Debian Stretch on a 2007 Mac Pro

Disclaimer: I barely know what I’m talking about. Really, barely.

In light of the recent “What and when is the new Mac Pro?” -news, here’s my recent Mac Pro story.

Some five years ago I bought this hunk of aluminum (not exactly sure why) from a graphics designer / video editor, who at the time figured his trusted workhorse, a 2007 Mac Pro, had reached EOL. He had pretty much maxed out everything on the beast, RAM, HDD/SSD’s, GPU’s etc, except Apple was giving him no more love in OS upgrades. As he demanded the latest from Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro, Photoshop etc, OS X Lion (?) was no longer going to do it for him. So I presented the gentleman $200 in cash and lugged the heavy weight off of his hands and stored it in a closet until just a few weeks ago. Again, not sure why I bought it in the first place, maybe I felt bad for the dying metal.

These 2006-2007 Mac Pro’s came with a 32-bit EFI, but with 64-bit CPU architecture (Intel Xeons mind you), hence the problem with more recent 64-bit OS X upgrades. Luckily, the inventive hackintosh community kept playing ball, and not too long ago these early Mac Pro’s were finally upgradeable to OS X El Capitan – not the latest Mac OS, but their EOL effectively got pushed back at least a few more years.

While I’m not a huge fan of OS X, or ‘MacOS’, I can tolerate it. But after a few days of using MacOS, I eventually feel the need to get my hands dirty with Linux. This April was the 10-yr mark for this tank, so as an anniversary present, I decided to give it some Linux Love. After some hours on the googles, I came across this website with plenty of different distro ISO images ready to be installed on a 32-bit EFI running on a 64-bit system.

I have a stock GTX 660 Ti GPU that works well enough with El Capitan’s own drivers, but on Ubuntu 16.04LTS I had to use Nvidia drivers from way back when. Mouse clicks were not working in Gnome on Ubuntu (Unity 7 was ok) and as Gnome is a must for me, Ubuntu was a no-go. Also, the old Nvidia drivers gave me a headache on a few Steam games as well – though I do see the irony, the attempt to play relatively recent PC games on Linux, which in turn is running on a ten-year-old Mac…

Next in line was to try Arch Linux, but the standard ISO would not boot. I’ve run Arch on a 2013/14 MacBook Pro quite successfully, so needless to say I was quite disappointed with my shortcomings with Arch on the Tower Of Aluminum (sorry, ‘aluminium’ for @sil and @jonobacon). So the trick was to compile a short program in C – again, not my handywork, as I know about C and code, as much as a turtle knows about aerodynamics (though I have to say, turtles are in their ‘gear-up’ configuration quite aerodynamic, but I digress…) – that allows your standard 64-bit ISO to be converted so a 32-EFI will boot it.

Tadaa! Arch boots. Go through the laborious process of CLI installation (ok, copy-paste via SSH but still) only to find out the bootloader got repeatedly screwed up during installation. This all more than likely due to user error, as is often the case with Arch, but in the end, The Silver Block shan’t get Arch.

Finally, Debian Jessie. Debian should fit the bill, as it is after all the granddad of distros, so running on a museum-grade Mac should be its perfect cup of tea. Though I had to give the installation a few tries, as the process got interrupted with error codes at least four times, in the end, it did install. And of course, within 15 minutes I had to upgrade it all to Debian testing, i.e. “Stretch”. Why? I don’t know, because it’s available?

  • Nvidia (vs. 340) works fine so far. Steam to follow. I have a feeling Steam on Debian Testing will be a bit more PITA than Ubuntu.

  • Gnome works perfectly. Love 3.22 on this thing. Except enabling User Themes crashes it.

  • Every so often a package I try to install prompts with a conflict – welcome to Debian Testing?

  • A server-grade Mac Pro running Linux works really well as a heater.

What’s your recent old-metal-rescue-project?


That’s awesome! Thanks for the tip!

A Cinco De Mayo update, in case anyone is/was interested:

Debian had to go, booo. I couldn’t take the dependency breaks of Testing, and Stable, while probably great in the long term, left me desiring for more current software. It turns out the earlier bootloader problems came back to haunt me, this time for good.

Despite of an out-of-sync master boot record, of which I learned about only later on (Apple uses a hybrid MBR, ugh), I guess with just pure luck I was able to install Debian the first (second?) time, but now, after wiping it all clean and going back to Ubuntu (and Fedora, and openSUSE, and Arch again, and Ubuntu again, rinse and repeat…), I was stuck in a loop. OS would install, but a boot would always result in the same dreaded grub rescue> -screen, with no way to recover. If, against all odds, I’d get a successful yet random boot, the GPU drivers would not work, and I would start from scratch. The issue with the MBR could be resynced with rEFIt I had already installed on OSX, except it was missing the crucial ‘gptsync’ option that would’ve saved the day, supposedly. Or, I could go for the more up-to-date rEFInd bootloader with all kinds of boot and sync options, but requiring a bit more setting up.

More googling, mainly from Rod Smith’s excellent Wiki-level web pages, rEFInd would work better. But in order to install rEFInd on Mac’s El Capitan, unlike earlier versions of OSX, I’d have to boot into the Recovery Partition of OSX, and disable Apple’s built-in ‘System Integrity Protection’ – a safeguard against users like me who think they know what they are doing, yet… Turns out, my Recovery HD was corrupted leading to constant and consistent kernel panics (probably the culprit of MBR issues as well), so in the end, this wasn’t going to work. If no Recovery --> no disabling SIP --> no rEFInd --> no resyncing of MBR/GPT --> no Linux. Bleh. End day, open box wine.

After a glass or two, decision was made. OSX was going to be launched into the sun. Via gdisk I’d wipe, clean and zap all drives and subsequent MBRs. Onward with Linux! Again.

The nagging GPU driver issue was still in the back of my mind though. Turns out, again, user error, again.

Some, if not most, somewhat recent Nvidia cards do work in these early 2006-2007 Mac Pros, even when they are not officially supported, or specifically flashed for Macs (another can of worms if you want to flash the GPU BIOS to be more Mac compliant). The downside of running an Nvidia card on an old Mac is that unlike with a supported AMD GPU, Mac passes on graphics duties to the Nvidia card very late in the boot process. So every time I’d have to access boot options, for example to boot from DVD, I’d have to have a monitor plugged in to an old Mac AMD GPU, and only after crap was sorted out, would I reboot with the the Nvidia plugged in. To minimize PITA, I started leaving the Nvidia card in, and just plugged in and out of the AMD card when needed. And therein lied the problem, or so I deduced, with said Nvidia drivers. I proved to myself the hard way that having two different GPU’s plugged in during OS and/or driver installation gives you only about a 7.5% success rate :slight_smile: Almost Vegas odds.

But all that begins well, must end well. After all the swapping, wiping, cleaning, cursing, and box wine, Ubuntu 17.04 is it. And it’s on. With latest Nvidia drivers, Steam running and all the other latest-and-greatest I’ve come to enjoy with Linux, and while Gnome is my homeboi, I’m liking Unity for the time being. And after all this, I’m pretty sure I could get Debian Testing running again if I wanted, or even Arch? Maybe I should, just to prove a point… Do I have any of that box wine left?

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The answer to that question is always “Why not?” :slight_smile:

Can’t say I’ve recovered any old kit lately, but I did use to have a thing about old Sun kit, and had a stack of Ultra 5s running on a desk in my office as web servers. Or login servers. Or any kind of server I could find a use for them.

I miss Sun :cry:

@neuro funny you mention Sun, because I think a particular Sun Microsystem Sun Blade 2500 many years ago was the machine that put me on this path of retrowarez. I could never fully resurrect the damn Blade beyond CLI; not sure if it needed a new GPU or what (running Solaris 10, FreeBSD, Debian?), but it all certainly made me feel I was doing some pretty important work. That, along with “hacking” the almighty Nokia N900 at the time, distro-hopping – and wiping out a few HDD’s in the process; “sure, let’s put that on /dev/sda1, can’t be that important piece of info, can it?” – culminating in Puppy Linux on a salvaged Thinkpad. I had found my happy place.

edit: I may have a problem though, as I spent this past day looking at lot auctions of old servers, workstations, Mac Pros etc. I may or may not have purchased an IBM Model M in the process.

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