IT archaeology: Virtualizing RedHat Enterprise Linux 3 (Taroon) with VirtualBox in the year 2013

One of my customers is in a very unhappy situation: He bought a piece of proprietary software that runs on RedHat’s Enterprise Linux 3, and now the company he bought it from is no longer available. What’s worse, they’ve tied their software to a USB copy protection dongle that uses a homemade Linux kernel module that only works on Linux 2.4.

Add insult to injury: Their entire business depends on this piece of software. And now the server it’s running on is slowly falling apart, entire CPUs have burned due to failing fans, and there’s a proprietary RAID controller doing dangerous things to old and strange SCSI disks that have been unavailable on the market for several years already.

So they can’t upgrade their software, and they can’t upgrade their hardware either. They have to watch as the old hardware collapses bit by bit, until it destroys their business.

Tough luck, eh? They shouldn’t have worked with proprietary software, then this might not have happened. They could just upgrade all the way through to the 21st century and be done with it. But since they didn’t do that, now it’s too late for them to switch, so I thought I’d “just” virtualize that server.

Here are all the associated problems that needed to be solved:

  • The software runs only on RedHat Enterprise Linux 3, release 2003. That’s ten years ago, just in case you’re not counting.
  • The software depends on a hardware dongle that only works with certain versions of Linux 2.4. It doesn’t work on any 2.6 or 3.x kernels, so simply using a modern version of CentOS is out of the question.
  • Using RHEL 3 means you can’t really transfer the system to modern hardware, since RHEL 3 doesn’t even support SATA.
  • Even if you do manage to find some hardware with ATA disks, who’d want that, it would be almost as old as the server it’s replacing!

I ended up creating a blank virtual machine in VirtualBox, and using a live CD to do these special things:

Create an ext3 filesystem that RHEL 3 can mount. That means using only 128 byte inodes and getting rid of some special features:

mkfs.ext2 -j -I 128 -L / /dev/hda1

Notice the label “/”, which RedHat really likes to have. Then disable the features RHEL 3 can’t deal with:

debugfs -w /dev/hda1
 debugfs 1.40.8 (13-Mar-2008)
 debugfs:  features -ext_attr -resize_inode -dir_index +large_file +needs_recovery
 Filesystem features: has_journal filetype needs_recovery sparse_super large_file
 debugfs:  quit

Thanks, this article, for the hint. Notice the “hda” there? That’s right, you need to mount the thing as parallel ATA device, not SATA, not SCSI.

As next step, I SCP’d all the files from the physical server to the root of the new super-compatible virtual hard disk. Then I adapted /etc/fstab to point at the new hda1 (it used to point at sda1, the RAID device exported via SCSI on the hardware server).

Finally, I booted Super Grub 2 Disk, selected the legacy Grub 1 configuration from the hard drive, booted into the new virtual hard drive, adapted /boot/grub/grub.cfg and to point at the new devices, ran grub-install. And so I had RHEL 3 running virtualized.

If you ever need to do data archaeology of this kind, maybe this article is useful for you. You could likely automate it all in a little shell script if you need to virtualize many old systems.

The final step is to install an up to date GNU/Linux distribution on brand new hardware for my customer, stick that virtual machine on and pass the USB copy protection dongle through to the guest system.

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