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Need Help Salvaging Data From an Old Xenix System 325

Posted by timothy
from the warrior-princess dept.
Milo_Mindbender writes "I've recently gotten ahold of an old Altos 586 Xenix system (a late '80s Microsoft flavor of Unix) that has one of the first multi-user BBS systems in the US on it, and I want to salvage the historical BBS posts off it. I'm wondering if anyone remembers what format Xenix used on the 10MB (yes MB) IDE hard drive and if it can still be read on a modern Linux system. This system is quite old, has no removable media or ethernet and just barely works. The only other way to get data off is a slow serial port. I've got a controller that should work with the disk, but don't want to tear this old machine apart without some hope that it will work. Anyone know?"
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Need Help Salvaging Data From an Old Xenix System

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 21, 2010 @08:39AM (#31556842)

    No way it would take weeks. Even if the serial port was only 300 bit per second and he had to copy the whole 10MB disk through it this would take 10*1024*1024*8/300/3600=77.6 hours.
    Mid-80s I'd expect at least five-digit bps rates - at 14400bps this would take 1.6 hours

    so for G*ds sake, JUST USE THE SERIAL PORT

    I'd understand if he was talking about a terabyte via serial but 10 megabytes...

    But the real important question is: what to do with the salvaged data? If he'd want to post them online he might get in seriously shark-infected legal waters. Not everything I'd have posted in a BBS with a defined usergroup I gave permission to put on the internet without access control.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 21, 2010 @08:50AM (#31556888)

    Seconded, use the serial port. Least invasive method, even if it takes ages.

    There's also the human angle to consider. If we are talking decades ago, can you be sure all folk who posted all those messages want them to come back to life again? It wasn't unreasonable for the individuals of that time, when the Internet was something few had heard of and only a few Universities and research labs had access to, to assume that their postings to a BBS might only have a temporary existence - they weren't to know that some nerd would be archiving them and releasing them in the future to a world where an equivalent of an entire T1 internet connection to your own home would be considered by most as inadequate! :)

    As an example: I had to do some requests-for-deletion when Google got their hands on many decades old Usenet archives. Now that every bugger has teh interweb tubes, there are people I don't fancy seeing that stuff from my yoof - when it was posted I didn't intend it to be pushed off into the future to be published to entire bloody world, forever. Had enough bloody trouble with a stalker from back then as it was, I do not fancy them joining the dots and working out where I am now. I don't fancy you guys digging either... hence posting Anon! ;)

  • Re:cu (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Antique Geekmeister (740220) on Sunday March 21, 2010 @08:56AM (#31556924)

    It's Xenix. Ancient Xenix. Kermit wasn't commercial software, it was (and is) freeware. ( Finding a way to compile and transfer Kermit to such an ancient system would take some serious archeological research, and some luck, because I certainly wouldn't expect to find it in Xenix from the days when Microsoft published it.

    Given that it's only 10 Megabytes, "cu" or "uucp" it over the serial port twice and compare the results. Then, when you're entirely confident, consider using your controller in a newer system to do a modern Linux or UNIX "dd" of the entire disk image. I'd be fascinated to know what filesystem that ancient OS used, and if there are drivers available in a modern Linux to actually read it directly. Perhaps someone here or on an old Xenix support group would know.

    There's also an odd source of SCO expertise that may be helpful, since SCO took over Xenix: the forums over at

  • by nurb432 (527695) on Sunday March 21, 2010 @09:04AM (#31556972) Homepage Journal

    I agree, I'm sure its minimal to read Xenix file formats for the data, but the risks of old components giving up the ghost are far to high. If it works now, just do it via serial port and be patient. Only if its in the process of dying would i take it apart.

    As an aside, i find it an odd odd claim that the 'first multi user BBS' would be on a 8086... Considering i did it on an 8bit machine long before the ix86 was on the market, and on a VAX before that. ( and wasn't chicago's Z80 powered cbbs multi line at one point? ) Still, sounds like it is worthy of saving for the sake of history, but it's not as special as you might think....

  • by MrBandersnatch (544818) on Sunday March 21, 2010 @09:07AM (#31556988)


    "WTF?"? Assuming most of the data is ASCII/ANSI, cat it to the screen, preferably with pagination (it will ease the conversion if pagination is used). Place a high res camera in front of the screen and photograph/video record the data then run the photos through OCR...voila! (of course if video is used you'll want to just grab 1 occurrence of each page...if you've just done a cat without pagination this is going to make the conversion a lot harder).

    Of course the above sounds stupid but with hardware that age you want to do everything possible to capture the data as fast as possible. Depending on how much data you're talking about you might be able to do the above faster than transferring the data via serial.

    Oopps, time for me to climb back into my box.

  • by charlie (1328) <> on Sunday March 21, 2010 @09:41AM (#31557150) Homepage Journal
    ... However, as I remember from back when I worked at SCO (years before the name and some assets were sold to the lunatics from Utah), Xenix filesystem and partition table support was rolled into SCO UNIX SVR3.2/386. And Open Desktop. And ODT came with a proper working TCP/IP stack. It's probably overkill, but once you've tried using uucp to get the files off the BBS, you might want to pull the ST506 drive (presumably an MFM-encoded one, not RLL-encoded) and stick it into a shiny new 386 with, say, 4Mb of RAM and a 40Mb disk with SCO UNIX installed. That should enable you to mount the filesystems and export them via NFS. It's a lot of work, though.
  • by linebackn (131821) on Sunday March 21, 2010 @10:47AM (#31557532)

    I worked with a lot of MFM (ST506 interface) drives back in the day, and from my experience it was very unlikely that different models of MFM controller cards could read the drives from one another. If I installed a newer MFM disk controller card in a machine or moved the drive to a different machine with a different MFM controller, I would almost always have to re-low level format the drive before I could even run DOS format. (And mine were just FAT16 so the file system was never the issue)

    So even if you have another MFM controller card, unless it is the exact same model of card it is unlikely that you could read sectors off of the drive. Their underlying low-level formats seemed to differ.

    I also actually had the pleasure of briefly using an older model Altos 8600. That model had a bunch of serial ports for dumb terminals, an 8 inch floppy drive and an *8 inch* 40 meg Quantum Q2040 hard drive. I still have the 8" Microsoft Xenix floppy disks.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 21, 2010 @11:04AM (#31557652)

    If they were "published" prior to March 1, 1989 but not registered with the copyright office AND not marked (c) they might be in the public domain. See a lawyer.

    No need to bring a lawyer into this. Everything is still copyright unless explicitly put into the public domain. The Berne convention(s) went into effect 1971.

    Also, there's no longer any need to register or mark with a copyright notice to have copyright protection (see previous), though that does allow recovery of damages and more for infringment under US copyrght. SEE: for more details.

    If the information was in a "public" forum, one visible with the access level generally granted to members of the general public, it's probably considered a "publication."

    Chancey at best, but generally true. It's considered "best fit" a la usenet. The most anyone upset about having their deathless prose made public in another venue is probably being able to have it removed from view- which would be the polite thing to do sans lawyer, anyway.

  • by budgenator (254554) on Sunday March 21, 2010 @11:11AM (#31557702) Journal

    Xenix was a 16 bit Unix variant pretty much SRVR3 style,
    SCSI or IDE but not both on the same system,
    Bourne shell but no Bash,
    probably TCL but no Perl,
    more but not less are the things that pop inti my mind.
    The file system topography is a nightmare of symlinks and the interesting user files are probably in /usr rather in /home or /srv.
    The first thing I would try is to set up a serial link between the two machines and tar the filesystem pipe it through the serial port to the Linux box and capture it to a file there or multi-volume
      to the floppy disk, then just un-tar it and have fun on the copy; if that didn't work I get serious and dd the whole disk through the serial port. last resort would be to remove the hard-drive and try to mount -txenix it on a linux box.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 21, 2010 @12:13PM (#31558030)

    No - Xenix of that era used a filesystem that was pretty much (and quite possibly exactly) identical to V7 - 16 byte directory entries with a 14 character maximum limit on the name and a 16 bit inode number, 24 bit block numbers for 10 direct and the three indirect (single, double, triple) blocks stored in the inode, file mode bits with the same values av V7 - probably 1024 byte block size.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 21, 2010 @01:53PM (#31558670)

    How on earth is pointing out that the 16550 didn't exist in the early 1980s deserving of a "Troll" mod?

    First one I've ever got in all the years I've been here, so I'm utterly confused.

    Ah, don't worry about it - it's most likely some jealous high-UID kid with mod points waving his iPenis around - there's a lot of them on Slashdot these days, you know. They think that since they've never known a world without the Internet, anything that came before is irrelevant, and anyone that has first-hand knowledge that has the temerity to post about it is an "old fart" that needs to be quashed.

    That's why I pretty much post as AC here these days - the general lack of "nerdiness" on their part makes it almost certain that anything I'd say would get at least one downmod, should I write about anything of which they have no knowledge or that challenges their prejudices.

  • Re:tar over serial? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by BitZtream (692029) on Sunday March 21, 2010 @02:22PM (#31558850)

    I agree, a tar pipe is the best way to go, but do a drive image, not the data itself first.

    Then do the data afterwords, just in case there are some sort of problem with the image.

    This is computer archeology essentially, doing your absolute best to maintain the original data in its exact form will result in the most history being saved.

    Then you can do other cool things like trying to get it to boot in emulators and suck to manipulate the system without the possibility of damaging the original device

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 21, 2010 @03:54PM (#31559542)

    "586" is the model number, not the processor. The 586 had an 8086 which ran in real-mode only, and could access at most 1 MB of RAM. It had axillary Z80 processor(s) to handle serial I/O with terminals.

    The Altos 586 was the first *nix computer I used. I typically accessed it via modem at 300 baud (the fastest speed generally available at the time).

  • by igb (28052) on Sunday March 21, 2010 @04:22PM (#31559758)
    As a minor point, SVR2 and SVR3 machines can't have symlinks, as the filesystem didn't include the functionality. What's referred to as `ufs' on, say, a Sun today is the Berkeley ffs or fffs; ufs in the context of Xenix is what's now sometimes called s5fs, which is a thinly veiled version of the Sixth and Seventh edition filesystem. I think there were 512 byte and 1 kilobyte versions. The correct way to shift the data off will be with uucp. SVR2 and SVR3 both shipped with HoneyDanBer uucp, and it'll interwork with modern equivalents; g protocol is the best bet. cpio and uucp should be enough to move the data.

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