Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Slax - still alive in the Slax Community remix - DistroWatch.com

 Feature Story (by Bernard Hoffmann)

Slax - still alive in the Slax Community remix

SlaxOnce upon a time Slax and KNOPPIX were the de facto Linux live CD distributions. Dating back to 2003 Slax was certainly one of the first, and its creator, widely known as Tomas M, gave the community the Linux-live scripts and pioneered modules instead of packages for an easy install of additional programs. The main edition CD image was around 200 MB and featured only the necessary base and a light KDE 3 desktop to allow customizing from there. Slax is, as the name might suggest, based off Slackware Linux, or perhaps better, a repackaging of the Slackware base and certain applications into Slax's module format LZM.

The module section hosted is vast and many are user-contributed which makes this way of operating a security concern. However, a system of approval is in place which warns you when downloading one that has not been approved and, of course, you can always make your own modules from pre-existing packages should you not trust what's available for download. For example, Firefox from the last official release is now severely outdated, but with the help of the provided utilities it is as easy as downloading the latest tar.bz2 from mozilla.org and converting it to LZM. It may even have given PC-BSD the idea for their PBIs, although these go further, including the dependencies in a static package as well.

The last official release of Slax was 6.1.2 on 2009-08-04 and it was based on Slackware 12.2 with a kernel, but the system has not been updated since. I am not going to speculate on the reasons, but this coincided with a move to KDE 4 in Slackware which would have made Slax a lot heavier, and with plans to move to a 64-bit edition. Attempts to raise money for this through appreciative donations and the offering of server space for persistent storage and for backup in the form of the Slax drive, which had an icon on the desktop in the last updates, did not hit the magic target. Nowadays Tomas M is said to enjoy family life and previously neglected hobbies.

Enter the Slax community which is now keeping their beloved distribution alive. Slax can still be run from CD, extracted to USB drive or even installed to hard drive, although this is not supported and a once functional installer present around version 5.x was removed again. Tomas M stated in the forum that if people wanted a hard drive install they should install Slackware. This makes it pretty clear that Slax is for mobile use, but apparently there are people who still succeed using it on their desktops too.


Slax 09 Community remix - the boot screen
(full image size: 374kB, resolution 640x478 pixels)

Somebody known as "fanthom" on the forum set out to provide regular kernel and system updates to Slax 6.1.2 with the help of a brave few and called this the Slax Remix, of which only a few days ago v09 was released to the communityservers. New releases are announced on the Slax forum. There is now even a version with 64-bit kernel available. It is important to emphasize that these releases are not official and modules for these are not supposed to be uploaded to the Slax website as they may not work with 6.1.2; instead they are distributed via a number of community sites.

There have always been contributed modules with other desktop environments like GNOME or Xfce available for Slax in the modules section, but the community remix introduced LXDE as a lightweight alternative to the latest KDE 4.5.4 which is surprisingly full and responds well. On top of this, work has gone on to integrate both and, as a result, the lightweight desktop looks particularly sharp.


Slax 09 Community remix - the LXDE desktop
(full image size: 323kB, resolution 1360x768 pixels)

Slax remix v09 is built from Slackware "Current" userland with a kernel with the recent patch for better scheduling and responsiveness. Also, much better support for graphics and for wireless network cards have been added when compared to the last official release; for example; the broadcom-sta driver is in the remix which, in my view, is particularly important for something designed as a mobile computing platform. For the long list of features and things changed please read the release announcement, with pointers to more modules like the Enlightenment 17 desktop in the thread as it develops. There have been plenty of changes and additions over the many remixes, particularly easier network setup with a custom tool, new module management tools and the addition of the new Squashfs4 format. For more on how to remaster or convert old 6.1.2 modules to Squashfs4 see this resource for remix v08.

I still think that Slax has something to offer in today's landscape due to its flexibility and ease of creating modules, particularly thinking about how easy it is to replicate an install which is literally just copy over or extract and run bootinst.bat or bootinst.sh from /boot folder to make it bootable. Similarly, it is easy to create your own custom ISO image with the provided make_iso script once the desired modules have been added. The community remix has kept Slax bleeding-edge and brought many innovations and improvements to the Slax of old, wireless network driver additions particularly welcome.


Slax 09 Community remix - the KDE 4 desktop
(full image size: 1,018kB, resolution 1360x768 pixels)

It has become quite a different beast in some ways, having grown for the first time to over 200 MB size and introducing KDE 4 and 64-bit to Slax among others, like its founder had envisaged for the future of the project. At the same time it has also created a small team of developers familiar enough with the system to continue if the project is abandoned, or to help Tomas M out, should he decide to return for Slax 7. On the other hand I wonder if this is not just an operating system for a small group of hardcore fans now that it has had its time and may become increasingly irrelevant, in a day and age where almost every distribution offers a convenient graphical way to copy to a USB device and back or create spins. In any case, I am glad it's still around, and will keep using it from time to time just for fun.

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