Linux and IBM PowerPCs

by Daniel Lazenby

Several months ago, IBM announced it would support Linux on IBM PowerPC hardware. Since then, IBM has given their sanction to a specific distribution of Linux for the IBM PowerPC-based RS/6000 platforms. To round things out, IBM has also made progress on arranging commercial-grade Linux software support.

Supported Machines

IBM's announcement of Linux support actually bridges two product lines: the Intel-based and PowerPC-based platforms. The Intel-based product line includes systems such as Netfinity, IntelliStations, Thinkpads and the PC300 series. Information on compatibility of Netfinity systems with Linux is available at the Key Labs web site.

Linux distributions supporting the Intel-based product line include Red Hat, Caldera, TurboLinux and SuSE. IBM has established a marketing and support alliance with each of these vendors. For example through these vendors, there is now a Linux release of IBM's DB2 Database. Things change so quickly, one should check with each of these Linux vendors to verify their current offerings. Running Linux on Intel machines is quite common, so I will not say more about Linux on the Netfinity platform.

The RS/6000 product line contains Power, Power2, Power3 and PowerPC architectures. Each of these architectures contains several different classes of machine capability. Within the RS/6000 product line, official Linux support is limited to just a few CHRP PowerPC architecture systems. At the time of this writing, the supported systems include RS/6000 Models 7046-B50, 7043-150 and 7025-F50. There are plans to add support for the model 7043-260. The F50 and 260 are multiprocessor machines.

If you are going to purchase one of the supported systems to run Linux, make sure optional components being purchased also support Linux. I've seen one posting by a 7043-150 owner having problems installing Linux. It turns out several different graphic cards can be purchased with the 150s. Only three models of the graphic cards were supported—guess which one wasn't in the machine. This is one area that must be verified prior to purchasing your supported RS/6000.

Those investing in the supported PowerPCs should have access to detailed information on the specific hardware configurations that were used to determine that Linux can be installed and runs properly. The IBM PowerPCs need a site like the one Key Labs has for compatibility of Netfinity products and Linux.

Sanctioned Linux Distribution

Terra Soft Solutions, Inc. produces the Yellow Dog Linux (YDL) distribution. This distribution is the official IBM-sanctioned distribution for the supported PowerPC RS/6000 platforms.

YDL Installation Guide

The YDL Installation Guide is well-written and laid out. Unfortunately, the install guide that came with my copy of the media is heavily written and illustrated for the Macintosh hardware and install processes. YDL made a couple of change pages available. These pages primarily added single-sentence references to the model numbers of the supported RS/6000 platforms. Included was one page on installing YDL on an RS/6000. There are six pages with illustrations discussing preparing the Macintosh for Linux installation. Hopefully, the RS/6000s will receive a little more print in the next release of the guide.

Sources of Support

For supported RS/6000 systems, Terra Soft Solutions, Inc. offers installation support for a reasonable fee. I would recommend purchasing the installation support if you are installing YDL on a supported RS/6000. The additional cost for this support is nothing when compared to the cost of a supported RS/6000. Terra Soft considers installation support to be at an end once the product has been installed. According to the installation support description, installation is complete once root access has been obtained.

An agreement has been established with Linuxcare, Inc. to provide post-installation support services and training for the RS/6000 and Yellow Dog Linux. Linuxcare offers four levels of on-call support. Prepackaged support levels have been grouped into Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum levels of support. There are options for obtaining customized levels of support, including 24-hour, 7-day-a-week support.

Other IBM PowerPCs

Proud owners of older IBM PReP PowerPC machines may also be able to use a PowerPC Linux distribution. Yellow Dog Linux is heavily oriented toward the CHRP machines. Nevertheless, their web site indicates the official YDL distribution has been successfully installed on the following non-supported IBM models: the 830 and 850, the 860, the 40P, the Nobis and INDI platforms. I understand the Nobis and INDI are Italian machines. Several Motorola systems were also listed as working, but not officially supported for this distribution. Most of these PReP machines have not been sold for several years. It looks as if they are beginning to enter the secondary and hobbyist market.

The 830/850 machines came from the PC side of IBM. The 850's proper name is IBM Personal Computer Power Series 850. It is catalogued as Personal Computer Model 6070 and comes with either a 100MHz, 120MHz or 133MHz CPU. This IDE-based PReP PowerPC system is not a member of the RS/6000 product line, nor is it a member of the RS/6000 43P family of machines. While some folks have gotten a release of Linux running on this machine, getting Linux installed on this IDE-based machine can be a major, and very frustrating, challenge.

Another machine from this PReP era is the Thinkpad Power Series 850 (also known as a Model 7249-850). The RS/6000 Notebook 860 (Model 7249-860) replaced the ThinkPad 850. I have seen a few mailing list postings indicating some folks have their ThinkPad 850 and Notebook 860 running Linux. These SCSI-bus PReP machines seem to have had a little better luck running PowerPC Linux than the IDE-based machines.

The 40P is another system that is about the same vintage as the PC Power Series machines. The 40P is another desktop PReP SCSI-2-based PowerPC system. This unit is categorized as an RS/6000 platform and is formally known as a Model 7020-40P. This machine type is listed as having had Linux successfully installed. While listed, the install process is not at all smooth and does have its difficulties.

The RS/6000 Model 7248 is another IBM PReP PowerPC platform. On the surface, there appear to be several similarities between the 7248 and the PC Power Series 850. Don't let these similarities fool you; there are differences between the two machines. The 7248 machines came from the RS/6000 side of IBM. The model 7248 was the first generation of 43Ps. These came with either a 100MHz, 120MHz or 133MHz CPU. This SCSI-2-based system was replaced with the current CHRP model 7043 version of the 43P. I've seen a couple of postings indicating success with installing and running PowerPC Linux on the model 7248 versions of the 43P.

I recommend caution if you plan to install YDL on a PReP machine. After several hours of trying, I still could not get my IDE-base PReP machine to recognize the YDL floppy boot files. I switched to another distribution and didn't have any better luck. The SCSI-based PReP machines seem to have an install success rate better than the IDE-based ones. Vendors such as LinuxPPC, Inc., Debian, TurboLinux and others offer their own versions of PowerPC Linux. One of these distributions may play better with your PReP machine. You will have to experiment to find out which one is best for you. Hopefully, PowerPC Linux support for these IBM PReP PowerPCs will expand as more of these older IBM machines come into the hands of the Linux-capable.

Do Your Homework

If you are going to venture into installing Linux on a PReP IBM PowerPC, spend some time reviewing both the current and archived mailing lists for Yellow Dog and LinuxPPC. Let people on the list know what you are planning. Be specific about which Linux distribution you plan to use and the model of your PowerPC. They can help you avoid some blind alleys and dead-end avenues.

Proper System Firmware

Not having the proper firmware installed on your PReP machine could affect your installation of Linux. It may not be important to some, yet most of these PReP machines require a specific firmware release to be Year 2000 ready. IBM maintains a Year 2000 web site where you can verify whether a different firmware release is required for your system. Caution: use only firmware designated for your machine—doing otherwise could break your machine beyond repair. IBM's Year 2000 site for firmware information is in Resources. Virtually all of IBM's PReP machines are listed.


The information in this article was gleaned from various web sites, lists, newsgroups, flyers, presentations and conversations. The accuracy of this information is subject to change without any notice. Please check the referenced web sites for current information and offerings.



Daniel Lazenby ( first encountered UNIX in 1983 and discovered Linux in 1994.

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