I built a Linux box earlier this week. There was a Power Mac 7500 at work that was begging for a conversion. Actually it’s a classic Hackintosh, assembled from the pieces of a 7500 and a dead 7600, so it’s running at 133 MHz instead of its original 100 MHz, and with 128 megs of interleaved EDO RAM. And it’s SCSI. So it had plenty of memory, a server-grade disk, and a RISC-based CPU. I had to see what it could do once it was unencumbered by the Mac OS GUI.
I chose Debian, because Debian installs very little extraneous garbage and because it’s super-simple to maintain.

And I’ll never complain about the difficulty of installing Linux on a PC again. Not that I’ve complained in a really long time, but Linux on an old Mac is a pain.

It’s nearly impossible to make these old Macs boot Linux directly, so you do a dual-boot trick, installing MacOS and then installing BootX, which is a control panel that pops up early in the boot process and asks you what OS you want. The default is Linux. Pick Linux, or let it time out, and that annoying smiling guy disappears, replaced by the glorious text-mode (bet you didn’t know the Mac had one of those, did you?) screen of the Linux boot process. Oh yeah, there’s a smiling picture of Tux up in the right-hand corner while it’s all going on. It’s a cool Wizard of Oz-like effect, I think.

So you boot off your MacOS CD, make yourself a 20-meg Mac partition, install just the base OS and the multimedia stuff, which includes the Apple CD/DVD-ROM driver–I didn’t realize that wasn’t part of the base OS and was wondering why I couldn’t read CD-ROMs anymore. Then search the CD for Stuffit Expander and Disk Copy. You’ll need those too. The version of Stuffit that came bundled with MacOS 8.5 couldn’t do anything with BootX on the Debian CD, so you’ll need to find a newer version on another Mac and then sneakernet it over. Then you use Disk Copy to generate images of the boot and root CDs. Drop BootX in System Folder::Control Panels, drop the Debian Kernel in the Linux Kernels subfolder of the System Folder, insert your Debian CD, then boot off the floppies, and you’re ready to go.

Apple hardware–old Apple hardware at least–is generally pretty reliable, so if you’ve got ancient Macs at work you need to put to something useful, this is a good way to do it. They’ll give better file server performance than a Snap server and you can even do software RAID configurations. Old desktop Macs have two 3.5″ bays, so you can mirror disks, and there is an external SCSI port for expansion if you want to do other types of RAID or connect a tape drive. And they’d make great intranet servers.

What did I do with the Mac? I made it into a PDF server. It’s great. I print to the phantom printer, and PDFs pop up in its file share. It’s lightning fast–by the time I pop over to the share to pick up the file, the server’s had enough time to create the PDF. So this 133 MHz Mac running Linux can generate PDFs in less time than it would take to print the file. I had problems with the GNU Ghostscript package (gs), so I ended up having to use Aladdin Ghostscript (aladdin-gs) instead. No big deal to me, since I’m not a GNU bigot.

I tried to make the service available to the Macs on the network too, by installing netatalk, but the phantom printer doesn’t work right. I’m still hoping to resolve that. Making shares with netatalk is frighteningly simple, but making printers with it is less fun than configuring XFree86 by hand.

Even with the difficulties, Charlie and I had it working well for Windows clients in a couple of hours. I think it was a good investment of a couple of hours, taking a computer off the scrap heap and making something useful out of it without having to buy any software.