Running Virtual Machines on PowerPC Macs

Any responsible web developer is runs multiple environments for testing. While it’s easy enough to get three boxes and a KVM, I think we’d all rather have them all-in-one. Less boxes. Less cables. Less power consumption.

Since PowerPC and Intel chips use different architectures PowerMac G3, G4, and G5s will never have a true version of parallels — some translation is going to be mandatory.

One of the best on-the-fly translators for PowerPC that I’ve used is Virtual PC (previously by Connectix then bought by Microsoft).

Virtual PC runs reasonably well (read: not blazingly fast. think “usable”) on dual G5 systems and Windows is easy to install. Linux, on the other hand, is a bit wily. Microsoft’s stance is: “Sure, there is no reason that Linux won’t run in VPC, but we provide no warranty, instructions, or support for it.”

Here is a step-by-step of my journey to running Linux in Virtual PC 7.0.2 for Mac OS X:

FIRST: Choose a flavor of Linux

Of the 4 flavors of Linux I’ve tried all have installation problems.

  • openSUSE/KDE: GUI on installer does not render properly. If you manage to install the system it will begin to booth then crash when attempting to load GUI
  • kubuntu: same
  • ubuntu: GUI on installer does not render properly. Can be hacked into submission using instructions below. Slow running when installed. Not recommended for that reason
  • xubuntu: GUI on installer does not render properly. Can be hacked to work using instructions below. Designed for use on slower/outdated machines, this is an excellent candidate for running on VPC; it’s light, it’s stable, and it’s fast enough to be usable.. Winner: Xubuntu.

Next:

  • Create a new, blank, unformatted PC
  • Download xubuntu .iso. No need to mount on desktop. Instead, “capture” it with your freshly powered on PC
  • Restart your PC to read the disk and begin installation process

Configuring Linux:

The following was gathered from a handful of internet sites and has been translated into easier to understand English (I hope) and been confirmed to work:

  • Upon reaching the installation screen Select F4 from the list below and select 1024×768 16bit color
    (Be sure to select 16 bit color here or this may not work)
  • Select “Install Xubuntu”. Allow this to load until you notice the screwed up cursor and what appears to be a dialog box.
  • Press Ctrl-Alt-F1. This will dump you into a command line that has text something like this: ubuntu@ubuntu:~$
  • type this and hit “enter”: sudo dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg
    You will now be in a ncurses interface which will allow you to make the fix to the graphics settings. Rifle through the menus choosing the defaults by pressing “enter” and stop at the “color depth” setting. Change this to “16”. Finish dpkg-reconfigure by following the rest of the prompts, it will save your changes and dump you back to the command line.
  • Press Ctrl-Alt-F7 to get into the xubuntu installer GUI
  • Press Ctrl-Alt-Backspace to apply changes and carry on
  • Fill out the questionaire, let the installer do it’s thing, restart and enjoy


Xubuntu Linux and Windows XP running on OS X, PowerPC

Sidebar about VPC Video Card

  1. Virtual PC emulates an S3 Trio 64 Video card with 8mb (65,536 kilobites) of video ram (VRAM). There are a few reasons why Microsoft does not increase the amount of VRAM for Virtual PCs:
    1. VRAM is a fixed overhead. Each virtual machine that you launch uses 8mb of your computers memory to store our VRAM information. If we increase this – it will increase the amount of memory used for each virtual machine – whether the virtual machine is using this extra memory or not.
  2. On video cards with hardware 3D acceleration support VRAM is used for storage of textures, and other performance improving measures. However with a 2D video card VRAM is only used to store a single frame buffer of the contents on screen. This means that with a 2D video card (such as we emulate) adding more VRAM just allows you to support higher resolutions – but it does not provide better performance. At 8mb we are able to display at up to 1600×1200 resolutions.

Additional Info About Speed

With Virtual PC running on my Dual 2Ghz PowerMac G5 Windows reported this for CPU and speed:
CPU: 686 Processor
Speed: 532Mhz

In Linux you can type this into a terminal:

cat /proc/cpuinfo

It reported:
CPU: Virtual CPU
Speed: 502.835Mhz
Vendor ID 6 (which looks like an Athalon “Thoroughbred” according to paradicesoftware.com

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