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.
Cool! Makes me wanna get off my butt and do something with that old 7200 I have in the study. If you do any more stuff with PMac Linux I’d really enjoy reading about it here 🙂
Charlie says Linux runs fine on a 7200, with the possible exception of problems with the network card. The 7200 has a well-deserved bad reputation. But it’ll run Linux better than it’ll run Mac OS, and NICs are cheap.
Charlie figured out the Ghostscript problem. It was a problem with the fonts package. He had me make a symlink and it started working with the GNU package. People doing this on i386 will want to use the Aladdin package though because it’s newer. (The PPC Aladdin Ghostscript is behind and actually older than the GNU version.)
I’ve got an ancient Powerbook 3400 I’ve been trying to install Linux on but MacOS really hates my Toshiba SCSI CD-ROM so it won’t let me. And I don’t have an Apple CD-ROM. I’ve managed to get everything I need in place except the boot floppies. I’ll have to try the boot floppies I used at work with the 7500. The Powerbook holds some promise so I hope I can get it going.
I could lend you an Apple external CD-ROM. I have one lying around (one of my old machines here is a 2400, which was so small that even the floppy was external).
A lot of people were fairly happy with the 3400’s performance. The video under X is certainly better than the 7500 (it uses a C&T chipset rather than the Apple "control" chipset).
As far as the earlier 7200 comment goes, they work fine for the most part. Note that you practically have to use BootX since you can’t even get to an OpenFirmware screen on those machines except via serial console. (There are MacOS utilities to change OpenFirmware but I never mastered them.) Also it is only 7200/90’s that had Ethernet problems (a missing clock chip, MacOS drivers worked around it transparently) – /75 and /120’s worked fine. If you have a /90, you can always go buy a cheap $20 NIC and drop it in – Linux is compatible with most of them, particularly with 2.4 kernels.
As to which distro to use…well, I think SuSE and Mandrake will boot right up on this system. Debian requires you to set up BootX beforehand, because Debian refused to use non-free software to make a bootable MacOS CD (required because of Apple’s drivers). I’m a hardline Debian man myself these days, but if it’s your first Linux system then you might be more comfortable with one of the others.
Additional – David Huff, if you want to know more about Linux on PowerMacs feel free to ask me. I have run Linux on practically every major model, from the Nubus 6100/60 to the iMac DV (which is my primary Linux box at home right now). I ran it for years on an 8600/250 and it was a beautiful system until I started to worry that if it broke down I wouldn’t be able to get parts for it (being an older model), and unlike a lot of Linux enthusiasts I actually do real work on these machines. I’ve run MkLinux (DR2 and DR3), Yellow Dog (in the 1.x days), LinuxPPC (R4, 1999, Halloween, and 2000Q1), and now Debian (potato and woody).