Legacy hardware takes wings with GNU/Linux

Legacy hardware takes wings with GNU/Linux


Having read of Microsoft’s white paper on the use of GNU/Linux on legacy hardware, I had to laugh at the conclusions. But, to be fair, I thought it was time to update my own “legacy” laptop, a Toshiba 660CDT, with a Pentium 150, a 800x600 LCD panel, and a whole 80MB of ram installed.

I originally took this laptop with me when I visited the Republic of Macedonia in 2002. At the time I had installed Mandrake (7.2), which actually ran reasonably well with KDE. I chose Mandrake for this machine back then simply because it was compiled as Pentium optimized, and I thought it best to give the little machine whatever benefit it could have.

As with many older machines, the first challenge with using any "modern" GNU/Linux distribution is often CD booting. Many older distributions included floppy boot images, so if you found a machine with a bios unable to boot a CD, you could write the image to a floppy and use that to kick off the install. While Debian retains this tradition, many current distributions no longer do so.

Into this problem the excellent little “Smart BootManager” (sbminst) has appeared. This package is not meant to replace or compete with lilo or grub. This is simply a boot program that can boot a system track on any partition. More importantly, it can boot a bootable ISO cd-rom drive even where the bios cannot, and it can be installed either on the boot sector of a harddisk or a boot floppy.

I chose to try DSL (Damn Small Linux), which is a very tiny distribution that started life as a business card specific distro. DSL claims to require only 16MB of ram, and very little harddisk space, depending on how one chooses to install it to a harddisk. Current versions are based in part on Knoppix, especially for hardware auto-detection.

Booting DSL as a live CD made it easy to determine that it does indeed support all my hardware on this laptop, including my old USR wireless card! Installing to the harddisk was a snap from a menu choice after partitioning. The only problem was that DSL initially believed the display was 1024x768, when in fact it is 800x600 on the laptop (easy to change from the DSL control center), and a slight battle over the odd soundcard hardware.

With the ability to use a minimum of 16MB of ram, a frugal harddisk install mode that needs very little disk space, and running reasonably snappy on even old hardware, DSL clearly makes even very old machines rather usable, and does so in a way that is accessible to anyone without specialized skills. Whether for browsing (firefox), email, word processing, or many other routine chores, this machine remains very usable.

Originally, and I am guessing, this machine came with an OEM version of Microsoft Windows 98. However, according to Microsoft, my little laptop is now broken and unusable. It is not that the hardware no longer functions, or that magically Microsoft Windows 98 no longer works, but rather that they choose to legally bar one from newly licensing and installing that product anymore, and they choose not to offer a product to replace it that will run on this hardware. Therefore although the hardware runs fine, this machine is no longer usable according to Microsoft.

Thankfully, this machine is running a free operating system, and that freedom to run GNU/Linux and use this fine machine is freedom that no selfish company can take away at its whim.

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Comments

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Comment from: Petr Bren [Visitor] · http://bhy.xf.cz/

02/28/06 @ 12:00
Thanks for the review. I'm also planning to install GNU/Linux on an older computer, the hardware is similar to what you describe. However, I am not sure whether or not I will choose DSL. Don't they include some non-free programs? They claim that there is more on the livecd than just stuff from the Debian respositories. Also, I don't see them listed on that GNU's page with links to completely free distros. Is it a truly free operating system? Thank you.

Comment from: David Sugar [Member] · http://www.gnutelephony.org

02/28/06 @ 13:01
That is an interesting question. I think most changes are simply related to making specific packages use less disk space. Some core libraries may be built with different options, and some packages with less features, than found in a standard Debian build,for example. The library changes if they exist, in particular, could lead to some incompatibilities, I would imagine.

They also have a front end control panel application (I think written in tcl) that is not part of Debian, but I am not aware of it being non-free in any way. They also do different startup/init scripts as they have some things they import from Knoppix, particularly for hardware auto-detection. I believe DSL also does include support for the NDIS wrapper stuff for wireless cards, but I do not believe they include such drivers in the distribution. My wireless card happens to be one supported natively by Linux kernels.

Comment from: Robert Allen [Visitor] · http://allentech.net

03/01/06 @ 01:15
I still run - and use - 4 Pentium 120 MHZ notebooks (Sharp 9020 model) with Linux. I have tried several distros but settled on Mandrake 7.2 with my own kernel build and Fluxbox as the window manager.

Originally they came with W95, later upgraded to W98 (with poor performance) and installed Suse 6.2 as the first Linux distro. They gave several years good service as my main personal systems with Mandrake 7.2. They are now primarily used for development - C/C++ and Perl, as terminals and data logging stations for various applications, and as GREAT teaching tools for my kids! Without Linux they would have become scrap long ago...

(Largely BECAUSE of my experience with these systems, and with Windows thru 2000 Pro, we went 100% Linux in 2003 - and never looked back!)

Comment from: John Kloosterman [Visitor]

03/01/06 @ 09:19
Well - one of the advanches of small modern distro's like DSL is that everything is up to date (securety-wise). The problem with W95/W98 is the fact that they are not loger supported or mantained by de software vendor.

This means that, beside the fact that Linux is more safe than W95/W98, DSL is actively mantained - while the older versions of Windows are not..

I run DSL on a Compaq LTE5300 (P130) with 32Mb memory and 2Gb HD. As this laptop does not has a CD-Rom player, I had to use ftp setup (using the TOMSRTBT mini-linux on floppy), but within as little a one hour I've got everything installed and running. Everything works really nice (tough I would not advice to use the included Firefox because the memory consumption of this browser makes it very slow).

All in all I'm impressed...

Comment from: David Sugar [Member] · http://www.gnutelephony.org

03/01/06 @ 11:59
This means that, beside the fact that Linux is more safe than W95/W98, DSL is actively mantained - while the older versions of Windows are not..

And this was why I wanted to put a current distro on the machine. Certainly, there were older distros that still would work on it, like the Mandrake 7.2 I originally had used, and there is nothing wrong with older distros, except that they are often no longer activily maintained.

Maintaining DSL forward is a bit tricky once you do a full harddisk install, however. If you do the special compressed (frugal) hd to partition install, then it is easy to wipe out the 50m root image, since all the personal settings are kept in a separate partition.

But if you do the full hd install,you cannot entirely maintain it through apt, since there are parts which are not Debian. That is the one use case where I think it needs further thought, and the right answer, I suspect, would be for them to have a forked repository so that their specific changes and stuff can also be maintained through apt. A hd "update" script, along with the existing hd "install" one, could also have been a useful addition to the live cd. Or maybe I missed something where they have an option to update after full hd install.

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Biography

David Sugar is an active maintainer for a number of packages that are part of the GNU project, including GNU Bayonne. He has served as the voluntary chairman of the FSF’s DotGNU steering committee, as a founder and CTO for Open Source Telecomm Corporation, and currently owns and operates Tycho Softworks.