How to Boot Linux CDs on an Old Computer

One of the most common problems when installing Linux on an old computer is caused by their inability to boot from a CD drive. For example, my old Pentium 100 with 40 mb RAM can well be used with several Linux distributions. Only the installation might cause a small headache for some people, as the computer cannot boot from the CD.

There are at least three solutions to this problem.

The first one is to find an updated version of BIOS for your motherboard. It might allow booting from CD drive and thus solve the problem.

The second one is to use a distribution that still offers boot floppies. Most modern distributions rely on using a bootable live CD for installation. These suck for installation on an old computer as they usually cannot boot from CD and they don't have enough RAM to run an installer based on a live system. At least Debian and Slackware still offer floppies that can be used for getting the installation start.

If the old computer is connected to network, I would suggest installing the system over ftp. If you cannot install over network, you still need a CD for installation. At least my old Pentium has difficulties in reading rewritable CD-ROMs. If yours cannot read the installation CD, try to write another on a CD-ROM, not on a rewritable CD-RW.

The third solution is using Smart Boot Manager for booting the computer. Smart Boot Manager allows you then to continue booting from your CD drive.

I have used both the second and third solution for installing several distros on my Toshiba Satellite 200 that does not have a working network connection. Thus I need a distribution that has a reasonable collection of packages available on a small set of CDs. In practice this has meant the first three CDs of Debian or the full set of Slackware on three CDs.

You can download the image file for Smart Boot Manager floppy disk from here. After downloading the image, you have to make a boot floppy from it. For this, you need to use the command dd:
dd if=sbm.img of=/dev/fd0

The syntax of dd is not very easy to remember unless one understands that the option if is shorthand for input file and of for output file. Thus the command above writes the image file sbm.img to device fd0 (floppy drive).

After writing the image to a floppy, boot the computer with Smart Boot Manager in the floppy drive. SBM allows you to continue booting the operating system from either hard disk or CD drive. Now you are ready to continue installation from the bootable CD.


Unknown said...

I've got a bunch of old laptops which don't have working CD drives. Because I have more than one, I've used netboot and a server to easily install in that situation.

If you're installing to a machine which already has Grub, you've got a lot more options, like downloading the vmlinuz and initrd.gz files from a netinst .iso, saving them onto the laptop's HD, then using Grub to boot from them.

There's also the Grub floppy.

Mikko said...

Using netboot is one solution to the problem of not being able to boot from CD. Unfortunately, the older computers that do not support booting from CD drive usually cannot boot from net.

Unknown said...

Most of the old ones I get are circa 2000, meaning a lot of them have PXE boot.

I agree that computers old enough to not even have come with a CD won't use anything except maybe Novell's protocol, but I think you'll have an even tougher time finding stuff that will run on them (except the distros of the period).

Mikko said...

I don't agree with your last comment.

Any modern distro can be run on a computer that is made around 1998-2000 if one is ready to choose lightweight software and to turn off unnecessary services.

I have no problems in running the latest Debian with IceWM on a PPC 600MHz with 384 mb RAM. The only thing I (rarely) miss are Flash videos, as there is no Flash plugin for PPC architecture.

Mikko said...

I'll continue my last comment: if there is enough memory installed.

For example, my P100 (1996) originally came with 8 MB. It is certainly not enough for running a modern distro, but after upgrading the RAM to the amazing 40 mb for example Slackware can be used on it.

I think I'll upgrade my old friend from Slack 11 to 12 during the next days. I'll keep you informed!

Anonymous said...

There are many linux distros that will run on Pentium 200 and 486DX computers. Depending on the function of the computer you should be able to find distros that will serve the desired purpose. If you cannot install on the computer you want to run from, sometimes you can install on a newer computer and then move the hard drive to the old computer and boot it. I've had good success with distros like DamnSmall, Freesco, Coyote, and Knoppix running on 4MB - 32MB ram. - samsocal