My first steps with NetBSD

Posted on November 9, 2021

This is my first time owning a NetBSD installation. I’ve been a user of NetBSD for six years, since I have an account at SDF. But there I mostly type userland commands, I don’t really have a rich experience as a NetBSD user. Actually, in my userland at SDF, you can barely tell what Unix-like system that one is.

I used DOS from 1990 to 1997 approximately. Then I used W*****, and by 2010 I began using Linux. I began with Mint, then switched to Ubuntu, then to Debian and now I use Manjaro and Arch. I hopped through many other distros, mainly briefly.

I like old hardware. I use old hardware on purpose, as a hobbyist. I have three 32-bit old machines. Two PCs and one laptop. I also have three 64-bit PCs, and several other devices.

I don’t mind using 32-bit computers, since ssh comes always to the rescue. When I need an application or a daemon that my limited machine cannot offer, I ssh into a more powerfull one and perform that process there. I also like to ssh into pubnices, I have accounts at several, several of them.

For ssh I prefer logging in with a password instead of with a key. But that’s just me. Many pubnices offer logging in only with a key. I adapt to those policies without a murmur. Hehe, I do comment I prefer the password system, but ultimately I submit.

I had been using a Debian version from 2016 in my 32-bit machines until very recently. I didn’t bother to install a newer version, since I was able to solve all my issues with ssh. Whenever I needed a newer version of an app, a script, a daemon, or anything, I ssh’ed to my 64-bit machines, or a pubnix. I began noticing that the keys began to fail when I ssh’ed from Debian to Manjaro/Arch, or viceversa. It defaulted to password, which is perfectly OK with me. The ssh’ing with key only worked from Debian to Debian or from Arch or Arch derivative to Arch or Arch derivative.

Defaulting to password was OK with me, so much so, that I lived with that issue almost without noticing it for a longish while.

Logging in with key began to fail also to one of the pubnices. I couldn’t figure out what was going on for a while. But being locked out one of my pubnices was a problem I had to solve. Solving that became one of my priorities.

OK, I found that the distro as such didn’t have anything to do with the defaulting to password. My Arch and Arch derivatives machines had the latest version of OpenSSH. My 32-bit machines with and old Debian install, did not.

With the latest OpenSSH installed, I could ssh into that pubnix. The source of the problem had been detected. That pubnix had recently updated its OpenSSH, or its entire OS, and all the other pubnices will follow suit sooner or later.

I had many options available. The problem was plainly solvable.

The first thing I tried was ssh’ing from the machines with an outdated OpenSSH to one of my machines with the latest OpenSSH installed, then ssh’ing everywhere else with the keys. I did not like this as a long term solution, so I kept looking. I am OK with running commands in two different computers in one working session, while I use my 32-bit computer mostly, although not only, as a dumb terminal to run the more updated software in a remote machine. But somehow using three computers to do that, and two out of those three only to run the ssh command did not seem acceptable to me. The main reason I still use 32-bit computers is that I can ssh into a more capable machine. If I have to add one more intermediate machine to accomplish just that, it feels like a defeat. For the first time ever I felt 32-bit is on life support. Running ssh is common, first and foremost between 64-bit machines with the latest OpenSSH installed. It is common for those systems to ssh each other. So in my case I happend to be using, by choice, certainly, a 32-bit computer instead.

One thing that seemed obvious was to install the latest Debian for 32-bit. I did not go on to install the latest Debian on my old machines. Debian announced they would desupport 32-bit by 2024. Three years is a blink of an eye for someone who’s been dragging old PCs for literally decades. So that was a free fall, although in slow motion, but a free fall nonetheless. Had I installed the latest Debian, I would have run into the issue of the discontinuation of the platform very soon.

I could have looked for a Linux distro really committed to 32-bit. I did just a quick search. I could not find any. Please don’t email me telling me you know of one, or many. I am not saying there is no Linux distribution commited to the 32-bit architecture for years to come. I am just saying I could not easily find one. However, being used to Debian and Arch, running some obscure distro might have been a difficult transition and migration. Or maybe not. The thing is, someone at the IRC channel of the Tildeverse, where I was complaining about this issue, told me, “Why don’t you give NetBSD a chance?”

The name was familiar. SDF runs NetBSD, and has for a bunch of years. True, typing user commands at their shell was not that different from typing those (ls, vim, cp, mv, mkdir, sftp) from my Linux command line. The name NetBSD sounded familiar, technically I had been using it for like 6 years, so I went to their web site.

NetBSD considers supporting the 32-bit architecture a priority. That was the selling point. Wrap it and ship it to me, please.

I had tried to install *BSD in virtual machines before, but failed. I can’t remember why. I did not insist, I wasn’t really interested. I could make some live installs work though, in VirtualBox. I fiddled with it for a while, but eventually I would forget about it altogether.

So there I was, with an .iso newly burnt with NetBSD 9.2, the latest version, with a modern OpenSSH included, ready to install it in baremetal, for the first time. I had nothing to lose, it was old hardware anyway, I backed up my files of course, and proceeded. I had the latest Debian for 32-bit ready as well, in case the install process failed, to install it and enjoy the free fall in slow motion for at least the next three years.

I had joined the #netbsd channel at Libera (henceforth, the “community”) hours before I began the install. I tried to familiarize with the atmosphere there before I brazenly ask for support.

So, I installed it from the CD-ROM. There is a text-mode installer, probably ncurses, that made things very easy. However, I got stuck at some point. NetBSD was installed, but the computer won’t boot. It got to the stage in which it tested the CD-ROM drive and stopped there. There was no way to make it continue booting. At this point I began asking the community for support.

The issue seemed strange also for the members of the community. Probably the CD-ROM drive was defective, it was suggested. It may be that. It had worked fine with Debian for years, and before that with W. XP, but who knows. I’m in no position to declare my CD-ROM drive non-defective.

I discovered a way to boot. Leaving a CD inside the drive during boot made it pass the test, then boot from the hard disk. I was not willing to do that every time I boot the computer, so I got this tip from the community.

At the loader prompt (option 3), type:

boot -c

A prompt userconf> or uc> will appear. Type:

disable cd

If that works, make it permanent:

vim /boot.cfg


userconf=disable cd

That solved the problem with the CD-ROM drive.

OK, first I installed the system without X11. The TTY does not provide support for multiple languages at the same time, then again just like in Linux. I type or process text in Romanian, Gascon, Spanish and French, among other languages, so I need full UTF-8 support. I had to install X11. I did, and in Xterm the support for all these languages is great.

Vim and BASH provide my comfort zone, so I installed those. I sensed BASH is frowned upon in the community.

Needless to say, I can ssh into ANY remote machine, with key or password.

Installing NetBSD was worth the while. I have all the same functionality I ever had with Debian Linux, or further back in time with W. XP, in this very same hardware, a 32-bit PC. I bought this machine second-hand in Madrid in 2004, it is in good physical shape, and I am very attached to it. I have now all I used to have in this machine: text processing capabilities the way I need it, web browsing (with elinks and dillo), and audio and video, with mplayer. I don’t need two computers to run one ssh command, I ssh anywhere from this NetBSD 9.2 powered 32-bit machine. I don’t say NetBSD was the only way to solve the problem I had, it was probably solvable with other OSs as well, even perhaps with a Linux distro. But NetBSD solved it, and besides it is giving me the peace of mind of knowing that supporting my architecture is a priority for the developpers.

I’d like to meet other users of NetBSD on 32-bit anywhere in the world, and also users of NetBSD in general residing in Spain. Feel free to contact me.

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