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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.

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.


Cheap network hardware

Steve DeLassus reminded me that NICs are dirt-cheap at Buy.com right now. A Netgear FA311 runs $10.50 after rebate. (Hint: these cards use the NatSemi module in Linux, and yes, you have to have a pretty recent distribution to have that module, though you can certainly download the source and compile it if you want.)
A Netgear 4-port 100-meg hub runs about 35 bucks. A Netgear 5-port 10/100 switch runs about 40. Very nice. Pricing at mwave.com is very similar.

If you prefer a tier-1 NIC, you can pick up Intel cards for $19 at Directron.com. Or if $10.50 will break you, you can get a generic RealTek-based card from Directron for $9.50 (it uses the rtl8139 module; 8139too will work as well, but the prior module is better). Be aware that the RealTek 8139 is anything but a high-end chip; and generic 8139s ought to be considered tier-3 cards. But if you’re on a budget and need something that’ll work with Linux, no questions asked, it’ll do.

Cheap cables? Directron’s got 7-footers for 3 bucks. Your choice of a 14′ or 25′ is 5 bucks. Pricing at Newegg.com is even a little lower.

I built my first home network in late 1998. I bought a SOHOware kit that included a 4-port 10-meg hub, a pair of 25′ cables, and a pair of 10/100 PCI NICs with a DEC Tulip knockoff chipset. I was pretty proud of myself for finding it for less than $100. That hub fell over dead within a few months. Now for that price you can have first-tier stuff.

I’m out of here for a couple of days. I’ve sent Steve DeLassus some stuff that he can post while I’m gone, so things shouldn’t be too different around here. Unless Steve decides he wants to write something, that is, in which case you’ll just see a marked increase in quality that day…

Well, and you won’t see immediate responses to comments from me.

PC slumming

Slumming. I spent a portion of the day Saturday messing around with an old 486-133. The DCE at church asked me what it would take to build an intranet. I said an old PC. So he handed me an old 486-133. I can’t shake this machine. I built this computer back in 1994 or so for a law firm. I performed several upgrades on it, including the 133 MHz upgrade (it started out as either a 33 or a 66, not sure which). Three years ago or so, when it was obsolete, the firm called me and asked me to haul it away. I asked my church if they wanted it. They did.
This 486-133 is available because it lost its old job to an old Pentium-200 I scrounged up and rebuilt. Trying to run anything more than a simple fileserver is pushing the limits of this machine. But I like pushing the limits. So I decided to see what I could do with it. I took it home and opened it up. Hmm, It had a 72-pin and 4 30-pin SIMM sockets free. I tried out an old 8-meg SIMM I had. It didn’t like it. I thought I remembered seeing some old 30-pin SIMMs laying around…. I found some. I put them in. It counted to 20. Nice.

I tried out a 420-meg HD I’d salvaged from somewhere or another. The system detected it as an 850. Curious. I disconnected the true-blue 850 in the box. It still detected the 420 as an 850. Mislabeled, perhaps? I’ve seen stranger things. So I started to install Linux. I was able to partition the drive, but then it emitted a click-o’-death when Debian tried to initialize the swap partition. So I did what I should have done in the first place. I took off the cover. Next time someone asks me how a hard drive works, I’ll be able to show them. So the 850 flew solo.

Then I added the last from a stash of old DEC Etherworks 3 NICs I had (one of my employer’s clients handed me a bag of them months ago and said, “Donate them to your cause.” I’ve been giving them away one by one ever since) and installed Debian 2.2. Debian installed a lot slower than it does on a Pentium.

I installed Squishdot. I found it could be tweaked to give a very professional look. I also found it horribly confusing because it’s so unlike any other content management tool I’ve used. I messed around with it for a long while, but it was slow. Really slow.

I tried some alternative kernels. No improvement to speak of. I added the noatime parameter to the root partition’s entry in /etc/fstab. That helped a little.

But still, it was swapping out and the CPU was topping out as well. The homepage was taking 18 seconds to load. That’s not good.

Apache serves up static Web pages just fine–no slower than any other computer. But this dynamic stuff might just be too much.

So as a last resort, I compiled a lo-fat kernel. I took 2.2.19 and basically answered no to all but the absolute essentials. Mouse? Forget it. I was half-tempted to leave out floppy support, but that would make maintenance a bit more difficult.

It’s unfortunate that I don’t have any matching pairs of SIMMs laying around. Otherwise I’d swap the board out for a Pentium-75. I’ve got a couple of ancient Socket 5 boards laying around, and at least one Pentium-75 CPU. I’ve got two mismatched 4s, but that’s asking for instability, and I’m not sure if a P75 with 8 megs is any improvement over a 486-133 with 20.

Compiles take a couple of hours. I really should have just compiled a .deb package on a faster machine and moved it over. It seems hard to believe that it wasn’t terribly long ago that a 486 was a perfectly workable computer, and now it feels like a PC/XT. But the 486’s heyday was 10 years ago now. And 20 years ago, the PC/XT wasn’t on the market yet, though its direct ancestor, the IBM PC, was. So I guess it’s not too unreasonable to regard this 486-133 as the Turbo XT of today.

Software stuff I forgot about

I’m hoping someone can help me here. I read a couple of stories this week and can’t find them anymore. They’re fairly significant.
Evil Adobe software. The first involved an Adobe lawsuit. Some outfit was buying Adobe suites, breaking them up, and reselling the components. Adobe sued, saying this violated the click-through license. The court ruled that the reseller never agreed to the click-through license, this constituted a sale even though Adobe defined it as a license, and the vendor wasn’t violating any copyright laws by selling the software CDs and books just like stores that sell used books and music don’t violate the copyrights. The court also questioned whether a click-through license was legally binding anyway.

This story should be very significant. The way around it, of course, is to rent software, which is more profitable anyway. Expect Adobe to make tracks down that path very quickly. Adobe’s software licenses are generally slightly more generous than Microsoft’s (they allow you to install their products on your home PC if your business buys them, something Microsoft no longer allows) but then again Adobe’s the company responsible for jailing Dmitry Sklyarov, so they’re still evil. Maybe not quite as evil as Microsoft, but still evil.

So if you must buy Adobe software, do it smart. Buy the suites–which generally combine three or more Adobe products and generally sell for what two products would sell for seperately–and split them up. Find a friend or coworker to go halvesies with you.

Evil viruses. I’ve been fearing for a couple of months the virus that takes the methods used by Nimda and combines them with oldschool exploits like infecting file shares and e-mailing people in your address book. Such a beast appeared last week, but the stories faded very quickly. Presumably the virus was discovered but never really made it into the wild. The stories I read suggested the virus code was very buggy.

Still, if you’re still reeling from Nimda like I am, take steps to secure your network. Put an antivirus package on your mailserver. Consider blocking access at the DNS level to your local ISPs’ mailservers and free mail providers such as Hotmail to keep users from bringing unchecked mail into your network. Deploy IE 5.5SP2 with all of the current patches. Put Outlook in the Restricted Sites zone and very seriously consider replacing Outlook with something that works right and is secure, such as the Lotus Notes and Domino tag-team. (Exchange always was a Domino wannabe anyway, and not a very good one.) And since keeping your Microsoft software up to date is a royal pain, tell your boss to start thinking about remote deployment software such as Tivoli. Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s cheaper and easier than hiring another one of you and it frees you up to do real work. (My company’s been looking for another one of me for about three years, first so they could afford to get rid of me because I’m not a Microsoft lackey, and now so they can promote me. They’ve never succeeded. Presumably your company would have an equally difficult time finding another one of you.)

Linux in the enterprise. The ultimate solution to this virus crap (and other Windows-related crap) is to get rid of Windows and replace it with Linux, since Linux viruses are extremely rare and almost never damaging. While Linux has security vulnerabilities too, they’re generally more rare than Windows vulnerabilities and a desktop PC often won’t be running the programs that can be exploited. Besides, you are firewalled, aren’t you? If you are, you’re pretty reasonably secure, since in the Unix world, operating systems are operating systems–they don’t try to be operating systems and web browsers and mail clients and everything else.

But what about usability and maintainability? Linux plus KDE is no harder for an end-user to use than a PC or a Mac. Corel WordPerfect Office gives you everything you need to run your business, and secretaries like WordPerfect better than Microsloth Word anyway. Oh, you need Outlook, you say? Fine. Wait a month then. Ximian Evolution is approaching version 1.0, which will bring Outlook functionality to the Linux desktop. And if you don’t want to pay for WordPerfect Office, there’s always StarOffice. (But you can easily afford WP Office with the money you save by not buying Windows licenses anymore.)

So you don’t know anything about fixing Linux if it goes bad? So what? No sane person fixes a Windows installation either. Fixing a troublesome Windows box can easily take half a day, so the best practice is to keep an image of a working configuration, then when the user breaks it, back up user data (usually scattered all over the drive), re-image, then restore the data and be back up and running in an hour. Linux restricts user data to the /home hierarchy, so maintaining an army of Linux boxes is actually considerably easier than maintaining an army of NT boxes. Back up /home and re-image. Or if you’re really smart, you already redirected /home to a server somewhere, in which case all your desktops are now interchangeable. And Linux imaging is much easier than in NT. Linux generally doesn’t care about the motherboard, so if your video, sound, and network cards are identical, your disk images are interchangeable. Often you can get away with changing sound cards too. And if you’re limited to two or three types of NICs (probably Intel EtherExpress Pro and 3Com 90x; most cheapie 10/100 cards are covered by the Realtek 8139, DEC Tulip or NatSemi drivers), you can just statically compile those into the kernel and you’re set–then the video card is all you have to worry about. Running XConfigurator can take care of that in a matter of minutes. So a dead Linux box can be wiped and restored in 30 minutes, easy, during which your user can still be working, either on a vacationing neighbor’s PC or on your PC.

Remember too that a good percentage of NT problems are caused by toy programs users download off the ‘Net, or games or other programs people bring in from home and install. Those toys generally aren’t available for Linux, and since Linux has a low penetration in the home, people aren’t going to be bringing in their Barbie CDs and installing them. So you’re a fool not to think about Linux on the desktop in the enterprise.

Outta here. I’ve got more but I’m pretty much out of time. We’re doing a prayer vigil this weekend, and no fool signed up to lead from 1:00-2:00. When I stay up that late, my mind tends to be at its best, though my emotions tend to be at their worst (I get depressed easily). But since I can be plenty lucid at that hour, this fool signed up to lead. I’ll be back with more tomorrow.

Time to talk about big, manly computers

Enough of this other stuff. I actually felt like messing around with computers yesterday. I read about Eric Raymond’s new PC (IBM was nice enough to finance building an obnoxious Linux box for Mr Raymond and Linus Torvalds), which is, in short, a dual Athlon-1200 setup with two big SCSI drives. Unfortunately, he neglected to mention how much memory he put in it. I’m assuming he splurged and got a gig or two. His comment? “I tried hard to gold-plate as much of the system as possible and load on all the extras and accessories I could, and was nevertheless unable to raise the total parts bill over $7,000.”
When they made the machine more reasonable (pulling the exotic tape backup drive and 21-inch monitor and other niceties), the system still cost $4,200. One participants’ comment? “People pay more than that for crap computers all the time.” Yup. I know one guy at work who had about $10,000 left in his budget at the end of July, so he decided he needed a new Macintosh. He spent every dime of it and didn’t get half the computer Raymond described.

The true test, of course, was compiling the Linux kernel. How long did it take? Two minutes, 21 seconds. I don’t think I have a computer that can compile it in under 10 minutes. Needless to say, I’m extremely jealous.

I had lunch with one of the seminarians assigned to my church (actually, seeing as it was at 3:30, I’m not sure what you would call that meal. Well, since people tend to argue whether the afternoon meal is lunch or dinner, and whether the evening meal is dinner or supper, I guess the 3:30 meal must be dinner). He mentioned that Best Bait-n-Switch had 256-meg Kingston DIMMs on sale for $25 after rebate, so we went. I picked one up.

With that, I had enough stuff to build a PC to replace several of the boxes I have laying around. Compare my setup to Raymond’s new setup:

CPU: AMD K6-2, 350 MHz
Mobo: AOpen AX59Pro
RAM: 256 MB Kingston
NIC: Generic cheapie Macronix (DEC Tulip derivative)
SCSI adapter: Initio 9090U (it came bundled with my CD-R way back when)
Hard drives: 850 MB Seagate IDE, 2 GB Quantum SCSI
CD-ROM: Generic, flaky 24X ATAPI
Video: STB Velocity 128 (nVidia Riva 128)
Case: InWin ATX desktop, no idea the model#, $37 at Directron a few months back

Yep. Pathetic. For whatever reason the machine wouldn’t boot off the Sorcerer CD, so I ended up installing Mandrake 7 on it (I wanted something reasonably modern that didn’t use the infamous GCC 2.96 compiler). It’s going to be an experimental mail server, so it doesn’t have to be fabulous.

Getting Courier-IMAP proved difficult. Someone at Inter7.com decided he didn’t like PacBell, and Southwestern Bell by association, so he blocks access from their networks. How nice of him. I understand not liking the companies (I hate Southwestern Bell as much as anyone), but punishing their customers isn’t going to accomplish anything. I’m stuck with SWBell because I don’t want to pay for basic cable so I can get a cable modem. If I get DSL from anyone else, then I’m using Southwestern Bell plus someone else, so they can blame each other. And who knows? If I connected from someone else who’s also using SWBell’s network, would I be blocked?

He posted his complaints to PacBell, and I have to wonder if part of the reason PacBell ignores him is because of his liberal use of a phrase that contains the word “mother” and implies incest…

At any rate, there’s an easy way to get past rude people who are blocking your ISP. Use someone else’s network. Go to www.anonymizer.com, then punch in the forbidden web page. Now I’m not using Southwestern Bell’s network, but rather, Anonymizer’s network, which is then forwarding the information I requested.

Unfortunately I didn’t get the mailserver built, as Courier-IMAP is even harder to get running than it is to download, but it was kind of fun to mess around with Linux again.

If you’re interested in what I was doing, here’s the article I followed.
Hey, it’s playoffs time. And ESPN is highlighting 1986, which as far as I’m concerned, is the second-best postseason ever (no one can top my Royals’ magical 1985, of course). ESPN’s doing a “voices of 1986,” but I noticed the voice I most want to hear isn’t up there yet. They’d better not forget him. I’ll never forget the photo of young Bosox closer Calvin Schiraldi with his face buried in a towel after Game 6. Hobbling first baseman Bill Buckner was the goat, but Schiraldi took it hard.

I actually met Schiraldi three years later. He was pitching for the Cubs by then, trying to put his career back together in spite of manager Don “Gerbil” Zimmer’s best efforts to prevent it. Nice guy. All people remember now is an unreliable relief pitcher (the specifics: a 13.50 ERA in the World Series, thanks in part to a home run he gave up to Ray Knight and the three consecutive singles he gave up preceding Buckner’s error) and they forget his 1.41 ERA in the regular season, followed by his 1.50 ERA in the playoffs. I remember a tired, overworked pitcher who gave everything he had and in the end just had nothing left. Boston had four pitchers worth having that year: Bruce Hurst, the incomparable Roger Clemens, “Oil Can” Boyd, and Schiraldi. In the postseason, those four men pitched until their arms fell off, and Boyd and Schiraldi were never quite the same after that. Hurst went on to have a respectable career; Clemens of course is still pitching and is now known as one of the biggest jerks in the game. These days, Schiraldi’s a high school teacher and coach in Texas.

I went looking for stuff on Schiraldi and I found this short story: The Girl who Hated Calvin Schiraldi. Obviously I don’t see it her way.

Inside track on VIA vs. Intel

Many probably read today that Intel sued VIA for patent infringement, then VIA turned around and sued Intel for essentially the same thing, stating that Intel needs a license from VIA in order to make the P4 and i845. This unexpected drama in VIA vs. Intel probably has left a lot of people scratching their heads.

Read More »Inside track on VIA vs. Intel

A nice Labor Day.

Yesterday was nice. I got up late, then bummed around all day. I did a couple of loads of laundry, and I put a different hard drive in my Duron-750. Then I ignored my e-mail, ignored the site for the most part, and installed Wintendo (er, Windows Me) and Baseball Mogul. Around 6 I went out and bought a CD changer. My old 25-disc Pioneer died around Christmas time and I never got around to replacing it until now.
I knew I didn’t want another Pioneer. I’ve taken that Pioneer apart to fix it before, and I wasn’t impressed with the workmanship at all. And current Pioneer models are made in China. So much for those. I looked at a Technics and a couple of Sonys. Finally, swallowing hard, I dropped $250 on a 300-disc Sony model (made in Malaysia). I still suspect it’ll be dead within five years, but maybe it’ll surprise me.

I am impressed with the sound quality. It sounds much better than my Pioneer ever did. It’s really sad when you can tell a difference in sound quality between two CD players, but I guess that just goes to show how many corners Pioneer cut on that model. Next time I go CD player shopping, I’m going to bring a disc or two along to listen to in the store so I can hear the difference.

Anyhoo, I played two seasons of Baseball Mogul and guided Boston to two world championships and a boatload of money. But something happened that made me mad. I noticed over in the AL Central, Tony Muser’s Losers, a.k.a. the Kansas City Royals, were above .500, with essentially the same team that’s looking to lose 100 games this season. Well, there was no Donnie Sadler, Muser’s secret weapon, currently batting about .137 (which also seems to be about Tony Muser’s IQ, seeing as he keeps playing the guy). So the Royals minus Muser and Sadler were a .500 club. That’s nice to know.

Then, for 2002, Kansas City went and got the biggest free-agent bat they could afford. They also didn’t trade superstar right fielder Jermaine Dye, and they re-signed shortstop Rey Sanchez. And what happened? Well, the first round of the playoffs was a Boston-Kansas City affair, that’s what. I’d used the previous year’s windfall to buy myself an All-Star team, so I rolled over Kansas City in four games. I felt kind of bad about that, but it was partly because of my record against KC’s rivals that year that they made it that far, so not too bad.

It’s all I can do to keep from e-mailing Royals GM Allaird Baird and asking him why, if Tony Muser insists on playing Donnie Sadler every day, he doesn’t consider letting the pitcher bat and have the DH hit for Sadler instead.

And shocking news. HP is buying Compaq. I didn’t believe it either. Compaq’s recent problems, after all, were partly due to its purchase of Digital Equipment Corp. and its inability to digest the huge company. The only benefit I see to this is HP getting Compaq’s service division and eliminating a competitor–Compaq’s acquisition of DEC made more sense than this does.

Minesweeper is murder.

Minesweeper is murder. An activist group is asserting that the Windows game Minesweeper is disrespectful of victims of land mines and should be removed and replaced with a game about flowers. I have no idea if these guys are serious or not. I never liked the game anyway and just always wanted an excuse to say “Minesweeper is murder.” So now I’ve said it three times. I’m happy.
Mail servers. I started building my mail server last night. I spied an old Adaptec 1542C adapter on a coworker’s shelf and asked if I could borrow it. Then, on the way home, I remembered that Laclede Computer Trading Company, a local used computer store, had opened up a branch (actually it turned out they moved) a few miles from where I live. So I stopped there and picked up an Adaptec 1542CF (1994 vintage) and a clackety IBM PS/2 keyboard.

I got home, installed the 1542CF, and had problems. I installed the 1542C and did better. It turned out my DEC Etherworks 3 NIC was conflicting with the 1542CF. That may have been the problem with the other adapters I tried. The important thing is, I got TurboLinux down and it runs decently on my Frankensteined 486.

Incidentally, this is the ultimate Frankenstein box. I had an old IBM PS/1 486SX/20 in a 5-bay case. That motherboard’s been flaky for years. Meanwhile I’ve got this Compaq 486SX2/66 in working order whose case uses those awful Compaq drive rails, the case is ugly as sin, and it only has three bays. So I ripped out the PS/1 board and dropped in the Compaq board. Yes, it fits great. LPX is LPX–truly proprietary motherboards actually are really rare. Old Compaq 386s did it, some mid-90s Compaq midtowers did it, and IBM PS/2s did it, but normally what appears to be proprietary is really LPX. Anyway… I added a DEC Etherworks 3 NIC. So we’ve got IBM, DEC, and Compaq fraternizing. Then I connected an NEC 12X SCSI CD-ROM to the Adaptec card and installed TurboLinux.

It smokes. Well, as much as a 486 can smoke at least. It’s surprisingly quick. TurboLinux boots in 60 seconds, once the PC finishes with POST and scanning all the SCSI ports.

And what can I do with a mail server? Well, for one, I can run a cool package called MHonArc. What’s that do? It archives e-mail in HTML form. I could create a mail account, CC it on all my correspondence I want to post, set up a daily cron job on that account, and it’ll post all my mail to the Web for me, formatted nicely and threaded and sorted by the month and even using a template so I can keep my unified look. That’ll save me a ton of work.

Learning Unix takes time, but man can it ever pay off in the time and effort it saves you.

The only problem is, this system’s got a flaky Western Digital hard drive in it. I’ll probably replace it with a better quality drive in pretty short order. This’ll be fine for messing around with, but when a Western Digital drive failed on me 600 miles from home last July during a convention, I decided on the spot I’d depended on a Western Digital drive for the last time. It hadn’t been the first time a WD had let me down, but I wanted it to be the last.

Building a Win95 box

Building a Windows 95 box? Why? You nuts?
Why not? You’ve got old hardware, you’ve got a ton of licenses to run an obsolete operating system… It’s a good match. Remember, a Pentium-120 was a titan of a PC in 1995. You couldn’t get anything faster. Running Windows 95 on a Pentium-120 with 24 MB RAM, 1.2 GB HD, and 8X CD-ROM in 1995 seemed like running Windows 2000 on a decked-out 1.4 GHz Athlon today. Maybe it seemed even more extreme than that; I remember selling a good number of 486DX2/66s and DX4/100s in the summer of 1995. They were low-end, yes, but they were at that $1,000 sweet spot. You’d pick up a DX2/66 for $800 and a 14″ monitor for $200, and sometimes as a weekend special we’d bundle the two together with a printer for $1,099 or something.

We had a Pentium-120 to rebuild at work, and we had its Win95 license, so it made sense to just rebuild it with the stuff it had. I know Jerry Pournelle had a really hard time building a Win95 box a few months back. I didn’t have much trouble at all, so I might as well document the pitfalls.

First of all, I used vintage hardware. That helps. Win95 was designed for 1995-era hardware. This PC probably dates from 1996 or so; it has the strange pairing of an Intel 430HX chipset and a Pentium-120. The 120 was more frequently bundled with the earlier 430FX chipset; by the time of the HX, the 133 was considered low-end, the 200 high-end, and the 166 was mainstream. The video card was a plain old Cirrus Logic-based PCI card; no issues there. AGP sometimes threw Win95 for a loop. None of that here. While DMA drivers certainly improved the 430HX, they weren’t necessary for stable performance. In other words, a 430HX-based board with a Cirrus video card works acceptably straight out of the box, with no additional drivers.

Other hardware: A Mitsumi 8X CD-ROM. I don’t remember exactly when 8X came out, but for the most part an IDE CD-ROM is an IDE CD-ROM, from a driver standpoint. A Creative Labs Sound Blaster 16. That was a very common, very well-supported sound card. A DEC 450 network card. Those DEC cards can be a real pain to get working sometimes, but Win95 surprised me and detected it straight up.

But Setup wouldn’t run initially. It took some figuring, but I solved that problem. My colleague had booted with a Win98 boot disk I made over a year ago. He did an FDISK and format to wipe the drive, but he formatted the drive FAT32. The original Win95 didn’t know about FAT32, so Setup was throwing a hissy fit when it saw it. I did another FDISK and format, switched to plain old FAT16, and Setup installed very happily.

Once I got Setup to run, it installed, and quickly at that. And with absolutely no issues. Remember, Win95’s footprint was only about 35 megs. It doesn’t take long for an 8X drive to deliver 35 megs. And the system booted quickly. I didn’t sit down and time it, but I’m used to calling a minute a reasonably fast boot time, and this thing didn’t seem slow to me at all. A little optimization would help, of course. A little logo=0 in c:msdos.sys goes a long way.

Running Win95 on newer hardware is possible, but remember, it’s been nearly four years since it was the mainstream OS. And you can have a lot of headaches trying to do it. Windows 3.1 is in the same boat–it’s downright hard to find device drivers for modern video cards. Then again, I can think of circumstances under which I’d want to run Win95. I can’t think of any compelling reason whatsoever to run Win3.1 at this point in time. (And there wasn’t any compelling reason to run it in 1994 either.)

If I had to build up a Win95 box today and could have whatever components I wanted, I’d probably look for an Asus P55T2P4, easily the best Socket 7 motherboard ever manufactured. (In 1997 when I was in the market, I opted for an Abit IT5H instead and I’m still kicking myself.) That board is most naturally paired with a Pentium-MMX/233, but with unsupported–but widely-documented online–voltage settings, you can run more recent K6-2 CPUs on it. The P55T2P4 allows an FSB of up to 83 MHz, but for stability’s sake, I’d keep it at 66 MHz, or possibly 68 MHz if the board supports it (I don’t remember anymore). You can run a K6-2/400 with a 6x multiplier at either of those settings and be very close to its rated speed. Then I’d use an ATI Xpert 98 video card. Yes, it’s a bit old, but it’s probably the best all-around PCI card that’s still reasonably easy to find. Win95 won’t recognize it without manufacturer-supplied drivers, of course, but that’s not so bad. This combination would give you surprisingly good performance, stability, and minimal difficulty of installation.

Anyway, that adventure reminded me that a Pentium-120 can still be a viable computer. Vintage software like Win95 runs well on it. Office 95 has more features than most of us use, and it’s faster and more stable than the recent incarnations. It also has fewer strings attached. IE 5.01, although recent, would run decently on a P120, as long as you left out Active Desktop. Acrobat Reader 3.0 will still read the majority of PDF files on the Web, and it’s smaller and faster-loading than more recent versions. Do a Web search; you can still find it online.

Don’t get carried away with what you install, and a P120 can certainly surprise you.

SPAM from Macromedia regarding Flash; Neatgear NICs; Crash course

From: “bsprowl”
Subject: Spam ?? from Macromedia regarding Flash

I keep getting offers to down load Macromedia’s Flash. These aren’t e-mail type spam; a window pops up and asks if you want to download it.

I have find it very annoying to get these regularly. I have searched on it and find it will cost $399.00 plus tax and shipping for this web authoring tool after the trail period runs out.

Well duh, that’s expensive and I don’t want to write using it; I use Arachnophia (sp?) which is freeware, saving over $400 for the small bit of web development that I do.

There are also some security issues that I don’t want to deal with (although how a glorified text editor can cause security problems seems insane, the FAQs lead me to believe that it can happen.)

But why do I keep getting offers to download it from so many sites. The latest is weather.com, who you would think would not have ads of this type. And the ad pops up several times as I open the radar map and every time I refresh the map it pops up two or three more times.

I have tried to see if this spam is somehow tied to my computer and have used some of Steve Gibson’s tools ( grc.com ) and updated my virus definitions, etc., to eliminate or reduce it if it is hidden or my system. I found nothing.

Any suggestions?

I know exactly what’s going on. (My site isn’t bugging you about that, is it? If it is, Vinny and Guido will be knocking on a couple of people’s doors because off the top of my head I can’t think of anything I hate more than Flash and my site’s not *supposed* to be using it….) There’s nothing wrong with your computer. You’re getting that question because so many sites use Flash; and most sites, if they detect you don’t have the free Flash plug-in, offer to let you download it. You’d be downloading the free unlimited-use plug-in rather than some trial version of the $399 package.

But Flash animations are annoying (and mostly used by really blinky and obnoxious ads) so I don’t like installing it. I also don’t like the stupid dialog boxes (or sites that install it without asking permission, as some do). When a site offers to install Flash, I add it to the Restricted Sites zone (Tools, Internet Options, Security, then click Restricted Sites, then click Sites, then add, say, www.weather.com to the list). That shuts ’em up, unless they also use ActiveX, in which case IE will pop up a dialog box saying the page may not render properly. But at least they’ll quit bugging you about Flash.
From: “Bob”
Subject: Re[2]: Spam ?? from Macromedia regarding Flash

Hello Dave,

Oh. Now I feel stupid for bothering you.

I never noticed Flash or Macromedia before this. I don’t really want to install it but I would like the weather maps to update automatically and also to show the past several hours.

I guess I’ll do a backup to CDW and then install it. I don’t have a lot on my system, the C: drive only has about 590 MB so it will fit on a single CD. Then if it’s a problem I can just go back to the original system.

I really am wasting that drive but then none of mine are full. I don’t download music, that’s why I have my stereo; I don’t even have a speaker plugged into my computer.

I don’t play DVDs; that’s what the VCR is for (although I haven’t used it more than once since I brought it; I don’t even know were the nearest video rental place is located.)

A year or two ago I tried to install the latest release of the Asteroids game which I though might be fun but after downloading half a dozen files from several sites (I need something called Direct X) it won’t run and neither would anything else. I tried it on several of my systems from an old 486 with DOS 6 and Window 3.11 to a system with a PII 450 and Windows 2K. I’ve never gotten a game more complex that Mahjongg to run on anything besides my old Atari, so it must be me.

I spend a lot of time reading and I like paperbacks so I don’t download books either. I do have a database of all of the books I’ve read in the last five plus years. And that is linked to my Palm so I no longer buy a book I have already read.

I find your sight to be most useful concerning computer technology and read it everyday. While most of the other daynoter’s are interesting, they are not nearly as useful. I really don’t care what they ate, etc.

Thanks again,

No problem, I’m sure you aren’t the first to have that question, and I’m sure others are asking, “How do I keep this #&%$ website from telling me to download Flash?” If not today, someday someone will want the answer to that question.

Most recent games do require DirectX, which you can download from here. If the DirectX version is too old, games will complain. The safest way to get a game running, if you’re willing to invest the time, is to build up a system, install Windows clean, then install the current version of DirectX, then install the game. That may be more trouble than you’re willing to go to.

I chuckled as I read the rest of your mail. About two years ago, a box of stuff showed up in my boss’s cube. Nobody knows where it came from. There was some ancient computer stuff, and there was some REALLY ancient computer stuff. One of them was a CompuServe manual, and I could tell from the logo and the hairstyles and tie widths that this thing was from 1984 at the very latest. I flipped through it and chuckled at the words that suggested 1200 baud was something new, and when my boss walked in, I held it up and said, “Now this is a relic from a time when computers were computers, and not washing machines and stereos and VCRs and TVs and fax machines and toasters.”

“You sound bitter.”

“No, just practical.”

I remember my Amiga’s simple elegance. Yes, it invented multimedia, but it knew what it was, and that was a computer, and it did a good job of being one. And I miss that.

And thanks for your compliments of the site. I try to be useful, and entertaining, and compelling. I don’t always succeed, but enough people come back that I guess I succeed often enough. I know Pournelle’s a better writer than I am, and both he and Thompson have a much deeper depth of knowledge than I do (they’ve also had more time to accumulate it). So I do the best I can, and try to make it as easy as possible here for people to find the stuff they do like.

Thanks for writing.
From: “Steve DeLassus”
Subject: Neatgear NICs

OK, what’s the difference betwen a Netgear FA310 and an FA311? At the price mwave is hawking them, I am ready to pick up 3…
The FA310 uses the classic DEC Tulip chipset near and dear to all Linux
distros’ hearts. The FA311 uses a NatSemi chipset that only very recent
distros know what to do with. The FA311 should be fine with Windows boxes,
and it’s supposed to be fine with Mandrake 8.
From: “Gordon Pullar”
Subject: Re Crash Course

Hi, I have just read your article in this months “Computer shopper” I am having trouble re-formatting my hard drive (which previously had WIN98SE on it and worked well!) I used FDISK( Got from WIN98 then WIN98SE.) to create a Primary DOS partition,using the whole disk,6.4 Gig. After that I reformated it, it now freezes at writing the FAT table,that’s if I get that far,4 times out of 5 using a boot disk,(I have tried several from differnet PC’s) It gets as far as “verifying pool data” and then freezes.I have checked the HDD drive out with Seagates own diagnostic software and all is OK.(Funny it always boots OK with the seagate software “Seatools”) Changed the IDE cable to the hard drive.I have flashed the BIOS with the latest version.

Is there anything else I could be missing??

Giga-byte GA 5AX motherboard
AMD K6 2 500 Mhz CPU
256 Mb pc100 Ram
Seagate 6.4 Gig ST36451A
HDD Generic video card


Gordon Pullar
First thing I’d do would be to try to get it to boot off a floppy, then type FDISK /MBR. Both of the problems you’re describing sound like a corrupted MBR, and I don’t think partitioning the drive will zero that out for you. If that doesn’t work, try zeroing out the entire MBR with the MBRwork utility (www.terabyteunlimited.com).

Failing that, I’d try using SeaTools to either low-level format or zero out the drive. Usually after doing that, a finicky drive will work just fine.