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3. Choices Made

This section describes the choices available, which options are practical, which ones I decided on and why.

3.1 What to use to create the initial root partition?

The best tool for this is a mini-Linux. There's a wide selection of small Linuces available on the net, but most of them won't boot in 4mb RAM. I found two that will:

SmallLinux http://smalllinux.netpedia.net/

SmallLinux will boot in as little as 2mb RAM but its root disk can't be taken out of the drive, which is a shame since otherwise it has everything we need (i.e. fdisk, mkswap and mkfs.ext2). SmallLinux can create the needed partitions but can't be used to copy the root partition.

muLinux http://sunsite.auc.dk/mulinux/

muLinux will boot in 4mb but only in a limited single-user mode. In this mode fdisk and mkswap are available but mkfs.ext2 and the libraries needed to run it are on the /usr partition which is not available in maintenance mode. To use muLinux to do the whole pre-installation procedure the files needed to create ext2 file-systems must be extracted from the usr disk image and copied onto a floppy.

This gives the option of either using SmallLinux to create the partitions and muLinux to copy the root partition or using muLinux to do the whole job. Since I had two laptops I tried both.

3.2 The Distribution

It didn't take much time to choose Slackware. Apart from the fact that I like it but haven't used it much and want to learn more, I considered the following points:

  • Slackware has possibly the most low-tech DIY install of all the major distributions. It is also one of the most flexible, coming with a wide range of boot-disk kernels to suit many different machines. This makes it well suited to the kind of hacking about required in this scenario.
  • Slackware supports all the methods listed in Which Installation method to use?.
  • Slackware is a distribution designed by one person. I'm sure Patrick Volkerding won't object if I say this means its configuration tools are simpler and more streamlined. In my opinion this makes the job of trimming the installation to fit cramped conditions easier.

Version 7.0 was the latest version when I tried this so that's what I used.

But I don't like Slackware!

You don't have to use it. I can't answer for all the distributions but I know that Debian, Red Hat and SuSE offer a range of installation methods and have an "expert" installation procedure

Does Debian do any other kind?
which can be used here. Most of the steps in this document would apply to any of the distributions without change.

If you haven't used the expert method with your preferred distribution before, do a trial run on a simple desktop machine to get the feel of it and to explore the options it offers.

3.3 Which installation method to use?

Floppy Install

This means churning out 15 floppies - which only gives you an absolute minimal install and requires a second stage to get the apps you want on. It's also very slow on such low-spec machines. This is a last resort if you can't make the others work.

Parallel-port Install

Where the parallel port has an IDE device, parallel cable or pocket ethernet adaptor

A pocket lan adaptor installation onto these machines will be very slow.
attached. This would be a good choice for the Aero, leaving the PCMCIA slot free to run the floppy drive.
PCMCIA Install

As above, this could be a CD-ROM or network install. This would be the best method for the T1910 - on the Aero it's a bit more awkward.

ISA/PCI Ethernet Install

Not an option for the laptops, obviously, but included in case your target machine is a desktop PC.

The tools I had to hand dictated a PCMCIA network install. I will point out where steps differ for the other methods. Whichever method you choose, you need to have a higher-spec machine available - even if only to create the disks for a floppy install.

3.4 Partition Layout

Basic Requirement

This procedure requires at least two Linux Native partitions in addition to a Swap partition. Since one of the ext2 partitions will be in use as temporary root during the installation it will not be available as a target partition and so should be small - though no smaller than 5mb. It makes sense to create for this a partition that you will re-use as /home after installation is complete. Another option would be to re-create it as a DOS partition to give you a dual boot laptop.

How complex a layout?

There isn't room to get too clever here. There is an argument for having a single ext2 partition and using a swap file to avoid wasting space but I would strongly urge creating a separate partition for /usr. If you have only one partition and something goes wrong with it you may well be faced with a complete re-installation. Separating /usr and having a small partition for / makes disaster recovery a more likely prospect. On both machines I created 4 partitions in total:

  1. A swap partition -- 16mb on the T1910, 20 on the Aero (I'm more likely to upgrade the memory on the Aero).
  2. /home (temporary root during installation) -- 10mb
  3. / -- 40mb on the T1910, 30mb on the Aero.
  4. /usr -- All the remainder.

In addition, the Aero uses hda3 for a 2mb DOS partition containing configuration utilities. See the Aero FAQs for details.

3.5 Which components to install?

The full glibc libraries alone would nearly fill the hard disks so there's no question of building a development machine. It looks as if a minimal X installation can be squeezed in but I'm sure it would crawl and I don't want it anyway. I decide to install the following (for a full listing see Appendix A):

  • The core Linux utilities
  • Assorted text apps from the ap1 file set:
  • Info/FAQ/HOWTO documentation
  • Basic networking utilities
  • The BSD games

This selection matches the kind of machine described in What use is a small laptop?.


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