BSDs on the AlphaServer 300 4/266

Friday 14 January 2011, 10:11 PM Posted by urbancamo

I've been busy, honest! Busy, but not productive. I'm even making wgoodf look good at the moment!

I've spent the last couple of days attempting to get a variant of Unix other than tru64 installed on my AlphaServer 300 4/266. This is the same box that a week ago I got OpenVMS 8.4 installed on.

To cut a long story short, I've achieved some success but not got a variant to drive the S3 graphics card in the box. The S3 card was the standard graphics card supplied with the box, and when I tried a more modern ATI 7500 PCI (a well supported under OpenVMS and tru64) I couldn't even get a VGA text mode display. I've been told that the SRM (fancy DEC bios) needs to support specific cards in order for them to work. As the card will be significantly more modern than the box I can see why it might not work. Of course in a bog-standard PC you'd get a VGA text display whatever.

Here are the results of my findings:

  • NetBSD/Alpha 5.1 - installed fine, recognised all the hardware apart from the graphics card. It was a quick install - probably about 20 minutes from beginning to end, and would clearly make an excellent choice for a server operating system on the Alpha platform. I also believe that it's still in active development. I was really impressed with the ease of installation, it is much more user friendly in recent incarnations than of old. I gave up trying to get the X server to start - the kernel didn't recognise the S3 card and neither did the X server.
  • Debian 5.0.4/Alpha - I had some discs kicking around of Debian so thought I'd give it a go (even though technically debian has dropped the alpha platform I've heard various reports that there is still active development going on behind the scenes into version 6.x). The installation took forever, I had to leave the box running overnight. Fair enough, the desktop profile of debian encompasses a lot of software. It all looked promising, even though the network card wasn't recognised during installation it was when the installed kernel booted, and it got right up to near the end of the boot process then started throwing disk errors. I gave up at that point.
  • OpenBSD/Alpha 4.8 - again, like NetBSD, installed absolutely file, recognised the network card and (crucially) the graphics card, very user-friendly installation process, was up and running in about 20 minutes. However, even though the kernel recognised the graphics card I didn't manage to get an X server up and running. I tried messing around for an hour or so with the xorg.conf file but just couldn't coax it into life.

Out of all three I recon OpenBSD looked the most promising. However, as I spent the best part of two evenings getting nowhere I decided to revert back to tru64. I'd installed tru64 on the box previously, but again that was before I'd installed the graphics card. Once again I failed to get any kind of X server running, although I suspect this time I would have had more luck if I'd bothered to read the manual. This variant of Unix does things differently than others, so there is only a certain amount of overlap. I decided to revert back to a box that I knew was fine: my trusty DEC 3000/600.

Unlike the AS 300 the DEC 3000/600 is seriously old school in the weight department. Sheet steel encompasses the beast, and although it is basically a large desktop box it's size belies it's weight. It has a 175 Mhz 21064 Alpha processor, 24 bit graphics card, dual Quantum 18GB hard drives (via 80 pin SCA to 50 pin converters) and 64 MB of memory. I like it because it takes old-school DEC peripherals, including my lovely LK-421 Unix Programmers keyboard which I'm writing this on now. DKA0 boots tru64 4.0G and DKA100 boots Digital Unix 3.2, which is the operating system this computer shipped with (Digital Unix started out as OSF/1 before it was renamed to Digital Unix then later to tru64). I think one of the reasons why the machine is so nippy is that it has a 512 bit memory bus, which is quite some boast even today. Oh, and I left the box overnight before trying to power it on, to give it a chance to get up to temperature.

The box is quite nippy, can run netscape fairly well and gives a lovely 1280x1024 24 bit image on my sync-on-green compatible flat panel (an AG Neovo F-419). I'm using an editor I used to favour back in the mid 90s - nedit. The editor does still have a web presence, but the news tails off around 2005.

Before I shut down the AS 300 I pulled off a build of Modula-3 that had kindly been put together by one of the maintainers of the CM3 variant. It took a good couple of hours across a 10MB network connection to transfer the 7GB archive that formed the contents of the AS 300s /usr/local/ partition. I've extracted that onto a linux box and pulled over the Modula-3 distribution onto the DEC 3000/600.

I also found a directory full of files restored from a backup of my linux machine from around 1996 which proved entertaining for an hour or so!

I'm going to spend an evening over the weekend doing a bit of coding in Modula-3. I have a couple of books from way back when, and I may try and tackle something out of a Knuth book seeing as I have all three volumes sat behind my head. If you're still with me, thanks for listening!