Making Old Hardware New Again

Thursday May 21st 2009 by Paul Rubens

Repurposing old computers instead of buying new machines can make sound financial sense, especially when trading conditions are tough and the economy is in a bad way.

If you've run older PowerPC-based Macs in your businesses you may be wondering what to do with them now that Apple has made the transition to Intel, and the G3, G4 and G5 processors are beginning to show their age.

One possibility is to scrap OS X, and turn the machines into servers (or workstations) running Linux. Several distros run on PowerPC Macs, including familiar names like Ubuntu and OpenSUSE, as well as one that is probably less familiar: Yellow Dog Linux (YDL).

YDL is a distro based on the Red Hat Enterprise Linux/CentOS core. Fixstars Solutions (formerly Terra Soft), based in California, maintains it. Terra Soft started making a Linux for Apple's hardware as long ago as 1999. In addition to currently supporting G4- and G5-based Macs, YDL runs on machines that run on IBM's Cell processor, which has a PowerPC processor at its heart. This means YDL can be run on a Sony PlayStation3, a games console that can also be used as an inexpensive general-purpose computer, or a component in a more specialized one. For example, Fixstars sells a 32-node PS3 cluster, a collection of 32 PS3s linked together running YDL for the development of parallel, Cell-optimized code. Such a system, however, is beyond the scope of this article.

Getting back to repurposing old hardware, what are the benefits of putting Linux on old PowerPC based Macs? "Linux has always offered a lighter, faster, more flexible OS alternative to OSX for the older Macs," said Kai Staats, Fixstars' COO. "For both desktops and servers, the footprint is smaller than OS X, offering a 'snappier' user experience. For servers in particular, Linux offers a server history and foundation that extends well beyond that of OS X, with a myriad of industry standard code development, database, application server and web tools available for free."

In businesses in certain sectors it's probably not that uncommon to have a PS3 lying around somewhere. If it's not in use any more, or cash is tight, a strong argument could be made for putting it to productive use. (In fact Sony envisaged that buyers might want to run an alternative OS on the PS3 when it was released, and it's actually trivial to dual-boot the hardware into a games machine or a Linux system.)

Installing Linux on a PowerPC-Based Mac

Getting hold of Linux distros for old Macs is a simple matter of downloading the appropriate ISO image and burning it to a CD or DVD:

YDL DVDs are also available with installation support from the Fixstars store.

Once you've burned your ISO image on to a DVD, the next step is to boot the machine from the DVD by inserting the disk and holding the C key. If this doesn't work, hold the Option key while booting to start the boot manager, and then click on the penguin icon that should appear after a few seconds, followed by the right arrow icon.

Once the installer starts, you may get the following error in Ubuntu:

No common CD-ROM drive was detected
You may need to load additional CD-ROM drivers from a floppy ... Otherwise you will be give the option to manually select CD-ROM modules. Load drivers from Floppy? - Yes - No The solution to this is to switch to a second console pressing ctrl+alt+F2; press Enter to activate that console, then type:
modprobe ide-scsi
Then switch back to the first console, pressing ctrl+alt+F1, select "Yes" and choose cdrom (or cdrom0)

Shortly after this point, the Mac I was using for this test installation - a PowerMac G4 Quicksilver - froze, while attempting to install Ubuntu 8.10. The same thing happened with OpenSUSE 11.1, and with Yellow Dog Linux 6.1. Co-incidence? It seems unlikely, meaning that the problem is probably hardware rather than software based.

After some lengthy troubleshooting with the technical support staff at Fixstars, the conclusion was this: " may have a bad CPU for which OS X compensates with error correctly checksums where Linux does not."

In fact it turned out that no version of Linux would install on this system, until I went right back to Ubuntu 5.10 Breezy Badger, which installed without a hitch. The result was a Linux installation running on Mac hardware that appeared speedy and responsive (although not noticeably any more so than the same hardware running OS X.) The problem is that Breezy is no longer supported or updated, so the ability to run Breezy has no real value. The upshot of this is that Linux may or may not run on an old Mac you have — the only way to find out is to try.

Despite my experience, Staats said there are plenty of Macs running YDL and successfully deployed in enterprise environments. "We find a number of G5-based Xserves and PowerMacs running YDL in high performance computing clusters or for back-end application services, even supporting older and modern OSX systems via NFS or data storage. "

Linux on a PS3

So, how about doing the same thing with a PS3?

Installing YDL 6.1

You can download YDL install images for PS3 from:

The PS3's GameOS allows you to partition the hard drive and create a system that can boot into either GameOS (to run as a games console) or "Other OS" (to run Linux).

  1. The first step after connecting a USB keyboard and mouse is to upgrade the PS3's firmware to the latest version (from the Settings menu) and backup any saved game data you want to keep (also from the Settings menu)
  2. Partition the drive by selecting Settings > System Settings > Format Utility > Format Hard Disk > Yes, and choosing Custom

    Annoyingly, the PS3 will allow you to split the hard drive into only two partitions, one of which must be 10Gb, regardless of the overall size of the PS3's hard drive. This means you are faced with a choice of running a 10GB Linux system — which may be too small to be useful — or restricting your GameOS partition to 10Gb, which is probably a more sensible option.

  3. To begin installation, insert an installation DVD, and select Install Other OS from the Settings - Systems Settings menu. Once the PS3 locates the boot loader on the DVD, follow the prompts to boot the system to a kboot: prompt, and then type the appropriate command:
    install_ps3_1080i - for TVs and monitors capable of 1080i
    install_ps3_1080p - for TVs and monitors capable of 1080p
    install_ps3_720p - for TVs and monitors capable of 720p
    install_ps3_480i - for monitors with composite cable connections
    and follow the instructions.

Once installation has completed, remove the DVD and reboot to start Linux.

Page 2: WiFi problems

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WiFi problems

YDL starts reasonably quickly on a PS3, and a wired network connection should present no problems, but connecting to a WPA wireless network doesn't work out of the box.

To get it working, download and extract from this file and use it to overwrite the file with the same name at /usr/lib/python2.4/site-packages/wicd/

Then reboot the PS3, log in as root, and edit /etc/wicd/manager-settings.conf by changing 'signal_display_type = False' to 'signal_display_type = 0'

Once you save this change and reboot again, WPA should be working.

By default, YDL alternate install boots to the Enlightenment desktop manager, but it's a simple matter to switch sessions from the login screen to Gnome if you prefer. You can also install and run KDE. The server version does not install a GUI.

Alt text
Enlightenment desktop running
on LCD TV at 720p

Alt text
Gnome desktop running on LCD TV at 720P


Download Ubuntu install images from:

Installing Ubuntu on a PS3 requires an install disk and a working Ethernet connection. It takes well over an hour. It seems much slower and less responsive than YDL, and WPA does not work at this point.

Is it worth it?

Getting Linux running on a Mac (assuming it doesn't have the mystery CPU fault) or a PS3 is a fairly painless process that should take about an hour. Buying new hardware is an inexpensive alternative, but if you have old, unused Mac or PS3 hardware lying around, and you think it is reliable enough for the job you have in mind, it's certainly worth sticking Linux on it and taking it for a spin.

Paul Rubens is an IT consultant and journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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