PS/2 CD "Burnfest" 2005/2006

This was going to be a compilation of CD burning results on IBM PS/2 computer hardware. However, it seems to have turned out as more of an interesting (okay, maybe) story than a compilation of results.

You might also wish to read Louis Ohland's page of notes on MCA/PS/2 CD Burning.

To significantly improve the performance of your IBM MCA SCSI subsystem or adapter, visit the MCABase and check out the vastly improved Spock-206, AHA-206 (for Adaptec 1640 MCA SCSI host adapters), and the beta Spock-208 driver for Windows NT.

Some Introductory Text:

Anyone who has spent any amount of time working with and building up IBM PS/2 computers has probably had the thought of using this hardware to burn CDs and maybe even DVDs.

Now, in theory this certainly should work, and it ought to work relatively well. PS/2s generally have respectable disk I/O subsystems across the spectrum of later models with SCSI. SCSI CD burning hardware certainly exists and can be used with a PS/2 as long as it meets the requirements of the host adapter. (Generally, for an IBM MCA SCSI controller, this would mean that the drive can provide SCSI parity on the bus.)

The reality can often be very different. Many people have experienced unexplained (or maybe unexplainable) failures when trying to burn CD-ROM discs on MCA hardware, especially when Microsoft Windows is the operating system of choice. Some of the fault seems to lie with Microsoft, as they did not provide great support for the various IBM MCA SCSI host adapters. Others have experienced problems with the ASPI layer in Windows, or, rather, the lack of decent ASPI support "out of the box".

I first tried burning CDs with a Panasonic/Matsushita 8X CD-R (that's right, CD-R, not -RW!) installed in an IBM PC Server 500 and connected to an IBM MCA SCSI controller with cache. In this setup, I used a very late model adapter, and it was sharing an interrupt with one of the RAID controllers. The OS of choice was Windows NT 4.0 Server with Service Pack 6a. For burning software, I elected to use a 5.x version of Ahead's Nero software package, as I find it to be a very well-written CD burning program. Long story short, despite the horror stories I'd heard, this setup worked flawlessly. I could burn around 4X without issue while still using the computer pretty heavily. If I left the machine alone, burning at top speed (8x) was certainly possible.

I'd have been content to leave this setup alone, but a hardware failure of the RAID array and then a basement flood made this setup unusable. I wasn't sure that I would bother settting a PS/2 up for CD-burning again. Then discussion came up on the newsgroup came up that made me reconsider. I was "pushed over the edge" (so to speak) when a group member posted a link to a brand new Yamaha external CD-R/RW drive on eBay. I placed a bid and won it.

So begins this adventure...

System Requirements

One thing that came up quite often during the various group postings was the subject of software requirements. In the MCA world, most of the machines have either 386 or 486 processors. Higher end machines do have Pentium CPUs and some have been pushed to the point of 200MHz (or 233, with mixed results) with MMX. However, these are definitely not the mainstream configuration for many PS/2s...

With this in mind, some folks have raised good questions about our machines handling the software supplied with burners. More often than not, the box and any documentation your burner came with is going to suggest hardware requirements that are well beyond the range that any true PS/2 machine covered. Of course, most CD burner vendors and software makers don't test their software packages to find the true minimum. They simply "pick a number" that would "seem to fit" and go from there.

Just to alleviate any possible confusion here: Ignore the box and manual when they talk of system requirements. The only way you'll know for sure is to try what's in the box and see if it works. The odds can be very much in your favor.

If this concept is still bothering you, think of it like this: If you were the CD burner or software vendor, would you take the time and money to train your support staff on the nuances of 10-15 year old hardware and similary aged operating systems? Of course not! "Most people" aren't using such things any longer, so it's much easier for the hardware and software companies to draw a line that they feel is "reasonably modern".

Yes, this may mean that you can't call the vendor for help if you run into trouble. However, if you're into PS/2s and have a fair understanding of the systems you are running, then the odds are good that you can work yourself out of any trouble you might get into. And that's to say nothing of the newsgroup...which is still somewhat active today.

Oh, and one more thing: If the software included with your burner doesn't happen to work with your PS/2, there are lots of alternative programs that may well work better for you. A Google search can turn up plenty of alternative choices.

Operating System Requirements

...can be a little trickier. Some newer software may want Windows 2000, Me, XP or newer. These operating systems are out of the reach of MCA hardware.

Generally speaking, there is often a way to get most software running on an operating system it doesn't support. Sometimes it is just a question of being able to provide the needed support software to the program.

There is also the possibility of using another OS, such as OS/2 or Linux to do your CD-burning tasks if you can't find a suitable Windows-based package.

Okay, now that we've got the introduction out of the way...

Experiences & Tests

At first I had thoughts of testing across a wide variety of MCA and clone-boxen computers, just to get a feel for what was possible over the SCSI bus, and to see how CPU speed played into it. I gathered together a Yamaha CRW-2200S external SCSI CD burner, a copy of Nero Burning ROM 5.5 and a number of computers.

A little later on I changed what I had plans to do. I first learned that for whatever reason, the Yamaha drive and a variety of IBM MCA SCSI adapters weren't getting along. For whatever reason, attaching the Yamaha drive to the external port of an IBM MCA SCSI controller resulted in the controller failing to work at all. I tried several other MCA SCSI controllers with a PS/2 Server 95a running Windows NT 4.0 SP6a. For whatever reason, only the lowest performing adapter (a Future Domain MCS-700) would work to burn CDs. Others would cause the process to fail almost immediately. I did a lot of diddling around with swapping cards, reloading drivers, reapplying the NT service pack and installing Force ASPI...all to no avail. I stopped the whole process shortly after finding that the Future Domain card would allow up to a 4X burn, but that it absolutely floored a Pentium 90 CPU in order to do so.

On the clone front, I found that the fastest I could drive the Yamaha burner appeared to be 12X from an Adaptec 1460 SlimSCSI PCMCIA card installed in a Dell Latitude D800. I figured this probably represented the best performance that the burner could offer, as a 2.0GHz Pentium M (Centrino) ought to have no problem running a PCMCIA SCSI board to its limits.

Finally, I came back to the whole idea of burning a CD on MCA hardware, long after the frustration had subsided. This time around, I set up a PS/2 Model 9585-0XF with Windows NT 4.0, a 486DX4-100 upgrade CPU from Intel, 64MB RAM, onboard IBM cached SCSI, a Seagate Barracuda ST12550N hard disk, a Madge Smart 16/4 MC Ringnode network adapter and an NCR SIOP SCSI adapter. The onboard IBM SCSI would handle the hard disk and booting the OS. The NCR 53C710 SIOP board (card-ID 01BA) would handle the Yamaha CD burner. I got the OS running and updated before installing Force ASPI and Nero Burning ROM 5.5.

To test the burning part, I prepared about 650MB of files. Some files were big, and others were smaller, just to help provide a balanced test. Big files generally don't fit into a program's buffer, although they cut down on the overhead of being found, opened and transferred to CD. With smaller files, the files do generally fit into a buffer, but the computer and CD burning software must find, open and transfer each one, which adds some delay in the burning process.

With the data prepared and a blank CD-R loaded, I fired up the burning software and told it to simulate the production of an ISO-9660/Joliet formatted disc. I picked the 8X speed option, and started the process. A short while later, the simulated burn process had completed without incident. While it ran, the software-based buffer of 32MB never dropped below 75% and the CD burner buffer stayed at 98%.

The 8X burn didn't make for a usable system. I didn't find that to be a big deal, as I could go use another computer, and it really is a good idea to just leave the CD burner alone while it runs. While I did not try it, a 12X burn may well have been possible even without turning the buffer underrun protection on. All things considered, the results shown here are pretty respectable.

A Word About Adapters

If you are familiar with the MCA bus and adapters that are available, you'll notice that I tried to select adapters capable of busmastering or streaming data transfer. Adapters on the MCA bus can (but do not have to) be intelligent devices with their own CPUs and controlling software. While the OS in use doesn't always support these features, an adapter that can work by itself without calling upon the main system CPU for help can ease the load on a heavily-worked system. While I don't know if the NCR 01BA SIOP (SCSI I/O Processor) adapter supports busmastering, it does support data streaming across the MCA bus if you elect to turn it on in system programs.

For this system's network connection, I picked a Madge Smart 16/4 MC Ringnode adapter. This is a token ring adapter, which isn't a big deal since I have two running TR networks, one for 16 megabit stuff and the other for 4 megabit stuff. (Both are linked to my Ethernet stuff, so every computer on the network can see every other without issue.) This adapter is running on the 4 megabit side. However, unlike the very common IBM "shared RAM" token ring adapter, this can busmaster and supports data streaming features if you enable them. If you have data residing elsewhere on your computer network that you wish to burn to CD, it's probably going to be a large amount of a data. An adapter capable of busmastering and data streaming can ease the load on the system and let you use it for other tasks while you transfer data in preparation for a CD burning session.

The point of this discussion is to help you decide what kind of MCA adapters you might wish to populate a CD burning PS/2 with. While at first you may have to use what you have, there is no reason why you can't look out for better performing options and hardware in the future. It will pay to do so for the most part.

If Things Don't Work

Unfortunately, as the experiences I haven't gotten into would show, burning CDs on a PS/2 can be quite an adventure. (It can be an adventure on any other type of older computer too!) Sometimes things don't work, and the failures are not easily explained.

If you run into this, my suggestion is to change your plans. If you have another PS/2 around, and it has a reasonably powerful CPU, give it a try. It may work where the other system would not.

Force ASPI on Windows definitely can help. You can try to burn CDs without it, and it might work. If it does not, try this before giving up.

Very modern versions of CD burning software may really not work, or demand more CPU power than you can easily get if they do work. I'd heartily recommend use of Ahead Software's Nero Burning ROM...for me it has been a high quality CD burning software package. Versions 4.0 through 6.0 all work well on PS/2 hardware.

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Copyright 2005-2006, 2018 by William R. Walsh. Some Rights Reserved. Terms of use for this material are available from the top level page of this server. Last updated 04/29/2018 for a minor link correction. Previously updated: 07/30/2006.