July 9th, 2020

Hard Stare

My favourite useful low-end machine (in answer to an Ask Hackernews post)

In answer to this Ask HN question.

• I had a client with a Novell IntraNetware 4.1 network. I did a bargain-basement system upgrade for them. With a local system builder, we took a whole storage closet full of decade-old 386 and 486 desktops and turned them into Cyrix 6x86 166+ clients. The motherboards had integrated graphics and NICs (rare back then), 32MB RAM and a smallish local EIDE hard disk, say 1.2GB. No CD drives, original 14-15" SVGA CRTs.

A 2nd Novell server would have been too expensive, so I put in an old Pentium 133 workstation as a fileserver running Caldera OpenLinux with its built-in MARSNWE Netware server emulation. It held CD images of NT 4 Workstation, the latest Service Pack, the latest IE, MS Office 97 and a few other things like printer drivers. Many gigs of stuff, which would have required a new hard disk in the main server, which with Netware would have meant a mandatory RAM upgrade -- Netware 3 & 4 kept disks' FATs in RAM, so the bigger the disk, the more RAM the server needed.

On each client, I booted from floppy and installed DOS 6.22. Then I installed the Netware client and copied the NT 4 installation files from the new server. Ran WINNT.EXE and half an hour later it was an NT workstation. Install Office etc. straight off the server. (An advantage of this was that client machines could auto-install any extra bits they needed straight off the server.)

For the cost of one fancy Dell server & a NOS licence, I upgraded an entire office to a fleet of fast new PCs. As a bonus, they had no local optical drives for users to install naughty local apps.

• Several 486s with PCI USB cards, driving "Manta Ray" USB ADSL modems -- yes, modems -- running Smoothwall, a dedicated Linux firewall distro.



This was at the end of the 1990s, when 486s were long obsolete, but integrated router/firewalls were still very expensive.

Smoothwall also ran a caching Squid proxy server, which really sped up access for corporate users regularly accessing the same stuff. For instance, if all the client machines ran the same version of Windows, say, Windows 2000 Pro, then after the first ran Windows Update, all successive boxes downloaded the updates from the Smoothwall box in seconds. Both far easier and much cheaper than MS Systems Management Server. (And bear in mind, at the turn of the century, fast broadband was 1Mb/s. Most of my clients had 512kb/s.)

There was one really hostile, aggressive guy in the Smoothwall team, who single-handedly drove away a lot of people, including me. The last such box I put in ran IPCop instead. http://www.ipcop.org/ After that, though, routers became affordable and a lot easier.