Is there any Live CD CLI distro?


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Feb 25, 2019
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I wonder... is there any live mini iso of any distro that when you boot it, it's only terminal? And it must support literally ancient hardware. It's about a computer from early 90's which surprisingly enough still works and runs MS-DOS but for an uknown reason MS-DOS won't find the hard drive. The computer in question is from the era before AGP (I'm not even sure that thing has RAM, cuz I didn't see any where it was supposed to be) and the owner wants to save, if possible, some data from the hard drive before trashing it. The only way I see this going, is to find something like TinyCore but without desktop and only tty mode, similar to Arch when you boot from its ISO. AFAIK TinyCore is small but comes with desktops and I doubt that ancient video card of that computer can handle anything fancier than MS-DOS, no matter how much lightweight it is.
The computer has something that looks like USB, altough it's a mystery whether it will recognize any flash drive, but it also has an ancient CD reader, which, hopefully, will be able to read and load that terminal distro, if such a thing exists.

Personally I have very little hope of saving anything from that hard drive bc the CD-ROM can't burn discs and if it doesn't recognize any flash drive, the mission will be doomed, but the man wants me to try anyway.

I suppose I could try with Arch ISO but I'm not sure whether this CLI mode of Arch supports basic commands like "cp" (copy) or "blkid". Not to mention that the computer's file system is older than me and is probably not supported by Arch anymore.

If you have other ideas how to get the data from the hard drive, throw them my way. My computer doesn't have power and data connectors like this computer, so I can't attach the hard drive to my own computer.

Almost any modern distro with a grub menu will let you boot into text mode.

In the grub menu, select which release you want to boot into ( live USB's usually only have 1 option )
Find the line that starts with "linux", go to the very end of that line. Be careful not to go to the "initrd" line. Add a number "3".
runlevel 3 is text only.

Press cntrl-x to continue the boot process.
I know about the hack with the "3" in grub's linux line. Let's say I do this. Then there's the problem with the ancient unknown filesystem (it could be FAT, but I can't be sure - that computer is older than me) and IDK whether any modern distro, especially live boot, supports this file system without any form of FAT driver of NTFS-3G.
I think your basic problem is that early ms dos was IBM compatible and so only 16 bit processing ,modern distributions are only 32 or 64 bit [they usually had between 1 & 8 kb of ram hard-wired to the motherboard {at least mine did}]
the 286 was a 16 bit machine, the first 32 bit was the Compaq 386 in 1985
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You could consider a rescue disk such as SystemRescue which can be booted to a text prompt, written to usb or cd/dvd. In my experience it has a more complete set of tools than some ordinary live cds do. Best to check out the docs on its website to see if it suits.
I'll just provide some thoughts.

The oldest system I have here is from 1995, its still using IBM DOS 5.02 & works, however it has trouble reading modern CDR/DVDR media, and won't read any RW media. It would use old Kodak gold media usually, and one later chinese made brand of write-once but they were short lived. I found the same on other ~equivalent aged hardware, but it varies on the actual drive itself in my experience (you could swap out the drive for another; but hardware that old often wouldn't use more modern drives that read any media).

FYI: Boxes that old will rarely boot USB devices; as early USB thumb-drives weren't large enough to contain an OS anyway (CDs stored more data than early USB flash; but most importantly optical CDs were cheaper for software makes/sellers).

The easiest way I found on booting optical media on really old hardware was just use the various CD/DVDs found in magazines of the time & a decade+ newer than the hardware itself. Tiny Core or really old Puppy Linux (pre-Ubuntu era of Puppy) I always had operate, assuming the hardware had 64MB of RAM though.

The media needs to contain a bootable kernel for the grade of CPU, ie. 386/486/586/686 needs to align between kernel & hardware (Debian & Ubuntu call all those i386, but Linux doesn't).
  1. can the hard drive be extracted and hooked into a caddy so that it can be read from a modern computer?
  2. can an internet connection be established?