(this is a guest post by Antoni Sawicki aka Tenox)
As I was preparing the Windows NT RISC exhibit for VCF west, I realized that I’m missing a rather important piece of the history. While I will be showing the potentially last DEC Alpha Windows build ever – AXP64 2210, I don’t have anything earlier than NT 3.51. I would be nice to showcase the very first RTM version – NT 3.1. From time perspective, NT did not get popular until the version 3.5 and later. Windows NT 3.1 would be considered rare even on a 386, let alone on a RISC CPU! So what RISC hardware does Windows NT 3.1 run on?
Not many! The HCL published on gunkies has a few systems more, but nothing that I have. The MIPS based systems are all but unobtanium as of today. It’s probably a good time to mention a little known port of Windows NT 3.1 to the DECstation 5000. However these builds are not found even on earliest NT betas. Not to mention lack of ARC firmware for this machine.
The Alphas were looking a little more reachable. The DEC 2000 Model 300 and DECpc AXP 150 are one and the same machine, packaged in a server and workstation cases. Code-named Jensen, DEC designed and marketed these specifically around Windows NT. Unlike prior Alphas, this model used a lot of “PC” components for increased compatibility and lower cost. Eventually paved way for the more well known DEC Multia. The Jensen has been seen floating here and there and many people have these.
I was able to get a loaner from Chris Satterfield aka Compgeke for the VCF. Having a working specimen at hand, I started looking at part numbers of various components. In an amazing streak of luck, in practically zero time I was able to find, buy and assemble a complete DECpc AXP 150 from spare parts on eBay! Without a case, but nevertheless. Also big thanks to Christopher Rivett for help with some fine details!
- Motherboard + CPU – DEC 70-29685-01
- GPU – DEC/Compaq Qvision 1024/E (1024×768) – 126654-001
- GPU – (Optional) Number 9 High Res (1280×1024) – 30-41800-01
- HBA – Adaptec AHA-1742A EISA – 467806-00
- NIC – DEC DE422-S EISA – 5021102-01
- RAM – 4x 16MB, FPM, 60ns, 72-Pin, 12-Chip, True Parity SIMM
- PSU – DEC/HP 30-37197-02, however a standard AT PSU may be OK
If you going to build one yourself, beware of overheating. Jensen runs rather hot and needs good cooling. Not only for the CPU. There is a section of the motherboard just under the EISA cards that runs incredibly hot. See the picture, where I have installed a large Noctua fan.
There are many Windows NT 3.1 CDROMs floating around. I purchased a DEC branded, shrink-wrapped CD on eBay to use as a prop along with the machine. You can download the iso image here.
Installation of Windows NT 3.1 on DECpc AXP 150 is pretty straightforward and not that much different from the later versions. However as a prerequisite you will need the ECU floppy disk to configure the EISA slot assignments, card and jumper settings. After that you will have to go through various setup screens in ARC BIOS to configure system settings. Then you run
arcinst to create a system partition and
setupldr to install the OS. The rest of it is pretty uneventful. This is somewhat expected, as this was pretty much the only one and supported hardware combination, so must have been well tested. The only curious part is that the NT OS Kernel does not display any text during normal boot. Later versions of NT will display the build number and MP or UP kernel variant and dots indicating subsystem load progress. This is rather odd because I expected more text mode stuff from older NT version, but who knows.
Service Pack Saga
If you are even vaguely familiar with installing Windows NT at all, you will know that the very first thing you have to perform after installation, is to apply a service pack. NT 3.1 did have service packs, up to SP3. The problem is that, as you may very well expect, non-x86 editions were nowhere to be found in 2023. The only thing I could come up with was http://www.win31.de/ent31.htm, which had a German AXP and MIPS SP3, but no English! [It since has been updated…]. I had to do some real detective work to track down an US-English AXP SP3 version. I spent a few days going through various random CDs and ftp site mirrors of that era, with little luck. Eventually I stumbled on this README file, stating:
Due to space constraints on the Windows NT Service Packs for International Versions CD, the USA Service Pack version 3 is located on the Additional Windows NT Service Packs, Windows 3.11 versions, SDKs, and DDKs CD in the NTSRVPC3\USA directory.
Bingo! After a few hits and missed I spotted this particular CDROM here: https://archive.org/details/microsoft-developer-network-january-1995-disc-4-of-15 – Now the OS is finally “servicepacked” 🙂
My general impression of NT 3.1 on DEC Alpha is pretty awesome. If you can overlook the age and some obvious shortcomings, the OS is pretty stable, solid and even snappy for such old hardware. An OS itself without apps is not much. While overall Alpha NT application outlook is pretty scanty I was able to find a several very interesting gems!
The disk has an incredible amount of demo, freeware, public domain and shareware applications as well as DEC marketing material.
You can get a lot of DEC proprietary software like C++, Fortran, PATHWORKS, DECtalk, as well as X servers, etc.
However I was particularly interested in some 3rd party commercial apps.
For example there is an early version of DMC Calamus Desktop Publishing.
Also a demo version of a vintage, text-mode SlickEdit, way before it was replaced by the Visual SlickEdit known today.
There also is WinDev editior, which is quite superior to Notepad and has some code editing goodies and shortcuts to SDK tools, making it something of a simple IDE.
One of the coolest thing found there is a graphical text editor called WinEdit. It has a ton of features and even syntax highlighting! It has since became my default to go editor / IDE on this system!
There of course is a Windows NT SDK with the M (MEP) editor.
There also are quite few public domain apps and games, ports of GNU software, Micro Emacs, Kermit, etc.
High Resolution GPU
One of things that was troubling me for some time was rather low resolution of the default QVision graphics card. The maximum being only 1024×768 is just not acceptable. Talking to several Jensen’s owners, no one even heard about anything better. However looking at the Windows setup options, I curiously noticed that the system does support one 1280×1024 video card – Number 9 GXE.
I simply assumed that such card would simply be unobtanium in 2023. However, digging through some old catalogs and spare part listings, I managed to find a DEC part number, which is 30-41800-01. Armed with this, I was able to find it via DEC spare part reseller that I often use. They had it in stock listed as “HIGH RES EISA 1280 x 1024 GRAPHICS”. The price wasn’t too bad either, at least compared to the whole endeavor. A few days later I received this:
After installation of the S3 driver (must be the Service Pack 3 version!) I was finally able to get 1280×1024 from the poor thing!
With this I should have a more cozy environment to compile and port even more apps 🙂
In future I want to try the Advanced Server edition as well as some early Betas with Alpha support.