Using Linux to give life to old comptuers – Part 1

At Innovation Plaza, we don’t just build circuits and solder PCBs, we also work with software — and that doesn’t mean we only write code or install Matlab on laptops —  some of us like to engage in pointless nostalgia. This includes projects like getting classic video game console emulators running on a Raspberry Pi, making GPIO adapters for the accompanying controllers, collecting classic Macintosh hardware, or running linux on hardware that can barely surf the modern web. There will be more posts regarding the video game emulators and pointless Linux installations later.

The reason for this post comes from creating a way to download classic Macintosh software from abandonware sites using a modern computer, copying it over the network to an intermediate computer that can write to a medium readable by the classic machine. This is more difficult than it sounds.

Why bother? Good question. And, it’s a question I ask repeatedly while I’m wasting time on this when I’m supposed to be doing homework. It’s fun, and I have serious nostalgia with this Macintosh Quadra 700 (25 MHz 68040) as it was the first powerful computer I was ever able to call my own. Surely, any geek or nerd has a similar memory of finally getting that device that could do things we had only read about previously.

15 year old Dell Inspiron 2500 booting Debian Linux for the first time.
15 year old Dell Inspiron 2500 booting Debian Linux for the first time.

For today’s post, I will be discussing installing Debian Linux 7.4 (Wheezy) on a Dell Inspiron 2500 (900 MHz Coppermine Celeron) circa 1999. This old Dell laptop has a floppy drive, a CD drive, a Parallel Port, and an RS232 port all built in, and because of this, it serves as a bridge to my classic Macintoshes that have only a floppy drive and have a SCSI Iomega Zip drive.  It does not have an Ethernet adapter, but it does have a Mini-PCI slot for a WiFi card from another laptop, a newer, dead HP.

My modern desktop machine is an Intel based system running Ubuntu and it is the machine I’m writing this post on. It does not have any of the connections needed to communicate with this old Mac. It does NOT have a serial port, parallel port, zip drive, or floppy drive. So the bridge to this old Dell Laptop from downloaded internet software is a network connection. I could have run a web browser on this old Dell if I needed to, but it only has 128MB of RAM so surfing the web is painful. The files are served to this Dell from the modern PC over samba which works beautifully and can be done from the command line.

The Quadra can connect over Ethernet with a transceiver (I ordered one from eBay, but it hasn’t arrived yet). However, even with an Ethernet connection, its operating system does not support communication over NFS, Samba, or SSH without 3rd party software. There is an SSH client for 68k Mac, and I will copy it over with a floppy.

To recap, here is the path I need to build to get files to my Macintosh Quadra 700.

Internet -> Modern PC -> Old Dell -> (floppy/Zip) -> Macintosh Quadra

So, back to the old Dell. The first step is downloading a CD image of Debian netinst, which is a lightweight cd image that only installs the bare minimum to be able to boot linux and connect to the network.

To boot Linux on the Dell, I had to tell the Kernel to disable ACPI, which is done by passing ‘acpi=off’ to the kernel boot arguments. Otherwise it would hang. Additionally, the video card on this machine didn’t support the default menu resolution, so I also had to pass ‘vga=normal’ in the boot options.

This machine didn’t have a hard drive, so I took the wireless card and antenna from the dead HP. I was fortunate to have a pile of old broken systems that had the right parts to make a good one for this project.

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HP/Compaq Pentium 4 laptop. Notice the dual fans and large heatsinks which weren’t enough to keep this monster from cooking itself to death.

The old Dell has an Ethernet connector on the side, but no Ethernet card… (thanks, Dell), so the installer had to be told not to try to download anything and just complete the install. The install went smoothly, and the machine booted, but it didn’t get everything it needed to connect with the Wireless card. Like I did with the installer, I had to change the GRUB boot config file, /etc/default/grub, to pass ‘acpi=off’ to kernel. Then run ‘update-grub’ to update the bootloader with these changes.

The Mini-PCI card that was already there was an old ActionTec 56K modem. I replaced this with the Broadcom BCM4306 Wireless ethernet card. Notice there are antenna connections on this board, but there is no antenna in this chassis.

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On the left is the Wireless card I yanked from the HP. On the right is the 56K modem that was in the slot. I was pretty lucky to have two laptops from the same era so that I could make the system I needed for this project.

For the antenna, I took the wireless antenna out of the dead HP. The antenna is in the screen module, so I removed the screen and took the antenna out. For now, I will connect the antenna and let it dangle off to the side, but I will figure out a better way to hide this antenna in the chassis. Before I do this, I want to make sure everything else works.

The next part is a bit laborious. I need to get this machine on the network. Because the wireless card didn’t have native linux drivers, I had to download the firmware and accompanying installer utility (b43-fwcutter) on the modern PC, compile it for the old machine (gcc -m32), copy it over using a USB flash drive, and then install and configure wireless manually on the command line.

Configuring the wireless on the command line is the best option because using a GUI requires downloading and copying a lot more files over the thumb drive. To do this isn’t hard, but it takes a few steps:

  1. Download and install the .deb files needed, wpasupplicant and wireless-tools, and all of their dependencies.
  2. Configure the wireless connection for your network using this guide: https://wiki.debian.org/WiFi/HowToUse#Command_Line
  3. Add the standard debian mirrors to your /etc/sources.list file, then do apt-get update. If the wireless connection is working, the modern PC is no longer needed to copy any files over with a thumb drive. Progress!

A note about web browsers: For an old machine, I’ve discovered that Firefox is really, really slow. Instead I use midori or chromium-browser, based on the webkit framework, and the basis for google-chrome, is completely open-source and light-weight. The performance and security of bare-bones debian + chromium on a 15-year-old computer is surprisingly good, far better than any commercial operating system of any era on this hardware. If it had even a little bit more RAM I would have been able to browse the web without having to constantly swap to disk

Great, I’m on the network now, and should soon be able to copy files to the Zip drive or a floppy. There is no /dev/fd0 or /dev/fd1 by default on this version of Debian. As root, if I run ‘modprobe floppy’, the floppy device /dev/fd0 appears and I can’t mount a floppy drive. For those who don’t know what modprobe does, it tells the kernel to load a drive module. If the hardware is present, the module loads successfully and the devices are created by the udev subsystem.

The Zip drive is a bit more complicated. After searching some 5+ year old forum posts, I found out that several modules must be loaded in order to access this ancient piece of storage hardware. The modules are: ppa, parport, parport_pc. As soon as the last module was added, the busy light on the zip drive began to flash and the drive was now accessible as a SCSI emulated device on /dev/sdb.

The old Mac does not have a parallel port, but has an external SCSI connector which was common for nearly all Macintosh computers from the Macintosh Plus (ca. 1986) to what is now called “Old World” G3 PowerMacintosh (Beige) computers in 1998. When the Zip drives were introduced, they came in both Parallel and SCSI flavors, and I have one of each. I didn’t have a power supply for these drives, but with the help of Ryan Fenn, who found the right power supply and connector to make this work. Rumor has it that he has excellent soldering skills too.

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I now have the ability to read and write to the two media that the Quadra can, so I’m almost done bridging the gap between my modern internet connected systems and this 23 year old Macintosh.  I soon discovered, though, copying the files over in a way that the old system can recognize is another big hurdle.

In Part 2 of giving life to old computers, I will go through the steps I took to copy files over to the Quadra so that it was able to recognize them.