Installing OS/2 on an IBM Netfinity

Back in the late 90s, I ran a BBS on a lovely Pentium 133 I was given by a friend after they upgraded, and used Telegard/2 on OS/2 Warp 3 to do so.

I've fiddled on and off with rebuilding from partial backups and probably dusty and incorrect recollections of what I had configured and setup, but have never really been fully happy with anything I've built. You can run Telegard on old enough Windows, or Linux with Dosbox, but it wasn't quite the experience I remembered.

I found a IBM Netfinity 3000 (550mhz Pentium III, 512mb of ram) for sale on Craigslist for $20, and decided that it would be a good bit of hardware to try to install OS/2 on, and then try to resurrect the old Telegard/2 BBS I used to have.  As it turned out, this was both accurate and wildly problematic.

OS/2, for those that either never used it or aren't old enough to remember it, was originally a project between Microsoft and IBM as a 'next generation' OS.  At the time, it was highly advanced, incredibly stable, and well supported by both Microsoft and IBM.

However, as with lots of projects of that era with Microsoft, things went sideways and Microsoft decided to go after Windows NT as their next-gen offering, and IBM continued developing OS/2 for quite a while - it was used in lots of banking applications, such as ATMs, for literal decades after it quit being a viable consumer product.

The era I used it was the mid to late 90s; for the dedicated SysOp your choices were something like MS-DOS with Desqview, Windows 95, or OS/2.  OS/2 stood out for being able to run OS/2, DOS and Windows apps, as well as being substantially more stable than any of the other offerings, and was (arguably) the best choice for lots of people.  Good pre-emptive multitasking, good networking support, and with the addition of a piece of software called SIO, you could put your BBS online via telnet without having to worry about anything, because the modem emulation layer worked perfectly with all the software and configuration you're already using.

So, with a plan and some hardware I started the install and immediately ran into a problem: as is not entirely unexpected, the included hard drive was dead.  No shock, as most 20 year old drives are dead, dying, or soon to be dying.  I tend to prefer SD to IDE adapters, as SD cards are cheap, fairly reliable if you get a decent one, and come in all sizes and are easily replaceable.  They also are super easy to pop out, take an image of, and make a whole system backup rather than having to try to back up data from an old pc that may or may not have any modern connectivity or media.

Turned out, however, that the adapters weren't actually identified by OS/2 as a hard drive, even though the bios saw it just fine.  No problem, the old CF->IDE adapters usually work in systems where the SD ones won't.... except, no, same problem. Bios saw the drive, OS/2's partitioner did not see the drive and wouldn't partition it.

Somewhat at a loss, I grabbed a SATA to IDE adapter and a small 80gb SSD and figured it wouldn't work, because the luck I've had with these adapters has always been very hardware dependent, and the older you go the less likely they are to work as expected.

Well, turns out that those work perfectly fine, with the minor caveat of only having 8 of the 80gb detected by the bios (which is a limitation of older systems and not related to the adapter), and thus actually usable.

Partitioned, I figured the hard part was over and this would be a breeze: run the installer, wait a bit for the CD drive to chunk around, and bam, I'd have a working OS/2 Warp 4 install.

Again, no.  The installer developed a very strange thing where it would get to random percentages and then fail. It was never at the same point twice, and I couldn't see any particular pattern in the failures.

My first assumption was the CD drive didn't work, or the media was bad, and as those were the easiest things to fix, I replaced the CD drive: no luck.  Burned new media: no luck. I'd also like to add that this testing was annoying: the OS/2 installer for Warp 4 comes on two cds, one of which is the 'install' and one of which is the 'boot' cd so you have to constantly swap back and forth between disks every time the install failed.  Why the boot files weren't properly in the install disk image I don't know: I blame this firmly on IBM and IBM doing IBM things.

The only thing at that point that made sense was there being something wrong with the SSD or it's adapter but that didn't seem likely because it was detected, got partitioned, formatted and since this is a 20 year old OS, it's a nice slow format which actually writes a filesystem on the physical media, and not a fancy-pants modern 'quick format' which just writes the FAT.  I thought that maybe there was something weird with the IDE bus, or maybe just something with that specific IDE channel; the system was using SCSI drives prior to me swapping out the dead disk it came with.

And yep, that was exactly it: I unplugged from the integrated IDE controllers, added a PCI Promise IDE card, restarted the installer, formatted the disk again and the install completed a successfully and in about 30 minutes I was looking at a lovely OS/2 default desktop, ready for me to install 25 year old BBS software on.

Lessons from this:

  • Just because it works, doesn't mean it works.
  • I need to keep a broader option of SD/CF/SATA to IDE adapters around because they're not universal.
  • OS/2's installer has absolutely zero error logging and prefers to crash and not actually tell you anything about why it crashed