August 1993 “Preliminary Hardware Configuration for a Main Service Linux Machine”

From 1992 through to 1994 I was working at the Computer Unit at the University of Wales (well, wrangled an “Employment Training” position there on my own initiative) as a sysadmin and was running Linux on an IBM XT (from very dodgy memory). A friend of mine, Piercarlo Grandi, suggested to me (semi-seriously I suspect) that you could now build a large enough PC to support quite a number of users, and that the Computer Unit could use it as a central server (they were running DEC 5830s with Utrix), so I knocked up a text file and discussed it with my colleagues. They didn’t take it very seriously – little did any of suspect how much that would change.

Well tonight I indulged in a bit of computer archaeology and managed to get the data off my Amiga hard disk (from a GVP A530 expansion unit) and browsing around happpened to stumbleover that text file, dated 8:20pm on the 8th August 1993. It’s quite touchingly naive in places, and my numbers are pretty ropey.. 🙂

Preliminary Hardware Configuration for a Main Service Linux Machine

Item                            Each    Number          Total

Case                             100    1                 100
Keyboard + Mouse                 100    1                 100
Floppies                         100    1                 100
DAT Drives                       750    4                3000
EISA SCSI Controllers            300    2                 600
Memory (Mb)                       25    256              6400
Pentium EISA Motherboard        1000    1                1000
3.5Gb SCSI-II Disks             1800    5                7000
Screen+SVGA Card                1000    1                1000
EISA Ethernet Card               200    2                 400
CD-ROM Drive                     300    1                 300


Projected to be able to support between 200-400 users running Linux 0.99.p12
        (Alpha release kernel with patched IP - appears stable)


(1) I've seen reports that the ethernet driver code may suffer from a
    memory leak, but I've not seen any evidence for this yet as my
    machine hasn't been turned on for a long enough period for it to
    cause any problems.

(2) As it is so new there is very little commercial software available
    for it, but there is a quite sizeable free software base with many
    of the GNU packages already ported for it, and this is generally of
    high quality.

(3) The Linux kernel is well thought out, and includes support for shared
    libraries (which Ultrix sadly never picked up) which significantly
    reduces the amount of memory applications need.

(4) A Linux box of the size proposed for the service machine has not
    been attempted yet (as far as I know), but ones of the size of the
    proposed testbed machine are already in usage on the Internet. I
    believe that Linux can handle this scaling up with no problem.

(5) There are apparently companies within the UK who sell support services
    for Linux, I will investigate further.

(6) There is already a large amount of Linux expertise on the Internet,
    including the comp.os.linux newsgroup, the linux-activists mailing
    list and even an IRC channel dedicated to Linux users.

This post is dedicated to Rob Ash, my then boss, who took a chance taking me on after my time as a student mucking around on computers when I was meant to be doing my Physics degree, and who was a great mentor for me.

Recovering 5.25″ Floppy Disks

When I was at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth they were just starting to supplement their serial terminals connected to X.25 PAD’s with some PC’s (Viglen I think), complete with hard disks and 5.25″ floppy drives. So I have had two boxes of 5.25″ floppies which dutifully came out to Australia with me when I emigrated from the UK back in 2002. These floppies are now well over 20 years old so I reckoned it would be about time to see whether they were still readable and, if so, what was on them. Labels like “Honeywell Backup Disk #1” only say so much.. 😉

The first problem was that I didn’t have a 5.25″ floppy drive. Luckily my boss at VLSCI was able to lend me one. The second problem was I didn’t have a floppy cable with the 5.25″ connector on it. Fortunately Bernie at work had an old PC that was in bits which did have one, so I was able to borrow that. Then I found that the old Dell PC I was thinking of using had a really weird connector and wasn’t going to be that useful. My even older Olivetti Netstrada (a quad processor Pentium Pro monster) did have IDE, but the cables were going to be rather hard to get to as it has a bunch of SCSI drives and the cables for them were going to make it hard.

My final box was an VIA EPIA V box (originally from EverythingLinux back in 2003) which did have an easily accessibly floppy connector on the mother board, but only a single power connector for a drive. So it was either the internal IDE disk, or the floppy, but not both. I could have gone and bought a power splitter, but I thought I’d take the cheaper way and netboot it (the onboard ethernet chipset has PXE support) – it should be pretty easy.. Hah! 🙂 This is what the box looked like after some careful assembly..

Resurrecting 5.25" floppy disks - hardware

The first test was to see if the 5.25″ floppy disk drive worked. Luckily I had a floppy labelled as “system boot disk” and after some mucking around in the BIOS (it turns out you can set it to boot from floppy without having enabled the floppy controller, which results in it not booting from floppy and much cursing until you discover it) it booted first time – a 23 year old DOS boot disk complete with partly bilingual Welsh/English welcome screen from 1988!

UCW Aberyswyth 5.25" floppy system disk from 1988

This was very promising – the first disk had worked first time and a quick test of swapping it out for another and doing a “DIR” also worked. Now to get the data off these before they went to the great /dev/null in the sky..

My plan to recover the info was to netboot this machine as a Mythbuntu diskless front end box – Mythbuntu makes that easy to set up and with a little fiddling of the DHCP server to make sure it would only every try and serve this box, and do so with a static address, it worked. Or at least it would load the kernel. Which then complained that it couldn’t boot as it needed a CPU which had PAE support. 🙁

This VIA EPIA V has a low power (5W) 533MHz VIA Eden CPU (appropriately the kernel detects it as a VIA Samuel 2) and whilst it is IA-32 it doesn’t have some of the newer features which are selected for Pentium class processors in the current Linux kernel.

Oh well, that’s fine, I knew I could use Debian instead, so I used the ltsp-build-client (creating an /etc/sysconfig/ltspdist file first containing the line VENDORDEF="Debian" first so it would use the right set of scripts), thus:

ltsp-build-client --chroot sid --mirror --dist sid --purge-chroot --arch i386 --accept-unsigned-packages

Problem was that all the various kernel command line options for specifying the NFS server for the root filesystem just didn’t seem to work, it would just sit there saying something like “Waiting for root filesystem” and eventually give up and drop me to a busybox shell prompt, and a simple cat of /proc/cmdline showed the options were being set correctly. A little more thought and an examination of the config file for the kernel showed that Debian doesn’t ship kernels with CONFIG_NFS_ROOT set, so it was never going to work. 🙁

Whilst I could have rolled my own kernel I decided to instead have a look to see if I could find a Linux distro that included PXE booting as an option and a Google search for “linux distro pxe” turned up PLoP Linux as the first hit.

PLoP Linux is a small (75MB) distro aimed at data recovery operations that comes as an ISO, tar.gz or zip file for i586, x86-64 and (crucially for me) i486 processors. They even have a separate tar file for the PXE files. It was easy to set up and so I booted the PC with high hopes. Then I got the same error about the kernel requiring PAE support in the CPU that I got with Ubuntu. Whilst there was an i486 tar file there wasn’t an i486 PXE tar file! That was easily solved by grabbing the i486 ISO, doing a loopback mount of it and stealing the kernel and initrd.img files from it instead.

This time it booted, and I found that it had just what I was after – a Linux shell prompt, working networking, mtools (for mcopy and mdir) and (most importantly) ddrescue to let me create complete images of the floppies. I created a directory for each floppy disk and then did ddrescue /dev/fd0 floppy.img to make the image. I created another directory called Contents and from there did mcopy -vms a: (yes, I ordered the options that way deliberately) to copy all the files and subdirectories off complete with their last modification times (from 1987 and 1988 generally).

In all I was able to recover 20 of the 21 floppies with no errors at all, which amazed me as I was expecting them to have degraded over time (especially as one box was just a flimsy cardboard box). I was hoping to have original B source code from HoneyBoard (the bulletin board that Alan Cox and others I knew there wrote) and AberMUD from the Honeywell L66 but sadly that doesn’t appear to be the case. There are 3 B programs but one is just just 3 lines (calling a drl) and the other two appear to be two versions of some sort of shell which I didn’t write as the first has a btidy timestamp from April 1987, before I arrived at Aberystwyth.

The 21st disk was completely unreadable – the drive didn’t seem to want to acknowledge its existence and ddrescue couldn’t see anything as the floppy driver in the kernel couldn’t get the drive to provide any data. I might try ddrescue’s mode of copying data in reverse to see if that manages any better..

UK Academic Network JANET to Close Usenet News Service (Updated)

This is a great shame, though probably not that surprising these days, but the UK Joint Academic Network (JANET) is going to pull its Usenet News service on the 31st July 2010. Basically I suspect the ever declining SNR has put people off, and these days everyone knows the web and the closest they get to knowing what Usenet is (or maybe was) Google Groups. JANET says:

There are now few active registered News Feed users and News Read users and the current infrastructure is nearing its end of life. JANET(UK) have therefore decided that it is no longer economically viable to run the service, especially in the current financial climate. We therefore will cease to offer the service when the existing contract expires on July 31st 2010.

Especially sad for me as I cut part of my first real sysadmin job at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, was working on the Usenet news system that had been set up originally by Alec Muffett and I was for quite a while the maintainer of the UK.telecom newsgroup FAQ and the alt.config guidelines.

Update: I’ve been digging through some old email – here’s one from 4th August 1993 giving an idea of what we had to struggle with:

OK, I deleted all binaries under alt.binaries, all of junk and all of control. That, coupled with the AEM_TIDY got us about 27 meg back. I then ran a doexpire, whch took a long while but we’re now up to about 53 Meg free, or about 85% of the 400 Meg partition.

Yup, the entire university news spool at that time was a whopping great 400MB. 😉 We were using nntplink with CNews for the time (this was before we knew about INN).

RIP Tudor Jenkins, Reader in Physics, University of Wales Aberystwyth

My friend Alun Jones forwarded onto me the sad news of the death of one of my former lecturers, Tudor Jenkins (here’s the link, in case the original goes away), affectionately called “Tuba Jenkins” by his students as he played the tuba for the Aberystwyth Silver Band (Seindorf Arian Aberystwyth).

Dr TUDOR E. JENKINS, MA, DPhil (Oxon), FInstP

It is with great sadness that we report the untimely death of Dr Tudor Jenkins, Reader in Physics at the Institute of Mathematics and Physics at Aberystwyth University. Dr Jenkins died on 3rd November after a short illness aged 60.

Originally from the Rhondda Fawr, Dr Jenkins read Physics at Corpus Christi College Oxford, and obtained a D.Phill at the Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford. He subsequently studied as a post-doctoral research assistant in Cardiff University before being appointed as lecture in micro electronics at St Andrews University in 1979. He joined the Department of Physics at Aberystwyth in 1983 becoming Senior Lecturer in 1990 and Reader in 2007.

A tribute by Professor Neville Greaves, Director of the Institute of Mathematics and Physics, is published on

I remember I did his lasers course when I did my degree in Planetary and Space Physics at Aberystwyth back in the late 1980’s and whilst I wasn’t very good at that course I do remember his enthusiasm for physics and the fact he could inspire you to want to learn more. Turns out that he was recognised for that, in 2005 he won the Universities award for Teaching Excellence. This quote from the tribute also rings true to form:

Dr Tudor Jenkins was a committed and colourful colleague, famous for his often pithy Latin quotations with which he ended his e-mails. Looking forward to rationalising teaching modules for the 2009 session, he concluded wryly with Occam’s Razor: entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem, which approximately translates as “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”. Tudor was always a pragmatist.

I also seem to remember that he had an enthusiasm for real ale.. 😉

A bittersweet day

Today has been a day of sadness and joy.

This morning we took my fathers ashes to Freshwater West and scattered them overlooking his favourite bay in a brief respite from the downpours across Wales today.

This is tempered by the memories of my father, both here and elsewhere in Pembrokeshire.

Hywl fawr Dad!