How can I boot Linux from a flash drive on an old Dell Optiplex?

Joseph Videtto February 2, 2013
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Our school has really, really, really, old Dell Optiplex 260s, 270s, and 280s – some have only 256K ram. I think we can still salvage and use them, at least for internet access and the older programs that have lower memory requirements.

Unfortunately, Windows XP runs very slow on these machines, often because they’ve been in use for years, people installed too much software on them, and they have not been optimized (though I’ve been looking for a quick easy way to do this, short of imaging, cleaning them up seems to take forever. they sometimes take many minutes to open a directory or Office file from Windows explorer – any ideas on this front ?)

After reading a variety of MUO articles (I love, love this site – better technical training than a university could provide!) I thought the easiest, least time-consuming way to make these old machines usable for our teachers and students would be to create a ‘bootable Linux USB flash drive’ with the smallest footprint that is guaranteed to work on our school’s old Dell Optiplex 260s.

I’m not sure even that the BIOS on these old PC’s can boot from a USB flash drive, but some of them do have working CD Roms. Maybe this would work.

Can anyone share some high level steps on whether this is a good idea, and how I might go about it. I’m pretty proficient with Windows, but not Linux, and I’m very concerned of running into unforeseen obstacles with no support people available to help (which is the case for any Linux install in our school – only Windows is supported)


  1. dragonmouth
    February 5, 2013 at 12:20 am

    What program do you need to run? What programs would you like to run? Do you want/have to stay with WinXP? Or do you want to switch to Linux? Why do you want to switch to Linux? If you switch to Linux, how many people will have to be trained? You say you are not very proficient in Linux, who is going to do the training? Who is going to provide the Linux support?

    Before you make any decisions, you need to answer at least the above questions, not only for yourself but also for us, if we are to help you.

    "Windows XP runs very slow on these machines, often because they’ve been in use for years, people installed too much software on them, and they have not been optimized"

    These computers can be made to again run Win XP quickly but it will take some work on your part. They originally came with Win XP so they were optimized. "People installed too much software on them" is your problem. You should un-install any software that has not been approved for use by your school. Win XP comes with a Disk Cleanup program. Use that to clean out all garbage files (/temp, Temporary Internet Files, cookies). Download CCleaner and use it to scan the PCs. It will find more garbage files and unneeded Registry keys. From experience I know it will take a long time to clean the PCs up but it took a long to get all the crap on them. Once you finish the cleanup, Win XP will fly on those PCs again. It will also help if you add more RAM, at least another 512 meg per machine.

    With 768 meg of RAM you can run pretty much any distro. It will not be blazing fast but then those PCs do not have the latest CPUs. I have an Optiplex 270 with 768 meg of RAM and I run Simply MEPIS Linux with no problems. MEPIS is based on Debian.

  2. Oron Joffe
    February 3, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    Hi Joe, I remember those computers from your previous posts! Sounds like a good plan, but I wouldn't go with a USB adaptor, as this would both be slow and would put a significant load on the processor - hardly what you are trying to achieve!
    Although you can run some versions of Linux with 256MB RAM, it would be much better to have more memory, so as others suggest, see if you can get some more for the PCs (512 would be a great improvement, but if you can push it to 768MB or 1GB, it will be very worth while!).
    Now, you could obviously get "proper" SSDs, but they're expensive and the upgrade would make no economic sense, so I would suggest that you get a fast (class 6) SD card and an SD to IDE Adapter (see for an example). You can get these very cheaply from eBay or Chinese shops. All you need to do now is replace the original hard disc with the adapter, fit the SD card into it and voila, you have an flash based disc which, as far is the system is concerned is your boot drive! You can install a system onto it just as you would onto a normal hard disc, and although it won't be as fast as a "real" SSD, it will be perform better than a hard disc, and would also save you about 20W of electricity per PC. Try this with one PC, and if you are happy with the results, repeat on the others. Good luck!

  3. Junil Maharjan
    February 3, 2013 at 5:25 am

    use unetbootin or universal usb installer or linux live usb creator to install the linux distro on a usb. then when you boot your pc, either choose the booting media or change you bios settings to boot usb first.

  4. Lisa Santika Onggrid
    February 2, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    I think the best method is by installing the distro right in the harddisk (you mentioned some of them have working CD drives), but if you specifically need USB booting (I assume you'd want teachers to be able to lug their workfiles around?), then first you have to check whether they can boot from USB or not. If not, you need to think of alternate method like what susendeep said below.
    As for distro recommendation, the smallest possible is Tiny Core Linux (12MB), but it's definitely the barebones of barebones so I'm not recommending it for out of the box use. Damn Small Linux is usable but personally I think it's not as user friendly. The best lightweight distro I've ever used is Puppy Linux variants.

  5. Dimal Chandrasiri
    February 2, 2013 at 6:43 am

    I dnt think 256K is gonna hold modern linux!

  6. Jim Chambers
    February 2, 2013 at 4:08 am

    A lot of online companies in US sell used RAM that's fairly cheap. Upgrade your Dell's to at least 512K.

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