[TriLUG] why run open source OS on oddball old hardware? (LONG DIATRIBE)
19 Jun 2002 15:03:43 -0400
Be warned... my fingers are itching and my keyboard is just getting
I sometimes have people ask me why I like playing with non-x86 hardware,
or why do I like to collect old "useless" computers. I know several
others here have this disease as well.
If you were building a hot rod to race people on the street with, you
have a few different approaches. 95% of young guys will choose the Ford
Mustang for this purpose. It's easy to hot rod, there is a broad
community surrounding this platform, and its relatively cheap. However
it is not without its limitations.
At street races I have seen some cars that normally would have no
business being at a race. How about that big late 70's fullsize
Oldsmobile station wagon? It was giant, sucked gas like a boeing 747,
and was very hard to park. Yet you could fit five grownups in it, a
full load of groceries in the back, and you could strap a canoe on the
roof. That big station wagon wasn't necessarily the fastest hot rod at
the races, but it was one of my favorites because (1) it was different
and (2) it had some positive attributes that the Mustangs would never
Oddball computers can have a similar appeal. For example, if you wanted
to create a very large database, there are certain advantages to running
on a 64 bit platform like Sun UltraSPARC that you don't have on the x86
Or there is the Mac LCIII. It's probably about as powerful as a palm
pilot, but also almost as portable. So if you are going to an
installfest and need a cheap DHCP/DNS/bootp/tftp server, you can't beat
having a computer that is only a little bigger than a PC keyboard and
about as heavy. Sure you can spend $2,000 on a laptop but the Mac will
cost you about as much as lunch at a fast food joint.
Then there is the alpha. Until recently, there wasn't much that could
touch it in floating point performance. Even second hand alphas were
fast in this respect. True, a new $300 duron box from Walmart.com would
probably spank one of these old alphas today in FPU tests but there is a
certain dignity about the architecture. I suppose that number crunching
on an old athlon might be like having a game of catch with a hall of
fame baseball pitcher.
There is a certain unexplainable quality about oddball machines too that
most normal people can't grok. But in geek circles, your hardware
menagerie can define you to your peers. Someone with a vax cluster in
their basement might be viewed differently from someone who has a
collection of classic sparc boxen. Just like having the right car at
the races, your collection of machines helps to define the image you
project to your community.
And also like cars, there is a community of people in the computer
underground that like to take one man's trash and turn it into their own
treasure. There is no way that an old HP 9000 Model 712 is going to
keep up with even the cheapest computers made today. Most of the 712's
ever made are probably out of commission today. But I would argue that
they would make perfectly good syslog servers for the rest of your
server farm. Don't set your expectations too high. The charm of these
old boxes is in finding the modern tasks that it *can* do acceptably
well, and let them continue to work and earn their keep.
And finally there is the challenge. For most of the boxes I've
mentioned here, you can't just feed it a CDROM, turn it on, and have
Linux on there in half an hour. It takes a lot more work than that.
You often need to set up a bootp server, with tftp. You might need to
set up a serial console to walk through the installation. One of the
712's I'd like to get working doesn't have a floppy drive or CDROM
drive, but can boot from the network. At that last installfest we had,
I dare say the machine that got the most attention was the lowly sparc
station that was picked out of the trash and had linux installed over
the network guided by a (serial terminal). This machine which literally
was GARBAGE, with no floppy, CDROM, keyboard, monitor, or mouse was now
a useful system to someone. A very FREE useful system.
So if you feel your geek life is missing a little something, that life
is just too routine with your nice stable athlon machine, pick a
computer out of the garbage and spice up your life a bit.