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AlphaServer 1200

Ebay for 99¢, though I paid $1. Came with:

Alpha 21164 chip, 2 of
1 x 3.5″ floppy drive
DEC ethernet card
VGA card (Matrox something or other)
PCI SCSI card (I won’t use) (PCI to UltraSCSI adapter Qlogic ISP10X0)
PS/2 ports for keyboard and mouse
COM and PAR ports as usual
1 x IDE PCI card with a 20GB HD attached (not working)

Photo of front of the machine.

The front of my old DEC AlphaServer.

The IDE card is not detected by the SRM console or the BIOS, so cannot be used to boot, but operating systems can find and mount it, so can be used for storage.

I did have to solder a little component, an inductor I am guessing, back onto the PCB of the 20GB IDE HD to get it to work, but work it does. (The IDE HD was in a rubber sleeve. Slipped it out of the sleeve and a little plastic-coated inductor fell out. Lucky it was not lost.) Found a second old IDE HD and put the two onto one of the IDE sockets on the PCI card, one as master one as slave. Not seen by SRM, sadly.

One of the SCSI CDROMs did not work, so instead I put a CDRW/DVDR onto the second IDE port. That gives me one CDROM that the BIOS can see to boot from to install media, plus something that can write data.

It has lots of PCI slots (no PCIE) and one (or is it 2?) EISA slots, which I put an old Ad-Lib card in, just ‘cos I had it lying around. I have no idea if it’ll work or be good for anything if it does.

So now the system has

1 x SCSI HD (35 GB) (plus three empty caddies)
2 x IDE HD (20 and 28GB)
1 x 3.5″ floppy

No USB; could try a USB PCI card, but can’t be bothered right now.

These machines had no integrated network or sound on the motherboard — they weren’t for desktop use, though they were sold as work stations.

When I got it this one did not boot. Hence $1.

Got it home — weighs a tonne — and plugged in the two power cables (one for each power supply) and a VGA cable which I ran to an old CRT monitor.

It started, the LCD on the front did a couple of checks then complained about power supply 1 (I think it was 1), then shut down.

Removed power supplies, tested fans — one had spider nest in it. Cleaned it, gave all the plugs a good wiggle and drove the fan for a few minutes using an external voltage source (toy train transformer connected directly to the fan inputs) to loosen it up. In my experience, these fans have very little torque, so a tiny bity of gunk can stop the fan spinning up and throw off the whole system. Giving it a clean and starting it with a finger push and letting it run for a few minutes can fix the problem.

And, yes that was enough. It booted up into AlphaBIOS, and then I had to start googling. I got it to boot into the SRM console, which is a sort of Unix-y VMS-y command line environment from which the boot process can be managed. (Note: If you are in AlphaBIOS and want to switch to the SRM console, press the Reset button (middle), wait 5 seconds, then press the Halt button(right).)

When I tried to boot, I got BIOS CHECKSUM error.

So I figured I had to flash the firmware. BUT…

That was pretty tricky. I’ll talk about that next time.

Photo of back plate of AlphaServer1200

AlphaServer 1200, back plate. No USB ports, but at leeast it’s got VGA.

Anyway, in SRM if you type (P00>>> is the prompt):

P00>>> show dev

you get a list of the devices the console can see, labelled in OpenVMS style.

On this machine, it includes:

dka400:     the SCSI CDROM

ewa0:       the ethernet card

dkb0:       the SCSI HD

dva0:       3.5" floppy drive

These are the devices available for booting. It looks like this machine used to have Windows NT installed, which was available for Alpha up to NT4.0. My intention is to install OpenVMS through the hobbyist program and get a second SCSI HD and put Gentoo, NetBSD or OpenBSD on it (these are the only options for Alpha architecture these days; well, I guess Linux from scratch is an option, but I don’t hate myself that much…).





Getting a2ps to work

Installing a2ps on my Debian Linux box.

sudo apt-get install a2ps

and since I’d been printing from the GUI, had to define the default printer

$ lpstat -p -d

printer Brother-HL-5350DN is idle.  enabled since Thu 19 Apr 2018 20:31:20 AEST
printer Stylus-TX100 is idle.  enabled since Fri 06 Apr 2018 20:23:28 AEST

$ lpoptions -d Brother-HL-5350DN

Then tested a file using a2ps and got this on the printed sheet:


which is not very helpful. Tried changing font by specifying a different prologue; same problem.

Can test by sending output to a file:

$ a2ps input.txt  -o

$ gv

Output to a file looks fine. So problem is that it is not a PostScript printer. Duh! Took me too long to twig, but I got there in the end. Plain text works fine — I can lp the file, for example, and get a good result.

So what to do?

$ info a2ps

and hunt around.

My printer is a PCL printer (printer command language, like most HP-clone ones) and a good reliable subset of PCL can be obtained by pretending it is a LaserJet 4  (ljet4 in GhostScript) (600 dpi is enough for this).

So, here is my a2ps config file:

$ cat .a2ps/a2psrc
Options: --medium=A4
Options: --sides=2
Options: -2
Options: -d Brother-HL-5350DN
Options: --prologue=fixed
Printer: Brother-HL-5350DN \
       | gs -q -dNOPAUSE -sDEVICE=ljet4 -sOutputFile=- - -c quit\
       | lp -d Brother-HL-5350DN

And this gives me the output I wanted. I might need to add ‘tumble’.


Tapes, cassettes, whatever, ripping to mp3.

OK, so ‘ripping’ cassettes using my old AKAI in the shed. Same method works for vinyl.

Verify the below with a run-through.

(1) Get the two ended 3.5mm plug audio cable, one end into stereo output, other into mic input of netbook.
(2) run audacity (2.0.6) and record…
(3) Massively overloads the input, huge distortion
(4) Mic gain inside audacity is greyed out, says ‘use system mixer’
(5) Playing a tape while recording in audacity and fiddling with System → Control Centre → Sound (on MATE). Reduce mic amplification. (Volume control on my stereo is flaky.)
(6) Does affect the loudness. Dropped it back so that it touched the edges of the scale now and again but not repeatedly.
(7) Playback…Sounds ok.
(8) Record output of tape player.
(9) Find where tracks start in Audacity window. Place cursor there and type ‘Ctrl-B’ and type track name. I use the form ‘XX Title’ where XX is 01, 02, 03… (makes for better sorting of filenames).
(10) Highlight whole thing and Go File → Edit Metadata and set the album and artist name.
(11) Use the noise removal under the Effects menu.
(12) File → Export Multiple, choose your file locations and types and away you go.

Notes: I found I got weird buzzing noise in the captured audio stream when my netbook fan turned on, so it worked a lot better on cold days (!).

Noise reduction can affect the ‘feel’ of the result (can kill the high end frequencies a bit) – do a test and undo if desired,

Check settings like balance, equalisation and Dolby on the tape player. Because the input to Audacity is coming from the earphone jack, these things will affect the result.

If the Audacity display is maxing out a lot, the sound will be clipped and distorted. Reduce either input mic gain on the computer or just turn down the volume on the stereo; it is worth starting the recording, looking at the display, adjusting the volume until it touches the maximum now and again but not a lot, then (just leave Audacity recording) rewind the tape and play it at the new volume level. The bit of experimental crap at the start can be snipped off later.

It is best to give the file a name before you start, say /home/username/audacity/projectname.aup. On a Linux system if you don’t it will be written to some tmp folder somewhere (/tmp, /etc/tmp or something), and it can get very big. If you have a root partition with not a lot of free space on it, it can get filled right up (Audacity can generate GB of stuff, especially if you go off and forget it is capturing the audio). When / runs out of space, Linux can behave a little oddly… Don’t let that happen. Set an alarm or something.

Tapes can be highly variable. Wow, hiss, all kinds of issues. A good tape in a good deck gives very worthwhile results. Much the same process can be used to grab audio from vinyl, of course.