About me: My name is Solène Rapenne, pronouns she/her. I like learning and sharing knowledge. Hobbies: '(NixOS BSD OpenBSD Lisp cmdline gaming security QubesOS internet-stuff). I love percent and lambda characters. OpenBSD developer solene@.

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Old Computer Challenge v3: postmortem

Written by Solène, on 17 July 2023.
Tags: #occ #occ23 #oldcomputerchallenge

Comments on Fediverse/Mastodon

1. Challenge report §

Hi! I've not been very communicative about my week during the Old Computer Challenge v3, the reason is that I failed it. Time for a postmortem (analysis of what happened) to understand the failure!

For the context, the last time I was using a restricted hardware was for the first edition of the challenge two years ago. Last year challenge was about reducing Internet connectivity.

2. Wasn't prepared §

I have to admit, I didn't prepare anything. I thought I could simply limit the requirements on my laptop, either on OpenBSD or openSUSE and enjoy the challenge. It turned out it was more complicated than that.

  • OpenBSD memory limitation code wasn't working on my system for some reason (I should report this issue)
  • openSUSE refused to boot with 512 MB of memory under 30 minutes, even by adding swap, and I couldn't log in through GDM once there

I had to figure a backup plan, which turned to be using Alpine Linux installed on a USB memory stick, memory and core number restriction worked out of the box, figuring how to effectively reduce the frequency was hard, but I did it finally.

From this point, I had a non-encrypted Alpine Linux on a poor storage medium. What would I do with this? Nothing much.

3. Memory limitation §

It turns out that in 2 years, my requirements evolved a bit. 512 MB wasn't enough to use a web browser with JavaScript, and while I thought it wouldn't be such a big deal, it WAS.

I regularly need to go on some websites, doing it on my non-trusted smartphone is a no-go, so I need a computer, and Firefox on 512 MB just doesn't work. Chromium almost work, but it depends on the page, and WebKit browser often didn't work well enough.

Here is a sample of websites I needed to visit:

  • OVH web console
  • Patreon web page
  • Bank service
  • Some online store
  • Mastodon (I have such a huge flow that CLI tools doesn't work well for me)
  • Kanban tool
  • Deepl for translation
  • Replying to people on some open source project Discourse forums
  • Managing stuff in GitHub (gh tool isn't always on-par with the web interface)

For this reason, I often had to use my "work" computer to do the tasks, and ended up inadvertently continuing on this computer :(

In addition to web browsing, some programs like LanguageTool (a java GUI spellcheck program) required too much memory to be started, so I couldn't even spell check my blog posts (Aspell is not as complete as LanguageTool).

4. CPU limitation §

At first when I thought about the rules for the 3rd edition, the CPU frequency seemed to be the worst part. In practice, the system was almost swapping continuously but wasn't CPU bound. Hardware acceleration was fast enough to play videos smoothly.

If you can make good use of the 512 MB of memory, you certainly won't have CPU problems.

5. Security issues §

This is not related to the challenge itself, but I felt a bit stuck with my untrusted Alpine Linux, I have some ssh / GPG keys that are secured on two systems and my passwords, I almost can't do anything without them, and I didn't want to take the risk of compromising my security chain for the challenge.

In fact, since I started using Qubes OS, I started being reluctant to mix all my data on a single system, even the other one I'm used to being working with (which has all the credentials too), but Qubes OS is the anti-oldcomputerchallenge as you need to throw the more hardware you can to make it useful.

6. Not a complete failure §

However, the challenge wasn't such a complete failure for me. While I can't say I played by the rules, it definitely helped me to realize the changes in my computer use over the last years. This was the point when I started the "offline laptop" project three years ago, which transformed into the old computer challenge the year after.

I tried to use less the computer as I wasn't able to fulfill the challenge requirements, and did some stuff IRL at home and outside, the week went SUPER FAST, I was astonished to realize it's already over. This also forced me to look for solutions, so I spent *a LOT* of time trying to make Firefox fit in 512 MB, TLDR it didn't work.

The LEAST memory I'd need nowadays is 1 GB of memory, it's still not much compared to what we have nowadays (my main system has 32 GB), but it's twice the first requirements I've set.

7. Conclusion §

It seems everyone had a nice week with the challenge, I'm very happy to see the community enjoying this every year. I may not be the challenge paragon for this year, but it was useful to me, and since then I couldn't stop thinking about how to improve my computer usage.

Next challenge should be two weeks long :)