Linux on a 486

Some folks had some fun getting Linux running on a 486. That brought back some memories for me.

While I have not tried to run a modern distro on my 486, some years ago I installed Slackware 11 32-bit with a custom kernel. With 16 MB of RAM and a 10 Mbps network card. The 486 system still works although the graphics card is flaky.

That 486 was an office system with Microsoft Office 6 and FrameMaker 4 installed. I was productive with that system for several years, including surfing the web with Netscape 3 and 4 on a dial-up modem.

Like the other folks, I did not install Slackware 11 directly in the 486. That would have been painful, even several years ago. I removed the original 512 MB hard drive. I installed the drive into a system with removable drive bays. I copied the Windows for Workgroups (WFWG) partition to the first partition on a spare 20 GB disk. I prepped additional partitions for Slackware 11 including a separate /boot partition. I installed Slackware from the more modern system. Then the usual post-install tweaks, including a GRUB menu item to boot WFWG.

I installed the 20 GB disk into the 486. Everything ran, albeit slowly. WFWG still runs snappily on the 486 and boots in about 66 seconds to a full WFWG desktop. Not bad for 1991. Excluding the rc.local script, the Slackware 11 system takes about 60 seconds to boot to a command line. Completing rc.local, which is a common file on all LAN systems in the home, adds another 60 seconds to the boot time. X is not installed. I have syslogd, SSH, cron, RPC, and atd enabled, but other services are not enabled. Not with 16 MB of RAM. After booting there is about 1 MB of RAM free. I have a 1 GB swap partition.

Both operating systems connect to the home LAN just fine. Some patience is needed when transferring files. A 10 Mbps card was state of the art 25 years ago but not today. If I remember correctly, the WFWG 32-bit subsystem was needed to use TCP/IP networking. The WFWG system connects to some Samba shares on the home LAN. Years ago I wrote a simple script (batch file) to sync the local clock to a time server on the LAN.

The 486 system has a 100 MHz Cyrix Hybrid CPU installed, which helps add a teeny bit more muscle.

Excluding virtual machines (VMs), I have not tried installing WFWG on truly modern hardware. I do have WFWG installed on a Pentium I system. Basically I did the same thing and copied the original WFWG partition and installed GRUB. Compared to the 486, WFWG screams on the Pentium I system. WFWG boots in about 27 seconds and the desktop is really fast. Not bad for 1991 or 2018. The Pentium I system has a 10/100 Mbps network card. WFWG on that system also works great with the home LAN.

I have a Pentium II system on the shelf but I never had motivation to repeat the experiment. I never messed much with Windows 95 or 98. I moved from WFWG directly to NT4. I bought the Pentium I system with NT4 pre-installed. The last I tinkered with the Pentium I system I updated Slackware from 14.0 to 14.1. Triple boot: WFWG, NT4, and Slackware 14.1. Not bad for old hardware and a 40 GB hard drive

Although the 486 is a 32-bit CPU, support hardware did not really match the potential. Chip sets, RAM, bus speeds all were designed for 16-bit systems, which was state-of-the-art at the time. Being a 32-bit kernel from the start, I don’t know how Linux development gained traction in those days considering a 486 was the cream of the crop when Linux first saw life in 1991.

Lots of fun exploring. I wish I was as smart as those younger folks and half as energetic.

Posted: Category: Usability Tagged: General

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