A Modern 386 Development Board

Some readers out there probably have nostalgic feelings for their first 386 based PC, the beeps and hisses of the modem, and the classic sound of a floppy drive’s stepper motor. Perhaps that turbo button that we could never quite figure out.

If you want the power of a 386 processor today, you’re in luck: [Pierre Surply] has developed a modern development board for the 80386SX CPU. This board is based on a 386 processor that comes in a LQFP package for “easy” soldering, and an Altera Cyclone IV FPGA.

To allow the CPU to run, the FPGA emulates the chipset you would usually find on a PC motherboard. The FPGA acts as both a bus controller and a memory controller for the CPU. On the board, there’s an SRAM chip and internal memory on the FPGA, which can be accessed through the 386’s bus access protocol.

The FPGA also provides debugging features. A supervisor application running on the FPGA gives debugging functionality via a FTDI USB to UART chip. This lets you control operation of the CPU from a PC for debugging purposes. The FPGA’s memory can be programmed through a JTAG interface.

The project is very well documented, and is a great read if you’re wondering how your old 386 actually worked. It can even be hand soldered, so the adventurous can grab the design files and give it a go. The francophones reading can also watch the talk in the video below.

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Hackaday Retro Edition: 386 Compaqs

[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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