Pliny the Elder


Backstory: This computer was given to me from a friend, knowing that I like to make a hobby out of owning 'vintage computing' appliances. Back in its day it was considered a business laptop, and was quite powerful.

A few pictures from Dell's advertising of the XPi:
XPi Banner

XPi Specs

Installing a modern(ish) Linux distribution on what was once a Windoze 95 laptop made for an interesting challenge. Most recent Linux distros ship with installers that won't even boot/fit within the memory of this Dell laptop. Initially, I had to settle on ancient (~2004) Debian releases. What's more, installing on a laptop with only a floppy disk adds to the frustration, primarily because 1) it requires doing a netinstall, and means finding the proper old/archived repos online, and 2) at the time, I didn't have any other working computers with which to write a floppy.

Debian Woody (Debian 3.0, circa 2002) has minimum requirements of 8-12MB RAM, and 120MB disk space -- which is what I used to bootstrap this system. Imaging the install disk directly to a ~250MB parition on the small 512MB harddisk allowed boot-and-install without a CD rom. Initial Partitioning:
| Part | Type | Size | +--------+-------------+--------+ | hda1 | installer | 250MB | +--------+-------------+--------+ | hda2 | root ( / ) | 200MB | +--------+-------------+--------+ | hda3 | swap | 64MB | +--------+-------------+--------+ After installing we resize the partitions, and delete the install partition: | Part | Type | Size | +--------+-------------+--------+ | hda1 | root ( / ) | 450MB | +--------+-------------+--------+ | hda2 | swap | 64MB | +--------+-------------+--------+

Once I had bootstrapped the PC into Debian, I had access to a working floppy disk for the first time in years (yay!). Consequently, I spent a lot of time re-digitizing old floppy backups of music, docs, etc. and sending them over the network. Unsatisfied with the setup, I decided to move over to NetBSD -- which promised a modern OS up to date on security patches, etc.

The first step to this process was creating a custom kernel and floppy installer. Usually, this wouldn't be an needed, but on a laptop with only 16MB of ram, even the official releases of NetBSD 5/6/7 won't boot into `sysinst` (Trust me, I've tried!). This can be done quite easily as long as you have access to a Mac/Linux/BSD machine through cross compilation.

[TODO: More about cross compilation to come]

Sysinst boots right up and installs properly from the INSTALL_TINY and NETBSD_TINY kernels. The last step after installing is to copy over the NETBSD_TINY (~2.3MB) kernel manually -- the sysinst installer will only install the large (~15MB) GENERIC kernel.

Currently, I have a whopping 482MB of disk at my disposal:
| Part | Type | Size | +--------+-------------+--------+ | wd0a | root ( / ) | 482MB | +--------+-------------+--------+ | wd0b | swap | 32MB | +--------+-------------+--------+