Home / Technology / A Science Project: “Salvage the 486 Big Again!” – Original Linux in an extinct PC

A Science Project: “Salvage the 486 Big Again!” – Original Linux in an extinct PC

What is the oldest x86 processor that is delicate supported by way of a most current Linux kernel in show mask time?

I requested the above quiz inquire at some degree inside the Geekcamp tech conference in Nov 2017 at some point of my emcee feature. The theoretical answer as that you simply might smartly perhaps perhaps bag from the identify of this post is the 486 which was once first introduced in 1989. I decided that reality from this text the place toughen for the 386 was once dropped in Dec 2012.

To bag you attention-grabbing, here’s the results of my effort.

The white smudge at the mask is not the virtual digicam’s fault, there might be de facto a backlight ache with my old 19″ video show.

You will skip to 11:39 when the boot completes.

00:00 to 00:46 – BIOS

00:46 to 11:39 – Bootup. It takes just about 11minutes to bootup!

11:39 to 13:14 – Scheme specifications, IP information and ALSA mixer

13:14 to 15:00 – Participating in tune by way of mission of Sound Blaster 16

15:00 to 17:25 – SSH whilst taking part in (stuttering) tune inside the background. With AlsaMixer adjusting quantity.

17:25 to 17:48 – Opening a webpage hosted by way of nginx.

18:10 to 20:13 – Git clone a repo.

20:13 to 21:13 – The make the most of of Python 3.6.3

21:13 to 21:43 – Cleanup and tell shutdown discover

21:43 to Finish – Shutdown. It takes five.five minutes to shutdown!

Interested in how I obtained a most current Linux kernel Four.14.8 (introduced in December 2017) to hurry in this extinct PC? Learn on!

Ultimate month, I took section in a Large Foolish Hackathon with my teammate Hui Jing the place we put in Damn Small Linux (DSL) on that equivalent 486 PC.

I purchased this gadget with the unique intent to play old DOS video video games of their formed glory. Anyway, we controlled to play tune or even host a webpage! Stare her fantastically detailed write-up right here.

The model Four.Four.10 of DSL we feeble was once introduced in Nov 2008. It feeble the kernel model 2.Four.31 that was once introduced in June 2005 which is a dinosaur by way of nowadays’s requirements.

In the course of all your time, the inquire whether or not or not the theoretical answer of 486 is really unswerving lingered in my head. I did somewhat little bit of analysis and came across out any individual in reality put in Gentoo Linux with a most current kernel on a 486 PC. No not up to any individual said it was once possible even supposing he did not give any arduous proof 🙁 He advised that one may perhaps even delicate make the most of a most current PC to give protection to out the supply code compilation which I’ll reveal later.

Gentoo Linux is a Linux distribution constructed the make the most of of the Portage apparatus control gadget. In distinction to a binary software distribution, the supply code is compiled inside the group consistent with the consumer’s personal tastes and is usually optimized for the divulge invent of personal computer.

From Gentoo’s Wikipedia web page

The trouble with up to date Linux distributions fancy Debian/Ubuntu/Arch is they distribute compiled binary systems. Normally that is right kind sufficient as compiling each unmarried apparatus you need from scratch is time consuming and most people ain’t obtained time for that.

Even if the 486 is theoretically supported by way of the up to date Linux kernel, that is not unswerving at the distribution and gear degree.  As an example, Debian has dropped toughen for older 586 32-bit CPUs as of 2016. Thus, the oldest supported x86 CPU by way of Debian is the 686. The Sixth-skills x86 began with the Pentium Authentic introduced in 1995 or it’s additional incessantly known variant Pentium 2 was once introduced in 1997.

Subsequently, it is now not possible to with out lengthen make the most of a standard up to date distribution on a 486 PC. However on an extraordinary distribution fancy Gentoo which calls for you to deliver jointly each apparatus, this may perhaps delicate be possible.

Surprise on the unique specifications of this gadget. The CPU and RAM were absolutely upgraded by way of the vendor earlier than I purchased it.


  • AMD 5X86 486-clone working at 133mhz

    • Identical efficiency to Pentium 75Mhz
    • The AMD 5X86 sequence were the fastest 486 clones ever made
  • Cirrus Excellent judgment VLB CL-GD5424 Graphics 512KiB VRAM
  • 64MB SDRAM SIMM-72
  • 48x IDE CD ROM Force
  • Gotek 1.44MB floppy emulator
  • CompactFlash-IDE adapter + 32GB Sandisk Outrageous CF card
  • 10Mbps 3Com Etherlink III 3c509B (ISA)
  • Sound Blaster 16 CT2950 PnP (ISA)

Entrance panel

The 48x PATA CD-ROM power got here with the PC. I modified the unique 3.five″ floppy power with the Gotek 1.44MB floppy emulator. This frosty software allows one to emulate up to 100 floppy disks in keeping with footage stored inside the connected USB Flash power! I now not decide to jot down right down to automatically-failure-inclined floppy disks each time I select to change information.

Growth slots

There are best 3 sixteen-bit ISA slots positioned at the riser card on this PC. It does not even hang the more moderen but additionally legacy PCI slots. This PC is plump of 2x 32MB SIMM-72 RAM sticks. I in reality will have to admit 64MB RAM is exceptional for a 486-generation PC. A few of us on-line controlled to stride up to 128MB RAM.

Growth playing cards

The 3 ISA slots are absolutely filled with the following

A Sound Blaster 16 CT2950 PnP, 10Mbps 3Com Etherlink III 3c509B,and a CompactFlash-IDE (CF-IDE) adapter. Technically the CF-IDE adapter is not an ISA card. It is fastened inside the enlargement slot to permit me to without issues change out the CF card without the trouble of opening up the case. To the motherboard, the CF card is simply fancy each different arduous disk.

Growth playing cards fastened in slots

Legacy ports galore! Constitute the power supply which best accepts ~115VAC. I needed to desire a transformer to step down the 230VAC mains in Singapore to stride well with this PC. The CF card is conveniently replaceable on the be in agreement.

Compilation gadget: Thinkpad T430 (introduced in 2012)

Compilation is a CPU-heavy process and the 486 will unquestionably take ages to give protection to out so. To offer protection to clear of this tell, we will elevate out the compilation on a most current PC the make the most of of a USB card reader then stride the CF card over to the extinct PC.


  • Intel Core i7-3520M (3.50 GHz, 4MB L3, 1333MHz FSB)
  • Intel HD Graphics 4000
  • 16GB DDR3 – 1600MHz
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • Ultrabay DVD-RW
  • 2x USB 3.zero, 2x USB 2.zero
  • USB-CF adapter to deliver jointly on CF card
  • SSD eradicated to give protection to clear of corrupting it by accident at some point of arrange

This Thinkpad T430 is a 6-year-outdated model by way of nowadays’s requirements however is delicate rapid sufficient to give protection to out the compilation of the whole lot in an less expensive length of time (fancy only some hours).

I’ve documented an large checklist of directions right here on what directions to make make the most of of to arrange Gentoo in this extinct PC. This post will simply focal stage on necessarily essentially the most the most important steps and problems I confronted.

Step 1: Getting the arrange media and initial try

The Gentoo x86 minimum set up CD will most certainly be downloaded right here delicate is helping the 486 structure. Out of interest, I booted my extinct PC with it to peek if it is possible.

Seems I’ll bag a kernel worry. Now not transparent if because of not sufficient RAM to make a RAM power or the arduous disks can not be detected. Anyway, I obtained the CD began with my up to date T430.

Step 2: Disk partitioning

Those steps underneath are all accomplished at the up to date compilation PC versus the overall step.

Gentoo’s proposed partitioning plot

That’s what Gentoo recommends. Since that is an extinct PC, it does not make the most of UEFI subsequently there might be not any want for the bootloader partition. Ragged PCs even hang a BIOS 504MiB barrier that scheme they are going to best bag access to the primary 504MiB inside the disk. This might be observed inside the BIOS setup underneath:

504MiB = 528MB

Linux can recognise the plump 32GB capability of my CF card best after the kernel and demanding drivers are loaded.

Precise partitioning plot

Unique Linux distributions don’t continuously hang a boot partition by way of default because it’s contents in the meanwhile are positioned inside the basis partition. Since we now hang a 504MiB restrict, we now hang a runt 128MB boot partition as the primary essential partition to store the Linux kernel and different boot files.

Step 3: Set up Gentoo Level 3

Stage3 is a step unique best to the Gentoo distribution. Mainly you choose to bag a tarball containing a unadorned minimum binaries and gadget directories.

It’s basic originate transparent to bag the only which is known as “i486”.

For additonal information concerning the Gentoo Stages, that you simply might smartly perhaps perhaps hang a glance right here.

Step Four: Put across compilation parameters

Portage is the apparatus manager feeble in Gentoo and we decide to be specific that its configuration will invoke the GCC compiler to emit systems which is able to most certainly be 486 fancy minded. We now hang were given to originate transparent /and tons others/portage/originate.conf has the following 486-explicit change alternatives:

CFLAGS="-O2 -march=i486 -pipe"
CHOST="i486-notebook pc-linux-gnu"
MAKEOPTS="-j5" # A right kind choice is the choice of CPU cores inside the gadget plus 1
USE="-kde -qt4 -qt5 ffmpeg mp3 alsa"

The USE flags are for any recent systems now to not include GUI toughen and upload sound toughen (for my demo).

Step five: Configure Linux kernel

This was once a tense nut to crack and I wished unending tries to bag it to a workable direct.  To minimise kernel measurement, the default menu change alternatives may perhaps even not permit toughen for extinct ingredients. Nonetheless, toughen for them are delicate there.

The stable checklist of change alternatives I decided on were very lengthy so I’ll best reveal necessarily essentially the most the most important ones I decided on.

Should disable Sixty Four-bit kernel for obvious reasons!

486 is the oldest probability on this checklist!

ISA and VLB toughen must be enabled if not the overall enlargement playing cards can not be feeble

ISA Lope and Play is needed for autodetecting my SB16 and 3Com NIC as they’re past due qualifications ISA PnP playing cards.

Allow each Generic ATA toughen and Legacy ISA PATA toughen

My 3Com 3C509 NIC card is delicate supported!

Sound Blaster 16 will most certainly be supported!

As soon as accomplished we simply deliver jointly the Linux kernel!

Step 6: Set up Bootloader

The widespread bootloader feeble by way of Linux nowadays is Grub2. I attempted that nevertheless it did a reboot loop each time I attempted to start the gadget. Online research confirm I can even delicate make the most of the older LILO bootloader as a substitute. LILO is unsupported as of December 2015 however it is delicate in a jam to load up to date Linux kernels.

This a snippet of the /and tons others/lilo.conf Lilo configuration record:

   vga=Four # This will likely plan the VGA mode to 80x30

   vga=inquire # Linux will inquire you to boost the VGA mode on startup

I didn’t arrange a GUI for obvious efficiency reasons so I in reality will have to rely only on textual content mode. I plan the mode vga=Four to enlarge “textual content choice” to 80 columns x 30 rows of textual content. I additionally include a vga=inquire in case the primary probability fails.

Step 8: Set up further software

Even if not strictly essential to give protection to out it simply now, I felt it was once larger to leverage at the efficiency of the compilation gadget earlier than moving the CF card over.

Every time you happen to may perhaps even hang observed the video, I put in necessarily essentially the most up to date variations (readily available inside the Portage repository) of Git, Python, nginx, ALSA and MOC (console tune player)

Step nine: Preliminary bootup!

Now we power down the compilation PC and stride the CF card to the extinct PC for booting. Estimable pray and hope it really works! 🙂

There have been a number of expected and surprising issues I confronted that made this undertaking additional time-drinking that it already was once.

Can not boot from CD

Because of age of the PC, the BIOS best is helping booting from the floppy power or internal HDD. As smartly from the CD, I feeble the Plop Boot Manager that booted off a floppy disk. This added further inconveniences when it got here to the make the most of of CD-ROM necessarily necessarily primarily based most commonly utilities.

To forestall construct on at the already extinct mechanical floppy power, I feeble the floppy disk emulator.

Can not make the most of eighty-pin PATA cable

This ache presented about me a mountainous amount of surprising peril!!!

Left: eighty-conductor PATA cable, Estimable: forty-conductor PATA cable

The eighty-pin cable at the left is a additional up to date PATA cable with further floor strains when put next with the forty-pin ones. It supposedly allows the bus to transmit at larger sure by way of removing crosstalk whilst last backward fancy minded. Learn this for additonal information.

When I assembled the PC, I on the beginning began with the eighty-conductor cable for the drives. I confronted occasional intermittent issues. From the BIOS not being in a jam to come across the power, to Linux halfway getting disk bag access to mistakes to outright disk corruption. It was once arduous to enlighten then was once it a software fault or fault?

Proper listed below are the checklist of steps I did to troubleshoot:

  1. Disconnect CD-ROM power as essential slave
  2. Substitute the CF card as I perception it was once execrable
  3. Recompiling the Linux kernel usually with various SATA/PATA change alternatives in case I decided on the incorrect one. This took hell a kind of time.
  4. Making an try various eighty-pin conductor cables

Within the raze, I swapped be in agreement to the unique forty-pin PATA cable that got here with the PC and the issues by way of no scheme got here up. To double take a look at my assumption, I attempted the opposite forty-pin PATA cables I in reality hang in my internal maximum stash and had no tell too.

Recognize WHAT THE HELL? I don’t mediate it is a tactics a fault of the cables themselves. I in reality hang handled many older PCs and none of them ever had issues after I switched to eighty-pin cables so I perception it would perhaps even delicate not be an issue on the beginning. Possibly the motherboard of this PC simply does not fancy the eighty-pin cable.

Tough Gentoo set up process

Setting up Gentoo is tense and time-drinking underneath the very most sensible of cases even on up to date PCs. Doing it for an extinct PC fancy this additional provides to the complexity.

To place issues into standpoint, that is how I would charge the relative space in hanging inside the such a lot of Linux distributions

Linux From Scratch > Gentoo > Arch Linux > Fedora/Debian/Ubuntu

  • Linux From Scratch: Collect each unmarried section from scratch. I in reality have not attempted this earlier than.
  • Gentoo: Bad gadget is able. Estimable deliver jointly kernel, bootloader and further systems. Then configure the whole lot manually.
  • Arch Linux: Similar as Gentoo simply that the whole lot already exists in precompiled binaries.
  • Fedora/Debian/Ubuntu: Distributions are in keeping with stage releases. Configuration is mainly taken care off, simply configure internal maximum personal tastes.

This is compounded by way of the indeniable reality that this was once the primary time I put in Gentoo Linux and was once unusual with the arrange steps.

Extended iteration cycle

Saying the extinct PC is sluggish is a mountainous understatement. It takes 11 mins in addition to a lot because the login fast and five.five minutes to shutdown. All of the scheme all through the long startup particularly, I needed to dutifully discover the web web page on-line messages to make sure there aren’t any problems.

If there have been any problems, I in reality will have to stride the CF card be in agreement to the compilation PC to change the set up or worse start the set up from scratch. I did this boundless cases and spent many hours.

Regardless of the a immense choice of roadblocks I confronted, I was inspired by way of the degree of toughen Linux has for extinct fancy this. I’ll not be stunned if somewhere to be had, there might be a tester making transparent that stuff delicate works for old .

Even if this comes to extinct , I in reality will have to admit I noticed moderately masses concerning the ingredients feeble in Linux by way of distinctive feature of atmosphere up Gentoo so I in reality hang some treasured takeaways from this undertaking.

You will additionally surprise why did I identify this post “A Science Mission”. This was once coined in a blog post by way of a Microsoft software engineer Raymond Chen to painting initiatives that descend into any of the following lessons:

  1. A function that is de facto frosty and not simple from a technological point of view however is overkill for the user-pain.
  2. Calls for few folks hang.
  3. Looking to transparent up a ache that no one in reality considers to be a ache. You’re doing it simply for the Gee Whiz section.

I ponder my initiatives has all of those qualities.

  1. I went via a cosmopolitan process to present an extinct PC up to date Linux and software facets. It is overkill as no method one can elevate out any treasured paintings in this sluggish PC. It is mighty additional suitable to arrange a duration-loyal operating gadget fancy DOS and/or Catch 3.x.
  2. How many people hang a 486 PC nowadays?
  3. Who has a ache of in need of a most current OS in this extinct PC?

Given the age of the 486 (1989 qualifications), it does not toughen out-of-expose execution. Sarcastically this makes it marvelous from the Meltdown and Spectre assaults. In reveal so that you can be marvelous from the ones assaults, that you simply might smartly perhaps perhaps pace your up to date software at the 486! For positive that is not the huge symbol, many different safety facets had been carried out on up to date processors since then.

As mentioned previous, every time you happen to would take hold of to duplicate this undertaking, that you simply might smartly perhaps perhaps seek the recommendation of the low-stage detailed directions I in reality hang documented on Github.

I in reality hang connected initiatives as correctly, House home windows 3.1 on a most current PC, House home windows XP on a most current PC and the the make the most of of the Covox Speech Aspect with a most current pocket book personal computer. Each and every little factor to this stage comes to aging stuff to to paintings on a most current PC, that is my first blog post that does the other. Uncover about out for additonal initiatives from me!



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