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    Installing Debian GNU/Linux on Alphas
    Submitted by robster on Tuesday, February 19, 2002 – 20:56
    PotatoThis article describes how to have fun and impress your friends by obtaining old Alpha workstations and installing Debian GNU/Linux on them. I’ll be installing “potato” (2.2.R3) on my AlphaStation 250. This is a 1995-vintage workstation with an Alpha CPU. It’s the main application/DNS/NFS/DHCP server on my home network, and is presently my favorite machine. I had been running RedHat on it, but after seeing “apt-get dist-upgrade” run for the first time earlier this year, I’ve been upgrading all my boxes to Debian.

    Getting into old hardware

    It’s fun to play with old hardware. I especially like old UNIX
    workstations. In addition to the AlphaStation, I own several Digital
    Multia “Universal Desktop Boxes” with Alpha CPUs, a Hewlett/Packard
    Apollo 720 (Hurray for HPPA support in “woody”!), and a NeXTstation
    N1100 – and I’m always looking for more. Why are these machines fun?
    Part of the appeal is obtaining the unobtainable: when these machines
    were new, they were the stuff of my dreams – I could never have
    afforded them. Part of the appeal is being different – anyone can own
    a PC, not everyone runs an AlphaStation. But the biggest part of the
    appeal is cost: many people don’t want these machines anymore; you can
    often get them cheap, or even free!

    It’s not difficult to acquire your own 90’s-era UNIX workstations.
    Sellam Ismail has an excellent primer on finding old computers on the
    Vintage Computer Festival
    website. He lists many potential sources of machines. I’ve found
    machines on Internet auction and for-sale sites. Some turn up on
    local LUG mailing lists. I often see SPARCs, SGIs, and DECstations at
    Hamfests. (Hamfests are flea markets for Amateur Radio and computer
    users.) If you spread the word that you collect old hardware, people
    that want to get rid of old machines may actually come to you. I’ve
    gotten about half of my machines for free in this manner.

    Note that old computers have often been raided for spare parts;
    it’s not unusual to see machines for sale without RAM and disk drives.
    So, make sure you know what’s missing before you buy a machine, and
    keep in mind that you’ll have to fix it before you can get the machine
    up and running.

    Alphas are a good place to start

    The early 90’s had many UNIX workstation vendors. There are plenty of
    models to choose from, many of which are supported by Debian
    GNU/Linux. Alpha machines represent a good place to start exploring
    the world of old computers, for two reasons: First, there is good
    documentation available for them, and second, they are compatible with
    many kinds of common PC hardware.


    There is plenty of documentation for old Alpha workstations on the
    Net. Many operating systems support the Alpha architecture, so there
    is no shortage of support pages, mailing lists, and HOWTOs. The
    Alpha Linux page is a
    particularly good resource. Furthermore, you can still download the
    original manuals for many Alpha workstations from the old
    Digital FTP
    . This documentation can help you overcome both hardware and
    software problems.


    Alpha workstations are compatible with many kinds of inexpensive PC
    hardware. For example, my Alpha workstations use VGA, 10BaseT
    Ethernet, and PCI cards, just like the average PC. My Multia
    workstations even have two PCMCIA card slots.

    Being able to use standard PC monitors and cards on my Alphas has been
    a considerable convenience. However, there are limits to this
    compatibility: all my Alphas require full-parity 72-pin SIMMs – an
    unusual kind of RAM that seldom can be obtained as cheaply as more
    common PC-oriented flavors. Also, Multia workstations won’t operate
    without a live Rayovac 840 clock battery (or a superior modern
    replacement model), requiring a trip to a store that sells batteries
    for old Macs.

    Installing Debian GNU/Linux

    I’m going to be installing Debian GNU/Linux 2.2R3 “potato” on my
    AlphaStation 250. The machine has a 3.5″ floppy drive, a SCSI CD-ROM
    reader, and an 8 GB SCSI hard disk. It also has an SVGA monitor and a
    keyboard to act as a console. I’ve got the Binary-1 CD-ROM for
    installation media.

    The instructions provided on the Binary-1 CD-ROM for this kind of install
    are quite good. Although there’s little I’ll be able to add to them
    here, this account will at least demonstrate that installing on Alphas
    is not significantly harder than installing on a typical PC.

    I’ve already backed up all the data from the AlphaStation on which I’m
    going to install. You should make backups too, because, although it’s
    intended to be accurate and helpful, this account of my install my
    contain errors, and is provided without warranty.

    FYI, there’s a great deal of useful hardware support information in
    Chapter 2 “System Requirements” in the

    Debian installation manual
    , including a
    reference to the
    Linux Alpha HOWTO.
    Reading through this material is a good way to become an educated
    consumer before buying Alpha hardware.

    Section 6.6 “Alpha Console Firmware” is also a good source of
    information for those new to Alpha machines. The Alpha console
    firmware is much more powerful than the BIOS on most PCs. As a rule,
    this firmware implements two complete interactive console shells: a
    command-line-oriented one called “SRM” designed to support UNIX and
    VMS, and a menu-oriented one called “ARC” designed to support Windows
    NT. You can use either console shell to boot Linux off of a floppy or
    hard disk. However, the SRM console shell is more powerful than ARC:
    for example, SRM can boot Linux from an Ethernet device. The Debian
    installation instructions suggest SRM over ARC. Although I’ve had
    good luck with ARC in the past, I’m going to use SRM this time.

    1. Boot to the SRM console shell.

      The first step is to power-on the machine and boot to the SRM console
      shell. The SRM console shell prompt looks like “>>>”. If, instead of
      this prompt, your Alpha boots to a blue screen with menus, that’s ARC.
      If you wind up in ARC, navigate the menu tree until you find the
      option to switch to the SRM console shell. The proper series of
      choices should be something like:

      • Supplementary menu…
      • Set up the system…
      • Switch to OpenVMS or Digital UNIX console
      • Switch to Digital UNIX

      Once you select the “Switch to Digital UNIX” item, power cycle the
      machine and it should come up in the SRM console shell.

      An amusing fact: all you’d need to do to switch back to ARC from SRM
      would be to type “arc” and hit return. Who says command line
      interfaces are harder to use? The original manuals from the Digital
      FTP site cited above contain complete reference information for both
      console shells, if you want it.

    2. Boot Linux from the CD-ROM.

      Stick the Binary-1 CD-ROM in the reader. At the “>>>” SRM prompt type

      show dev

      The show command will show you all the devices. For example, my
      floppy drive shows up as dva0, my SCSI hard disk shows up as dka200,
      and my SCSI CD-ROM reader shows up as dka600. So, I’ll ask the SRM
      console to boot the Linux kernel from my CD-ROM like this:

      boot dka600 -file boot/linux

      The boot command boots the Linux kernel, which should start the Debian
      install program automatically.

    3. (Re)partition the hard disk.

      The SRM console shell uses a bootloader called “aboot” to boot the
      Linux kernel. The aboot bootloader is the equivalent of lilo or grub on
      PCs. The aboot bootloader requires your hard disk partition table to
      use a BSD-style disklabel. Most PC bootloaders do not require
      BSD-style disklabels, so if you’ve partitioned your hard disk with a
      PC before, the disklabel is probably not there. So, you should
      execute the “partition your hard disk” installation step, even if your
      disk is already partitioned. This will allow the fdisk program to
      create the proper disklabel for you, automatically.

      Unfortunately, the default cfdisk disk partitioning program can’t
      handle BSD-style disklabels. We’ll be forced to use the more-powerful
      alternate fdisk program, which is harder to use. A transcript of my
      session with fdisk follows, as an example. My input and some comments
      (delimited with /* and */) are shown in bold.

      Command (m for help): b /* Give me BSD-style disklabel */
      /dev/sda contains no disklabel.
      Do you want to create a disklabel? (y/n) y

      At this point, fdisk displays an empty partition table. The
      automatically-generated entry for “c:” just shows the geometry of the
      drive; it’s not a partition that takes up space, it’s not a partition
      you can put data in. I’ll just pretend it’s not there, and I won’t
      use the label “c:” for any of my partitions.

      Fdisk also shows some information about the drive geometry here,
      including the number of bytes in each sector, and the number of
      sectors in each cylinder. My disk has 512 bytes per sector, and 2048
      sectors per cylinder, so I know that each cylinder is 1MB in size.
      This is useful information, because I’ll be choosing sizes for my
      partitions in units of cylinders in the next steps. Note that I start
      my first partition at cylinder 2 in order to leave room at the head of
      the drive for the “aboot” boot loader.

      BSD disklabel command (m for help): n /* 1/2GB for root */
      Partition (a-h): a
      First cylinder (1-8347, default 1): 2
      Last cylinder or +size or +sizeM of +sizeK (2-8347, default 8347): 511

      BSD disklabel command (m for help): n /* 1/2GB for swap */
      Partition (a-h): b
      First cylinder (512-8347, default 512): (enter)
      Using default value 512
      Last cylinder or +size or +sizeM of +sizeK (2-8347, default 8347): 1023

      BSD disklabel command (m for help): n /* usr */
      Partition (a-h): d
      First cylinder (1024-8347, default 1024): (enter)
      Using default value 1024
      Last cylinder or +size or +sizeM of +sizeK (2-8347, default 8347): 2047

      BSD disklabel command (m for help): n /* var */
      Partition (a-h): e
      First cylinder (1024-8347, default 1024): 2048
      Last cylinder or +size or +sizeM of +sizeK (2-8347, default 8347): 3071

      BSD disklabel command (m for help): n /* home */
      Partition (a-h): f
      First cylinder (1024-8347, default 1024): 3072
      Last cylinder or +size or +sizeM of +sizeK (2-8347, default 8347): 6143

      BSD disklabel command (m for help): n /* extra partition */
      Partition (a-h): g
      First cylinder (1024-8347, default 1024): 6144
      Last cylinder or +size or +sizeM of +sizeK (2-8347, default 8347): (enter)
      Using default value 8347

      BSD disklabel command (m for help): t /* set swap FS type */
      Partition (a-g): b
      Hex code (type L to list codes): L

      Fdisk prints a list of known codes at this point. The code for swap is 1.

      Hex code (type L to list codes): 1

      BSD disklabel command (m for help): p /* print the table */

      7 partitions:
      # start end size fstype
      a: 2 511 510 ext2 /* root, start at cyl 2 for aboot! */
      b: 512 1023 512 swap /* swap */
      c: 1 8347 8347 unused /* just ignore this */
      d: 1024 2047 1024 ext2 /* /usr */
      e: 2048 3071 1024 ext2 /* /var */
      f: 3072 6143 3072 ext2 /* /home */
      g: 6144 8347 2204 ext2 /* extra partition for future use */

      BSD disklabel command (m for help): w /* write the table to disk */
      Writing disklabel to /dev/sda
      Syncing disks.

      BSD disklabel command (m for help): q /* quit fdisk */

      There, using fdisk wasn’t so bad, was it?

    4. Reboot

      When the you execute the mid-install reboot, you should return to the
      “>>>” SRM prompt. If you wish, you can use “show dev” to show the
      device names again. I used

      boot dka200 -file vmlinuz

      to boot the newly-installed Linux kernel off of my SCSI hard disk and
      complete the installation.

      The SRM console shell and fdisk may take a little getting used to, but
      installing on Alphas isn’t much more complicated than installing on
      the average PC.


    Don’t expect old workstations to be powerhouses of performance.
    (There’s a reason why people are willing to sell these things cheap.)
    I ran some informal BYTE Magazine UNIX benchmarks (
    HREF=”http://www.tux.org/pub/tux/niemi/unixbench”>UNIXBench 4.1.0
    on a representative sample of my Alphas and PCs just to give some
    perspective. This is a general macro-benchmark originally developed
    long ago at BYTE magazine. It’s now being maintained and improved by
    David C. Niemi. It combines a variety of computational and filesystem
    exercises, and spits out a “score” at the end. The more powerful your
    machine, the bigger your score.

    I didn’t put a great deal of effort into making these tests
    perfectly-controlled, so don’t stake your life on their pinpoint
    accuracy. Your mileage may vary. All of the machines were running
    Linux kernels with versions between 2.2.17 and 2.2.19 using gcc
    versions between 2.91.66 and 2.95.4. I used the Intel-specific gcc
    optimization flags provided in the UNIXBench makefile when building
    the benchmark on PCs. After some experimentation with -mcpu=ev4,
    -mno-soft-float, and -mfp-regs (no improvement, perhaps these are
    defaults), I used only the makefile’s default generic optimization
    flags when building the benchmark on the Alphas.

    UNIXBench 4.1 Scores for Several Alphas and PCs

    UNIXBench Score


    Alpha 21066A


    AS 250
    Alpha 21064A

    Pentium II

    Pentium III


    The benchmark shows that the Multia is slightly more powerful than a
    486 PC – powerful enough to make a good firewall, DNS, or DHCP server,
    for example. The AlphaStation 250 (shown as AS 250 in the table)
    scores ahead of the Pentium PCs that were common in 1995. Neither old
    Alpha workstation achieved anywhere near the score of the Pentium III.
    Still, it’s important to put the value of performance into perspective:

    The PC market being what it is, the new PC you pull out of a shipping
    crate today will start to seem old and slow not long after you’ve
    gotten all the Styrofoam packing material cleaned up. Everyone has an
    old, slow PC. But an old, slow AlphaStation – that’s something

    So, now that it’s running Debian GNU/Linux, the old AlphaStation 250
    should be fine for my purposes… at least until someone tells me they
    want to get rid of a newer Alpha machine. Anyone have one of those
    multi-processor GS AlphaServers they want to throw out? Not yet?
    That’s the upside to running old machines: sooner or later, the
    machine of your dreams will come to you. It’s only a matter of time.

    Submitted by Tim Fraser

    Category: HOWTOs

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    Subject: Re: Alpha systems as general machines
    Author: Anonymous
    Date: Thursday, 2002/02/21 – 01:43
    To reply to both postings, I own a 275/64mb Cabrio.. It runs secksay.

    The mp3 problem you’re experiencing is due to the clock speeds of the pci bus(at least i recall that is what causes that error) you should prolly port a version yerself.

    As for gcc, yeah, gcc isnt too hot for the alpha, but, if you comb the net you can find articles dealing with optimizing gcc on the alpha..

    i have yet to have a problem with installing and running X on this particular Alpha, perhaps luck?

    check linuxalpha.org if you havent already.. be weary of what compaq recommends, they are also discontinuing the alpha line as of this year.. 🙁


    [ return ]


    Subject: Re: Alpha systems as general machines
    Author: Anonymous
    Date: Thursday, 2002/02/28 – 02:02

    The mp3 problem you’re experiencing is due to the clock speeds of the pci bus(at least i recall that is what causes that error) you should prolly port a version yerself.

    What sound card are you using? My alpha has been VERY picky about sound cards (ISA works best, I’m trying to port the cs46xx driver in my spare time). I made a patch years ago that fixed mpg123 on alpha and since then I’ve been listening to mp3’s. My alpha has a 13GB collection (I ripped all my CD’s). xmms works fine.

    As to gcc, go
    download Compaq’s ccc compiler
    (the same one as is used under Tru64). That link may not work. I’m not sure why, but copy that URL and download it with ncftp.
    Here is the relevant web page
    . This compiler often generates code that runs 3x faster than gcc. Unfortunately, only gcc can compile the kernel. 🙁

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