I had tried to load BSD on this thing a while back, but didn't get very far. Recently I found an original boxed-set of RedHat Linux 5.2 and, to my surprise, the system requirements had this machine's specifications as the recommended minimum! I was therefore very happy that I had previously managed to find an 8mb RAM upgrade for this machine.
Installing a big-enough IDE disk
The 40mb Conner that was in there was never going to suffice. I'd previously installed a 256mb 'SSD' disk, but this wouldn't do either. Instead, I'd recently picked up a 1.2g IDE from the flea markets, which won't work straight away with DOS (Use AnyDrive for that), but will work fine in Linux as the bios specifications are bypassed.
RedHat 5.2 comes with 3 installation CDs and a boot disk. I had previously built a PIII-500 and installed RH from these disks, so I knew the software was in working order. It was whilst installing RedHat on that machine that I saw that it may well also work with the 386. Just for fun, I slapped the boot disk in to the 386 and quickly got the LILO boot loader. After a short while I was in the installer, only to hit my first hurdle: the installation obviously needs CD access! The Compaq has a very slim case, so there was no option to install an internal drive. I'd previously used my Microsolutions Backpack Parallel Port drive under DOS on this machine, so I thought I'd give it a go with Linux.
RedHat comes with a bpcd.o driver for this device but I couldn't get it going! I tried all permutations of configuration for the driver (linux bpcd=0x3bc as a LILO boot command and also bp_base=0x3bc during install), but nothing would get the drive to spin up! Booting into DOS, I found the correct address to be 0x3bc... but nothing would make it work.
Installing over the network
I could choose FTP from the boot disk, but it them asked for a supplementary disk? I only had CDs at this point, so I couldn't continue.
The next best option was NFS and so I started searching for NFS Servers on Windows, as that was the easiest and closest machine available to host the required files. There were three options: FreeNFS, winnfsd and nfsAxe.
Of the three options, nfsaxe was the only one I could get working. I had copied the RedHat CD to a folder in Windows and pointed nfsAxe there. I then mounted it on the RedHat installer on the 386, but it quickly failed trying to find files.
Looking at the logs on the 386, I could see it looking for 'RedHat'. Looking at the folder on Windows, I could only see 'REDHAT'. I knew that Linux was case-sensitive, so I realised that this wouldn't work. Once in the RPMS folder, I then saw that all filenames were in capitals and the old 8.3 format!
Oh shit... Windows is reading the CD as ISO file format and not Linux... I couldn't work out a way to get around this natively in Windows. Instead, I had to copy the files from a Linux machine into the NFS server on Windows. As previously mentioned, I'd set up a Linux machine on another box, so I booted this up and mounted the NFS share on Windows. It all worked and I started copying over the CD's contents! Here you need to realise that nfsAxe has a 30-minute trial period! If it detects file activity on the NFS server, it'll start a stopwatch and shut the server down after 30 minutes.
So, the experience was terrible and took quite a few attempts, but the CD was copied over to Windows. I then booted the 386 and pointed it to the NFS. It found the files!! Installation started and showed an estimated time of 1.5hrs to install. Hah. That wont work... the NFS server, even with a freshly timed restart will only stay up for 30 minutes.
Using a virtual machine?
TurnKey Linux has a fileserver image that, when spun up, provides a 'NAS' style linux machine. I downloaded the ISO, set up a VM on Hyper-V and got it going pretty quickly. You'll need to run service nfs-kernel-server start to start NFS as it's not enabled by default. The exports are all configured, so you can test it locally with mount localhost:/srv/storage ./test and see that you can loopback to yourself. I then mounted the CD and copied the guts into that folder.
Meanwhile, the 386 couldn't see the share. I tried disabling nFS v4 and then NFS v3 (at this point I couldn't even loopback mount as V2 is not supported!) but nothing worked. I was worried that it was a network bridge issue between the physical machine and the virtual. I had the NIC set to the physical adapters 'bridge' in Windows, but ... meh ... it hated me!
Enabling an NFS share on 'Workstation' Redhat
What next? Let's set up a real physical NFS server on that RedHat 5.2 machine I mentioned earlier. I'd done the 'workstation' install, so NFS wasn't up and running by default. Firstly I edited /etc/exportfs and added /mnt/cdrom *(ro) as the first export. A reboot just threw 'permission denied' on the 386.
Trying to mount this as a local loopback threw permission denied also? Did that mean a firewall? Folder access? Where am I actually denied? I really had no clue at this point as I thought I'd done everything as needed. NFS seemed to just be a very built-in thing for Linux and should just-work(tm).
If no options are passed to the /usr/sbin/exportfs command, it displays a list of currently exported file systems. Ok, let's check... no.. let's not check... the exportfs only accepts -a. Ok... stuff it... time to install a real version of the OS.
After re-installing RedHat 5.2 in 'Server' mode, I type net *tab* *tab* and to my surprise: netconf appeared...
Hah! I wonder if this was there in 'workstation' version? We'll find out once the 386 is installed. I set /mnt/cdrom as an export and ticked all of the dangerous options. The bloody thing mounted locally and also worked on the 386.
Yeeey... activity on the RedHat 5.2 Server CD. We could finally get this installation started... and completed...
5 hours later...
The installation completed and I was prompted to remove all boot media and restart. I did as requested and... hahaha... what the hell... the screen just kept scrolling the magical number 04. The picture below is funny as you can actually see the redraw/scroll at the bottom edge.
Seems someone else has had this problem also. I let the installer configure the disks, so maybe it got the bootloader wrong.
Hah. Nice. So I then re-installed using 'custom' and also opted to make a rescue boot disk. I chose to install LILO in the MBR and got the same screen as above. Fortunately, the boot disk loaded the hdd perfectly.
It made it to the console... but it took around 6 minutes to boot. I then bit the bullet and started the x-window-server.
It actually failed to load anything past the xterm. The dock to the right nearly loaded, but bombed out and disappeared. The xterm was functional... slowly. I checked top and saw that there was swap memory, but no physical. This poor thing would be thrashing the page file and not getting anywhere. So, although I already knew the answer, I tried to launch netscape-communicator. No chance... it froze.
Therefore, RedHat will run! But don't expect X11 with 8mb of RAM. Use it for ... a file server? Am sure it'll serve up the web also. Good luck.