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Low Memory Linux Distro?

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Last Modified: 2020-08-09
Due to COVID-19, we are trying to distribute laptops to children (Year 5/6) (8-10 years of age), to help them with remote teaching requirements, e.g. email and web browsing.

These families are socially disadvantaged in the UK, they have very little money, and technology and their children are socially disadvantaged, no phones, no internet, no laptops, no computers etc but they can use library resources free in the UK.

We have stacks of old laptops we would like to refurbish, with a Linux Distro.

Here is the rub, these laptops are 20 years old, but working they originall came preinstalled with Windows 2000 Professional and Windows XP.

Pentium 800MHz, and 128M RAM - and run those OS fine...

(in fact there are Compaq N150) - pallet load!!!!

Where are the Linux Lightweight Distros gone?

Please check before you post your recommendations, still researching what Linux Distros are available which will run in 128MB! (in fact it's 124MB because 4MB has  been allocated to GPU).

and email and browser is required, because some distros e.g. Slax states 500MB for browser!

Before you tell me, for these Children, it's better than nothing!

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nociSoftware Engineer
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Commented:
You can look at Alpine ( https://www.alpinelinux.org/ )  , Slitaz, those are maintained as well.  ( http://slitaz.org/en/ )
Alpine start from almost nothing and need to be built up (hence it is used for Docker a lot).
Slitaz is a complete self contained kit including the kitchen sink.
I have slitaz VM, i'll try to run in 100MB.
It does start:, 48MB Used, 15MB free, GUI, 50Mb Cache,
It uses the midori browser, which still load.
(My home network has been redecorated last few months and this one still needs to be setup)



Andrew Hancock (VMware vExpert PRO / EE Fellow)VMware and Virtualization Consultant
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I'll check those out....Cloud Ready was a waste of time, it needs 2GB!

just seen Damn Small Linux may work....
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Your main difficulty is the 32bit os.
The network is the next impediment.
DSLinux requires less storage.
The browser if that is on what you rely ....
See if Linux mint could fit within, though the GUI essentially what puts the hit on ram.
Same with Ubuntu 32bit
Andrew Hancock (VMware vExpert PRO / EE Fellow)VMware and Virtualization Consultant
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What I find odd by all this, is one upon a time Linux was supposed to be lightweight compared to Windoze!

Windows 2000 Professional and Windows XP can run reliably on these devices, so is Linux going the same way.... e.g. sloppy development and bloatware...

Internet Access is a requirement, hence a Browser to connect to web pages.

otherwise, Microsoft WINS!
David FavorFractional CTO
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I'm with noci, Alpine is just about your only option...

The problem will more likely be installing Firebox, which is going to chew up far more memory than 128M.

A quick scan of Firefox... memory consumption complaints... suggests 8G+ will be required to keep Firefox from swapping.

As I recall Opera + UR both have turned up on my radar before, when low memory situations occur.

And, likely still many Gig will be required to keep from swapping.
David FavorFractional CTO
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Currently Alpine weights in at 11M (LXD container) + 26Mish for a generic Kernel... so when booted, likely <128M, before any code (like a browser) begins running.

net13 # lxc init images:alpine/edge net13-test-alpine
Creating net13-test-alpine
net13 # cdlxd                               
net13 # du -hs --total net13-test-alpine/rootfs 
11M	net13-test-alpine/rootfs
11M	total

Open in new window


Simple test, just load up Alpine + Firefox to see if this will work.
nociSoftware Engineer
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slitaz has both x86 and amd64 flavours.
I can access google.com and get the advise to install chrome for a "better" experience... I am sure Chrome will NOT fit.

Try Slitaz it is more or less ready to go.
I just tried the 64 bit slitaz in 124 MB. No swap.
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Okay, I've got Alpine, Slitaz and DSL lets see if they install boot.
nociSoftware Engineer
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AFAICT DSL is last update in the 2008... on the forum seems to have lasted onto 2012-ish.
Alpine is current (updated during last week) 
Slitaz is current. (update during last week).
nociSoftware Engineer
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Is this an options: https://www.memorystock.com/memory/CompaqEvoN150.html  ( https://www.memorystock.com/orderitem.asp?it=360ms-077&MnfId=&MdlId=17923 )
(if they still exist that is...)  The company shows memory for hardware that was available 2 years ago for the first time.
Andrew Hancock (VMware vExpert PRO / EE Fellow)VMware and Virtualization Consultant
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Might take me a while this, because these laptops do not boot from USB!

Ah!, no need to find CD Writer and CD-Rs!

if we have to update memory we will....
Lee W, MVPTechnology and Business Process Advisor
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Commented:
Most linux distros have archives of older versions.  You could likely find an older release with less intensive requirements.

I've also done a quick search for "minimal linux distro" and found several options here (though in skimming them, there are definitely a few on this list that are still likely too resource intensive:
https://www.makeuseof.com/tag/linux-distro-space/

See also:
https://opensource.com/article/19/6/linux-distros-to-try

And some seemingly dead distros might work - like Minix.

Lastly, you might want to try the Raspberry Pi OS for x86:
https://www.raspberrypi.org/downloads/raspberry-pi-desktop/


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there are tons of such distributions. i would not recommend the ones that are designed to run from ram for many reasons. ( puppet is a choice, slitaz now features disk based, dsl is more or less discontinued ) .... you can even create your own. a stock 32 bits linux kernel can easily run from 10 20 mo

the main difficulty would be to get the software packages.

working without x is feasible but requires lots of work. xfree86 has quite a few slim variants that will use up little ram compared to xorg

for a reasonable amount of work, pick a lightweight dist based on xfree86 and use for example either seamonkey or claws+midori which are lightweight enough.

also consider using free or openbsd which are frugal as well with same soft

nociSoftware Engineer
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@Andrew: try to run from VMware, VirtualBox etc. with the amount of memory you have and you can quickly test.

David FavorFractional CTO
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I'm with skullnobrains, using a pure RAM Distro creates huge problems.

First problem you'll face is how to deal with /var/log/* data (which can eat up all RAM instantly).

Best to use the most recent version of minimal footprint Linux, like Alpine, having massive daily work... to avoid a palette of Linux installs which can be easily hacked.

Alpine has highly active development, which means security fixes occur quickly + also questions are answered amazingly fast.
Andrew Hancock (VMware vExpert PRO / EE Fellow)VMware and Virtualization Consultant
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lets try.....Alpine and I'll report back.

I would run them up in vSphere, although that does not tell me how they run, suitable for GPU, NIC etc

Physical Test is better. (now found a CD-R writer and CD-Rs)
Andrew Hancock (VMware vExpert PRO / EE Fellow)VMware and Virtualization Consultant
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Commented:
Alpine does not even boot!

it Panics and crashes!

Is Alpine going to meet my requirements


At least 128MB of RAM for server without GUI, or at least 1.6GB for graphical desktop

Source
https://wiki.alpinelinux.org/wiki/Installation
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Should have looked at specs, it seems it does have 64bit possibility....

Linux will run in a low memory environment in non-graphical mode.
The criteria you set for the purpose of these laptop would not do in a text mode.
128MB for a GUI environment with a browser pushes the limit especially if you hope to get a newer version of the browser and follow the TLS restrictions that most sites have these days, TLSv1.0 as the lowest protocol..

As to the memory, you are definitely in for it
The max memory it seems it can handle is 320MB
additional 256 MB PC100 SDRAM sodim modules. https://www.memorystock.com/memory/CompaqEvoN150.html

Single Memory expansion socket with the 64MB on board.
Andrew Hancock (VMware vExpert PRO / EE Fellow)VMware and Virtualization Consultant
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These have 128MB and run Windows 2000 and Windows XP fine!

So it would like like a version of Linux at 20 years old! or stick Windoze back on!

Considering the age, batteries - there is no point in investing in these laptops.

I think these are junk, and not worth my time and effort now.

Will discuss with vendors tomorrow a sponsorship deal.
nociSoftware Engineer
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Slitaz CAN be all Ram (when booted from CD/DVD/PenDrive) it can also be installed on disk (using the install utility it provides on screen when booted from cd/dvd/pen-drive)
After installing on Disk it runs from disk. It has an option to install large projects like LibreOffice..., that probably will never fit in a 100MB system..

Note: i didn't even try Libreoffice, it is mentioned on the list of available tools (get_libreoffice)
Andrew Hancock (VMware vExpert PRO / EE Fellow)VMware and Virtualization Consultant
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does not detect the disk here to install!

the only Distro, I've had any luck with was DSL.

but it's useless because browsers are out of date.
nociSoftware Engineer
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do you have the dmesg output? from immediately after boot?
Andrew Hancock (VMware vExpert PRO / EE Fellow)VMware and Virtualization Consultant
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no disks listed in dmesg.

no /dev/hda1, no /dev/sda1 etc

and it srarts giving some weird i/o errors
nociSoftware Engineer
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hda1/sda1 is only after partitioning.Before partitioning its just /dev/hda /dev/sda.
there also were other bus technologies. (xda).
Andrew Hancock (VMware vExpert PRO / EE Fellow)VMware and Virtualization Consultant
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yes, I know they are partitions, but it does not see any disk or partition created when I erased Windows and re-formatted!

No Disk.

I'm afraid non starters with Alpine and Slitaz.

I've also discovered another issue, which is lack of WiFi!!!!

So these units are scrappers.
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if you change your mind, i am not currently at home but i have a bunch of older or crafted dists that run in such environments. you can install a modern browser in damn small quite easily. windows 2000 is also a decent choice that can run using about 40mo desktop included if you disable useless services. for those who do not like fiddling too much with ssl, i found a windowsCE browser that runs on XP and likely 2k using its own ssl libs. i use it to run on my licenceless xp vms based on xp mode for the rare cases when i need a windows based os.

anyway, kudos to you for the nice project !

btw i would love a bunch of such laptops. i would use them as dumb terminals mostly.
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also maybe give tiny core a try
Andrew Hancock (VMware vExpert PRO / EE Fellow)VMware and Virtualization Consultant
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thanks for the offer, but newer laptops are now being provided.
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