Advantages And Disadvantages

DSL operates at kernel version 2.4 and weighs in at around 50 MB, which makes it perfect for business card CDs or inexpensive USB storage devices. Why use the older 2.4 kernel instead of the newer 2.6? According to the DSL FAQ, there are three compelling reasons for this choice:

  • Version 2.4 maintains a smaller footprint than the 2.6 kernel
  • Version 2.4 supports a wider range of legacy hardware than does 2.6
  • Version 2.6 improvements have been actively backported to the 2.4 source and binary trees

DSL offers some native advantages that distinguish it from other compact Linux distributions, which come primarily from the various methods of deployment it supports. Using DSL, Linux loads from floppy, CD-ROM, USB, and even via emulation frameworks such as QEMU or VMware (using an appropriate DSL package). Although the most practical use for DSL as a rescue kit need not directly involve VMware, having QEMU on board makes it easy to run DSL from within an active Windows installation.

One distinct benefit of DSL is that packages are easily added and removed. Its user-friendly, menu-driven interface makes live modifications possible, portable and practical. Additional applications may be integrated directly into a USB image at run-time, using the graphical MyDSL application installer for maximum ease-of-use. Alternately, you can obtain files using ordinary means such as a Web browser or a command line utility, then install those files locally as packages. DSL also provides the flexible FUSE file system framework to support more exotic back-up solutions including SSHFS, a file system that mounts remote partitions and drives using Secure Shell (SSH). This is an excellent feature for creating secure backups where sensitive or confidential information is involved.

Feather Linux also uses the 2.4 kernel and offers much of the same capability as DSL, but lacks its localized extension framework. Insert uses a newer 2.6 kernel than either DSL or Feather Linux, so it's better acclimated to modern technologies and less concerned about legacy hardware applications than kernel version 2.4.

However, in our experiments with various images, the 2.6 kernel failed to load USB drivers in a timely fashion on two separate nForce4-based motherboards. Alas, this resulted in a non-functional system when mission-critical file structures couldn't be located once the software got past its colorful splash screen. To its credit, Insert (like most other portable Linux distributions) drops into an utterly crippled minimal shell, but the functionality of this is so barren that it is impractical to use under most circumstances. With some unintuitive tooling around this can be corrected, but it's neither easy nor straightforward for the inexperienced to hack their way through the thicket of obstructions one most overcome in that situation.

Ed Tittel

Ed Tittel is a long-time IT writer, researcher and consultant, and occasional contributor to Tom’s Hardware. A Windows Insider MVP since 2018, he likes to cover OS-related driver, troubleshooting, and security topics.