About MIHKAL

This is a site about saying good-bye to old technology.

This site is only a reflection of a vision I’ve had for almost two decades.  It is not what I wanted, not what I intended, and causes me a bit of grief in a way I have a hard time describing. But that will make a bit more sense after context is established.

A brief computing history

The early years

My first computer was a borrowed VIC-20 from a family friend in the early 80s. Armed with a small pile of cartridges, a small B&W TV, and the VIC-20 manual, I taught myself rudimentary BASIC. A few decades later, I still find myself occationally longing for 22 columns and a mushy keyboard. I wonder if that VIC-20 isn’t still in a basement somewhere.

My family got its first computer, a Leading Edge Model D, on Christmas, 1986. It was purchased for my mother’s word processing and dictation home business, but I ended up using it almost as much as my mother, as I got into BBSing, games, and programming. It was upgraded a few years later with a 32MB hard drive.


The Leading Edge was replaced with a white-box 386DX-20 in 1990 from a local computer shop. I played a lot of music and games on this system, thanks to the Soundblaster and Courier HST modem I purchased with my paper route money.


I purchased a used C64 in 1992 to play games on. While I had no doubt the PC was the future, I enjoyed the large library of games available on the C64.


In 1994, I purchased a 386-40 motherboard from a BBS friend, which I brought with me to college. (I reinstalled the 386DX-20 motherboard before I left.)


College, and my larval phase


In college (1994-1999), I was exposed to multiple unix systems, primarily from DEC, but also from Sun, SGI, Sequent, and NeXT. During my “larval phase,” I purchased a surplus hard drive for my 386-40, and installed Linux on it in order to experiment with program configuration before modifying the college’s systems.


In 1996, a friend gave me his 133MHz Am5x86 motherboard after updating his system. The speed was a welcome jump from my 386-40.


The surplus unix systems begin to arrive


In 1997, I received a DECStation 5000/240 from a professor, who got it as surplus from another local college. Around the same time, my college had surplus MIPS-based DECStations piled up in the lab, which had been replaced with Alphas in 1995. Rather than deal with licensing issues of Ultrix, I installed NetBSD on them. An old high school friend of mine offered me a microvax-II, and another friend who was on a road trip in the area offered to pick it up and bring it back for me.


The systems roll in


My efforts in bringing the DECStations back to life established me as a go-to guy to make surplus systems disappear, and over the next few years, a number of obsolete systems from college followed me home. Friends knew I collected old systems, and offered them up. I couldn’t say no. Some systems I moved to active production on my growing home network, and others have just been collecting dust and taking up space.


At one point in time, I had the majority of the math department’s Sun SPARC workstations. The Alpha at the center of the academic computing infrastructure when my wife and I were students is still (in 2016) a core system of my home network. Until a few months ago, many of the chemistry department’s SGI compute servers collected dust on my basement shelves.


The reality of the present


I once had grand dreams of creating large distributed systems from my cast-offs, but my short-term experiments never came to fruition. A rolling stone gathers no moss, but the longer computers in storage sit idle, the less relevant they become for general-purpose work, or any work at all. The sum of available computing in my basement is exceeded (likely by an order of magnitude) with the latest systems from Intel or AMD. (I have recent brought up a dual-socket Xeon that I believe could easily handle the load, but I found myself needing it as a storage server to suck data from some of the low-capacity drives I have been trying to get rid of.) There is no practical excuse for me to have such a collection of machines, but it tickles me immensely to be running software released in 2015 on a system from 1994. Doing more with less is one of my core geek values, and what better way to demonstrate that than keeping old hardware going with new software?


These systems were once very important, costly, and represent an immense output of engineering and design. While I consciously recognize that my respect for these august systems will continue even if the systems themselves are chopped up for scrap, part of me is greatly comforted by the physical relics themselves. This is the core conflict I seek to somehow resolve, through both rationale and ritual, and continually move forward to the future without forgetting the past. I am a platform engineer for the Xeon+FPGA project, and look for inspiration from the past to try and figure out how to make the future smaller and simpler. If nobody remembers the history which generated the piles of legacy in current x86 platforms, can we ever hope to remove it, or at least logically segregate it and shift its cost to people who still want/need it?


Looking to the future


My original vision for this site was to have to have it hosted on some of the systems I am preserving, even in a begging-the-question sense, so they could serve their own purpose. After having some experience with running modern blogging / CMS software on my older hardware, it became painfully obvious that old hardware simply can’t handle the modern web. I set up a series of static pages at this domain on a co-located server as an interim solution, with a vision of writing some svelte blogging software in straight C which could run with acceptable performance on hardware from the mid 90s. The co-lo situation changed, the server came home, the tiny blogging software never got written, and I never got the pages back up. My wife decided she wanted to play around with wordpress again, and I knew I had to get it running on something faster than a 440MHz UltraSPARC-IIi if it was going to be usable. So I fired up a VM on one of my then eight-year-old sunfires for doing web hosting, got all the required packages installed, traced and fixed a small compatibility issue in wordpress, and things were rolling. (She ended up posting two stories before going back into blogging hiatus.)


A couple years later, it’s time to do some basement cleaning, I’m taking pictures of electronics to be recycled, and I’m reminded that I never got MIHKAL back online. Part of me was holding out for some way to make it work with non-x86 hardware, but final-generation Alphas and modern UltraSPARCs are rare now that Intel has > 95% of the datacenter market share. Besides, the x86 hardware that I have is now roughly a decade old, which is older than the decstations were when they started following me home. The decision was made to spin up another wordpress site for MIHKAL, somewhat ironically on an x86 system. It had to be done, and here we are.


This site is recognition that I have constant pressure to cull my collection, separate junk from items of actual historic significance, and let my computing collection evolve as the computing world evolves, rather than remaining a static dusty stack of boxes in my basement. I hope you will join me in my journey as I seek to document, categorize, and yes, even recycle my collection.