[conspire] Looking for some OSS tools...

Edmund J. Biow ejb1 at isp.com
Sat Apr 16 00:40:42 PDT 2005

Hi folks,  My name is Ed, a hulking Newbie who has made an occasional
appearance at computer show Install Fests.

I volunteer with a group called USA-Cuba Infomed:

We take donated computers, test the hard drives, format them, make sure
the FDs and CDs are working, boost the memory, if necessary, and send
the machines to Cuba to be used by the medical infrastructure.  We've
sent about 2,500 machines to several hospitals as well as to the Cuban
Infomed organization.

We get licenses to do this from the U.S. government.  We must get
approval from the departments of State, Defense & Commerce, and at this
point, we are limited to sending machines that are 266 MFLOPS of less
(which, I gather, as a practical matter for our purposes, means 266
MHz).  I'd say our typical machine these days is ~166-200 MHz, with
about 64 MB of RAM, a CD-ROM, floppy and 1-2 GB hard drive.  Pathetic as
this may seem, the Cuban hospitals we try to serve are often using 386s,
so they are thrilled to get this junk.  

Anywho, our 'quality control' procedure involves testing the hard drives
with any of a number of proprietary hard drive products released by the
drive makers themselves, e.g. Western Digital's wddiag.exe.  To run this
test we generally boot to a FreeDOS or DOS floppy diskette or sometimes
use the Ultimate Boot CD.

Most of these tools will only work with drives made by the utility's

I looked over Rick Moen's hard drive diagnostic utilities page:

I gather there is no open source tool that would test drive mechanical
integrity and would work with disks from any maker?  (I haven't
blundered over one, if there is.)  

After we have tested the hard drive we like to repartition and format it
to remove our donors' data and prepare for OS installation in Cuba.  We
use FreeDOS for this, these days.  We have a batch file we invoke with a
key stroke that wipes all the partitions on the drive, then divides the
hard drive up in to as many 2 GB Freedos FAT16ish partitions as the
drive will hold, and finally reboots the machine.  At that point we hit
a key to run another bat file that formats the partitions, again in
FreeDOS.  The whole procedure takes about a minute.  This allows us to
boot the box from the hard drive and maybe run a little memtest86 before
buttoning the case up and putting it on a pallet.

The problem with this procedure is that we are afraid that the Cubans
might try to install Windows 9x on these FreeDOS partitions (though we
try to warn them not to, since it won't really work, but I fear their
tech folks might not always receive our caveats).  FreeDOS looks like
regular DOS and will allow you to try to install Windows, which won't
balk at the FreeDOS file system, but also won't properly install.

Also, it is probably tedious for the Cubanos to delete multiple
partitions on the larger drives using some sort of FDISK. (I plan to
rewrite the bat files to only partition and format a single primary 2GB
partition and leaves the rest of the drive unpartitioned). 

Finally, the FreeDOS files we install do not provide drivers for the CD
drives (though this isn't really important, since most of the BIOSes and
drives support CD booting, and in any case, the Cubans can boot from a
Win9x boot diskette, etc. if necessary).  

I'd like to investigate some tiny open source distro that we could run
from a floppy diskette and/or a CDR, and that would allow us to easily
partition the donated drives into one big non-DOS partition, format the
partition, and would put whatever files would be necessary to run a
standard CD-ROM on the hard drive.

I guess I could just cobble together a bootable diskette with programs
like Linux fdisk, mkfs, etc., and maybe write a simple script or two,
but I'm not particularly wise in the ways of *nix (which is why we are
using FreeDOS), so I'm searching for a little pre-chewed wisdom for weak

Could anyone suggest a web page or distro that I could look at to help
me cobble together the tool kit I'm trying to assemble?  Is Tom's Root
Boot as good a place as any to begin my explorations?  We obviously
don't need a lot of extra tools and fast-to-boot, format and install are
definite pluses.

Oh, by the way, we tend to gather on Saturday mornings in west Oakland,
so so if anyone has a yen to tinker with ancient boxen for a good cause,
give me a call at 510.763.0591 and I'll give you the directions, etc.

As Rommel said, Tanks in advance,

Ed Biow

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