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I'm looking for a command line Linux distro that runs under 128Mb of RAM and works with i386. All the distros that I've looked at so far seem to be too big, don't support that old of a processor, or are GUI OSs. I've looked at Arch Linux, Tiny Core, Gentoo, SuSE JEOS, and Slitaz. It will be mostly used for running GCC, Mono, Wine, and such.

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Take note that I ran GUI linux on a 80 MB 486 for several years. Debian 2.1, 2.2, 3.0. The trick is to use a lightweight window manager and no desktop manager. That won't leave you a lot of room for wine, nor for a really new version of gcc (which can use a lot of space when trying hard to optimize things). –  dmckee Dec 30 '11 at 2:39
    
Are you actually planning on running with a 386 processor? These are really old chips, you will be much better off if you have a 486 at least. –  gabe. Dec 30 '11 at 22:39

4 Answers 4

up vote 2 down vote accepted

I would use Damn Small Linux, Puppy Linux, or similar. I would avoid any of the more general-purpose distros like Arch or Gentoo, purely because they are bigger. Basically, you want the sort of distro that purposely doesn't include many packages, so you're forced on an individual basis to compile and install anything not essential to the core OS's operation. That will help you keep control of the OS footprint, both in terms of RAM and disk.

Yes, both of my recommended choices include a GUI option. I think you should not use that as an immediate disqualifier, because with Linux, the GUI is always optional. If the installer doesn't give the option of disabling it, it's trivial to disable it after install: change the initdefault line in /etc/inittab to have a 2 or 3 in the second field. (The behavior difference between runlevel 2 and 3 varies depending on the Linux distro. Typically you get a GUI on boot only at level 5.)

I'm also aware that the specs for these systems recommend a 486+ or more RAM. You can ignore this by choosing not to use all of the features available in the distro. You've already made a big leap in this direction by opting out of a GUI. Another big step is starting with a parsimonious distro in the first place.

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the current versions of either puppy or dsl include modern versions of the linux kernel, don't they? i wonder how they support older processors (their 486+ requirement may indicate that the support is not very good). –  JoséNunoFerreira Dec 30 '11 at 15:30
    
Quite possible. In which case, I suggest taking the path of Icarus: seek out an older version of DSL or Puppy. –  Warren Young Dec 30 '11 at 17:46

You can try to use Swift Linux, works well on Dell optiplex gx110 (128 mb ram). OS only uses 60-80 mb ram.

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Debian should be ok for that purpose - if you leave away all GUI components.

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Yes, just use a minimal install option - debian.org/CD/netinst –  Vernon Jan 2 '12 at 15:35

I don't think you'll be very successful at running mono, and specially WINE with so little memory and slow CPU regardless of the distro you use.

Anyway, if you really want to use that i386, have Linux installed and work w/o any pain, you are probably better off downloading an old distro with an old kernel. A distro from the 90s should work, Slackware 95 comes to mind. Maybe you can find the install CDs online.

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