Second life with Linux: Extra slim distributions for special applications

Unlike Windows, Linux gives businesses a few operating system options to choose from, even for the oldest and weakest devices.

If the old hardware no longer meets the high demands of Windows 11, you don’t have to dispose of the devices right away. Rather, Linux is an interesting option in such cases: the various distributions are significantly less resource-hungry than Microsoft’s operating system. In addition to the enterprise distributions presented last week, there are a number of other Linux systems that are aimed at specific areas of application. Some developers deliberately trim their distributions to the smallest possible extent.

A prominent example is Alpine Linux, which is very popular as a substructure in Docker containers. The Alpine Linux team has provided a mini system in the form of a small root file system, especially for this application, which occupies just under 7.1 MB (this is not a typo). Although the standard system from Alpine Linux weighs around 160 MB more, it is still significantly less than most of its competitors. If desired, the distribution can run entirely in the main memory (run-from-RAM distribution). On top of that, the developers focus on security. Among other things, all userland tools are explicitly hardened against attacks.

Alpine Linux is therefore particularly suitable as a substructure for weak servers or routers. An extended version with additional software packages is also available for these purposes. The Alpine Linux Wiki disagrees a bit about the main memory required: According to the installation instructions, 100 MB is sufficient, according to the system requirements page it is 128 MB and 512 MB in the 64-bit version. The latter only applies to selected architectures. Alpine Linux is installed and maintained on the command line and requires in-depth knowledge of Linux. Furthermore, the distribution uses its own package manager and particularly lean components. Busybox provides the standard Linux tools, and Musl Libc is used as the C library instead of the usual Glibc. Under certain circumstances, this can lead to compatibility problems with existing scripts or programs. Alpine Linux looks after the community but doesn’t expect professional support from the developers.

Alpine Linux exists in different versions for different purposes and platforms. (Picture: Screenshot Alpine Linux)

Similar to Alpine Linux, the Smallest Server Suite (TheSSS for short) only weighs around 150 MB and runs entirely in RAM. It can be used to quickly start up a server that can work as a DNS, mail, MySQL, or web server, among other things. TheSSS is particularly useful when you need a test server or need to quickly (temporarily) replace a service that has suddenly failed. It is then sufficient to dig out a decommissioned PC and ignite TheSSS on it. If you install the distribution, 128 MB of main memory is sufficient, in run-from-RAM mode, 1.3 GB are required. However, TheSSS is only available in a 64-bit version, which means that older 32-bit Atom systems cannot be used as a test or emergency system. The same applies to 4MLinux, on which TheSSS is based.4MLinux is also economical with resources, but the installation medium is already 1 GByte. This is somewhat surprising since TheSSS is based on 4MLinux.

4MLinux uses the slim window manager JWM. Numerous server services can be started up quickly via the menu. (Image: Screenshot 4MLinux)

Many other extremely lightweight distributions can be found on the Internet, such as the Puppy Linux family. However, these systems are usually only managed by a small team. Support is only available – if at all – in public forums or on mailing lists. TheSSS and 4MLinux also lack professional support. Sometimes you also have to make do with program versions that are not quite up-to-date or wait longer for security patches. If you want to run a system that is as lean as possible productively over the long term, you should therefore give preference to the tried and tested Alpine Linux.

Finally, thanks to special distributions, a discarded computer can be given a completely new purpose. For example, with IPFire, a server can be transformed into a powerful and amazingly flexible firewall. The range of functions can also keep up with commercial firewall systems. For example, IPFire offers an Intrusion Prevention System (IPS) with which the firewall recognizes and blocks attempted attacks, among other things. Messages can be prioritized (Quality of Service, QoS), and a VPN can also be set up via IPSec or OpenVPN. Extensions equip additional functions after. IPFire works as a monitoring system, as a backup and file server, or as a (web) proxy. The German company Lightning Wire Labs from Datteln provides professional support if required. IPFire only requires 1 GB of main memory and two network interfaces. The IPFire Wiki also contains lists of tested hardware components. The system runs on 64-bit processors with x86 architecture and some single-board computers with ARM processors like the Raspberry Pi.

The lean firewall distribution IPFire is operated via a web interface, which also conveniently manages the firewall rules.(Picture: Screenshot IPFire)

The Austrian Proxmox GmbH supplies three specialized distributions: Virtual machines and containers run on the Proxmox Virtual Environment, the Proxmox Mail Gateway filters spam and viruses from e-mails, while the Proxmox Backup Server takes care of data backups. The Proxmox Virtual Environment (Proxmox VE) also allows software-defined storage and high-availability clusters. In all cases, the administrator operates the systems via a web interface; enterprise support is available directly from Proxmox GmbH on request.

A 64-bit Debian system serves as the substructure for each of the three distributions. Due to the demanding tasks, however, the system requirements are quite high. For Proxmox VE you need at least 2 GB of main memory and a processor with virtualization functions (Intel VT or AMD-V). Proxmox Backup even recommends 4 GB of main memory. In all cases, the largest possible storage pool is added. Among other things, Proxmox VE supports SAN and NAS systems as well as distributed storage via Ceph.

Porteus Kiosk transforms a veteran desktop system into a kiosk system. These very limited computers are used in public places, such as in a showroom, as an information terminal or act as an advertising panel. An installed Porteus Kiosk later automatically starts Chrome or Firefox in full-screen mode. In the installation wizard, the options of the browser are specifically restricted beforehand. Among other things, you can pin him down to very specific websites and prohibit downloads. The system requires at least 1 GB of main memory and only runs on 64-bit capable x86 processors. Porteus Kiosk can be used free of charge, but you only get access to updates after signing a maintenance contract. A variant of Porteus Kiosk turns a system into a thin client that connects via Citrix, RDP, NX,

In Porteus Kiosk, you can use the Kiosk Wizard to regulate which actions the users of the system are allowed to carry out later. (Image: Screenshot Porteus Kiosk)

If an older device is no longer to be used, it can be resold to a refurbisher. Alternatively, old computers can also be donated to charitable projects. For example, one of the largest and most active is Labdoo. Volunteers overhaul the old devices, install a Linux system and then give away the computers to schools in poorer countries. However, the Labdoo project only accepts notebooks, tablets, and e-book readers.

Most Linux distributions run extremely resource-efficiently and also on computers that Windows 11 despises. This significantly extends the service life of servers and laptops. Incidentally, you save investment costs and protect the environment. Even older darlings can still be assigned tasks with small, tailor-made distributions such as IPFire.

However, Linux does not work with all hardware components. In addition, many distributors only mention vague system requirements. Although Linux is much more frugal than Windows, the desktop environments and especially the applications also require processor power. In many cases, just trying it out helps. Fortunately, the hurdles for a test drive are extremely low, since the distributions are available in free versions and most of them also run as a live system directly in the main memory.

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