Another RISC platform for Linux

Vintage workstations. I’ve read two articles this past week about running Linux or another free Unix on vintage hardware.
http://www.debianplanet.org/article.php?sid=605
http://www.newsforge.com/article.pl?sid=02/02/19/049208&mode=thread

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.

http://homepages.ihug.com.au/~aturner/7200boot.html

All in no particular order…

U2. I couldn’t help but notice during U2’s halftime performance yesterday how much Bono has aged. Now, granted, he’s 42 or 43 now, so he’s not going to look 22 anymore, but last night he didn’t look 42 to me. His voice didn’t seem terribly strong either, but that’s something he’s battled for more than 20 years. During their famous Sarajevo gig in 1997, Edge had to sing a few numbers (including Sunday Bloody Sunday) because Bono had lost his voice.
Above all else, it was a show. The band showed up on stage, sans Bono. He was walking through the crowd. They played one obvious song (Beautiful Day), then in a flash of showmanship, projected the names of 9/11 victims as they played an obscure song off The Unforgettable Fire, the haunting MLK (one of two tributes to Martin Luther King Jr. on that album) before segueing into Where the Streets Have No Name, with a few improvised lyrics (including a chorus from All You Need is Love, a nod to Paul McCartney).

Very typical U2. U2 fans undoubtedly loved it or at least enjoyed it; not-so-big fans probably weren’t so impressed (they sounded worse than, for instance, Mariah Carey, but a musician I work with is convinced she was lip-syncing) and U2 haters probably found something else to hate. I was impressed that they didn’t sell out by playing three songs off their current album. They played a hit from a year ago, then they played an obscure song, then they played a minor hit from 15 years ago, but it wasn’t one of the two huge hits off that album.

Heartbreak. That was what the game itself was. The Rams didn’t show up to play for the first three quarters. I have to wonder how badly Warner was hurting, because he definitely didn’t look 100% (and if I can notice a difference, there definitely is one). I have to wonder what if he hadn’t taken those hits late in the game three weeks ago against Green Bay…?

Security. I see from this story that Linux is less secure than Windows, based on counting reports at SecurityFocus.

SecurityFocus reported a total of 96 Linux vulnerabilities, versus 42 Windows NT/2000 vulnerabilityes (24 for Windows 2000 and 18 for NT4.0). Buried deeper in the article, you see that Mandrake Linux 7.2 notched up 33 vulnerabilities, Red Hat 7.0 suffered 28, Mandrake 7.1 had 27 and Debian 2.2 had 26.

So, first things first, James Middleton seems to think 2=4.

Now, math aside, those 26 Debian vulnerabilities were in all likelihood present in all the other distributions. So there’s a lot of triple- or even quadruple-counting here.

I remember a good number of those Linux vulnerabilities. Some of them were buffer overflows in utilities that would be difficult or impossible to exploit without shell access to the machine. Some of them were in daemons (services) that may or may not be running at any given time. Very few were in the kernel itself. Bottom line is, a typical Linux-based Web server sitting behind a firewall with only port 80 exposed probably didn’t have anything to worry about. The same goes for a typical Linux-based Samba server.

This isn’t like Windows, where you get the components Microsoft deems necessary, whether you want them or not, and you fear removing or disabling them because you don’t know what else will break and have no way of knowing. With Mandrake, you’ll get some services you don’t want, but you can disable them without breaking stuff. Red Hat has reformed and installs surprisingly little in its minimum installation these days. Debian installs even less.

So, the dirty little secret this article didn’t tell you: Not all the security problems affected any given Linux server. Chances are most of the security flaws affected any given Windows server.

I hate it when technology journalists blindly spit out numbers without having a clue what they mean.

I may publish again. I was mad enough to fire off a proposal to one of my former editors to see if he’d be interested in a few magazine articles. It’s time there was some stuff out there written by someone who has a clue what he’s talking about.

Useful link. For once I saw a banner ad that halfway interested me today. At LowerMyBills.com you can compare different utilities services available to you. Long-distance rates include both the interstate and intrastate rate (important if you’re like me and rarely call out-of-state). Alas, they don’t list local phone service providers, and their high-speed Internet listings aren’t complete, but it’s better than nothing. They also do listings for loans and debt relief, neither of which I need right now.

If the site’s useful to you, you’ll know.

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