Exploring the extra tiny KolibriOS

Little Friend

© Lead Image © Ronen, Fotolia.com

© Lead Image © Ronen, Fotolia.com

Article from Issue 204/2017
Author(s):

KolibriOS, written in assembler, is especially suited to very old hardware – it even fits on a floppy disk.

Several small distros inhabit the Linux landscape. The best of these pared-down systems provide many of the same amenities associated with their more bloated counterparts, including GUI interfaces, games, and full-featured office suites. Some users prefer a minimal system just because they like to travel light and avoid the complications associated with unnecessary features. But beyond the personal aesthetics, though, tiny distros play a special role for the open source community: keeping old hardware alive.

Many users have old computers sitting around that are still perfectly functional but don't have the resources necessary to run contemporary mainstream systems. An old Windows 98 box, for instance, isn't nearly big enough or fast enough to run Windows 10, and mainstream Linux alternatives like RHEL and Ubuntu can't really offer a solution because they are just as resource hungry as Windows.

A small Linux, however, can easily fit on an older system. Lightweight distros such as Lubuntu, Puppy, and Damn Small Linux are all supported by loyal communities that see big value in a small footprint. But what if you want to get really small – and I mean really really small?

KolibriOS requires only a few Megabytes of disk space and it runs on 8MB of RAM, but this tiny size still provides a remarkably conventional user experience, including a GUI interface with word processor, image viewer, graphics editor, and over 30 games. Because KolibriOS runs in memory and is written entirely in assembly language, it is also very fast. According to the project website, KolibriOS "…boots in less than 10 seconds from power on to a working GUI on a $100 PC."

KolibriOS has been in development since 2004 and is a fork of the also-slim MenuetOS.

Technical Matters

The GPLv2-licensed KolibriOS is a pure 32-bit operating system. Support is limited to single-core CPUs, but the system also runs on multicore processors.

The system requirements specified by the developers seem downright ridiculous for today's conditions: A single-core Pentium CPU with at least 100MHz frequency, as well as 8MB of storage space, are required. Additionally, the developers recommend a VESA-compliant graphics card from about 20 years ago that supports current screen resolutions up to 1024x768 pixels at 32-bit color depth.

You download KolibriOS as a tiny 7z archive in multiple versions on the project page [1]. KolibriOS requires 60MB of free storage space for installation on a mass storage device. The project provides an ISO image for burning onto a CD, as well as the files for use on a hard disk, in English, Spanish, Russian, and Italian; no multilingual packages are available.

The package archives, each with a volume of just 25MB, can be unpacked using archiving software such as PeaZip or the corresponding desktop applications. Then you can burn that large 60MB ISO image onto a CD, from which you can launch the system.

If you would like to start KolibriOS in a virtual machine (VM) or via the network using PXE, you will find extensive instructions in the wiki [2].

Drivers

Despite the small size, KolibriOS offers a range of drivers, especially for old hardware: Graphics cards from ATI and Intel can be used with the radeon and i915 drivers, which largely correspond to their Linux counterparts. The VESA driver that is implemented in the kernel, which also supports the 16-, 24-, and 32-bit "high" color depths, uses other graphics cards. It is apparent that KolibriOS is able to correctly display the screen content on modern widescreen displays in the form factor 16:10 and 16:9, even with the hardware-independent VESA graphics card drivers.

With the audio support, KolibriOS relies on modern Intel drivers (AC97). However, it also provides several modules for sound cards that set the standards some twenty years ago: In addition to Sound Blaster drivers, you will also find those for SIS, Ensoniq, and VIA audio cards, which are hardly known today.

In the 1990s, many computer systems were already networked, and Internet standards were still in their infancy, but nevertheless already existed. KolibriOS, therefore, even supports the oldest 3Com590 or Realtek LAN cards. In addition, the system also offers support for Intel's Gigabit Ethernet hardware, so you can also use it on a modern LAN.

Floppy disks, optical drives (CD/DVD), and IDE hard drives can be used as mass storage devices. KolibriOS supports USB flash drives in accordance with the 1.x and 2.0 specifications, as well as USB hubs. Thus, the system can even be used on old notebooks, which provided USB interfaces for the first time at the end of the 1990s. The built-in drivers allow the connection of USB devices such as a mouse, keyboard, and external hard drives. Even a driver for controlling USB printers is available.

Start

Instead of GRUB, KolibriOS uses good old Syslinux as a boot manager. KolibriOS also works with GRUB, if you wish to add it to a configuration with several operating systems on a mass storage device.

After the launch via an ncurses boot screen, the system opens the graphical desktop within a few seconds. Even on a roughly nine-year-old machine with a Penryn dual-core processor, the launch in the test didn't even take five seconds.

You can also try out KolibriOS with the ISO image in a VM. Configure the image file as a virtual optical drive in the Mass Storage menu in VirtualBox. The default 64MB is sufficient as the main storage. In the VM, the entire system launches within much less than 10 seconds and is ready to run from the memory with all the applications. Since KolibriOS supports the virtual network components of VirtualBox, you also have direct access to the Internet from the VM (Figure 1).

Figure 1: KolibriOS also cooperates well with low requirements with a VM from VirtualBox.

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