Hackaday Retro Edition: 386 Compaqs

compaq [Antoine] recently learned of a little challenge we have in the hinterlands of the Hackaday webosphere – what’s the oldest, or lowest spec hardware you have that can load this our retro edition? He has a pile of old PCs at his work, and with a lot of idle time at work because of summer, he decided to dig into that pile and get a really old computer up on the Internet.

While the pile of PCs didn’t have anything as old as he was expecting, [Antoine] did find an old Compaq from 1992. It has a 386DX running at 25MHz, 4MB of RAM, a 300 MB hard drive, VGA, and an Ethernet NIC. Gathering the requisite CRT monitor, PS/2 keyboard, and an AUI to a more modern Ethernet connector.

When getting these ancient computer on the Internet, the secret sauce is in the software configuration. [Antoine]‘s box is running DOS 6.2, but was previously configured to connect to a Microsoft filesystem server on boot. This server was probably somewhere at the bottom of the same pile the Compaq was salvaged from, so rolling his own modern networking stack was the way to go. A driver for the NIC was downloaded on another computer and transferred via floppy, as was mTCP, the key to getting a lot of old PCs on the Internet. The browser is Arachne, and with the right configurations, everything worked perfectly.

[Antoine]‘s efforts resulted in a computer that can easily handle the stripped down Hackaday retro edition, and can handle light browsing on Wikipedia. The effective download rate is something like a 33k modem; even with a fast (10M!) Ethernet connection, processing all the packets is taxing for this old machine.

Installing Linux on a 386 laptop

The “cheap” and “easy” way in about an hour! A question that pop’s up from time to time is “I somehow ended up with an archaic old laptop / computer, can it run Linux?” Well of course it can, but that totally depends! On what? Well machine CPU, CPU speed, hard disk space, RAM and most importantly what you are expecting it to do.

Okay, why a Intel 386? Well number one I own a 386, but more importantly its the absolute bottom Intel CPU you can run Linux on. While it wont be able to do much, it will give you a basic system to kick around and “get to know” the insides of Linux without a million things installed and the worry of breaking it.

Unfortunately a 386 requires some special moves as the actual chip was dropped from almost all distributions long ago. All of the modern distributions I have looked at require at least a 486 CPU. This tutorial will be strictly for installing a basic bare bones Linux on a 386. Have a 486? Pentium? Faster? Never fear I will be covering that in a part II later this week.

Linux on a 386 in about an hour? Madness you might think, it probably takes Linux longer to boot on a 386 (and in some cases you are correct)! Want to know the trick? Simple, cheat!

Join me after the break for the parts and steps needed to get you started.

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