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Can You Install Linux On a 1993 PC? (yeokhengmeng.com) 253

The oldest x86 CPU that the Linux kernel supports today is theoretically the 486. However is this theory actually true in practice? I decided to put this theory to the test in my project.
His site describes installing Gentoo Linux on an "ancient" IBM PS/1 Consultant 2133 19C (released in 1993), with 64MB SIMM-72 RAM. (Though to speed things up, he compiled that minimal version of Gentoo on a modern Thinkpad T430 released in 2012.) "Due to the age of the PC, the BIOS only supports booting from the floppy drive or internal HDD," so there was also some disk partitioning and kernel configuration. ("Must disable 64-bit kernel for obvious reasons!") A half-hour video shows that it takes almost 11 minutes just to boot up -- and five and a half minutes to shut down. "Despite the many roadblocks I faced, I was impressed by the level of support Linux has for ancient hardware like this."

And there's one more added bonus. "Given the age of the 486 (1989 technology), it does not support branch prediction... Ironically this makes it safe from the Meltdown and Spectre attacks."
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Can You Install Linux On a 1993 PC?

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  • by 93 Escort Wagon ( 326346 ) on Sunday January 07, 2018 @06:37PM (#55881943)

    "Ironically this makes it safe from the Meltdown and Spectre attacks."

    No, there's no irony there at all - not even in the manner "irony" gets misused sometimes.

    • hmmm I think to turn this into irony you would need for that chip to have been replaced with the new chips due to better security AND you would need the discoverer of the flaw to be the one that made that decision.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      No, there's no irony there at all - not even in the manner "irony" gets misused sometimes.

      Of course there is - in that aspect the 486 is more secure than the new chips that are billed as having all sorts of security-promoting features.

      There's no NX bit on the 486, though, so overall it's not more secure, even with the recent vulnerabilities.

      • There's no NX bit on the 486, though, so overall it's not more secure

        Why is that? Side channels like those you can't fix easily, but NX is avoided by simply fixing your runtime bugs, or by using safe languages. What is so magical about NX that makes any system without it automatically insecure?

  • Just need to get refrigerated mineral oil running over that and clock it up to a GHz or two to get it going. Very impressive overall.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The big loss is that Firefox and Chromium no longer work on pre SSE2 processors so you can't surf the modern web on old computers anymore.

    • Windows 8 and later require SSE2 too

      https://support.microsoft.com/... [microsoft.com]

      Windows XP and 7 don't.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      The big loss is that Firefox and Chromium no longer work on pre SSE2

      Firefox works on ARM which has no SSE2.

      Is this about the precompiled binaries?

      • Firefox works on ARM which has no SSE2.

        Is this about the precompiled binaries?

        It's also about the JavaScript JIT code generator. If the x86 and x86-64 versions of Firefox are hardcoded to emit SSE2 instructions, the browser can't be so easily recompiled not to require SSE2.

    • by arth1 ( 260657 ) on Sunday January 07, 2018 @09:31PM (#55882613) Homepage Journal

      The big loss is that Firefox and Chromium no longer work on pre SSE2 processors so you can't surf the modern web on old computers anymore.

      This is simply not true. Firefox builds just fine on a PIII here, using gentoo. You just need an ffmpeg that's built without SSE2.

      Chromium won't build on a PIII, but that's not because of SSE2, but because you need at least 2 GB RAM to link it.

    • by Bert64 ( 520050 )

      Can you not compile them to run on a non SSE2 system?
      I've used firefox successfully on non x86 processors which clearly don't have SSE2 support.

  • by pele ( 151312 )

    64MB RAM? Eh??? Back then 64MB of RAM cost £60k. And I don't think PCs supported more than 8 or 16MB. I had 4x1MB 30pin and had 2 72pin slots free. Later added 2x2MB in 95 or thereabouts. X would fly with 8 megs. Anyway I forgot more about Linux then I know right now but I think it did run on DX (i.e. 32-bit) machines only, SX was 16-bit, right?

    • My 486 motherboard supported up to 32megs. But 16 meg system were for high end use. Pc came with 4 megs which was considered good. Then I spent $650 for 16 more megs to get X11 to run smoothly that gave me a total of 20 megs with my gigabyte hard drive I was really rocking.

    • Actually, in the early '90s, the price of RAM was ~$40/ MB ($33/MB according to this list [coursehero.com], so 64MB would cost you around $2500.

      Finding a board with 64MB could be tricky, but I seem to remember at least one that allowed it (it supported SMP (dual) processors and was supremely expensive).

      Both the 486DX and 486SX were 32-bit processors; the 486SX lacked a float-point processor (you may be thinking of the 386SX, which - although it was a 32-bit processor - only had a 16-bit bus).

      • Re: Re (Score:3, Interesting)

        by pele ( 151312 )

        Sorry to burst your bubble my fried but that list is wrong.
        What the author fails to mention is that 4 sims of 1mb each would cost £240 yet a single 4mb simm was priced WAY more that those 4 1mb simms. And then a 72-pin simm would again be slightly more expensive than a 30-pin one. To get up to 64MB you would need 4x16MB simms. Probably 72-pin ones as I don't seem to recall anything bigger than 4MB in 30-pin guise. My unix lab (where I'd later come to work at) bought a 64MB simm (or whatever Spar

        • Interesting. I wasn't in the market for 16MB memory in 1993; I purchased 1MB modules because just having 4MB was an impressive upgrade. So I have no direct experience with prices for modules of that size. You position makes sense; the larger modules should cost more, as they would have smaller production yields. Still, to achieve the $60,000 price-point the RAM would have to cost $900+ per megabyte. But 16MB modules would be reserved for servers and business applications, and those always are more expens

      • that was for low capacity sticks, 512k and 1MB being quite common, that went up exponentially for larger capacities, you would have been paying many times your $2500.
        • by sconeu ( 64226 )

          1992... Had a 486/33 (no bloody DX or SX). Paid $3200 for 32MB. We were running a departmental server (yeah, wasn't Linux back then... was *gasp* SCO Open Desktop -- before they were evil)

    • by JBMcB ( 73720 )

      The Mac Quadra 840av was out in 1993 and supported 128MB of RAM. Heck the old IIci supported that much.

  • by dryriver ( 1010635 ) on Sunday January 07, 2018 @07:00PM (#55882013)
    I just type in LOAD "LINUX" , 8 , 1 and off the C64 goes. Booting requires some "disc swapping" of course, and is sometimes hard on the Datasettte unit, but it works. Most impressive is that is that I've managed to solder a current Nvidia Titan GPU to the underside of the Commodore as well. This lets me run C64 games like The Last Ninja, International Karate II and Infernal Runner at 8K UHD 144Hz. I can also run all Playstation Pro 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch games on the unit. Even games that haven't been developed and released yet, like Grand Theft Auto 6 run great on this souped up Linux 64 unit. Oh, and the unit can time travel as well. I had coffee with Leonardo Da Vinci just this morning. He told me that he was painting a portrait of an Italian lady who hit her head recently and has a strange smile frozen on her visage. Amazing what a few beers before going on Slashdot can achieve, right? =) (The idiocy in this post is released under the GNU GPL 3.0 License)
    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 07, 2018 @07:26PM (#55882121)

      You joke, but the Contiki [contiki-os.org] operating system, which is now marketed as a modern OS for the Internet of Things, started out as a multitasking, networked operating system for the Commodore 64 and other 6502-based systems. They seem to have scrubbed almost all references to that off their web site, though.

  • We ran the current versions on our 486, pentium 90s, pentium 200s, pentium 2s and 3s.

    For a server type system, they're ok except for power consumption and they can't keep up with gigabit speeds.

    For a desktop, internet wasn't something you use extensively. In the pentium 2/3 days AJAX was just starting. Javascript was not used heavily and most people had dialup. Today's internet will be glacially slow if it will even run on older CPUs.

    Most of the stuff I do personally and professionally uses web pages wit

  • by lamer01 ( 1097759 ) on Sunday January 07, 2018 @07:13PM (#55882069)
    The software that existed at the same time this 486 was prevalent ran just fine and rather quickly on the 486. This modern (last 20 years) with layering software with countless abstraction layers has produced utter crap software. I would like to see how fast the software of that era runs on modern PCs versus the crap software we put on them today.
    • by pele ( 151312 ) on Sunday January 07, 2018 @07:23PM (#55882109) Homepage

      We used to say (back in the 486-era) how software of today is shit and how everything was flying on 286-es in assembler. And 8085s...

    • by gravewax ( 4772409 ) on Sunday January 07, 2018 @07:33PM (#55882147)
      The software of that era had complete and utter shit for security, hardware support, ease of use, stability and graphics etc etc. sure it ran fast, your car would go faster too if you took out all the windows, airbags, seatbelts, the doors and panels, stripped out the seats, air con, reduced fuel tank size to 10% of current capacity, not many people though would say that the car was better and today's cars are shit because of everything they come with.
      • Well, of course some things just weren't there at the time but to me these sound like straw man arguments. I still dare a comparison on modern hardware running Old time Software vs todays's versions.
      • ...your car would go faster too if you took out all the windows, airbags, seatbelts, the doors and panels, stripped out the seats, air con, reduced fuel tank size to 10% of current capacity, not many people though would say that the car was better and today's cars are shit because of everything they come with.

        So the PC equivalent of this? [rcramer.com]

      • Your comment reminds me of this classic:

        Getting a 5.8s 0-60 time from a 2001 Nissan Sentra:

        http://www.rcramer.com/fun/eco... [rcramer.com]

        Completely true for the same reasons.

    • I think you forgot how slow everything was. I remember kernel builds taking half a day on my 486.

  • Memories (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jgotts ( 2785 ) <jgottsNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Sunday January 07, 2018 @07:29PM (#55882135)

    I switched to Linux in May of 1994. That computer had a 486DX2 66 with a whopping 12 MB of RAM. Slackware was pretty much your only choice, and I installed Slackware 2.0 from 3 1/2 inch floppies.

    It took me days and days to get on the Internet with PPP from my dorm room at the university, and from that experience I wrote a mini-HOWTO.

    That's where I'd get started if I wanted an authentic 1993 Linux experience. Be prepared for nothing working as you would expect out of the box. Out of necessity I immediately became a Linux developer and author. I even wrote one patch for the kernel and at one time maintained two kernel modules.

    Now I pretty much don't do any Linux development except for work, but I've been doing it for 24 years now.

    • by dow ( 7718 )

      My introduction to Linux was on an Amiga with a 50mhz 68030 cpu, fpu, and 16mb ram expansion for a total 18mb. It could run an X server quite fine. Later moved over to the PC, but it was only my first steps with the Amiga version that confirmed Linux as the OS choice when I did. I remember the PPP How-To, and really appreciated that one in particular. Thankyou!

      • by Bert64 ( 520050 )

        Mine too, but with a 68040... I still have a couple of amigas which can dual boot into linux, and even have a gentoo install running on a 50mhz 68060.

    • I switched to Linux in May of 1994. That computer had a 486DX2 66 with a whopping 12 MB of RAM. Slackware was pretty much your only choice, and I installed Slackware 2.0 from 3 1/2 inch floppies.

      On my 486DX2-66 I installed Yggdrasil Plug-and-Play Linux from a cd-rom. Graphics, audio, networking, etc all just worked automatically, it really was plug and play, as easy as a MS Windows install. Only later did I try slackware and learn the more typical cluster-f that was Linux installation, entering various technical parameters for your monitor in order to get graphics to work. To be fair my video was a popular ATI, my audio a popular Soundblaster, my networking a popular ...

    • by Dr. Evil ( 3501 )

      I was installing from CD on a 386 w RLL. The CDR was proprietary, and I had a Que book on UNIX to help me... I upgraded from 2M to 5M just to be able to run it... $200+ in RAM right there.

      It took a month to get the install working... then everyone told me to spend more money on upgrades...

      I wish I had more money as a kid. 12M on a DX2-66 would have been a dream for me. I was on a 12” paperwhite VGA display. And that was 1995...

  • Linux, back in the day, originally ran on 486 processors, and ran well. You could boot the system off 1.44 MB floppy disks and it booted in well under 11 minutes.
    Why reinvent the wheel and compile a modern linux when OG distros are still available - like Slack 1.01 from Feb 1995.
    Download all 13 floppy disk images (less than 20 MB!) from here: https://mirrors.slackware.com/... [slackware.com].

    • Linux, back in the day, originally ran on 486 processors

      Linux originally ran on 386 processors; support for the 386 wasn't withdrawn until Version 3.8 in 2012.

  • Systemd (Score:2, Insightful)

    Systemd is probably the cause of the slow boot time. I'd love to see a light weight modern OS like NetBSD tested. Probably boots 10x faster.

    • I an sure Net- or OpenBSD might run half way decently but there would not be a whole lot you could do with it. I wonder if either of the OSes could even detect a network card.
      • I can't speak for OpenBSD, but both FreeBSD and NetBSD support numerous ISA network cards, including the NE1000/2000, EtherExpress Pro/10, and DEC 3C50x series cards. You should still be able to use those OSes on early pre-VLB 486 systems.

        • by TyFoN ( 12980 )

          I have OpenBSD running on a dual ppro 200 mhz with 96 gb ram and a quantum fireball(!) drive. The drive actually impresses me most as it's 20 years old.

          The system is running sshd and irssi, and I've even compiled the kernel and some userland updates a few times. There might be some compile errors if you disable things like ACPI, however it is easy to fix with a few variable guards in the kernel.

          Not tried X yet though, but I could see if it could drive my pci matrox mga g550 card.

    • Re:Systemd (Score:4, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 07, 2018 @08:57PM (#55882493)

      > Systemd...

      Gentoo Linux uses OpenRC by default. You have to go out of your way to install systemd.

      Check 102 seconds into the video. You can clearly see the string "OpenRC 0.34.11 is starting up Gentoo Linux (i486)"

      Prior to that we can see that it takes the kernel nearly 14 seconds to pass control to init.

      Actually, watch the video. You get a really good sense of which services take an unreasonable amount of time to start. (Under ordinary circumstances, OpenRC doesn't need to regenerate its service dependence cache, so his next boot will shave a couple of minutes off of the start time we see in this video.)

      • eselect profile set 7 (or whatever systemd/desktop profile you want)
        emerge -avDN @world

        Uncomment the systemd line in /etc/default grub and run grub-mkconfig -o /boot/grub/grub.cfg

        Reboot - that's about it. It'll usually run the enabled openrc stuff by default. If not just enable it with systemctl.

    • Systemd is probably the cause of the slow boot time.

      So to be clear, systemd whose single useless feature people advertise as faster boot time is the result of the slow boot time despite the fact that Gentoo doesn't even use systemd?

      What next? Systemd kicked your dog and slept with your wife while you were debugging a sysvinit script?

  • The more interesting question is can you install a *MODERN* Linux on a 1993 PC?

    I was using Linux in '93, so I can state without any doubt that you can *definitely* install it on a system from that period.

  • by Antique Geekmeister ( 740220 ) on Sunday January 07, 2018 @11:37PM (#55882991)

    I well remember testing out operating systems on 486 based hardware. I actually did tests with Windows, with early Linux releases, and with HURD on the same host. HURD was unusable. Linux became a critical part of the environment very quickly, since genuine UNIX systems were much more expensive than our limited development budget could support.

  • by rsilvergun ( 571051 ) on Monday January 08, 2018 @12:38AM (#55883131)
    I had a DX100 because when the Pentium hit you couldn't give them away. Heck, when I wanted a Vesa local bus card I drove down to a computer shop to ask for one and they just handed me one out of the junk pile.

    But I got 90% of the performance of a $2000 Pentium for about $300 bucks and most of that was hard drive & ram. I played near arcade perfect ports of X-Men: Children of the Atom & Primal Rage on it not to mention Rise of the Triad and Doom.
    • by hal2814 ( 725639 )
      I was the dummy who got a Pentium. Mine was probably slower than a DX100 because I opted to find one with VESA local bus. I didn't understand the technical hoops a Pentium board had to jump through to support VLB. It was a major step up from my 386SX though and at least I could enjoy my ludicrous gibs at a decent speed and screen size.
  • This is too much RAM to be realistic in a 1993's 486.
  • I had a 486 since 1993 that i kept upgrading as much as i could, using other people cheap parts, when everyone started to use pentiums

    i finally upgraded to a amd 486-dx5@133MHz, with a vesa local bus card and performed similar to a pentium 75 (except in FPU, where the pentium was more powerfull).
    I then manage to grab some 8MB EDO SIMMS and upgraded to 16MB, one year later, to 32MB RAM. The MB only supported max of 16MB of ram and testing i found that with 16MB, the L2 cache helped a little, but with 32MB, i

    • by higuita ( 129722 )

      forgot to mention... it still boots... but i stop really using in around 2017, when i also got a cheap HP microserver to replace it as a server

  • was an AMD 40Mhz 486, i think it maybe already had a 120MB hard drive and 4MB ram, it kicked ass.
    i needed to take my zip drive to work to download all the updates, because i couldn't afford internet back then (it was really expensive back in those days).

  • The post '92 PS/1s were easy because they behaved like an AT system, but the '92 ones were a bit more difficult. I've done the same thing on a 2133-W13. It was a complicated PS/1 because linux's setup.s couldn't detect the IDE drives. It incorrectly assumed that the FDPT is at 0x41 and 0x46 and the HDD type is at 0x19 in CMOS. While that is true for the AT systems, the PS/1 systems were not AT. IBM released a unixboot.com binary that can solve this for a single boot. With a bit of hexediting to kill the fin

  • All you need is to compile your own kernel without useless stuff such as ACPI, PCI, USB, SCSI, MD. This is a config that should work like a charm for that system in at most 3 seconds (instead of 14) on a 386sx PS/1 and with a lot less RAM based on You only need SB32, VESA, EL3 (3COM), TTY, ISA, ISAPNP, PARPORT on the hardware side. It also has support for SMBFS. It can further be trimmed without SMBFS and NLS to around 600kb (loading and decompressing are slow on a 386.
    https://pastebin.com/Mj0cud [pastebin.com]

    • Great point. I disabled and tuned every kernel compile option when installing Linux on a 486 or 386. With modern kernels, for sure there is even more stuff to configure. Most likely, there are also branches optimized for older hardware. It is a valid test to boot with minimum effort, but then don't chuckle at the boot times or other performance metrics.
  • We ported our build environment for an embedded OS from Windoze 98 to a linux distro. Boot up and shutdown was much shorter than what was reported here, but I donâ(TM)t remember the timing. What I do remember is that build times were reduced from 2 hours to about 5 minutes. This similar to builds about 15 years later
  • Was this with or without the meltdown patch? I would be interesting to try both and get a real measure of the impact of the patch on a system that doesn't need it.
  • Can You Install Linux On a 1993 PC

    Seriously? Linux used to be run back in the day in 386 computers. I did that on a laptop (not the best experience, except for running a single app, like a database or web server.)

    My main mode of running it back in the day was on a 486SX with 2M of RAM (later 4M, what's when shit was flying fast man!)

    I ran X, postgress and a web server (to the exclusion of everything else.) Later I turned it into a dev system (gcc/gnat) complete with a whole bunch of other goodies.

    Pretty primitive by today's standards,

Competence, like truth, beauty, and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder. -- Dr. Laurence J. Peter