Obsolete hardware + Linux = fail?
September 1, 2009 7:56 AM   Subscribe

Attention Linux gurus of MeFi: Attempting to set up an old Dell Latitude CS laptop as a Linux system (Xubuntu) for a coworker. Massive installation headaches ensue thanks to missing hardware. Any suggestions?

The laptop is barely capable of doing much but all my friend wants is something she can use to browse the web. Basically a stone-age netbook.

The laptop was picked up used, and has no internal floppy drive, no internal CD drive. External drives are missing. It does have a Xircom 10/100 pcmcia card, but it refuses to netboot using that card even if "Cardbus Ethernet" is selected in BIOS as a boot device. One USB port, but won't boot from that either.

System was running Win2K, so I was able to use a Windows-based bootloader to get the machine to restart and begin installing Xubuntu over the network. All went fine until the end - machine failed to install GRUB. Tried LILO. Fail. Tried LILO on the primary partition instead of MBR. Fail. Tried reformatting the drive (which wiped out the Windows partition) and reinstalling GRUB and LILO. Fail.

I'm currently reinstalling the base system in hopes that the reformatting screwed things up - but not really confident.

So here's where I need help: I now have a machine that is running Linux from the install image, but I am afraid to reboot it as I have no backup method of starting it should it fail.

1 - what might be causing GRUB and LILO to fail? My initial thought was (a) the existing Windows partitions, which is why I repartitioned the drive, or (b) some weirdness with the disk itself (SCSI HDD) that is stopping GRUB from going to the MBR (but why won't LILO install on the / partition itself?)

2 - Any way for me to run the GRUB install manually, rather than using the install menu to do it? I am wondering if the installer is trying to send it to a drive that doesn't exist.

3 - If all else fails and I end up with a brick on my hands, should I be able to pull the drive out and fix the problem by plugging it in to another system using an external drive enclosure? (And if so, how do I do this without screwing up the bootloader on the system on which I do the repair?)

This makes me mad. I agreed to do the job before realizing that the damn computer didn't even have a floppy drive. I did a bare metal to network file server install in under 2 hours last weekend for my neighbors, and up until today was feeling like I knew what I was doing, but this one is reminding me just how weak my Linux skills are.
posted by caution live frogs to Computers & Internet (6 answers total)
You can run grub-install manually, specifying the device, per the manual.

This will also be useful should you need to take the hard drive out and put it in another machine.

Could you post some failure messages when you try the manual install?
posted by teabag at 8:02 AM on September 1, 2009

Best answer: Never say fail!

You can absolutely install grub manually (which is what you have to do if you want to convert from LILO). This presumes you have a bootable system, however.

Regarding 3, this is also possible. Add the disk to another, live, linux system, mount it up and then you can use dd to copy the system over to it. The general steps are described here (which guides users through installing Linux to some older Fujitsu tablets that came without HDs, CDs, etc).

You might also consider net-bsd, which is renowned for running on damn near anything. I once got it running on a 286 with some insanely small amount of RAM. Text-mode only, but still....

It's been awhile since I've run any of the BSDs full time (and then, it was mostly FreBSD), but X support should be fine.
posted by jquinby at 8:05 AM on September 1, 2009

Just a quick answer, more later if I have time :

1 - Make sure that virus protection in the bios is turned off. That prevents writing to the MBR of the drive.

posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:10 AM on September 1, 2009

Response by poster: I would have tried that if I could, teabag - when I dropped to a command prompt I couldn't locate the grub installer. Tried searching in the ramdisk but didn't find it - not in /sbin or /usr/sbin as I expected. That was part of the problem. I couldn't figure out where in the install image the bootloader executable would be.

The reinstall of the base system seemed to help - I specifically chose not to enable large memory support in LILO because I couldn't find any info from Dell whether there was a memory limitation in the BIOS revision on this system (and can't flash to a higher BIOS without a bootable drive). Don't recall whether I did this last time or not. At any rate it installed the bootloader with no reported errors this time around.

I'm waiting for it to finish downloading and installing the last bit before I reboot. Seems #1 is the issue, #2 is at this point a non-issue (hopefully) so only left with #3 if I need it as a fallback. Crossing my fingers...
posted by caution live frogs at 8:12 AM on September 1, 2009

Response by poster: jquinby - thanks. That should be my fallback if the reboot goes south on me. Marking as best answer as #3 looks like the only remaining potential issue here.

Pogo - didn't consider that! Hopefully there isn't any BIOS protection on this system, because if there is I can't reboot to turn it off! I went through the system prior to starting the install while trying to get netboot working, and don't recall seeing any BIOS protection option listed, but who knows...
posted by caution live frogs at 8:16 AM on September 1, 2009

Response by poster: And successful reboot. Thanks all. Hope my coworker likes the system, after all this...
posted by caution live frogs at 8:35 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

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