or Red Hat take as much, and at times more, memory and processor speed as a Windows XP distribution does.

This came as something of a shock to me. Fedora just doesn’t run very well with 128MB, and barely does with 256MB. Yet, part of my reason for getting involved in the Linux services world is my belief that Linux is an excellent fit for older hardware. In other words, all those dusty computers from two generations ago, those Pentium Ones with 64MB RAM, could still be productive machines today.

Well, maybe so, but not with a recent mainstream distribution. Those distributions will occasionally work with older machines, especially if all you need is a really slow httpd or mysql server, but not (or not really) with a windowing environment. And if you can’t deal with something other than Gnome or KDE, well, forget it.

To figure out what to suggest to clients, I did a search on the state of the art in lighter-weight distributions.


Over at, this developer decided he wanted to take his operating system and his personal files with him in a USB 128MB pen drive. Along the way, he ended up making a fast and functional linux distribution.

It is especially usable for newbies, since it uses the MS Windows ‘clone’ Fvwm95. Much else is nice about it, and there is plenty to explore. It needs to be tested with dialup connections, but that is about it.


Ever wonder why Klaus Knopper has to put all that stuff into Knoppix? Well, he doesn’t, and never said that he did. You always could roll your own. Can now, too.

Feather Linux is an attempt at removing enough from Knoppix to make a slim and usable Linux distribution. It has only gone through one revision (it is at 0.1 as of 10/2004), but it is one to watch. Try it out at


Vector Linux is one of the original distributions aimed at older computers. Its installer leaves plenty to be desired, and requires a bit of an enthusiast’s or an expert’s knowledge of how disk drives work; it as well gives some choice as to which windowing environment one wants to use, which will be non-intuitive for most folks. Generally, however, it shows the way to how to build a distribution with lower-end computers in mind.

The Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP)

Some computers are too old really to do much at all, or for some offices, it doesn’t make sense to maintain applications and settings on a several computers. That’s where LTSP comes in, offering packages which allow you to set up computers to run off a server, without a disk involved. Basically, any program runs only in RAM on a workstation, and therefore most everything (beyond floppy disks) will be stored on the server. This eases application maintenance, backups, and allows companies to clearly set rules on what is allowable to install and what isn’t.

A wonderful use of an old computer — set it to boot from network!

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