A modest computer training center appears in the African Republic of Togo
in December of 1998. In January, 2001 a Cyber Cafe goes up in Cameroon.
In the summer of 2002 a "Computer-College" is established in
Congo. Around Africa and across the developing world, technology is
seeping in. People there may have very little, but they do have hope and
they need jobs. They need to start nurturing a local tech community,
building local skills and creating human capital.
Most of the world is not fortunate enough to have access to the
latest hardware and they have neither the money nor the local
computer store for acquiring parts. If free software is to fulfill
the promise of software access for all, then something needs
to be done to accommodate the needs of the great majority of the
world running on donated 486– and Pentium–era
Unfortunately, the mainstream distributions do not target older
hardware. Even selecting individual packages presents problems
because of cascading dependencies (try removing gpm). Some suggest
using older releases, but older software often lacks important
features, contains many security holes, and no longer has an
active support community.
Enter the RULE Project
(Run Up2date Linux Everywhere). RULE
is not a new distribution. It makes an existing distribution
install and run on older hardware. Specifically, it takes standard
Red Hat Linux, adds a custom installer, provides
resource–friendly RPM package lists, and packages alternative
light–weight GPL applications. The advantage of this
approach is that the original distribution provides all the patches
and documentation, reducing the maintenance load for RULE.
The result is amazing. Machines that would otherwise have been
unusable are suddenly doing web browsing, word processing, instant
messaging, and even multimedia tasks.
Of course, using alternative programs is a huge part of what makes
this possible. Instead of Mozilla or Opera, you use w3m or links or dillo. Instead of
OpenOffice.org, you use AbiWord
Instead of KDE, you use IceWM or
XFCE. But the other secret is KDrive,
Keith Packard's light–weight X server. This allows X to
consume much less memory. It doesn't do
everything that the full–blown X does, but it provides the
core functionality at a greatly reduced resource penalty.
At the helm of this effort is Marco Fioretti, a
telecommunications systems designer in Rome, Italy. It all started
when he spoke
on the Red Hat users mailing list. Standing up to much resistance,
he argued for better packaging to reduce dependencies, for more
optimization and for less bloat. Despite initial cynicism, he pushed
on. When he opened the project on Savannah, people began to
join. One of those people was Michael Fratoni, an electronics
technician in New England. Michael had already become familiar
with the difficulties of slimming down Linux by putting together
low–resource firewalls for family and friends. He never
expected to become the project's lead developer, but he is
responsible for most of what has been implemented so far.
From their "home" page, the goals of the project are to
- Modify the current Red Hat Linux installer so
that it runs in less than 32 MB of RAM, or create a new one if
- Select, test, and (if needed) package the
system and desktop applications which give the greatest real
functionality with the smallest consumption of CPU and RAM
- Create another installation option for the Red
Hat Linux distribution, containing all and only the packages above,
optimized to run either a server, or a basic desktop on obsolete
hardware with very little RAM and HD space
- Promote and support (especially in developing
countries) the use of this install option with schools, public and
Thanks to Michael, they have already completed their first goal.
They have created Miniconda,
a low–resource version of Red Hat's installer, Anaconda, that
lowers the memory requirement from 20MB to about 12MB and provides
reduced package lists.
They have also created Slinky, a
completely new installation routine written in Bash, which can do a
complete install on a system with only 8MB of RAM. Both installers
work with the latest Red Hat Linux distribution media, but Slinky
is under active development and Miniconda appears to be on the way
Now that Red Hat Linux has become Fedora Linux and is taking on a
much more community–driven aspect, RULE is poised to make
great strides toward its other goals. Last fall, Marco announced
his group's intentions on the Fedora developers list. Besides an
endorsement from Alan Cox, he received encouragement from a kernel
RPM maintainer. While Fedora will likely not restructure its
packaging, it sounds like RULE will soon be able to have a
low–resources i386 kernel configuration maintained within
So, if you have a system that balks at the demands of the latest
distributions, but you want to have access to a large, flourishing
user community, look into RULE. Install it on that old 486 in the
closet. Submit your results to their test machine
list. Join the mailing
list. Pitch in and help with the website or the database or
More importantly, if you are looking to deploy a herd of old boxen
in an underfunded area, RULE could be the way to make those donated
systems useful again. I cannot overstate the importance of RULE in
the developing world and in underprivileged neighborhoods. It is
already being used to great success by VUM (the
Association for the Support of Humans) in several African nations.
It can be made to serve many other purposes such as this.
There are, of course, other noteworthy attempts to bring GNU/Linux
to low–resource systems. The KNOPPIX revolution has spawned
several LiveCD contenders, such as Feather, Puppy, and DamnSmall
Linux. These can be run from CD and thus do not require a hard
drive. They come with light–weight desktops like Fluxbox and
apps like dillo. One weakness of this approach is that the CDROM
drives one generally finds in today's donated PCs are often
excruciatingly slow (4x). In this case, the ability to install to
a hard drive is quite valuable.
Vector Linux is a distribution based on Slackware that claims to
perform admirably on a 386. It is a very polished distribution and
may be a good choice for donated PCs, but it doesn't seem to be as
"hard core" as RULE. For instance, it uses the
full-blown XFree86 X-server instead of kdrive. It might be
appropriate for a 586 with 64MB of RAM, but probably wouldn't give
much hope to someone using a 486 with 16MB of RAM.
There has been talk recently on the RULE mailing list of using RULE
with LTSP. The Linux Terminal
Server Project also gives new life to old hardware. It takes the
thin client approach, using a decently powerful server to serve up
logins, applications, and storage to terminals over a network.
While RULE and LTSP take different approaches, they can work
together nicely. RULE can be used as the basis for the LTSP
server, allowing it to do more with less. So, while an LTSP server
tasked with serving up KDE, OpenOffice.org and Mozilla to 12
terminals would have to be a dual-processor P-III with at least 512
MB of RAM, a RULE-ified LTSP server providing IceWM, AbiWord, and
dillo to 12 terminals could be a PII-350 with 128 MB of RAM.
In short, while there are other distributions and projects that
recognize the need to serve older hardware, only RULE exists in its
particular niche. It may be a while before a
"Low–Resources" option appears in the installers of
the main distributions. Until then, there's RULE.
to post comments)