Last month, the BBC published an article on the strong environmental impacts of, of all things, the internet. It’s a nonintuitive idea, that the digital world has a tangible effect on the real world’s environment, but it turns out that the cumulative cost of the electricity that powers the computers, as well as servers around the world, seriously hurts the environment. Not only that, but the rapid turnover of the electronics market (devices float in and out in about three years) produces a massive amount of electronic waste, which is toxic and seeps into groundwater from landfills around the globe.
Given this situation, we began to wonder if we could modify the software side of things so that we could optimize existing hardware to be less exacting on the environment. Our conclusion is that the problem lies with the operating system - Windows for most people, which is energy inefficient and resource intensive. Our goal, then, became to replace it with a superior alternative.
What it does
By being built from the ground up to be fast, performant, light on energy consumption, elegant, and easy on your computer’s hardware, ValeOS produces massive benefits for your computer. We estimate that installing it on a current PC (manufactured in the last three years) can double that PC’s lifetime and cut the carbon footprint by 75%. And the benefits for old computers that would otherwise soon end up in the recycling bin are even more dramatic - ValeOS runs on computers manufactured from as old as 2009 - over a decade ago! This saves hardware from being disposed of, most of the time improperly, and contributing to a growing global e-waste problem.
To install it, just download the ISO file and burn it to a USB with an image-writing tool like Etcher (https://www.balena.io/etcher/). Then, boot your computer from that USB.
However, we recommend that you load the operating system in a virtual machine, such as VirtualBox (https://www.virtualbox.org/), to test it out. That way it doesn’t make any changes to your computer.
How we built it
ValeOS was built using several major open source components. On top of a normal Linux kernel, we installed the base, command-line-only image of Ubuntu linux, so that we could use a command line package manager (apt and snap). Using this command line package manager, we then connected to several online internet repositories to install lightweight, open source, free alternatives to common power-hungry desktop applications, as well as a few lightweight desktop components such as a display manager, login screen, panel, dock, and a window manager.
At that point, we had a bunch of loose components floating around. The next step was to create a unified desktop configuration file that would freeze our “desktop environment” so that it would be consistent across all of our users. To do this, we had to comply with the freedesktop.org standards, but at the end we had a functional graphical interface and suite of apps, built from the ground up to be as lightweight and energy efficient as possible.
The next step was to create a welcome application, that would help new users get started with the operating system. As a frontend web developer, Daniel Wei was able to use the Electron and Bootstrap frameworks to create a simple welcome app. Ryan Ma then created a set of bash scripts that would launch the application on first run for our users.
Finally, we used an open source set of bash scripts known as remastersys to recompile the operating system into its base components, a tree filesystem. After adding EFI file compatibility and making it writable to USB, we compressed the product into a single ISO image.
Challenges we ran into
Thankfully we didn’t run into very many issues, because we barely finished within time as it was. We did have occasional issues with hardware compatibility - a recurring issue, not just with our OS, but with the entire Linux ecosystem as a whole - but we’re confident that it works on 99% of hardware, and that it absolutely works in a virtual machine emulator.
What's next for Vale OS
In the future, we hope to resolve the few remaining hardware compatibility issues we had. If possible, we’re also looking into collaborating with Pine64, an ARM laptop company, which creates small, eco-friendly laptops pre-loaded with various Linux distributions. To sell laptops pre-loaded with ValeOS would go a long way towards making eco-friendly computing for everyone an actual reality.