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This is a bit of an exercise in doing something for the sake of doing it, so I'm willing to accept that it might not be possible.

I've been given a 1996-vintage laptop, with a big enough HDD for a Debian installation, and a CD drive. There is a floppy drive too, but despite some searching I've been unable to dig out a 3.5 inch floppy to make a boot disk. There are also obviously no USB ports, so the UNetbootIn approach isn't feasible.

It's got no onboard ethernet (back in the day, you needed a PCMCIA card for that!), or wireless obviously, so it's effectively a closed off machine without any network access capability. I've got a PCMCIA card on the way, but it wont be here for a while so in the meantime I'm trying to get a Linux distro installed to replaced the ropey Win98 (pre-SE) edition that's on it.

It wont boot from CD either, there's no option in the BIOS - just Floppy or HDD. Does anyone know of a way to either get Linux installed from Windows 98 itself, or to somehow get the machine to boot from the CD? Short of pulling the HDD and installing Linux on it using a USB caddy/cable - which I don't want to do as it'll mean an outlay to buy an old-school IDE one, I'm stumped.

(Incidentally, it's a Dell XPI CD, if that makes any difference)

Anyone successfully tackled this one before?

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migrated from Sep 7 '11 at 18:55

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up vote 1 down vote accepted

The Plop Boot Manager allows you to create an environment that will boot a CD (and other media) even if the BIOS doesn't support it - might be worth a shot.

"The Plop Boot Manager is a small program to boot different operating systems. The boot manager has a builtin ide cdrom and usb driver to access those hardware without the help/need of a bios. You can boot the operating systems from harddisk, floppy, CD/DVD or from USB. You can start the boot manager from floppy, CD, network and there are many more ways to start the boot manager. You can install the boot manager on your harddisk. There is no extra partition required for the boot manager. "

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you can use wubi

check out "How do I install Wubi on a machine with no Internet connection?" section in the above link.

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Yes, I did this very thing on a Toshiba Notebook with a 486 processor. It was a little bit tricky ( and I could provide a lot more detail but I'm not sure this is the proper forum ) but here is the general idea - you will do a lot of swapping between bootable linux floppies to get the proper combination of software and kernels and modules for any one task and you will end up downloading all your software thru the serial port to your notebook thur an appropriate null modem serial port cable.

    1 Find a bootable floppy containing ppp over serial port software (binary package pppd) so you can download from your main system which contains the Debian installation software. 
    2 Find a bootable floppy that contains fdisk.
    3 Find a bootable flopyy that contains mount.  I could not a bootable floppy that contained pppd, fdisk and mount . 
    4 Fdisk the notebook hdd, create a very small partition and a very large partion and then copy ( use ftp ) thru the serial port to a local directory on the very small partition,  the Debian installation software.
    5 From the small partition, run the Debian installation and install to the very large partition.  I initially installed a very minimal package on the large partition so that I could stop booting from floppies and instead boot from the hdd and use the new hdd installation to compete the download of all the main installation software.

To accomplish this I created the following bootable floppies - Pocket Linux 2.51, Darkstar Resque 2.3.99-a, and a floppy I have labeled fli4l. One package has fdisk, one package lilo, one package tar and pppd. Linux can easily run your serial port at 115kbaud and you will learn a whole lot about the various packages ( lilo, ftp, pppd, tar, mount, fdisk, sfdisk, mke2fs, ext3/4 ... ) but this is not a "press one button and see it go" type of operation - heve fun.

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Remove the hard drive and connect it to a PC that can boot CDs. Remove other hard drives from this PC. Boot the installer and install the OS. Once installed, make sure it boots.

Then move the disk back to the original PC and boot away.

You can also avoid booting the installer and install directly from an existing Linux system. This seems to do it:

Be careful about these when moving an installed Linux OS:

  • the drivers shouldn't matter if they are loaded automatically from the initrd; however the initrd may only contain the drivers needed to boot the original system (which may result in failing to mount the root filesytem). If this is the case, there is probably an option to rebuild the initrd with all drivers included.

  • if the target CPU is very old, you may have to switch to a different kernel for older systems

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You'd need to make sure the hardware is pretty comparable or you might get bit on the drivers etc.. – OldWolf Sep 7 '11 at 19:23
Not so much; most Linux distors are very portable in the sense that you can boot it from a different system than it was installed on. I've added possible problems to my answer. – Ambroz Bizjak Sep 7 '11 at 19:45

Loadlin can boot Linux directly from MS-DOS, Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows Me. You will need to pull a copy of the kernel and initrd off the CD and onto the computer's hard drive so that Loadlin can find them there.

Alternately, I saw boxes of floppy disks in stock the last time I was at Staples...

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