Linux on the Libretto

Alan Jeffrey

Why a Libretto?

The Libretto is a tiny (about the size of a video cassette) PC. The 50CT isn't exactly a high-spec machine (75MHz Pentium, 32MB RAM, 640x480 screen, no internal floppy or CD-ROM) but it is good enough for on-the-road activities like reading and writing email, writing short notes, etc.

I was going to get a Palm V when it came out, but then I found out that Exel Computers in New York (they advertize regularly in the New York Times) were selling end-of-line machines for only $700, so I jumped at the chance.

My goals for this machine were to get something I could connect to the internet via an ethernet link, read and write email both on- and off-line, and write the odd Java program using emacs and JDK.

I'm a big fan of Red Hat Linux and I'd seen RedHat running on Vaughn Pratt's Libretto a couple of years ago, so I knew it was possible to run Linux on something this small. So I did.


The problem

This was one of the trickier install jobs I've done, but like most everything with RedHat, once I worked out what `the obvious solution' was, it worked like a dream.

The problem is that the Libretto uses a bizarre PCMCIA floppy drive which Linux can't use. You can still use it as a boot diskette (since the BIOS is doing the disk driving at that point) but the moment Linux tries to mount the diskette, everything goes pear shaped.

This wouldn't be a problem, except that RedHat insists on doing just about everything using a supplemental diskette: PCMCIA support, FTP installs, etc. etc. all require the supplemental diskette. Which the libretto can't read. Sigh.

There's a number of (rather baroque) solutions to this, including using custom-built RH installs, or removing the hard disk and putting it in another machine, etc. etc.

But the simplest solution is that RH5.0 does't use the supplemental diskette for NFS installs over PLIP (TCP/IP over the parallel port). This is the simplest solution if you've got another Linux box around.

Preparing for the install

Just pop over to the nearest Bits'R'Us shop and get yourself a Laplink (aka File Transfer) parallel cable with two male DB25 connectors on either end. I got mine from CDW for about $9.

You plug the Libretto into its docking station, connect the parallel ports together, then start PLIP running on the link by saying (at the server end):

  /sbin/ifconfig plipN server-ip-address pointopoint client-ip-address up

where N is 0, 1 or 2 (one of these should work, the others will give error messages). Note that pointopoint only has two ts!

According to Andy Smith you need to give the arp options to ifconfig. Your milage may vary.

Put your CD rom into the server, mount it with:

  mount /mnt/cdrom

Export it using NFS, by adding to /etc/hosts.allow:

  portmap: client-ip-address

and to /etc/exports:

  /mnt client-ip-address


Boot up the Libretto using the RH boot diskette, and go through `the usual procedure' selecting an NFS install, providing the server and client IP addresses, and selecting /mnt/cdrom/ as the directory to install from.

The next gotcha is that the Libretto uses a hidden partition to save the state of RAM when it hibernates. You should allocate yourself about 35MB (size of memory plus a bit to be on the safe side) at the end of the partition table, otherwise Linux will happily use the space, then discover when it wakes up from hibernation that files are missing!

You can be pretty sparse with the RPMs you choose to install, I just installed X, emacs and TeX and got a 190Mb footprint.

The install took about an hour and a bit.

When you're asked for the X configuration, say no to Metro-X, and install a Chips and Technology 65550 server, with 1MB of video RAM and a Custom 640x480 60Hz screen.

Post-installation configuration

I added Netscape and KDE although I'm going to move over to Gnome once it stabalizes.

Networking over a 3Com Etherlink III PCMCIA card worked straight out of the box (once I'd removed the hacks to the routing table to get the PLIP install to work...)

Installing APM is a bit of a drag, since you have to build a custom kernel, but it's pretty simple if dull. Get the kernel source rpm, and do what they say. Take the default settings for everything (unless you're short on memory / disk space) except APM. Install the new kernel and new modules, and there you are. I've not reboooted the machine (or even logged out!) for a month or so now.

That's all folks.

And there you have it, the smallest Pentium Unix workstation you can buy in the US (AFAIK).


Linux on Laptops contains a number of pointers to Libretto Linux installations, of which the most useful (even if I ignored the install method) was Grant Taylor's.

Alan Jeffrey, CTI, DePaul University. Last modified: 2000/02/06.