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Old School Computer Challenge 2022

Revisiting the challenge a year later ยท July 18th, 2022

It's that time of the year again, we've hit the Old School Computer challenge again! If you're not aware of what the OSC is, take a look at Solene's blog for more information but the gist of it is that for a week you're limiting your technological usage to a single core system with 512MB of RAM or less. Additionally this year we're tracking our network time, with a maximum of online time of 1 hour per day, to emulate that costly dial-up experience.

I had a lot of fun doing this last year, it was really cool to put an old system to use, and I continued to use my Viliv as an IRC bot host after the end of the challenge. Unfortunately its battery died and I cannot for the life of me find a replacement, so it's back in the junk drawer for the time being. This year I'm rocking new old gear, and putting myself well outside of my comfort zone by running 9front a fork of Plan9 for the duration of the challenge. To add a fun twist to all of this, I'll be in Canada for the duration of the challenge with no backup systems, and no access to LTE. For better or worse I'm locked in on going as offline as is humanly possible here!

The Setup

Alright brass tacks first, I'm using an Acer Aspire One D255, that's a netbook from 2010 with an Intel Atom N550, 1GB of RAM, and a 32GB SSD. It has a full RJ45 port, VGA, 3 USB 2.0, and 2 3.5mm jacks, plus a 54mbps wlan nic. It's about 10in with a little 3/4 keyboard and a 1024x600 resolution (that super nice weird netbook res). That's enough ports and features to scare off an Apple hardware engineer! Right off the bat though you'll note that that Atom processor is a 4 thread CPU, and I've got 2x the RAM for the challenge. I'm restricting downwards using software limitations, but I think long term there may be room for this netbook in my travel kit.

Post install prep

Day 0

Because I'm traveling during the challenge, I started the challenge a little early and spent the day prior to the challenge starting preparing for the system for the trip. While I blew entirely through my hour online limit immediately, it was somewhat necessary so that I could get the netbook working. Before doing this installation I had only done 2 Plan9 setups, both of them for CPU servers, which is somewhat different from setting up a traveling Terminal system. I also needed to get drivers because neither the wireless nic nor the rj45 nic worked out of the box. Between figuring out the installation, and getting networking, encryption, a local aescbc secstore for Factotum, and my git repos + some music synced I think it took me 4-5 hours total. More or less I immediately used up my allotment for the trip just to make sure I could run acme on a netbook. Oof, oh well it's day 0, we'll try for better during the trip! Lets dig into what was learned in that time.

I'd of gotten very not far without the documentation the community has created and the man pages in 9Front. The information that's available is somewhat sparse, and very quirky, but it's that way because most of the information you're looking for is already in the man pages and is curated in a very professional way inside the OS itself. What's not in the guides is more personal flavor that's created by avid 9 users. I appreciate the communities hard work here, I got all of my bases covered thanks to their hard work. Here's everything I referenced online during the installation, in case anyone wants to consult the specifics for their own installation.

Really the only piece of information that I had to piece together for myself was the plan9.ini configuration file, which fortunately I'm really familiar with configuring after setting up my CPU server. If you ever need to cripple your system for fun and profit, you just need to drop the following lines into your plan9.ini file. Accessing the plan9.ini is an exercise left up to the reader (hint: it's in the documentation linked above!). Specifically these arguments in order disable multi-thread support, set a limit of 1 cpu core, and set the maximum memory to 512M.


And then some other simple QoL scripts to make things a little easier on me day to day. For example I took inspiration from the wifi init script/decrytion prompt that 9labs came up with and found out I could just extend my $home/lib/profile script to additionally prompt to decrypt my aescbc secstore and then populate the Factotum during my login, which additionally meant that authentication to pre-existing wireless networks became as simple as passing the network name to the init script during the boot process! Here's the full terminal case from my profile, if you're familiar with plan9 you'll note that this is extremely minimal modification, but it's really just that easy, the initwifi command comes from 9labs.

case terminal
	if(! webcookies >[2]/dev/null)
		webcookies -f /tmp/webcookies
	echo -n accelerated > '#m/mousectl'
	echo -n 'res 3' > '#m/mousectl'
	prompt=('term% ' '	')
	if(test -f $home/lib/fact.keys)
		auth/aescbc -d < $home/lib/fact.keys | read -m > /mnt/factotum/ctl
	fn term%{ $* }
	rio -i riostart

At the end of working through these I had a working system I could travel with, and I'm honestly quite happy that with just a few hours of work I had an encrypted system, with an offline secstore for my keys, working SSH out to my servers, a bunch of local git repos. Really everything I needed was right there in a nice secure installation. And it ran wicked fast despite having a software crippled configuration, well until you try and compile a new kernel. That took a good 30min, but I just won't do that until later on.

Oh and if anyone is searching for how to SSH on Plan9, the syntax is a bit different, you need to do it this way.

ssh username@tcp!!20022

Day 1 - 2

Truthfully this day was very quiet. I was getting ready for the flight out. I was slammed at work, and when I actually had free time after work I spent it prepping. When I did use my netbook I tried to get IRC working, but was unable to get ircrc to connect to my friends ergo instance, I defaulted to just running weechat on a server for the interim. Having figured out Factotum and aescbc before starting the challenge meant that I could SSH in and out to all of my Linux boxes without fuss, which let me build and troubleshoot the installation of the new web engine on my blog. I have an LXD cluster at home and I worked "offline" as much as possible troubleshooting bugs in my Lapis application before using the the last of my time to actually push the changes live.

The git workflow on plan9 is a little awkward. I find myself trying to type git add . when it's git/add file, and git/commit requires a file to be called with it so I constantly have to retype it. Despite this the workflow is very usable. I had no problems modifying etlua templates, Lua code, and even Fennel! I thought maybe I could test my fennel code on the netbook even, but the version of Fennel that's patched for 9 is 0.3.0, and we're on 1.1.0 currently, which won't work well. I might see if I can get the patches they added up-streamed to the official repo, it would be nice to have fennel available on Plan9.

During this entire process, and previously on day 0, I found that the netbook heats up massively. The fan inside the netbook may be malfunctioning. Even running with software restrictions it puts out a ton of heat. And the brand-ish new 6 cell battery I have for it only lasts about 3 hours on a charge, and it takes 2hrs to give it that juice. I'm slightly worried this will hinder my ability to use it during travel. I'm flying from Boston > Montreal > Vancouver > Kelowna, so I've got a solid 12hrs of travel to deal with, and I'll want to actually use the netbook while I'm in flight. There's literally no better time to crank out a blog post than when you're strapped into a seat with absolutely zero distractions. And normally if I had my Droid with me I'd work on Sola a little bit, or maybe tkts, but since both of those projects are in Fennel it's a no go.

Golang has better support though, so during day 2 I tried to compile that on the netbook. With the software restraints it quickly OOM'd the system and it crashed pretty hard. No harm done at all, but I won't be doing any Golang work. That said, software written in Golang that's compiled on Linux runs beautifully. I have a little HTTP file server + ingest-er called fServ that runs beautifully on 9Front. I used it to transfer a couple of gigs of music and podcasts to the system from my NAS right before departing. I've got a 6am flight out, so last minute entertainment here!

Day 3

Finally traveling, and officially starting the hard part of the challenge. True to my word I left with only the plan9 netbook for my trip. I have my kobo with me, just in case, and obviously my cellphone, but without coverage in Canada this is pretty much it. My flight was canceled early, and I got shuffled around to a mid morning flight, unfortunately I was at the airport extremely early nonetheless. I got to watch the sunrise in Boston Logan. Fortunately since people are sparse that 4am I got prime seating at the gate and was able to plug in and crank out a blog post on using iptables. Oddly it was a very peaceful event. Despite my lack of sleep and frustration the muted color scheme of Plan9 was honestly very enjoyable. And working inside acme to write etlua is a breeze. No need for syntax highlighting or anything, just simple HTML and Lua.

Cranking out a blog post on iptables before my flight!

I kept with the blogging theme the rest of the trip. I was running on low fumes and didn't feel up to trying to actually tinker with the netbook. It's too much of a fuss to try and get airport wifi working on something like Plan9 since it requires a JavaScript webauth session, and I couldn't get netsurf running before my trip. I'm really not upset by this though, without a way to readily connect to the network I was able to just focus and be productive. I know once I find an easier to work with network I'll be able to push my offline changes to Gitlab and I might even be able to make that iptables post live during the trip.

During that time I made ample use of zuke, it's a fantastic audio player, I find it very easy to work with and the man pages are extremely clear and concise. I had no fuss building curated playlists while I was in the middle of blogging. It worked equally well for listening to podcasts which made the leg out to Vancouver a little better. I also found a bug in my site management utility that's currently causing my RSS feeds to generate with broken date format strings. I think I would have found the broken section a little easier with syntax highlighting, but I think dark mode terminals would actually be harder on my eyes.

What strikes me most thus far is that if your use case is simple, or very focused, then Plan9 gives you just enough tooling to get that work done. Nothing else to get in the way. Sure it can run a couple of simple emulators and doom, but things are a little bit out of the way. You have to hunt for them and that makes them that much more out of your reach. By not having an RSS feed to pull up and refresh 8 times, or IRC to lurk on, or a functioning web browser to fiddly about with my choices are very limited. I can use this system to connect to my CPU server at home potentially, or to my VPS or Tilde Town, or I can hunker down and be productive. Plus the color scheme is very honestly easy on the eyes. I've had my fair share of sleepless nights and long haul travels, but I when I'm dealing with that I typically can't stand to stare at a screen for too long. By comparison I find no issue with this netbook. Perhaps it's the light brightness of the old screen combined with the mellow color scheme, whatever it is I really like it.

Oh by the way, Plan9 mile high club? Guarantee I'm the only person on this flight with such an eclectic rig.

Mile high 9 club!

The only other thing that's immediately notable is that this particular netbook gets absurdly hot, even when restricted to a single core it's uncomfortably hot! I had honestly forgotten what that was like, I have a Dell laptop with an intel core 2 duo in it during college that always felt like this. It was mildly uncomfortable keeping the netbook on my lap because of that. Thankfully as you can see it fits extremely well on the fold down tray (and the seat in front of me was leaned back so it was exta tight!), so no discomfort for me!

The Rest

And it turns out that after getting into Kelowna for my work trip I neither had much free time to participate in the OSC, nor any broken infrastructure to desperately attempt to fix with only a Plan9 netbook at hand. I'm somewhat upset that I didn't get to do much more with this little thing, but at the same time utterly thrilled that the challenge wasn't disruptive. It's all for the best though, I had absolutely no cell service once I was out in Kelowna, so even if I wanted to abandon the data challenge I couldn't.

Instead of putting miles on the old netbook, I picked up Infinity Beach by Jack McDevitt and chewed through it in my spare time.


I'm hopeful that this little challenge will pop back up next year. I've had a lot of fun with it both years. So much so that I'm wrapping up this blog post from my netbook despite having my droid readily at hand!

There doesn't seem to be anything strange, to me, about traveling with old gear. I think all in this netbook cost me $50 inclusive of a set of new 6 cell batteries for it. It's cheap enough that if it gets broken, stolen, or lost that I won't be upset. Plan9 is quirky, but has the necessary security features to make me want to bring it abroad. And honestly when I travel the things I really want to do while in the air is blog. I enjoy writing these posts, and if I have an hour or two at a hotel it's very easy to crank out a blog post. Something very low resource, an electronic typewriter almost, is a welcomed addition to my collection. I certainly won't be shipping this netbook off to the junk pile now that the challenge is over!

On Plan9 itself I think I'm still just getting comfortable with it. I don't think I'm very effective in it, not in the same sense that I am with Linux. I needed a lot of documentation, and some step by step guides to get to a point where I felt I could even commit to doing the challenge on this thing. I honestly love that, the feeling of something new and the child like wonder of learning about it piece by piece is a super fun experience. The entire OS really is well put together, the way that the Factotum works is particularly fascinating to me. And the fact that you can very quickly modify the system init via a simple RC script is a great idea, and feels very much like modifying .xinit scripts.

I don't know that I would be able to do all of my programming on a Plan9 system, yet. I miss syntax highlighting, it really helps when looking at lisp code, but that's such a small complaint to have, I feel like I'm fishing for it. Acme is a great editor, eloquently designed, and extremely easy to use. I was immediately productive, and there's something to this mouse driven environment that does honestly work in a way that is both intuitive and easy to use. I've already caught myself trying to do mouse chords on my Ubuntu laptop at work, to a great amount of dismay. I would happily steal the entire Rio environment to use on Linux in a heartbeat, it really does just work.

Anyways, this is getting a bit rambly I think. If you've read through and are on the edge of giving Plan9 a shot, I would say go for it. If you're curious you'll discover an interesting and unique environment to explore. If you're thinking about turning that ancient netbook into a usable system, Plan9 is a great fit for it too! And if you're here from the Old School Computer challenge, then thanks for the read and the awesome challenge again this year!