Tuesday, May 8, 2012


The Eternal Distro

First we'll spell out some simple terminology:

Distro is short for distribution which in the software world mainly means Linux and BSD these days.

Now, as good as the existing distros are (I use a bunch of different versions of Fedora Linux including fc1, f10 and f14, and also Vector Linux Classic and OpenBSD) they all have one irritating problem in that their software repositories disappear. OpenBSD 4.7 disappeared recently and Fedora Core 1 disappeared ages ago.

Once the software repos disappear one can no longer simply download packages using their package manager of choice. In theory one could try to hunt down the binary packages or even the source code, but there's no guarantee that you'll be able to find either. Already the source code for older versions of KDE have vanished off the internet. The main problem is hard drive storage space and the people running ftp sites for various different distros are always finding it necessary to delete the old stuff to make room for the new stuff.

There's another upgrade treadmill at work here which I call the hardware upgrade treadmill. It means that we have the additional problem of having to replace aging hardware. The problems of finding old replacement parts for our old hardware combined with disappearing software make the act of dumping your old computer for a new one almost a necessity.

Even so computer hardware can last a long time. There are many examples of even 70's era hardware still working today. A Commodore PET from 1978 would be 34 years old now in 2012. I'm told even the old cassette tapes for the PET still work. But even so I wouldn't expect anyone to use a Commodore PET computer as their main machine today. Even if they did replacement parts would be very hard to come by. If we look at a relatively modern Intel P3 system built in 1998 (14 years) we can safely say such a computer is still viable today. There's no reason why it couldn't run a web or email server. Also replacement parts for P3 systems are available in massive quantities.

The software repos for a specific version of Linux or BSD never last 14 years though. So in fact we see that software ages even more quickly than hardware. There are some distros that while one couldn't call them eternal they still linger for a long time. One such distro is Basic Linux 3 which is based on Slackware 4.0 which I've written about before. It is one possible starting point to make an Eternal Distro.

Now we will describe the attributes of the system that the Eternal Distro will run on... this is a somewhat arbitrary process, but we'll stick with something like the Intel P3 system due to it's ubiquity.

- Intel P3 cpu at least 500 mhz in speed
- some video card capable of at least 1024x768 resolution
- a DVD rom drive, one that can burn CD's and DVD's
- 256 megs of ram
- 40 gig hard drive
- ethernet card (In the P3 era these were still sometimes separate from the motherboard)

Finally we will try to describe the attributes of the Eternal Distro itself. We want something old but not ancient (we wouldn't want to go back all the way to Unix V7 for example). We want something that is succinct, that does core tasks like web serving and ftp and email but doesn't take up a lot of hard drive space. And perhaps the most important part of this whole idea, we will need some sort of software repository that always stays with us and doesn't just disappear one day (I'm looking at you OpenBSD 4.7).

To the best of my knowledge such a distro does not currently exist. It is easy enough to find old ISO's of Linux and BSD but you can be certain that there are no working repos for them. I mentioned that I still run Fedora Core 1. I have the three original CD's still. It's still possible to do piece-meal upgrades of application software via source code. Programs will either compile or not using gcc 3.3.2 on them. I've improved it's security in a variety of ways. The old box still makes a viable web server. But I do miss being able to "yum install package".

You never can tell when your software repos will disappear. The only advice I can give is to download the entire software repository when you still have the chance or do the configure; make; make install; thing as best you can. Or you could become the maintainer of the Eternal Distro :)

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