Any old computer can host a website, and now one enthusiast has taken that turn of phrase literally.
As first spotted on Boing Boing and Slashdot, on the frontiers of the world wide web one man is keeping the URL rhyal.com up on a Macintosh SE/30 running MacOS 7.5.5. Apple released the SE/30 in 1989, and the base model shipped with a 16 Mhz processor and 1MB of RAM. The computer I’m typing this on has a 4.2 GHz processor, and 32GB of RAM. By today’s standards, the SE/30 is seriously underpowered, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless.
Now, sales engineer Huxley Dunsany is using the 30-year-old computer (which he souped up with more RAM and a modern solid state drive) to serve up a website to visitors over the modern internet.
Rhyal.com is a simple site. It’s a grainy picture of the Macintosh SE/30 with a welcoming message, a description of the machine, links to the resources that Dunsany used to make it happen, and a guestbook—the kind you may have had on your Geocities website right next to your webring.
Dunsany started the project on a whim. “I honestly set out to do this just to see if I could,” he said in an email.
Initially, he just wanted to get the old SE/30 working and connected to an Ethernet card, which would allow it to connect to a computer network. He initially planned to use it to run old Mac games and needed Ethernet to transfer the files from modern machines. Then, he discovered some open source software called MacHTTP that would let him put the SE/30 on the internet using the Ethernet connection. “Why not see if I could host something publicly accessible?” he said.
Once Dunsany got it working, visitors started wandering to the site and signing the notebook. After a post about the site on tech news aggregator Slashdot, the popularity grew. “20,000 plus visits later, I think I was [on to something],” he said.
The popularity of the site is also its Achilles’ Heel. Currently, rhyal.com is down and only viewable at waybackmachine.com. Serving a website to tens of thousands of people with a decades-old PC comes with some quirks, it turns out.
“It works really well until the sequential visitors count runs past ~1000, after which the Mac needs to be manually rebooted,” Dunsany said. “As best I can tell it’s some sort of overflow error with the very old MacHTTP software I’m using to actually serve the HTTP content.”
Dunsany is currently out of town and his wife occasionally reboots the machine to keep the site online for as long as possible. Dunsany’s wife rebooted the machine for me so I could see rhyal.com in all its glory, but at the time of this writing it’s down again.
Dunsany’s job has him dealing with cloud security and cutting edge technology, he said. For him, working on older machines is a mental palate cleanser. He shows off some of these products on his YouTube page.
“Spending a few hours getting an old Mac online or figuring out how to connect a long-discontinued Roland MIDI box to a modern gaming PC may not have much practical value, but it’s a fun puzzle,” he said. “And I find that I’m often more effective with my actual work when I’m deep in one of these totally-impractical-but-fun side projects.”
Dunsany’s impractical-but-fun side projects come with unique challenges. “Old hardware is both remarkably resilient but also unpredictably flaky,” he said. “ Old software can have bugs which were never fixed, or which were sorta unimaginable back when it was created. I doubt the original programmers of MacHTTP expected it to be serving content to iOS devices with thousands of times the processing power and memory of the host machine.”
As for the site’s unique URL (Rhyal), it’s named after Dunsany’s son, he said, whom he felt might like to have his own domain name when he’s an adult. Dunsany say he plans to keep the website running just as soon as he gets back from his trip and can reliably reboot it. Until then, we can all enjoy this YouTube video of the server sitting on Dunsany’s kitchen table.