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[Photo of the Author]
by Sujan Swearingen

About the author:

I am a junior at the University of Wisconsin - Parkside. Prior to my current involvement with genetics research, I was a lab tech at a local college where we worked with a variety of platforms. These included AS/400, UNIX, NT, Apple, OS/2, and Netware environments. Before that time I contributed to the development of www.racinecounty.com. It was here that I was originally introduced to Linux. Since that time I've been striving to find out as much as I could about the OS that is continually revolutionizing technology.


Approaching Vector Linux



In this article we re-examine the versatility of Linux. Our study focuses on a pseudo "mini" distribution of Linux known as Vectorlinux. Its homepage claims: "THE BEST LIL LINUX DISTRO YOU HAVE EVER USED". I decided to put that claim to the test by installing the distribution onto a machine that was running a base install of muLinux Linux. The actual installation of Vectorlinux required some very interesting partitioning techniques with several disk utilities. The result, however, yielded a very capable system.



Most current distributions of Linux utilize CD-ROM technology as the method of file delivery. Therefore, a diffiiculty arises when attempting to install a distribution onto a limited capacity computer without CD-ROM capabilities. While some distributions do provide file sizes that are writable to floppy disk, they either lack several important features, provide a less recent kernel version, or lack compatibility with current development trends. The ground-up approach of Vectorlinux addresses these concerns by removing enough excess to build upon the functional aspects of the OS.

Vectorlinux claims the following features:

--- from the Vectorlinux web site

The goal was to see if this distribution could be written to a 340 MB hard disk drive.



The host system was salvaged from a dentists office that was upgrading their current setup to Pentium II class machines. The system was originally used as a time clock by running a custom built DOS program. However, this program ceased to function properly after trying to roll over to the Y2K format. The only option at this point was to replace the proprietary software with a more Y2K friendly OS.

Methods and Materials

The specifications of the host machine were as follows:

The documentation on the installation process was easy to read and understand. I printed a copy of it so that I would always have a copy on hand. It is also a great place for notes about the system. For example, I had to open the case to find out that the graphics chip was a Cirrus Logic GD5428. This was certainly useful information when I ran XF86Setup.

The df command

Files are stored in a file system that corresponds to an area of the disk. The number of blocks available and allocated to each file system is printed by the df command. Disk space is allocated in units called blocks; a block is typically 512 or 1024 characters depending on your system. On some systems disk space is always in short supply. This command is useful if you are planning to create large files as a check to ensure that the space is available.¹

Originally I had DOS installed on a small partition that was just big enough to hold a minimal DOS install. I also had a 40 MB Linux swap partition and the rest of the space was dedicated to muLinux. I downloaded the veclinux.bz2 (~60MB) file to the /tmp directory of muLinux. The challenge came when I had to move the veclinux.bz2 file onto the same directory as DOS. This would allow for the installer to find the file in a specific location on a specific type of file system. Supposedly the installer can also install from an ext2 to an ext2 partition, however, this was not an option for me. This was due to the fact that the partition that had muLinux was between the swap partition and the DOS partition. Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place. This much available space didn't exist on either side of the muLinux partition. Installation would take close to 170 MB of unavailable disk space. Fortunately, there was a solution....

FIPS is a non-destructive re-partitioning utility that allows a user to safely resize partitions. Using this tool in conjunction with defrag is, to say the least, very useful. DOS defrag allows for more clusters to be available when FIPS is resizing. It also keeps FIPS from falsely reporting the end cluster of a partition.

The rm -r command

Using rm -r at the top most level of a directory will remove the directory and recursively remove all sub directories below it.

Occasionally, however, a user will wind up with a file that he just can't get rid of, no matter how creative he is at using rm. At that point, he will come to you. If there is a way to get rm to do the job, show it to him...²

Anyway, after eliminating the muLinux installation (except the /tmp directory) with rm -r, I began to resize the partitions. I basically "shaved" away as much disk space as I could off of the partition holding veclinux.bz2 without harming the file. I also had to switch the location of where DOS was installed so that space could be part of a partition big enough to hold Vectorlinux. Eventually, I ended up with a DOS partition that also had veclinux.bz2 and a little breathing room. The df command showed the following when run from the Vectorlinux installation floppy:

Filesystem 1k-blocks Used Available Use% Mounted on
/dev/ram0 2971 2720 251 92% /
/dev/hda4 69102 67064 2008 97% /DOS

Installation is pretty straightforward once the partitions are set up. After changing to the directory containing the files for installing Vectorlinux (normally C:\veclinux), one must run ram.bat. This batch file loads an image that guides the user through the installation process. After logging in as root and selecting the installation method, the user is prompted to mount the partition containing veclinux.bz2. The setup program creates a temporary 8MB swap file, after mounting the partition containing veclinux.bz2 and the destination partition. It then prompts the user to determine if it should check veclinux.bz2. This helps to ensure the complete distribution is present at a readable location. After the CRC (Cyclic Redundancy Check) the installer formats the destination partition. When formatting is complete, the installer extracts the contents of veclinux.bz2 to the new Linux partition. On a 486 this takes a while. It then lets the user know that it is time for a reboot.



Rebooting the system brought a flickering of the display screen and the familiar LILO prompt. I first let the machine boot into DOS to make sure the original files were safe. After ensuring their accessibility, I rebooted again. This time I selected to boot into Linux. The familiar Linux boot screen showed me that there were a few default drivers being loaded that were not needed. A re-compile of the kernel should alleviate that dilemma. Once inside, I was able to setup lilo (as well as X, ppp, etc.). I knew how to do these things since the creator of Vectorlinux was kind enough to leave a mail message for mutt to read during my initial log-in. This and other similar features make it great for newbies as well as veterans.

The install yielded the following parameters of disk consumption:

Filesystem 1k-blocks Used Available Use% Mounted on
/dev/hda1 259860 178651 73156 71% /
/dev/hda4 69102 67064 2008 97% /DOS

This configuration is usable. The /DOS partition is a great backup. If something happens to Vectorlinux, I can simply boot into DOS and re-run the installer. If I feel confident enough with the setup as it is, I can turn the extra space into something else. I personally think a swap partition would be a good idea.



DNA Helix This distribution will certainly surpass the average persons expectations of a mini distribution. The distribution also managed to handle an abrupt power loss by coming back up without missing a beat. However, configuring X with the XF86Setup program caused a few frozen screens and segmentation faults. XWindows will run but if at all possible an upgrade is in order. To give you a better idea, it normally would take the better part of a day to load Netscape. I removed it and will be installing something comparable.

I intend to use the newly configured system as a bioinformatics work station. The potential for Vectorlinux to handle the task looks to be very promising.

Note: The Y2K problem was resolved by running the hwclock program to update the system time.


Bourne, Stephen R. The UNIX System V Environment. Workingham: Addison-Wesley, 1987.

Frisch, Æleen. Essential System Administration. Cambridge: O'Reilly, 1995.

Vectorlinux homepage at www.vectorlinux.50megs.com


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