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An Introduction to Tiny Core Linux

written by: Sam OBrien•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 5/20/2011

If you've been amazed by the computing power of small Linux distributions between 50MB and 100MB, you may want to try Tiny Core Linux. It isn't small; it's tiny, but it's a functional operating system. Others see no use for this relatively new distribution. Discover and judge for yourself.

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    Tiny Core Linux is a fairly new flavor among the hundreds of open source operating systems based on the Linux kernel. This distribution is the brain child of a truly talented programmer, Robert Shingledecker, the founder, global administrator, and lead developer for the system. Tiny Core Linux couldn't have a more becoming name; it's not small, it's tiny. The latest version (2.6) is only 10MB. I was skeptical, but also eager to download and begin testing this software that only requires a minimum of 48MB RAM and a 486 platform with a math processor in order to run.

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    The Tiny Core Linux distribution is a prime example of the control, power, and freedom that many PC users need and desire--qualities that MS Windows doesn't offer. However, such control and freedom are almost always accompanied by a steeper learning curve. One question a user might ask is if working with Tiny Core Linux is feasible for him considering his knowledge of Unix-like operating systems and if the work is worth it. To make an informed decision he should be aware of the four different modes in which this distribution is able to operate.

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    Tiny Core Linux in Cloud Mode

    More than with most other distributions, I find that understanding the philosophy behind this one facilitates comprehension of the 4 different modes in which it can run. This knowledge will help you determine which one, if any, is right for you and why. It will also familiarize you with a vocabulary unique to this flavor.

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    Tiny Core Linux runs in what's known as "cloud" or "Internet" mode by default. If you connect to the Internet by dial-up or wireless, you won't have a very productive experience as all you'll have to work with is a very basic desktop and some administrative control. There are no scripts for dial-up or wireless in cloud mode so you'll have no access to the repository. While it's possible to set up a Tiny Core Linux system even with a dial-up connection, it requires some maneuvering. There is no word processor, web browser, sound, or any other program that you might expect to be there. This is a bare bones mode in which each user decides what applications and utilities he needs and desires. Here is where almost total control is exercised to custom "build" your own system.

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    The first problem with the cloud mode is that it requires an Internet connection to even begin adding the functionality you want. If you can connect, you can click on the Application icon on the desktop for direct access to the Tiny Core Linux extensions repository. Linux users obtain most of the additional software they want from appropriate repositories based on their distribution. Tiny Core views this as "extending" the system by adding to the core according to personal preference.

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    The core and any extensions downloaded from the repository sit in RAM. Therefore, all is lost, except any files made and saved, once the system shuts down. Obviously, the more extensions downloaded in this mode, the more RAM is needed. Let's say you don't have an Internet connection, or you can't connect because you use dial-up or wireless. Could Tiny Core Linux serve you in any way at all? The answer depends on how well you know basic UNIX commands and whether you have some familiarity with how the VI editor works.

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    Tiny Core Linux loaded within a few seconds on my Dell Inspiron 1000 laptop. I connected my flash drive, clicked on the cpanel which is the middle icon at the bottom of the desktop. I then clicked on the mount tool which successfully mounted the drive (sda1). If you click on the screen shot below you'll see the verification of the mount as well as the cpanel that I left visible.

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    Mounted thum drive and cpanel
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    Although there is a file browser, I found it easier to simply go into a terminal to access files on sda1. Needless to say that text files are all I could work with by calling them to the VI editor. So, even in cloud mode without an Internet connection, Tiny Core has value, but only if you're comfortable with basic UNIX commands and working with the VI editor at least on an elementary level. In this screen shot you can see I have two terminals open. The root password in Tiny Core is "root", but you really have no need to become root as you can choose to open a terminal with root privileges.

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    Working in terminals
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    Tiny Core Linux in TCE/Install Mode

    The second mode of Tiny Core Linux is called TCE/Install. It basically involves designating a writable storage partition to which extensions downloaded from the repository can be saved. The developers refer to this as "persistency," but it's nothing more than creating your own custom local repository for subsequent sessions. Each time you boot the core, the extensions in your local repository will automatically install (sit) themselves in RAM. Such a mode can rapidly exhaust this temporary memory. Adding more seems a bit illogical as a good number of users chose this system for its ability to operate on minimal resources.

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    Tiny Core Linux In TCE/Mount Mode

    The third Tiny Core Linux mode has caused some confusion regarding the difference in mounting and installing extensions and the effect on system resources. This mode is referred to as "TCE/Mount." Extensions are still "persistent" on the writable storage you chose, but instead of automatically loading or installing into RAM, they only mount in RAM which saves on memory. The extensions are compressed into mountable images of the application directory and are symbolically linked into the root file system.

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    The second or third mode is recommended based on the philosophy behind Tiny Core Linux which is to maintain a "pristine" operating system. The applications remain fresh because of not having been traditionally installed as in most other systems that can suffer "system rot" or corruption.

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    Tiny Core Linux In Local/Install Mode

    The fourth and final mode involves an actual install of extensions into a local partition. The core, however, still sits only in RAM, resulting in what the developers understandably call a "hybrid" system. Again, the fourth mode goes against the philosophy of the distribution because of the real installation of applications.

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    These four modes do not represent the limits within which Tiny Core Linux can be used. But, to expand much further would border on being considered development. Actually, some users who are also developers have commented that Tiny Core Linux can also be viewed as an advanced core upon which to build another distribution.

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    Is Tiny Core Linux Right For You?

    If you are very insistent on avoiding bloatware (unnecessarily large software), want absolute control over which applications are on your system, and are very comfortable with Linux, Tiny Core may just suit you. When I speak of being very comfortable with Linux, I'm referring to having a solid knowledge of at least basic UNIX commands and familiarity with the VI editor. Many have abandoned this powerful editor due to the cryptic commands used to work with it. However, knowing how to manipulate configuration files in it is to your advantage. When no other editor is available, you can count on the VI editor being there.

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    If you want a very user friendly operating system that's highly automated and in which are bundled (included) the applications on which the average PC user relies, you won't like Tiny Core Linux. You can enjoy simplicity, good hardware compatibility, automation, good community support, and excellent bundled applications without bloatware with other small distributions.