Small Unix Distributions

Unix distributions for embedded devices


Embedded devices include those from Soekris Engineering, PC Engines WRAP boards or other PC/104 compliant devices.

  • m0n0wall is a FreeBSD-based distribution optimized to run as a firewall on embedded devices. It has a web administration GUI that supports IPsec.
  • A number of Linksys network devices can be re-flashed and loaded with Linux for other uses. OpenWRT is a Linux distribution that will run on a number of Linksys devices including the WRT54G series. Other alternative firmware is includes: Tomato WRT, and Sveasoft. LinksysInfo and contain a wealth of information about the Linksys WRT54G series wireless routers as well as other Linksys models and alternative firmware.
  • NSLU2-Linux development group supports development of a Linux distribution for the SLU2 network storage device from Linksys.
  • Voyage Linux is distribution based on Debian Sarge that is designed to run on x86-based embedded platforms such as Soekris or PC Engines WRAP boards.
  • NanoBSD is designed to create system images that run on embedded or appliance platforms.
  • miniBSD provides scripts to create a small installation of FreeBSD that can work on embedded devices and run from a compact flash or USB drive.
  • TinyBSD is a set of shell scripts that allow easy development of embedded systems based on FreeBSD RELENG_5, RELENG_6, and 7-CURRENT.
  • Flashdist is an embedded OpenBSD installer. It will installed onto an attached storage device such CF card or hard disk. It works with Soekris and PC Engines WRAP devices.
  • WifiBSD access point is a minimalist version of NetBSD (older versions were based on FreeBSD-5). WifiBSD is aimed for wireless routers running on embedded devices such as boards from Soekris and Openbrick. It works in ad-hoc and hostap mode and supports IPsec. The project is not actively maintained.
  • TheWall is a collection of PicoBSD configuration trees and binaries that provide NAT and firewall services for a small network. TheWall is PicoBSD/FreeBSD 4.5 based and is not actively maintained.

Small and live CD Linux based distributions


  • KNOPPIX is a Debian-based bootable/live-CD with automatic hardware detection and support for many graphics cards, sound cards, USB and SCSI devices and other peripherals.
  • Openwall is a Linux distribution with a focus on security that is compatible with many RPM-based packages. Openwall will boot from a live CD and supports x86, x86-64, SPARC, and Alpha architectures.
  • BackTrack is bootable/live-CD linux distribution focused on penetration testing. It was created from the merger of two previous distributions, Whax and the Auditor Security Collection. It is based on Ubuntu.
  • Damn Small Linux 50MB mini desktop oriented Linux distribution. It is a Live CD Linux distribution derived from Knoppix/Debian.
  • SliTaz (Simple Light Incredible Temporary Autonomous Zone) is a Linux distribution capable of running completely in RAM as well as from a hard disk. SliTaz will boot from a USB drive or a LiveCD. The root file system is about 100 megs.
  • Mandriva One is a Mandriva (formerly Mandrake) Linux-based distribution that can either run as a LiveCD, from a flash drive, or installed onto the users hard disk. A commercial product, Mandriva Flash, is a commercial Mandriva distribution ($49) that ships on an 8GB USB flash drive that contains both the operating system and space for the users data so the entire environment is portable.
  • Zeroshell is a LiveCD based on a custom distribution that includes support for many network services. There is also a 128MB Compact Flash image.
  • IPCop is a Linux based firewall distribution with a web based GUI for administration that is intended to run on older hardware. IPCop supports IPSec and includes and IDS.
  • INSERT is the Inside Security Rescue Toolkit. It is a small linux system that boots from a credit card-sized CD-ROM. INSERT is based on KNOPPIX and thus has good hardware detection. It features a graphical desktop with the fluxbox window manager, the web browser links-hacked, the AxYFTP-client and the file manager emelFM.
  • Arudius is a Slackware Linux based distribution with tools for penetration testing and vulnerability analysis. It has a 210mb live mini-CD that will fit into RAM.
  • Puppy Linux is a Live CD distribution. It boots into about a 50 megabyte RAM disk and will run entirely out of RAM. It is also able to boot from USB and Zip drives.
  • Finnix is a small, self-contained, bootable Linux CD distribution for system administrators. It’s around 300MB and is based on Debian testing.
  • Recovery Is Possible (RIP) is a floppy boot/rescue/backup system. It has support for a lot of filesystem types (reiserfs, ext2/3, iso9660, udf, XFS, JFS, UFS, MS DOS, umsdos, and vfat) and contains a bunch of utilities for system recovery.
  • Timo’s Rescue CD Set provides an easy way to generate bootable CDs with a ready-to-use rescue system on it. The system is designed to be fully customizable in addition to being easy to build. The rescue system includes reiserfs, parted, partimage, nmap, w3m, and bash, as well as sshd, telnetd, ftpd and nfsd on the server side. There is also a recipe on the Web site on how to build 2.88MB bootable El Torito images.
  • ttylinux homepage is a small Linux distribution that fits into 8 MB that will run on i486, ARM, and PPC-based computer. ttylinux requires 32 MB of RAM for installation, but will run in 24 MB of RAM afterwards. i686 computers require 48 MB of RAM for installation and will run in 24MB afterwards.
  • Make CD-ROM Recovery (mkCDrec) makes a bootable (El Torito) disaster recovery image (CDrec.iso), including backups of the linux system to the same CD-ROM if space permits. Otherwise, the backups can be stored on another disk, NFS disk or (remote) tape.
  • Coyote Linux is a single floppy distribution of Linux that is derived from the Linux Router Project (LRP).
  • Linux Embedded Appliance Firewall (LEAF) continues to build on the work from the Linux Router Projec (LRP) and derivative projects such as c0wz, EigerStein and Oxygen.
  • FREESCO (FREE ciSCO) is a free Linux-based distribution that will fit on a floppy. It’s optimized to be used as a router.
  • tomsrtbt is Tom’s bootable linux-based distribution that will fit on a floppy.
  • Trinity Rescue Kit is a small Linux distribution based on Mandrake. It is designed to rescue/repair/prepare dead or damaged systems, be it Linux or Windows. It has networking capabilities and supports many network cards, disk controllers and USB controllers.
  • LNX-BBC is a mini Linux-distribution with a 2.4-based kernel. It is a derivative of the Linuxcare Bootable Business Card.
  • Linux Terminal Server Project is a platform for deploying diskless workstations that boot from a network server.
  • Serial Terminal Linux allows you to use an old laptop as a serial console. A single boot floppy puts you directly into Minicom.
  • muLinux is a full-configurable, minimalistic, almost complete, application-centric tiny distribution of Linux (2.0.36 modular kernel) made in Italy. muLinux resides on a single 1722K floppy, but floppy add-ons are provided.
  • Thinstation is an actively developed fork of NetStation that is a thin client Linux distribution that makes a PC a full-featured thin client supporting all major connectivity protocols: Citrix ICA, No Machine NX, MS Windows terminal services (RDP), Tarantella, X, telnet, tn5250, VMS term and SSH.
  • Linux-Mobile-Guide is a HOWTO for Linux laptops and mobile devices and the Ecology-HOWTO, the ecology and Linux howto discuses features to save power or paper.
  • Freshmeat content of Recovery tools (including recovery distributions)
  • The LiveCD List is a compendium of bootable and LiveCDs for a number of operating systems.

Small and live CD BSD based distributions


  • LiveBSD is a live system on a CD similar to Knoppix based on the latest FreeBSD releases. There is a desktop version and a forthcoming server version.
  • FreeSBIE is a live CD FreeBSD distribution.
  • DragonFly BSD is a fork of the FreeBSD-4.x OS series. The focus of the distribution is innovation. All DragonFly BSD images are live CDs.
  • FreeBSD LiveCD image is a FreeBSD-stable based live CD. There is also a LiveCD tool set which will allow you to produce a custom FreeBSD LiveCD.
  • The jggimi OpenBSD LiveCD/LiveDVD

Utilities for small Unix distributions


  • OpenEmbedded is a tool which allows developers to create a Linux distribution for various embedded systems.
  • asmutils is a set of utilities written in assembly language, targeted for embedded systems and small distributions. It also contains a small libc and crypto library.
  • BusyBox combines tiny versions of many UNIX utilities into a single small executable.
  • TinyLogin is a suite of tiny Unix utilities for handling logins, authentication, changing passwords, and maintaining users and groups on an embedded system.
  • The buildkernel script is an intelligent tool that will build a new linux kernel for you. It is designed to be easy so that a novice can use it.
  • Mondo Rescue will back up your or workstation to tape, CD-R, CD-RW, NFS or hard disk partition. you will be able to restore all of your data, from bare metal if necessary. Mondo uses Mindi Linux to create boot disks that contain your kernel as well as any modules and libraries.
  • Wikipedia has a good list of tools to create Live USB systems.

Embedded news and devices


LCD and LED output


  • LCDproc is a small piece of software that displays real-time system information from your Linux box on a 20×4 backlit LCD.
  • lcd4linux will grab Linux system information (kernel, temp, etc) and display it on an external LCD.
  • PalmOrb lets you use your PalmOS device as a LCD display for your computer.
  • GiantDisc is an open source Palm based audio jukebox remote control for Linux.
  • LCD module – Linux river supports the more or less standard Hitachi LCD controller chip.
  • liblcd a simple Linux user-space driver for serial-interface LCD alphanumeric and graphical displays. It was written specifically for the Scott Electronics G12032 graphical display, but it should work with most any LCD that can understand ASCII. Even if your display is not a graphical one, you should be able to take advantage of the text functions.
  • LEDcontrol is a program that allows you to show different information on the normally-unused LEDs on your keyboard. You can configure it to show virtually any TRUE/FALSE condition accessible or indicate an arbitrary number.