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Fast-Booting OS for Usually-Off Appliance PCs? 523

An anonymous reader writes "I have some older computer equipment at work that I want to re-purpose as application appliances. The machines will sit, unpowered, until needed, then powered up. No way around the 'sitting powered off' — company directive. What is the quickest-booting OS I could use for them? I know about LinuxBIOS, but that would require new hardware, which does not go along which the re-purposing theme. Some of them do not need to be connected to a network, so an old version of Linux or Windows 98 are possible. DOS is too old to consider. So what are my options?"
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Fast-Booting OS for Usually-Off Appliance PCs?

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  • DOS (Score:3, Funny)

    by ClogHammer ( 904919 ) <> on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:02PM (#24236641)
    Oh, keep the autoexec.bat small.
  • by dj245 ( 732906 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:03PM (#24236645) Homepage
    What is their purpose?
  • Linux + hibernate (Score:5, Informative)

    by zjbs14 ( 549864 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:05PM (#24236673) Homepage
    Linux + hibernate (swsusp, TuxOnIce) functionality.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Locklin ( 1074657 )

      Suspend to disk can be really fast if there is very little running. The more running, the more has to be swapped out to disk, then reloaded from disk at boot.

  • Well, (Score:5, Interesting)

    by SuiteSisterMary ( 123932 ) <slebrun@[ ] ['gma' in gap]> on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:05PM (#24236677) Journal

    There's always BeOS, which prided itself on lightning-fast load times. Otherwise, a rather stripped down UNIX-alike would do you fine.

    • BeOS (Score:5, Informative)

      by Lulu of the Lotus-Ea ( 3441 ) <> on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:37PM (#24236947) Homepage

      BeOS really was pretty amazing in this respect, and some others. Multithreading was far ahead of anything else at the time, and probably since, as well. On some older machine (P3-ish; much slower HDD than nowadays) I clocked boot time at 15 seconds, OS/2 and Linux distros of the time were more like 1-1.5 minutes on the same hardware.

      The way it booted so fast was largely by deferring a lot of the "initialization" stuff until the system was "booted". This is nothing like the awful way Windows (and to a lesser extent KDE/Gnome desktops) keep loading stuff for a good while, letting you see the desktop for a minute before you can really do anything. Under BeOS, said multithreading was well utilized to give you a responsive GUI right at that 15 seconds, but still do background loads of various background processes that you didn't *really* need immediately.

      Of course, if you immediately launched something that *did* need the services of something loading in a background thread, you'd obviously have to wait a few more seconds. But even all that background loading was very efficient, and practically, by the time you could make a few clicks, it was loaded.

      • Re:BeOS (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Lord Kano ( 13027 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:44PM (#24236999) Homepage Journal

        I remember when one of the Mac magazines gave away a BeOS preview release. I installed it on my 6400/200. I was able to play 8 quicktime movies all at the same time with no noticeable performace hit. I was really stoked about the possibilities. Unfortunately, Apple didn't go with Be and we'll never know what could have been.


        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          M$ made OEM's not put BEOS on systems and that killed them.

        • Re:BeOS (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Ucklak ( 755284 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @12:51AM (#24237851)

          I believe that Microsoft told OEM partners that if they offered BeOS as an alternative, they would lose the ability to sell Microsoft's OSs.
          That's what happened.

          • Re:BeOS (Score:4, Informative)

            by laird ( 2705 ) <lairdp@gmai[ ]om ['l.c' in gap]> on Friday July 18, 2008 @08:42AM (#24240533) Journal

            To add some detail, Microsoft's Windows license to PC manufacturers gave them highly preferential pricing if they agreed to pay for a Windows license on every PC shipped, and to not shipping any other OS with their PC's, with the difference in price so high that no OEM could possibly agree to pay the higher price. The restriction was quite extreme - Microsoft blocked several companies from even shipping a BeOS CD in the same box as a "BeOS PC" - I think Fujitsu actually shipped PC's for a little while with no OS, and a form that you could fill out and send them so that they would FedEx you a copy of BeOS. Of course, since they had to pay for Windows anyway, the BeOS PC was not only more complex (you had to order the install CD, then do the OS install) but cost more (since you had to pay for both Windows and BeOS).

            By the time the DoJ settlement clarified that this restriction was illegal, BeOS was long dead.

            I miss BeOS. On a ThinkPad, BeOS would boot and be running so quickly that if I powered on as I took it from my laptop bag it was ready by the time I put my laptop down and opened the screen. Much faster than Windows coming back from hibernation.

            Of course, the old install CD's still work, so if you just need a fast booting OS with a web browser, email, etc., you could probably still run it.

        • Re:BeOS (Score:5, Informative)

          by blueapples ( 614410 ) <> on Friday July 18, 2008 @01:23AM (#24238081) Homepage Journal

          we'll never know what could have been.

          Maybe we will - []

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)


            Just downloaded the VMWare image, and it booted to a usable state in < 20 seconds. That compares with around 90 seconds for a Knoppix ISO image to boot from the same VMWare console.

            When there are some apps for Haiku, I'll definitely be installing it on my home machine as an alternative and something to play with.

        • Re:BeOS (Score:5, Funny)

          by moosesocks ( 264553 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @01:26AM (#24238115) Homepage

          Unfortunately, Apple didn't go with Be and we'll never know what could have been.

          Multiple threads of slashdotters nostalgically longing for the days of NeXTStep to return?

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by LoudMusic ( 199347 ) *

          And at that same time there were Apple bigots who raved about the power of ... was it system 7 at that time? And someone else makes an OS for the hardware they already own that completely dominates their operating system in every single way. Most of them weren't even aware of the power they were missing out on.

          I'd still take BeOS over OS X, if there were any decent apps for it, and current development.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        I was working on BeOS back then (video drivers, on contract to Be, Inc), and I have to say it depends on how you define "usable". Even when fully running it had no idea what a printer was, nor a network file system for that matter (not NFS, not SMB, nothing). The only way to transfer files was via FTP, and since BeOS had no real concept of users there was only one login/password for FTP access, with full read/write permission to everything.

        The only thing in the whole system that had any concept of user wa

    • Re:Well, (Score:5, Interesting)

      by gooman ( 709147 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:56PM (#24237101) Journal

      BeOS was as close to "instant on" as I've ever seen in an OS. Everyone who saw it was amazed. My computer took longer to go through the BIOS screens than BeOS took to load. Once the splashscreen appeared it was at the desktop in 5 seconds. I wonder how well Haiku performs in this regard.

      • Zeta (OS) (Score:4, Informative)

        by PC and Sony Fanboy ( 1248258 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @11:13PM (#24237209) Journal
        ... built off BeOS, I thinks ;)
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Bert64 ( 520050 )

        Try AmigaOS loading from a proper hard drive instead of floppy, it takes longer to spin up the drive than it does to boot to workbench. I could get my A4000 to boot in 5 seconds from pressing the power switch.

        I wonder what one of those solid state drives would do for it... I have a 32Mb solid state IDE drive somewhere, thats big enough for AmigaOS...

  • by Joe The Dragon ( 967727 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:05PM (#24236681)

    Dos may work well as well as windows 3.11 or windows 98.

    A CF based disk will boot fast as well as a ssd.

  • BeOS? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Chonine ( 840828 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:07PM (#24236697)
    Back in the day, BeOS booted in 6 seconds to a fully usable desktop (6 seconds after the POST). I don't think that is what you are looking for though, and I don't know how far the Free clone, Haiku, has come.

    More realistically, there is this interesting Linux distribution, Webconverger: []

    I've used it for a few web-only systems. Boots up fast enough. Use it as a starting point to tweak. Basically, firefox becomes your operating system and UI. Neat idea.

  • re (Score:5, Informative)

    by JohnVanVliet ( 945577 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:09PM (#24236713) Homepage
    there is " damn small linux " [] you could even install it in the /boot partition of fedora as a backup os
    • Re:re (Score:5, Interesting)

      by TheRealMindChild ( 743925 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:37PM (#24236941) Homepage Journal
      Ok. I HAVE to bite this one in the butt. After trying ALL of the recent "light weight" distros on my fathers Pentium II 300 w/256 MB of ram, DSL, Xubuntu, etc ALL FAILED miserably on it. 5 minute boot times, sluggish response, you name it. It wasn't usable. Oddly enough, I threw Slackware 4.0 on it and it ran great, while Slackware 12 did not. Maybe it is the 2.6 kernel... I haven't a clue. But there isn't an up to date distro that will run sufficiently as a desktop on such hardware. Period.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by icegreentea ( 974342 )
        DSL uses 2.4 kernel. DSL-N uses 2.6. I have a machine with similar specs (even less RAM actually), and it actually runs windows 98 (and DSL) perfectly fine. Round 3 minutes for windows to boot, most stuff runs pretty well. *shrug* no idea whats going on for you.
  • OpenBSD? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by condition-label-red ( 657497 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:10PM (#24236733) Homepage
    Depending on the intended use, a minimal install of OpenBSD [] might do the trick.
  • Fast boot (Score:4, Informative)

    by Sp4freel ( 1312013 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:11PM (#24236743)
    DSL linux is really fast when installed on a Hdd.
  • by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:14PM (#24236757) Homepage Journal

    Boot from a RAMdisk filesystem and make it as small as possible. Rip out all the startup scripts and write your own that just runs the one or two things you actually need running, runs ifconfig, route, etc. manually with hard-coded info (or starts dhclient/pump/dhcpcd). Compile the minimum number of possible drivers into the kernel and don't include any modules at all, nor tools to load modules. Include a bare-bones GUI layer like Nano-X and write your applications using pure Xlib if you can. Otherwise, use the most lightweight WM and GUI toolkit you can find (e.g. straight Tcl/Tk).

    For permanent storage, mount a small (e.g. 300 MB) filesystem on a flash card so that the fsck takes just a couple of seconds even if forced. :-)

  • by rtechie ( 244489 ) * on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:15PM (#24236765)

    Just to be clear: You intend to have old machines sitting around unpowered and then someone WALKS UP TO THEM and presses the power button. The user then waits for the OS to boot and does his thing. Correct?v

    So what are these systems being used for? Kiosks? This is critical to determining what you need. For example, QNX boots very quickly but it's an embedded Unix system. But QNX probably won't run whatever app it is you want to run on these systems.

    Basically, you said they are going to be application appliances. WHAT application?

    • by sootman ( 158191 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @11:05PM (#24237149) Homepage Journal

      I agree this is too little information, so I will take advantage of the vagueness to walk a decade down memory lane. :-)
      Back in 1998 when I was first getting into Linux and other OSs--back when we thought OSs besides Windows had a chance because Windows was so crappy and all these others were so great--there were a couple experiments that were fun.

      • BeOS, as others have already mentioned, booted very quickly. I remember seeing it advertised at around 20 seconds after POST; on my 300 MHz AMD K6-2 it took about 30. On any newer system with a halfway decent disk you'd see boot times in the teens or less. One of the open-source BeOS clones might be worth looking at.
      • Around that same time, QNX released a free demo that fit onto a floppy--one with (limited) NIC support and the other for computers with modems. Full TCP/IP stack, browser, shipped with a browser-based ring-stacking game (Towers of Hanoi) written in JavaScript. You can probably find copies of the image online. Ah, here we go, fifth match. [] I don't remember what floppy boot times were like but if you install it onto a CF card or something I bet it'd be great. (Can't get it to run in VirtualBox at the moment.)
      • A bit later I bought a 1 GHz PIII HP Pavillion. After I replaced the 60 GB WD HDD with a 13 GB unit (big drives are for servers; clients get small drives) and replaced the trialware-laden WinME with Win98 boot times dropped from 35 seconds to 25. That's gotta be 6, 7 years ago by now... how old is your box?
      • Not known for boot times but speaking of relatively fullfeatured alternative OSs, ReactOS might be worth looking into.
      • Oh yeah, and way back in the late 1980s, my parents bought an AT or XT clone which booted from power off to a C: prompt in seven seconds. Great for running WordPerfect 5.1 and Banner Blue Movie Guide.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by negRo_slim ( 636783 )

        A bit later I bought a 1 GHz PIII HP Pavillion. After I replaced the 60 GB WD HDD with a 13 GB unit (big drives are for servers; clients get small drives) and replaced the trialware-laden WinME with Win98 boot times dropped from 35 seconds to 25. That's gotta be 6, 7 years ago by now... how old is your box?

        I always found ME to boot much faster than 98/98SE, but that was the only improvement... Oh and defrag was quicker, it would usually finish before something crashed or locked up.

  • by wb8wsf ( 106309 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:17PM (#24236781)

    You haven't said what exactly these machines are going to be doing, but I fail to see why the extra time that one OS takes over another is a factor to deal with.

    If it takes an extra 90 seconds to boot an OS that is stable and reliable, how does shaving that 90 seconds save anything?

    Optimizing for boot time over everything else seems very foolish to me.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by drfireman ( 101623 )

      Optimizing for boot time over everything else seems very foolish to me.

      I guess that's true if you're designing a web server. Probably not if you're designing a computer-controlled defibrillator.

  • DSL and Puppy (Score:5, Informative)

    by steveha ( 103154 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:21PM (#24236821) Homepage

    Take a look at DSL and Puppy Linux. Both are tiny and would boot quickly from a CompactFlash. DSL is probably better for all-around appliance use; Puppy is intended for use as a desktop OS. [] []


  • MenuetOS (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Vectronic ( 1221470 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:22PM (#24236829)

    MenuetOS [] Its a bit hardcore though, and you would probably have a hard time getting 'normal' applications to work, but its tiny and quick, although sort of a beta still.

    But if you know ASM, its could be a miracle cure or something...

    MenuetOS is an Operating System in development for the PC written entirely in 32/64 bit assembly language, and released under the License. It supports 32/64 bit x86 assembly programming for smaller, faster and less resource hungry applications.

    Menuet has no roots within UNIX or the POSIX standards, nor is it based on any operating system. The design goal has been to remove the extra layers between different parts of an OS, which normally complicate programming and create bugs.

    Menuet's application structure is not specifically reserved for asm programming since the header can be produced with practically any other language. However, the overall application programming design is intended for easy 32/64 bit asm programming. Menuet's responsive GUI is easy to handle with assembly language.


    - Pre-emptive multitasking with 1000hz scheduler, multithreading, ring-3 protection
    - Responsive GUI with resolutions up to 1280x1024, 16 million colours
    - Free-form, transparent and skinnable application windows, drag'n drop
    - IDE: Editor/Assembler for applications
    - USB 2.0 Hi-speed storage support
    - TCP/IP stack with Loopback & Ethernet drivers
    - Email/ftp/http/chess clients and ftp/mp3/http servers
    - Hard real-time data fetch
    - Fits on a single floppy

    Happens to be a favorite of mine (not mine as in created), although probably not suited to your needs judging by the brief summary.

  • HIBERNATE (Score:4, Informative)

    by Idiomatick ( 976696 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:24PM (#24236855)

    Any OS with hibernate should be quick enough. I doubt systems vary too much between them. Anything that uses minimal ram and hance has less to load on boot. Just go with whatever OS suits you best.

  • Kids these days (Score:3, Informative)

    by wiredlogic ( 135348 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @10:52PM (#24237053)

    You have a requirement for fast booting but you just blunder ahead and elimiate DOS from the running right from the start.

    DOS can make a very capable platform if you don't need the support services of a more sophisticated OS. There is no question that it can be made to boot faster than most other off the shelf OS's. You don't mention what you need to run on these machines so it is hard to tell what will be suitable for you. You can run most *NIX shell apps under a DOS environment using DJGPP and its 32-bit extender. FreeDOS has a lot of drivers to handle more modern hardware. If you need something closer to a true *NIX system that boots fast, QNX is worth considering too.

  • by 1u3hr ( 530656 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @11:31PM (#24237331)
    How the hell can anyone make a sensible suggestion when we have no idea what the hardware is or what the applications are they're supposed to run?
  • by dreemernj ( 859414 ) on Thursday July 17, 2008 @11:31PM (#24237335) Homepage Journal
    A trimmed down Win2K that's hibernated can be surprisingly fast. In college I relied on a Pentium 200 with 32MB RAM and a 2 gig harddrive for my in class note taking and presentations, usually using Office 2000.

    On a system with that little ram the default install will use very little memory from a fresh boot and a lot of stuff can still be turned off to get it smaller.

    I kind of relied on it shutting down and starting up fast for back to back classes. The laptop was already old and didn't have a working battery so it was a full power down every class. $1200 a semester in books FTL.
  • by tbird20d ( 600059 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @01:10AM (#24237983)
    Boot time is spent in 1 of 4 main areas: 1) BIOS, 2) bootloader, 3) kernel, 4) user space init. The kernel can be made to boot fairly quickly following the suggestions and tips at: []. With a little elbow grease, boot times for the Linux kernel in the range of 6-10 seconds should be achievable.

    I have personally seen the kernel portion of a boot on an embedded board reduced to 186 milliseconds, using aggressive techniques such as Execute-in-Place.

    For user space, customize your init scripts (actually, dump your init scripts in favor of one compiled /sbin/init binary).

    In the x86 space, with legacy hardware, I think the thing that will give you the most problem is BIOS. I know of products with custom code that replaces BIOS, that load the kernel from ROM in under 150 milliseconds. But that's probably more effort than you are interested in. You may want to check out what options are available in your current (legacy) BIOS for skipping things like the POST test, etc.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by jgrahn ( 181062 )

      Boot time is spent in 1 of 4 main areas: 1) BIOS, 2) bootloader, 3) kernel, 4) user space init. [...]In the x86 space, with legacy hardware, I think the thing that will give you the most problem is BIOS.

      Right. I just measured this on my PC with Debian Etch:

      1. BIOS, probing for idiotic things forever: 37s
      2. grub boot loader, including a 5s press-space timeout: 9s
      3. optimized kernel plus starting plenty of servers and going to runlevel 2 (text-mode login prompt): 14s

      It's not hard to get those 14s down to somet

  • Eh? (Score:4, Informative)

    by ledow ( 319597 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @03:41AM (#24238839) Homepage

    Windows 98 is okay but DOS is too old? Eh?

    First, we have NO idea what you actually want. Are these going to be running dumb terminals, displays, "embedded device" roles, what? What sort of machines are we talking about? What sort of budget do you consider acceptable?

    Seriously, if you want things to boot THAT quick, you're either going to have to spend money (LinuxBIOS, replacing with ARM or other embedded devices etc.) or you're going to have to compromise (DOS or some other really-cut-down OS). FreeDOS is used in these sorts of things all the time, even for networking appliances with appropriate drivers loaded. People have FreeDOS MP3 players in place of their CD-players in their car. Virtually-instant to boot.

    Back in the day, you could get an old DOS machine to boot really quickly if you optimised everything and cut out all the cruft (BIOS boot times were actually a large part of it, unfortunately, what with memory-checks, floppy-checks etc.) . Guess what, you won't get that same machine to boot any quicker today without replacing parts.

    If you have minimal actual software requirements (i.e. they ain't doing anything fancy and need to boot REALLY fast), then you're looking at DOS. Otherwise you're looking at Linux (if you want to keep licensing, support, compatibility costs down) unless you want to buy XP licenses for them all. Wouldn't like to think what Windows 98 would work like in this on/off scenario. I suspect that it would start crashing out, hitting filesystem checks, etc. eventually no matter what you tried. And Windows 98 is SLOW to boot. Incredibly so. For a start, it loads DOS first and then kicks itself in after that!

    After you've sorted the OS, if you're still struggling then you can look at things like LinuxBIOS (sorry, but that's the only way you'll speed up the BIOS boot times on older PC's but the chances are that it's just not supported for your chipset).

    To be honest, from a power-saving perspective, just bin the lot (see if you can get a few quid for them first) and then buy some Gumstix or similar embedded board, Mini-ITX etc. You can literally leave something like that on 24/7 and not pull anywhere near the power you would draw with an old PC in one hour. And you can have them boot extremely fast and minimally.

    Re-using old hardware is great. Expecting it to perform brilliantly isn't. Booting reliably into a powerful, full-featured OS in a handful of seconds *is* performing brilliantly. We couldn't do it back in the days of DOS devices with standard PC's, you aren't going to manage it now without making some cutbacks on your expectations. And then for about £50 each, you can get tiny, powerful, power-saving, fan-free, embedded ARM units with Linux that'll do anything you want.

    You have unrealistic expectations.

Things are not as simple as they seems at first. - Edward Thorp