Dial Into The Internet Like It’s 1999

Restoring classic hardware of any sort is a great hobby to have, whether it’s restoring vintage cars, tools, or even antique Apple or Commodore computers. Understanding older equipment can help improve one’s understanding of the typically more complicated modern equivalents, plus it’s just plain fun to get something old up and running again. Certainly we see more retro computing restorations around here, but one thing that we don’t typically see much of is the networking equipment that would have gotten those older computers onto the early Internet. [Retrocet] has a strong interest in that area, and his latest dial-up server really makes us feel like we’re back in the 90s.

This home networking lab is built around a Cobalt Qube 2 that was restored after it was gifted to him as a wedding present. The Qube had a cutting edge 250 MHz 64-bit processor with up to 256 MB of RAM, and shipped with a customized Linux distribution as an operating system. The latest upgrade to this build sped up the modems to work at their full 56k rates which involved the addition of a DIVA T/A ISDN terminal and some additional hardware which ensures that incoming calls to the modems are digital. Keeping the connections digital instead of analog keeps the modems from lowering their speed to 33k to handle the conversions.

Until recently, [Retrocet] was running some of the software needed for this setup in a custom virtual machine, but thanks to the full restoration of the Qube and some tweaking of the Red Hat Linux install to improve the Point-to-Point Protocol capabilities of the older system, everything is now running on the antique hardware. If you are like [Retrocet] and have a bunch of this older hardware sitting around, there are still some ISPs available that can provide you with some service.

19 thoughts on “Dial Into The Internet Like It’s 1999

  1. Ahh the venerable Cobalt Qube II… an interesting machine.

    NetBSD still supports them I think.

    Gentoo does if you’re patient — waiting for Gentoo’s Catalyst tool to grind out a stage 3 tarball was a multi-day affair. For me that was a 6-monthly ritual, and I found myself doing it twice for each of:
    – o32 glibc mipsel4
    – n32 glibc mipsel4

    Still have mine, I should fire it up at some point.

  2. I used dial-up Internet around late 2001. After that I’ve got access via Wi-Fi from an ISP that was 2km away. They provided a bi-quad antenna in a box for that purpose. This lasted for about two years – ISP was shut down because it was a money laundering scam by local mafia.

    AFAIK, TPSA – polish national telephone company, still provides a dial-up Internet number: (+48)0202122. There were few “secret” dial-up numbers that had metering disabled, providing free access, but these were rare, and as soon as someone leaked one, it was shut down and changed. There were similar phone numbers that provided a dial tone for calling for free. These were more common, but also were changed as soon as someone outside of TPSA found them.

      1. I know of that URL, still won’t bring me back the old days. When our social network was our BBS and IRC channel. When sharing files was coming over with the spare harddisk or sending a burned CD.
        Whatever, just rambling and tears of an old netcitizen. -.-

        1. I’m with you there. BBS on my C64 and before that on a semi-homebrew machine based on a Signetics 2650 eval board that I got at a Hamfest with a 300 baud modem. I put that machine together to dial into the PDP-11 (if memory serves, PDP-something definitely) at my college. How things have changed. I both miss those days and am happy with the massive progress made since then.

          1. @[mythoughts62]

            I wouldn’t have thought that was a huge limitation as most of the CPUs of that era only addressed 64kB RAM max, however a full 64kB was rarely implemented so as to make room for ROM and perhaps I/O.

            The only exception I can think of was the 68000.

            It’s looks like an interesting CPU.

          2. I am from 1982 so i somewhat missed the homebrew era, but my first very own computer was a used 386 in 1992 after i pestered my dad long enough by practically besieging his machines. First his Amiga 2000 and then his PCs, where my 386 was among them and with the words “Dann sieh zu wie du damit fertig wirst”, roughly “Now its your problem”, that one was mine and my dad got himself a 486. And on my birthday that year i got a GUS and 4 MB memory extra for a whopping 8 MB. ^^’

        2. Spare HDDs or CDs? We started with floppies on the school playground after I stumbled over PowerZIP (freeware) which allowed us to distribute as much data as we wanted on as many floppies as necessary/required.
          eg. Descent 1 for DOS :-)

          1. Back at the start of the 90s our clique was lucky that we stumbled upon some cheap used QIC-80 drives and media. But later everyone of us had some 80-120 MByte harddisk that was well packaged and that we used to share stuff when we visited a friend. Open the case, attach instead of the CD drive, ignore the mumblings of the CD driver and MSCDEX about having no drive, fire up ye olde Norton Commander and copy away.
            An older friend of the family, he was a tax consultant with some money to burn, had the snob variant of that, a Stacker drive for the parallel port. 120 MB if i remember correctly.

  3. That’s pretty cool and many points for the neat and tidy setup! One thing though–he received the Cube as a wedding gift? I must have done it wrong since all we got was china, crystal, and kitchen appliances.

    1. Such neatness is wondrous! It’s rather rare, imho, even inside manufactured equipment. It reminds me of a week of US Navy rest, 1957±1 at Camp John Hay in Baguio, maybe Tarlac province, Luzon likely. Wondrously clear mountain air, worldwide pollution in the future. Not much tech stuff to see, but I did have a good look at iirc part of a phone exchange with lacing–corded multiconductor wiring. Its neatness was just spectacular.

      After I’d settled somewhat after a terrible life upset, I bought a very early Amiga 1000 system (Sony KV–1311, still have, needs a good home; free; pickup, E. Mass.) Modem was 1200 bps. ISP was Software Tool and Die, Brookline, iirc world’s first public access; world.std.com. This was probably late 1989. They later dropped “std”.
      Was an editor for Argus. Used Pine for e–mail. Tried Unix dialup, noting in advance that they provided no online help a tall. : ) Tried to send them a message about my distress, but didn’t know how to terminate my message. As I recall, books (and online tutorials) about command line usage were rare. When Linux appeared, tried a quite incomplete distro called xdenu, really obscure.
      My best to all,

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