A small server

GNU/Linux on the Aero

On the following pages I describe the installation of a GNU/Linux system on a Compaq Contura Aero 486SX Laptop Computer from 1993.

Content of this page:

History of my GNU/Linux installation
Common problems with this machine
Purpose - What use is GNU/Linux on this machine?


I started this project in the winter of 2002/2003. I began with an installation of Vector Linux, a Slackware based distribution. After a few days I switched over to Red Hat Linux 6.1, assuming that a more common distribution would be a better choice for a beginner. Thanks to the broad base of users and lots of info on the web and in bookstores, I then ran an Apache 2 webserver on a Red Hat 7.2 system with a 2.2 kernel on this computer for nearly one year.

In the winter of 2003/2004 I decided to upgrade the Aero to a 2.4 Linux kernel. For a few days I had Red Hat 9 running, but I was curious to try a Debian system. So I installed Debian GNU/Linux 3 (Woody) which I used for the next three years.

In June 2007 I chose to completely reinstall the system. I used the new Debian GNU/Linux 4.0 (Etch) with a 2.6 kernel, which runs fine since then.

Common problems

Installing a modern GNU/Linux system on a 486SX with a maximum of 20 MB RAM can be done. There are caveats though.

The biggest problem is to get the system on the hard drive: The Compaq Contura Aero has no CD/DVD drive and no internal Ethernet port. It has only a PCMCIA floppy drive and only one PCMCIA slot. It is not possible to unplug the floppy drive in the middle of the installation process and put a PCMCIA network card back in: Without reboot, the BIOS prevents Linux from detecting it. So a simple install with a boot floppy and then over network does not work. The maximum memory of 20 MB is too small for many installers anyway.

In my opinion, the fasted installation is to use a second, more powerful computer. Plug in a 2,5" harddisk as primary drive, install GNU/Linux, then open up the Aero and put this drive inside.

Another problem occurs if you have upgraded the Aero from 4 MB RAM to 20 MB, using a third party memory module. Because of a bug in the machines PCMCIA-controller, some memory addresses won't work. You have to patch the Linux kernel to work around these addresses. This can be done easily. Building a custom kernel is a good idea anyway as default kernels are oversized for a 486.


What can you expect from GNU/Linux on such an old piece of hardware? If you want Desktop applications, you're better off with Windows 3.1 or 95. GNU/Linux desktops, even the lightest ones, run terribly slow on this machine.

Server systems are performing well. Currently I have Apache, Samba, SSH and NFS running simultaneously. Also BIND, MySQL, Postfix and INN did work nicely.

Of course the small amount of memory has to be taken in consideration: Running too many server processes at the same time will turn out in sluggish reactions. Another limit is set by the weak CPU: It is not such a good idea to run a CMS with dynamic pages (PHP, Perl) on a 486 without co-processor. Also complex filtering mechanisms like Spamassassin will be processed slowly.

As a general rule: Everything that requires not much more than sending and retrieving files will be fine.


Equipped with a modern hard drive, the Aero with its fanless 486 processor is a completely noiseless system that can be run from your living room or even your bedroom. With the LCD automatically turned off, it doesn't consume much power.

Connected to the Internet over DSL you are completely free to provide any service you like. Use it for instance as webdrive or as newsserver. These features normally require a root-server, which is a lot more expensive.

And of course you will learn how to install and use GNU/Linux. It's a slow machine, so you have time enough to watch it working. ;-)

Ulrich Hansen
20th of February 2003 - 12th of July 2007

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