Last Updated on July 11, 2018 by Dave Farquhar
Vintage workstations. I’ve read two articles this past week about running Linux or another free Unix on vintage hardware.
And while I can certainly appreciate the appeal of running a modern free Unix on a classic workstation from the likes of DEC or Sun or SGI, there’s another class of (nearly) workstation-quality hardware that didn’t get mentioned, and is much easier to come by.
Apple Power Macintoshes.
Don’t laugh. Apple has made some real dogs in the past, yes. But most of their machines are of excellent quality. And most of the appeal of a workstation-class machine also applies to an old Mac: RISC processor, SCSI disk drives, lots of memory slots. And since 7000-series and 9000-series Macs used PCI, you’ve got the advantage of being able to use cheap PC peripherals with them. So if you want to slap in a pair of 10,000-rpm hard drives and a modern SCSI controller, nothing’s stopping you.
There’s always a Mac fanatic out there somewhere willing to pay an exhorbinant amount of money for a six-year-old Mac, so you won’t always find a great deal. Thanks to the release of OS X (which Apple doesn’t support on anything prior to the Power Mac G3, and that includes older machines with G3 upgrade cards), the days of a 120 MHz Mac built in 1996 with a 500-meg HD and 32 megs of RAM selling for $500 are, fortunately, over. Those machines run Linux surprisingly well. Linux of course loves SCSI. And the PPC gives slightly higher performance than the comparable Pentium.
And if you’re lucky, sometimes you can find a Mac dirt-cheap before a Mac fanatic gets to it.
The biggest advantage of using a Mac over a workstation is the wealth of information available online about them. You can visit www.macgurus.com to get mainboard diagrams for virtually every Mac ever made. You can visit www.everymac.com for specs on all of them. And you can visit www.lowendmac.com for comprehensive write-ups on virtually every Mac ever made and learn the pitfalls inherent in them, as well as tips for cheap hardware upgrades to squeeze more speed out of them. I learned on lowendmac.com that adding video memory to a 7200 increases video performance substantially because it doubles the memory bandwidth. And on models like the 7300, 7500, and 7600, you can interleave the memory to gain performance.
Besides being better-built than many Intel-based boxes, another really big advantage of non-x86 hardware (be it PowerPC, Alpha, SPARC, MIPS, or something else) is obscurity. Many of the vulerabilities present in x86 Linux are likely to be present in the non-x86 versions as well. But in the case of buffer overflows, an exploit that would allow a hacker to gain root access on an Intel box will probably just crash the non-x86 box, because the machine language is different. And a would-be hacker may well run into big-endian/little-endian problems as well.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.
One thought on “Another RISC platform for Linux”
Dave, you can pick up a $50 PCI Mac Clone on eBay, slap in a G3 upgrade for under $100 and get a copy of "Unsuported X" to run OSX on these old machines. Some of the PowerComputing boxes have 8 DIMM slots and would be killer workstations. I use one for Linux now and plan on getting another to run OSX. I’ve owned two Mac clones and used two others at work and they are solid machines.
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