Getting Linux to run on a computer with an Alpha CPU

Bruce Ediger

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I've always owned computers that don't use Intel CPUs or run Microsoft operating systems, ranging from a Radio Shack Color Computer 3 running OS-9 in 1986, through an AT&T 3b1 in 1988, NeXT M68040 "black" hardware in 1991, and a Sun SPARCStation IPC in 1995. Throughout my home computer experience, people (in real life and on usenet) have told me that Wintel hardware and software was both more plentiful and cheaper than, albeit possibly not of the same quality, as the `proprietary' hardware I had on the kitchen table.

Between January and March of 1997, I pieced together a computer with a Digital Equipment Corporation Alpha CPU and got it operable under the Linux operating system. The DEC computer, a "Universal Desktop Box" (UDB), although not an Intel 80x86-based CPU, uses "industry standard, easily obtainable" PC peripherals. I could now test the assertions about availability and price of Wintel "industry standard" hardware in practice. This is a record of my experience.


Purchasing computers or pieces of computers that are not considered "stock" is still quite difficult, but no longer impossible. Computer stores, both large chains, and small used/do-it-yourself types, only want to sell complete systems. Counter jockeys and sales help at all computer stores are ignorant of anything other than whatever complete systems the store sells. Prices of standard "PC compatible" hardware aren't as low as either trade rag pundits or usenet advocates led me to believe.

My Previous Freeware and Hardware Experience

Before reading my story, you should be aware that I'm not inexperienced. I have worked as a programmer for the past 6 years, mainly in a variety of Unix environments. One of my computers (a SPARCStation IPC) is running another freely-available Unix clone, NetBSD, so I have some small experience in what problems these operating systems have. The computers I own are not so-called "standard", or mass-market hardware, so I've done all maintenance and upgrading myself.

The Story

  1. I purchased a remaindered Digital Equipment Corporation VX40A-F2 Universal Desktop Box (UDB) from Starship/Computer Guys. I did this via an on-line auction run by Although I received the goods I paid for, I'm not sure I can recommend I have already gotten several email spams because either Starship or gave out their list of email addresses to unscrupulous scumbag email advertisers.

    This UDB was bare nekkid. It had no memory, no disk, no monitor or keyboard. It did come with a mouse, a Red Hat Linux/Alpha 4.0 CD-ROM set, and some minimalistic instructions.

  2. After the UDB arrived, I proceeded to purchase the other pieces I needed to make it into a useful computer. The first episode involved memory.

    I called several used and do-it-yourself type computer shops in the Denver metro area to find 36-pin, 70 nanosecond or better, "true parity" SIMMs. All of them quoted me a price. One Saturday, I drove over to purchase some. In 3 of the stores, I got exactly the same treatment: I asked for the memory, they looked up the price, then told me to bring my PC to their shop to let them install the SIMMs. I waved the UDB documentation at them, told them I just want to buy it, and I'll sign away my right to return ruined memory. Reluctantly, each counter jockey went to the back rooms, only to discover that they had no such SIMMs in stock.

  3. I eventually purchased the SIMMs I needed from a mail-order concern, Memory Shippers of San Francisco, California. I was able to install it without ruining it, despite the fears of the used computer shops in Denver.

  4. I went to the local Computer City mass-market personal computer store to purchase a "PS/2 compatible" keyboard. The used computer stores, reluctant not only to sell me SIMMs, also didn't want to sell me a keyboard. There was a dazzling array of keyboards at Computer City, each clearly marked with some set of buzzwords. I was able to spot two signs saying "PS/2 compatible", but the only boxes behind those signs had labels on them saying "Not PS/2 Compatible". I was eventually able to find a keyboard that was "PS/2 compatible", in spite of some non-help from Computer City sales people. Apparently putting on a pastel-yellow Computer City polo shirt causes an IQ drop of about 20 points. The keyboard I purchased was one of the middle-priced ones. The cheapest ones are still only "AT Compatible".

  5. I discovered that the UDB must have a "multi-synch" SVGA monitor because of its built-in video capability. None of my other monitors are "multi-synch". During my search for memory and keyboard, I had also noted prices and availability of monitors.

    During 1996, I had purchased a 19-inch genuine Sun Microsystems monitor via a usenet newsgroup for $350, so I was shocked to see used 17-inch multi-synch monitors going for $450 and up. New monitors at the mass-market PC stores were quite pricey.

    I finally decided that I'd buy a 14 or 15 inch monitor. I got the same run around on monitors as I did during my memory acquisition. After looking in the back room, one used computer store would sell me the monitor the repairman was using. Another used computer store only dealt in 17-inch and larger monitors. The third store had only one monitor for sale by itself (outside of the full systems they sold) a Compaq "Presario 1410". This monitor is apparently something of a white elephant, since the speakers only work with Compaq computers or some such excuse. As a long-time NeXT owner and user, I am familiar with the lack of benefits of sound, so this wasn't a real factor in my decision.

  6. Digital Equipment Corporation stopped manufacturing the UDB (a.k.a. "Multia") product line sometime in 1996, but they've put the hardware service manual out for ftp. This isn't quite as gracious as it sounds, since it contained no diagrams that showed the position of the various jumpers that control aspects of the UDB's behavior. Fortunately, Red Hat has made its mailing list archive public and searchable.

  7. Armed with the oddly-typeset documentation from "Starship Computer", (the company I bought the UDB from) and numerous chunks of documents from the Digital service manual, the Red Hat mailing list and other web pages, I was able to get the UDB to boot the MILO mini-loader. The "SRM" boot PROM doesn't synch with the monitor, so part of the boot is blind. After that, I was able to install Red Hat Linux for Alpha, 4.0 on a Fujitsu model M1606SAU SCSI disk. I had a Toshiba XM-3301TA CD-ROM drive that I had previously hacked to work with the Sun SPARC boot PROM, which requires 512 byte disk sectors. I used this CD-ROM drive to install Linux from the Red Hat CDs. I find it remarkable that the hardware and software worked with a modified, 5-year-old CD-ROM drive.

    One difficulty I encountered was having to use "fdisk" to build a cheesy MS-DOS partition table. It strains credibility to believe that Digital makes boot PROMs that require a "FAT" filesystem, but it is so. I also found out that the various partitions have to start on a divisible- by-4 number of cylinders.

    A second difficulty I encountered was that the drool-proof instructions from Starship/Computer Guys implicitly assumed that the hard disk is at SCSI Target 0. Experience with Sun's boot PROM over the years allowed me to spot where the UDB boot PROM code assumed Target 0.

    It took me two complete install cycles to get a satisfactorily working Linux. I made an incorrect choice of packages to install the first time around. I thought that getting a system up and running was paramount. Getting that installation to start networking would be easy. Getting IP networking to start when the whole system isn't configured to start networking is quite difficult. I ended up re-installing as a "networked workstation".

    There may be something wrong with the Linux networking code. The default installation causes the boot process to hang, but there's a deeper flaw: every 3.5 seconds, the Linux/alpha kernel fires off a 46-byte packet to itself. The ethernet frame has the machine's own MAC address as both source and destination. Maybe this is a heartbeat or a way of checking that the network wiring is intact, but it's very puzzling.

  8. After getting the system to boot from hard disk, the rest of the set up was almost moderately difficult. I had to scour the Red Hat mailing list archives for hints about how to keep the boot process from hanging, and I had to fiddle with the XFree86 configuration file. Having purchased a cheesy 14-inch monitor was a mistake: everything is really tiny.

  9. I quickly encountered a bug related to the 64-bit Alpha CPU. I wanted to keep all my machine's clocks synchronized, and `rdate' seemed like a cheap and easy way. I was already using it on two other machines, and it seemed like it would be easier to compile and use than alternatives like NTP (I've set up and administered NTP in the past).

    Compiling 'rdate' from the NetBSD 1.1 sources was pretty easy. It insisted on telling me that the time on my other machines (SPARC IPC and M68040 NeXT) was sometime in 1861. It turned out to be a sign extension "feature" of the Alpha CPU: the `rdate' protocol is supposed to give out a 32-bit, "network" byte order, 2's complement number of seconds since 12:00 AM Jan 1, 1900. The `rdate' code uses the library routine ntohl() to get back to its own byte order. This ended up setting the 32nd bit of the numerical representation of the date to a `1'. This 32-bit value gets sign-extended when loaded in the Alpha CPU's 64-bit wide registers. The `1' bit in position 32 made the number in the register negative.

Cost Accounting

                         Price       Shipping
Bare naked UDB:          365.00      40.00       (with mouse and Red Hat 4.0 CD-ROM)
two, 32-Mb SIMMs         162.00      34.50
PS/2 keyboard             37.54
Compaq Presario Monitor  321.58
                         ------      ------
                         886.12      74.50   = $960.62 (1997 US Dollars)

You'll notice this is missing the Fujitsu M1606SAU-512 hard drive, the external enclosure for it, and miscellaneous cabling. I had that lying around. The Red Hat Linux installation procedure also requires making 2 `ext2fs' floppies from disk images stored on the CD-ROM disks. It's therefore necessary to already have a computer with a CD-ROM drive and a floppy drive to get past this hurdle.

Time Estimate

My guess is that I spent 35 to 45 hours on this project, spread out over 3 months wall-clock-time. I think that in a corporate, 9-to-5 "work" environment, the same project would have amounted to about double those hours. Since I was doing it on my own time, I could (for example) start the install process and go cook dinner. In a "work" environment, you often must grind away at a task, despite its not going well.

Relevant Links

Red Hat's Alpha mailing list archive
Search the Alpha mailing list archive
Linux/Alpha Frequently Asked Questions
UDB Hardware Info
more UDB Hardware Info
Personal Testimony
Alpha Compiler Cookbook
Digital Technical Journal Vol 4, no 4, special issue about Alpha architecture
Why you should boycott Microsoft
Mail me comments


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