A Science Project: “Build the 486 Gargantuan Again!” – Standard Linux in an ragged PC

A Science Project: “Build the 486 Gargantuan Again!” – Standard Linux in an ragged PC

What’s the oldest x86 processor that is smooth supported by a most modern Linux kernel in expose time?

I requested the above quiz request at some level of the Geekcamp tech convention in Nov 2017 at some level of my emcee characteristic. The theoretical retort as you might maybe maybe discover from the title of this post is the 486 which was first released in 1989. I made up my thoughts that fact from this article the place apart toughen for the 386 was dropped in Dec 2012.

To gain you , here is the implications of my effort.

The white smudge on the conceal conceal is no longer the camera’s fault, there might maybe be admittedly a backlight effort with my frail 19″ video show.

You might maybe maybe maybe maybe also skip to Eleven:39 when the boot completes.

00:00 to 00:forty six – BIOS

00:forty six to Eleven:39 – Bootup. It takes practically 11mins to bootup!

Eleven:39 to 13:14 – Machine specs, IP data and ALSA mixer

13:14 to fifteen:00 – Taking part in music by Sound Blaster sixteen

15:00 to 17:25 – SSH whereas taking part in (stuttering) music within the background. With AlsaMixer adjusting quantity.

17:25 to 17:forty eight – Opening a webpage hosted by nginx.

18:10 to 20:13 – Git clone a repo.

20:13 to 21:13 – The usage of Python Three.6.Three

21:13 to 21:43 – Cleanup and field shutdown say

21:43 to Halt – Shutdown. It takes 5.5 mins to shutdown!

Drawn to how I got a most modern Linux kernel Four.14.8 (released in December 2017) to walk on this ragged PC? Read on!

Final month, I took section in a Gargantuan Silly Hackathon with my teammate Hui Jing the place apart we attach in Rattling Miniature Linux (DSL) on that identical 486 PC.

I purchased this machine with the distinctive intent to play frail DOS games of their novel glory. Anyway, we managed to play music and even host a webpage! Ogle her fantastically detailed write-up here.

The model Four.Four.10 of DSL we frail was released in Nov 2008. It frail the kernel model 2.Four.31 that was released in June 2005 which is a dinosaur by lately’s standards.

In the midst of generally, the request of whether or no longer the theoretical retort of 486 is admittedly moral lingered in my head. I did a dinky little bit of analysis and discovered any individual no doubt attach in Gentoo Linux with a most modern kernel on a 486 PC. No lower than any individual said it was in all probability even supposing he did no longer give any no longer easy evidence 🙁 He urged that one must employ a most modern PC to attain the provision code compilation which I’ll conceal later.

Gentoo Linux is a Linux distribution constructed utilizing the Portage kit administration machine. No longer like a binary utility distribution, the provision code is compiled within the neighborhood per the actual person’s preferences and is on the full optimized for the actual selection of computer.

From Gentoo’s Wikipedia web page

The field with licensed Linux distributions indulge in Debian/Ubuntu/Arch is that they distribute compiled binary programs. In total here’s real ample as compiling every single kit you will need from scratch is time ingesting and most folks ain’t got time for that.

Despite the true fact that the 486 is theoretically supported by the licensed Linux kernel, here’s no longer moral on the distribution and gear degree.  As an instance, Debian has dropped toughen for older 586 32-bit CPUs as of 2016. Thus, the oldest supported x86 CPU by Debian is the 686. The Sixth-generation x86 started with the Pentium Pro released in 1995 or it’s extra generally known variant Pentium 2 was released in 1997.

Therefore, it is not any longer in all probability to straight employ a protracted-established licensed distribution on a 486 PC. However on an peculiar distribution indulge in Gentoo which requires you to assemble every kit, this is in a position to maybe maybe smooth be in all probability.

Marvel on the distinctive specs of this machine. The CPU and RAM had been completely upgraded by the seller sooner than I purchased it.


Front panel

The 48x PATA CD-ROM force came with the PC. I replaced the distinctive Three.5″ floppy force with the Gotek 1.44MB floppy emulator. This icy utility enables one to emulate as a lot as one hundred floppy disks basically based mostly mostly on pictures kept within the connected USB Flash force! I no longer desire to write to robotically-failure-inclined floppy disks each time I deserve to transfer data.

Growth slots

There are most spellbinding Three sixteen-bit ISA slots placed on the riser card in this PC. It would not even enjoy the more moderen but moreover legacy PCI slots. This PC is filled with 2x 32MB SIMM-72 RAM sticks. I in fact desire to confess 64MB RAM is unparalleled for a 486-generation PC. Some folks online managed to move as a lot as 128MB RAM.

Growth cards

The Three ISA slots are completely filled with the following

A Sound Blaster sixteen CT2950 PnP, 10Mbps 3Com Etherlink III 3c509B,and a CompactFlash-IDE (CF-IDE) adapter. Technically the CF-IDE adapter is no longer an ISA card. It is mounted within the growth slot to allow me to without effort swap out the CF card without the bother of opening up the case. To the motherboard, the CF card is upright indulge in every other no longer easy disk.

Growth cards mounted in slots

Legacy ports galore! Uncover the vitality provide which most spellbinding accepts ~115VAC. I had to capture a transformer to step down the 230VAC mains in Singapore to suit this PC. The CF card is with ease replaceable on the abet.

Compilation machine: Thinkpad T430 (released in 2012)

Compilation is a CPU-heavy course of and the 486 will with out a doubt capture ages to attain so. To eradicate away from this field, we shall attain the compilation on a most modern PC utilizing a USB card reader then transfer the CF card over to the ragged PC.


  • Intel Core i7-3520M (Three.50 GHz, 4MB L3, 1333MHz FSB)
  • Intel HD Graphics 4000
  • 16GB DDR3 – 1600MHz
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • Ultrabay DVD-RW
  • 2x USB Three.Zero, 2x USB 2.Zero
  • USB-CF adapter to assemble on CF card
  • SSD eradicated to eradicate away from corrupting it by chance at some level of set up

This Thinkpad T430 is a 6-year-frail model by lately’s standards but is smooth instant ample to attain the compilation of everything in an more affordable amount of time (indulge in just a few hours).

I’ve documented a detailed list of directions here on what instructions to employ to set up Gentoo on this ragged PC. This post will upright variety out basically the most necessary steps and points I confronted.

Step 1: Getting the set up media and preliminary strive

The Gentoo x86 minimal set up CD might maybe maybe maybe also just moreover be downloaded here smooth helps the 486 architecture. Out of curiosity, I booted my ragged PC with it to peep if it is miles capability.

Appears to be like I’ll gain a kernel alarm. No longer sure if due to no longer ample RAM to scheme a RAM force or the no longer easy disks can no longer be detected. Anyway, I got the CD started with my licensed T430.

Step 2: Disk partitioning

These steps beneath are all performed on the licensed compilation PC other than the closing step.

Gentoo’s proposed partitioning scheme

This is what Gentoo recommends. Since here’s an ragged PC, it would not employ UEFI attributable to this fact there might maybe be not any need for the bootloader partition. Veteran PCs moreover enjoy a BIOS 504MiB barrier meaning they are able to most spellbinding access basically the most necessary 504MiB within the disk. This is also viewed within the BIOS setup beneath:

504MiB = 528MB

Linux can recognise the paunchy 32GB skill of my CF card most spellbinding after the kernel and foremost drivers are loaded.

Sincere partitioning scheme

Standard Linux distributions don’t constantly enjoy a boot partition by default as it’s contents are now placed within the root partition. Since we enjoy a 504MiB restrict, we enjoy a itsy-bitsy 128MB boot partition as basically the most necessary foremost partition to retailer the Linux kernel and other boot data.

Step Three: Set up Gentoo Stage Three

Stage3 is a step unparalleled most spellbinding to the Gentoo distribution. In most cases it be necessary to download a tarball containing a unadorned minimal binaries and machine directories.

It is foremost to be obvious to download the one who is named “i486”.

For added data about the Gentoo Levels, you might maybe maybe capture a view here.

Step Four: Verify compilation parameters

Portage is the kit manager frail in Gentoo and we desire to be obvious that its configuration will invoke the GCC compiler to emit programs which are 486 like minded. We desire to be obvious /and so forth/portage/perform.conf has the following 486-particular alternatives:

CFLAGS="-O2 -march=i486 -pipe"
CHOST="i486-personal computer-linux-gnu"
MAKEOPTS="-j5" # A real preference is the preference of CPU cores within the machine plus 1
USE="-kde -qt4 -qt5 ffmpeg mp3 alsa"

The USE flags are for any new programs no longer to embody GUI toughen and add sound toughen (for my demo).

Step 5: Configure Linux kernel

This was a tough nut to crack and I wanted endless tries to gain it to a workable disclose.  To minimise kernel dimension, the default menu alternatives might maybe maybe maybe also just no longer allow toughen for ragged hardware ingredients. Alternatively, toughen for them are smooth there.

The right list of alternatives I chose had been very lengthy so I’ll most spellbinding conceal basically the most necessary ones I chosen.

Must disable sixty four-bit kernel for obvious reasons!

486 is the oldest option in this list!

ISA and VLB toughen must be enabled if no longer the full growth cards can no longer be frail

ISA Slither and Play is required for autodetecting my SB16 and 3Com NIC as they’re slack generation ISA PnP cards.

Enable each and every Generic ATA toughen and Legacy ISA PATA toughen

My 3Com 3C509 NIC card is smooth supported!

Sound Blaster sixteen is moreover supported!

As soon as performed we upright assemble the Linux kernel!

Step 6: Set up Bootloader

The identical old bootloader frail by Linux lately is Grub2. I attempted that but it did a reboot loop each time I attempted to originate the machine. Online analysis disclose I must employ the older LILO bootloader as an different. LILO is unsupported as of December 2015 but it is miles smooth in a quandary to load licensed Linux kernels.

This a snippet of the /and so forth/lilo.conf Lilo configuration file:

   read-most spellbinding
   vga=Four # This might maybe occasionally maybe maybe quandary the VGA mode to 80x30

   read-most spellbinding
   vga=request # Linux will request you to pick the VGA mode on startup

I didn’t set up a GUI for obvious performance reasons so I in fact desire to depend fully on text mode. I quandary the mode vga=Four to enlarge “text resolution” to eighty columns x 30 rows of text. I moreover embody a vga=request in case basically the most necessary option fails.

Step 8: Set up extra utility

Even though no longer strictly foremost to attain it moral now, I felt it was better to leverage on the performance of the compilation machine sooner than transferring the CF card over.

Must you’ve got viewed the video, I attach within the most up-to-date variations (available within the Portage repository) of Git, Python, nginx, ALSA and MOC (console music player)

Step 9: Preliminary bootup!

Now we vitality down the compilation PC and transfer the CF card to the ragged PC for booting. Honest pray and hope it in fact works! 🙂

There had been several expected and sudden issues I confronted that made this mission beyond regular time-ingesting that it already was.

Can no longer boot from CD

Due to the age of the PC, the BIOS most spellbinding helps booting from the floppy force or internal HDD. To boot from the CD, I frail the Plop Boot Supervisor that booted off a floppy disk. This added extra inconveniences when it came to utilizing CD-ROM basically based mostly mostly utilities.

To forestall attach on on the already ragged mechanical floppy force, I frail the floppy disk emulator.

Can no longer employ eighty-pin PATA cable

This effort prompted me a obedient amount of sudden effort!!!

Left: eighty-conductor PATA cable, Factual: Forty-conductor PATA cable

The eighty-pin cable on the left is a extra licensed PATA cable with extra ground traces compared to the Forty-pin ones. It supposedly enables the bus to transmit at higher dash by casting off crosstalk whereas last backward like minded. Read this for added data.

When I assembled the PC, I to begin with started with the eighty-conductor cable for the drives. I confronted occasional intermittent issues. From the BIOS no longer being in a quandary to detect the force, to Linux midway getting disk access errors to outright disk corruption. It was no longer easy to relate then was it a utility fault or hardware fault?

Listed below are the list of steps I did to troubleshoot:

  1. Disconnect CD-ROM force as foremost slave
  2. Replace the CF card as I believed it was plain
  3. Recompiling the Linux kernel constantly with assorted SATA/PATA alternatives in case I chose the unsuitable one. This took hell a amount of time.
  4. Attempting assorted eighty-pin conductor cables

Finally, I swapped abet to the distinctive Forty-pin PATA cable that came with the PC and the issues by no intention came up. To double test my assumption, I attempted the different Forty-pin PATA cables I in fact enjoy in my deepest stash and had no field too.

Delight in WHAT THE HELL? I don’t mediate it is a fault of the cables themselves. I in fact enjoy handled many older PCs and none of them ever had issues after I switched to eighty-pin cables so I believed it is miles no longer going to be a field to begin with. Doubtlessly the motherboard of this PC upright would not indulge in the eighty-pin cable.

Sophisticated Gentoo set up intention

Inserting in Gentoo is tricky and time-ingesting below the actual of times even on licensed PCs. Doing it for an ragged PC indulge in this extra adds to the complexity.

To attach issues into standpoint, here’s how I would rate the relative field in putting within the assorted Linux distributions

Linux From Scratch > Gentoo > Arch Linux > Fedora/Debian/Ubuntu

  • Linux From Scratch: Assemble every single factor from scratch. I in fact enjoy no longer tried this sooner than.
  • Gentoo: Infamous machine is ready. Honest assemble kernel, bootloader and extra programs. Then configure everything manually.
  • Arch Linux: Identical as Gentoo upright that everything already exists in precompiled binaries.
  • Fedora/Debian/Ubuntu: Distributions are basically based mostly mostly on level releases. Configuration is basically taken care off, upright configure deepest preferences.

This is compounded by the true fact that this was basically the most necessary time I attach in Gentoo Linux and was unfamiliar with the set up steps.

Prolonged iteration cycle

Announcing the ragged PC is slack is a obedient understatement. It takes Eleven minutes to boot as a lot as the login urged and 5.5 mins to shutdown. All by the lengthy startup especially, I had to dutifully seek for the place messages to ascertain there are no points.

If there had been any points, I in fact desire to transfer the CF card abet to the compilation PC to change the set up or worse originate the set up from scratch. I did this endless times and spent many hours.

Despite the assorted roadblocks I confronted, I was impressed by the degree of toughen Linux has for ragged hardware indulge in this. I’ll no longer be surprised if somewhere out there, there might maybe be a tester guaranteeing that stuff smooth works for frail hardware.

Despite the true fact that this involves ragged hardware, I in fact desire to confess I learned rather a dinky bit about the ingredients frail in Linux by advantage of developing Gentoo so I in fact enjoy some vital takeaways from this mission.

You might maybe maybe maybe maybe also just wonder why did I title this post “A Science Project”. This was coined in a weblog post by a Microsoft utility engineer Raymond Chen to relate initiatives that topple into any of the following classes:

  1. A characteristic that is admittedly icy and no longer easy from a technological standpoint but is overkill for the actual person-effort.
  2. Requires hardware few folks enjoy.
  3. Looking out to solve a field that nobody in fact considers to be a field. You’re doing it upright for the Gee Whiz factor.

I factor in my initiatives has all of these qualities.

  1. I went by a difficult course of to provide an ragged PC licensed Linux and utility aspects. It is overkill as no intention one can attain any vital work on this slack PC. It is far extra acceptable to set up a length-appropriate working machine indulge in DOS and/or Recall Three.x.
  2. What number of folks enjoy a 486 PC lately?
  3. Who has a field of needing a most modern OS on this ragged PC?

Given the age of the 486 (1989 abilities), it would not toughen out-of-expose execution. Satirically this makes it fetch from the Meltdown and Spectre attacks. Must you can gain to be fetch from these attacks, you might maybe maybe walk your licensed utility on the 486! Pointless to claim here’s no longer the huge image, many other security aspects had been implemented on licensed processors since then.

As talked about earlier, whenever you occur to pray to copy this mission, you might maybe maybe search the advice of the low-degree detailed directions I in fact enjoy documented on Github.

I in fact enjoy linked initiatives to boot, Dwelling windows Three.1 on a most modern PC, Dwelling windows XP on a most modern PC and the utilizing the Covox Speech Component with a most modern personal computer. All the pieces to this level involves getting frail stuff to to work on a most modern PC, here’s my first weblog post that does the reverse. Leer out for added initiatives from me!



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