FreeBSD Experiment Rethinks The OS Install

While the medium may have evolved from floppy disks to DVDs and USB flash drives, the overall process of installing an operating system onto a desktop computer has been more or less the same since the 1980s. In a broad sense you could say most OS installers require more clicking than typing these days, but on the whole, not a lot has really changed. Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.

Among the long list of projects detailed in FreeBSD’s April to June 2021 Status Report is a brief update on an experimental installer developed by [Yang Zhong]. In an effort to make the installation of FreeBSD a bit more user friendly, the new installer does away with the classic terminal interface and fully embraces the modern web-centric design paradigm. Once the user has booted into the live OS, they simply need to point the browser to the loopback address at any time to access the installer’s GUI.

Now that alone wouldn’t be particularly groundbreaking. After all, Google has implemented an entire operating system with web frameworks in Chrome OS, so is making the installer a web app really that much of a stretch? But what makes [Yang]’s installer so interesting is that the web interface isn’t limited to just the local machine, it can be accessed by any browser on the network.

That means you can put the install disc for FreeBSD into a headless machine on your network, and use the browser on your laptop or even smartphone to access the installer. The Graybeards will point out that savvy users have always been able to access the text installer from another computer over SSH, but even the most staunch Luddite has to admit that simply opening a browser on whatever device you have handy and pointing it to the target machine’s IP address is a big usability improvement.

While the software appears complete enough to get through a basic installation, we should remind readers these are still early days. There’s currently no authentication in place, so once you’re booted into the live environment, anyone on the network can format your drives and start the install process.

Some sections of the GUI aren’t fully functional either, with the occasional note from [Yang] popping up to explain what does and doesn’t work. For example, the manual network configuration panel currently only works with WiFi interfaces, as that’s all he personally has to test with. Quite a modern installer, indeed.

Some would argue that part of what makes alternative operating systems like Linux and BSD appealing is the fact that they can happily run on older hardware, so we imagine the idea of an installer using a memory-hungry web browser to present its interface won’t go over well with many users. In our testing, the experimental installer ISO won’t even boot unless it detected at least 4 GB of RAM onboard. But it’s certainly an interesting experiment, and something to keep an eye on as it matures.

[Thanks to Michael for the tip.]

Holding A Mirror Up In Front Of GNU/Linux

We’re guessing that we have something in common with a substantial number of our readers in that this post is being written on an open-source operating system. A well-known GNU/Linux distribution provides everything you might expect from a PC, but of course it’s not the only open-source game in town. A year-old piece from [Unixsheikh] caught the eye with the title “Why you should migrate everything from Linux to BSD“, and being naturally curious, it was worth a read.  It’s interesting enough to talk about here not because of its BSD advocacy, but because of its examination of some of GNU/Linux’s shortcomings. Using and appreciating an operating system shouldn’t mean slavish fandom, it’s worth every Linux user taking a moment to consider its points. Continue reading “Holding A Mirror Up In Front Of GNU/Linux”

A Miniature VT102 Running A Miniature PDP11

We spend a lot of time looking at retrocomputing in the form of gaming and home computers, but it’s true to say that minicomputers are less common than hardware projects. Perhaps it’s the size, cost, or even relative rarity of the original machines, but DEC minicomputers are a bit unusual around here. [Sprite_TM] hasn’t bought us a PDP11 or a VT102 terminal, but he’s done the next best thing in the form of a miniature working VT102 that also conceals a PDE11 emulator. It runs Tetris, which was originally developed on a Russian clone of the PDP11 architecture, and the 2.1BSD operating system.

Powering it all is an ESP32 module, and the PDP11 emulator is the well-known SIMH software. Porting this to the slightly limited environment of the microcontroller required a few compromises, namely the network stack and the configuration interface. In a particularly clever move [Sprite_TM] enabled BSD networking by writing an ESP32 layer that takes network packets via SIMD directly from BSD. It includes its own DHCP client and wireless network configuration tool, allowing an ancient UNIX-derived operating system from the 1970s to connect to the 21st century Internet through an emulator with its network code stripped out.

The case is a masterwork in OpenSCAD, a complete VT102 unit in miniature with a tiny LCD screen that when printed on a resin printer is a remarkable facsimile of the real thing. It doesn’t have a keyboard counterpart, but even with a miniature Bluetooth ‘board it still looks pretty impressive. In the video below the break he boots it into 2.1BSD, and importantly since it is a server operating system, logs into it from his laptop and plays a game of Zork.

[Sprite_TM] has brought us so many impressive projects over the years using the ESP32 and other parts. Maybe you have a favorite, but for us it’s the PocketSprite Game Boy-like tiny handheld console.

Continue reading “A Miniature VT102 Running A Miniature PDP11”

Will The Real UNIX Please Stand Up?

Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie at a PDP-11. Peter Hamer [CC BY-SA 2.0]
Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie at a PDP-11. Peter Hamer [CC BY-SA 2.0]
Last week the computing world celebrated an important anniversary: the UNIX operating system turned 50 years old. What was originally developed in 1969 as a lighter weight timesharing system for a DEC minicomputer at Bell Labs has exerted a huge influence over every place that we encounter computing, from our personal and embedded devices to the unseen servers in the cloud. But in a story that has seen countless twists and turns over those five decades just what is UNIX these days?

The official answer to that question is simple. UNIX® is any operating system descended from that original Bell Labs software developed by Thompson, Ritchie et al in 1969 and bearing a licence from Bell Labs or its successor organisations in ownership of the UNIX® name. Thus, for example, HP-UX as shipped on Hewlett Packard’s enterprise machinery is one of several commercially available UNIXes, while the Ubuntu Linux distribution on which this is being written is not.

When You Could Write Off In The Mail For UNIX On A Tape

The real answer is considerably less clear, and depends upon how much you view UNIX as an ecosystem and how much instead depends upon heritage or specification compliance, and even the user experience. Names such as GNU, Linux, BSD, and MINIX enter the fray, and you could be forgiven for asking: would the real UNIX please stand up?

Continue reading “Will The Real UNIX Please Stand Up?”

A Weather Station Fit For A PDP-11

The Digital Equipment Corp. PDP-11/70 is a masterpiece of Cold War-era industrial design. This microcomputer was the size of one or two modern server racks depending on configuration, and the front panel, loaded up with blinkenlights, was clad in a beautiful rose and magenta color scheme. The switches — the ones you used to toggle bits in memory — were actually custom designed covers made to match the shape of the completely unnecessary bezel. The aesthetic of the 11/70 is the intersection of baroque and modernism on the design Venn diagram.

[Oscar Vermeulen] built a miniature version of the PDP-11/70 that houses a Raspberry Pi, and [rricharz] has been hard at work bringing an original copy of BSD to this system. The first great project to come out of this effort? It’s a weather station, and it’s exactly as cool as you think it is.

A bit of ground work went into this build, including getting a historical Unix system up and running, in this case 2.11 BSD. Armed with a Pi and the PiDP-11/70 front panel, [rricharz] had a complete BSD system up and running, and with cool-retro-term, the interface looked the part. Doing something useful was another question entirely, but the Pi in the PiDP had some GPIOs free, so this ancient machine got an I2C temperature and pressure sensor.

The completed build is basically just a breadboard, a tiny diagnostic OLED, and a python script that grabs the data and sends it over to the sim. This is pressure and temperature data shoved into an emulation of a Tektronix 4010 terminal. It’s marginally useful work done by an ancient BSD system wrapped in an emulation on a Raspberry Pi. It doesn’t get better than that.

BSD Breathes New Life Into Obsolete Equipment

An old laptop or desktop computer that’s seen better days might still have a little bit of use left in it for a dedicated task. Grabbing a lightweight flavor of Linux and running a web server, firewall, or Super Nintendo emulator might get a few more years out of it. You can also get pretty creative repurposing obsolete single purpose  machines, as [Kristjan] did with some old Cisco server equipment.

The computer in question isn’t something commonly found, either. It’s an intrusion detection system meant to mount in a server rack and protect the server itself from malicious activity. While [Kristjan] mentions that Cisco equipment seems to be the definition of planned obsolescence, we think that this Intel Celeron machine with an IDE hard drive may have gone around the bend quite some time ago. Regardless, it’s modern enough to put back to work in some other capacity.

To that end, a general purpose operating system was installed, and rather than use Linux he reached for BSD to get the system up and running. There’s one other catch, though, besides some cooling issues. Since the machine was meant to be used in a server, there’s no ACPI which means no software shutdown capability. Despite all the quirks, you can still use it to re-implement a network security system if you wanted to bring it full-circle.

DEF CON Badgelife: The Puffy That Runs Linux

DEF CON is canceled again this year, and this time that statement is at least partially true. There will be no special official badges this year. There is no challenge or mystery embedded in the official DC badge. This is the year that unofficial badges from villages and random attendees finally supersedes the official offering. This is badgelife, and for the next few weeks, we’re going to be taking a look at some of the unofficial badges of DEF CON.

The idea for [dorkengine]’s Puffy badge began last year with the so-called Bender badges from AND!XOR.  Chalk this up to a story that ends with, ‘but you had to have been there’, but the Bender badges were wildly popular, sold like hotcakes, and were an astonishing success of independent badge craft at DC. [dorkengine] decided to get in on the action and build his own badge for DC 25.

The design of the Puffy badges is based on a highly stylized rendering of the OpenBSD logo and mascot. Why a pufferfish with Kardashian lips? [dorkengine] has a bunch of boxes in a closet running OpenBSD, and that’s a good enough reason for us.

An electronic badge must do something, and the feature list [dorkengine] came up with included some sort of wireless connectivity, hackability, a serial console, blinkenlights, and some sort of *nix-ish OS. OpenBSD didn’t make the cut, but [dorkengine] eventually stumbled upon the VoCore2, a tiny System on Module that runs Linux, has WiFi and a few GPIOs, and is barely an inch on a side.

After getting a good deal on a large order of VoCores, [dorkengine] started on the PCB. The circuit was simple enough with just a VoCore attached to a USB port, power adapter, and a few LEDs. The Puffy rendering translated beautifully into soldermask and silkscreen, and after a prototype from ITEAD Studio, [dorkengine] had 40 PCBs that worked perfectly.

So, what is [dorkengine] going to do with a box full of Puffy badges? He’ll be selling them for $40 around the con. That’s surprisingly inexpensive for a large PCB soldered to a $17 SoC. If you want to get your grubby mitts on one, you could email him or ping him on Twitter. Of course, if you want to make your own, [dorkengine] has the KiCad files and software available, but at this point, you’re looking at a very fast turnaround for a board house.