Manually making a bootable NitrOS9 hard drive image – part 1

Updates:

  • 2016/05/03 – Added link to David Ladd’s article on putting the OS-9 boot track in ROM on the CoCoSDC.

This article discusses how to manually make a hard drive bootable under the NitrOS9 operating system running on a Radio Shack Color Computer.

Creating an OS-9 Boot Disk

Creating a bootable OS-9 Level 2 disk in the past was always pretty simple. If you booted from a disk in drive /d0 and wanted to make a freshly formatted disk in drive /d1 bootable, all you had to do was run “cobbler /d1” (which wrote out the boot track and OS9Boot file based on what you currently were using) and then “dsave /d1 ! shell” (which copied all the files from your /d0 boot disk over to the newly bootable disk in drive /d1). Done! Beyond the infamous “BLOB” (bootlist order bug) that plagued users for years until someone figured out what caused it, you were pretty much guaranteed to have a new bootable OS-9 disk without any hassle.

Another method was to use the os9gen utility, which would read a text file list of individual modules and merge them together in to the OS9Boot file and write out the boot track. This was the method used when you wanted to customize what was in the boot disk, and the only option if you didn’t have any of the great 3rd party utilities that were written to make the job so much quicker and easier.

I almost never made a boot disk those ways. Once I had one that worked, I tended to just use utilities like Burke & Burke’s ezgen to edit the bootfile and insert, rename, remove or replace modules. Once I understood that OS9Boot was just a (contiguous) file on the disk and the only thing that made it special was two entries in logical sector 0 (LSN0) telling the booter where to find it, it became a simple thing to manipulate them without using any special tools. Between ezgen and the ded disk editor, and maybe a few other ones, I pretty much forgot how to use cobbler or os9gen.

NitrOS9 works the same way, however, today most folks are just using floppy disks for booting. The free Drivewire project lets OS-9 pretend it has a hard drive by communicating over the CoCo’s serial port to a Mac (or PC or Linux) machine running the Drivewire server. Still, you had to have something to load OS-9 from Disk Extended Color BASIC. Traditionally, that was the “DOS” command.

“DOS” Command Booting

The “DOS” command would go out to Track 34 of the floppy disk and, if the first two characters there were “OS”, it would load the entire track in to memory starting at address $2600. It would then execute the code starting at $2602 (just after the “OS” characters). That code could be anything, including a small standalone program that loaded up something else from the disk. Almost all of my RS-DOS disks had some form of “DOS” booter on it that would do things like set the drive seek speed to 6ms or turn on double speed mode. Sub-Etha Software sold Super Boot by Carl England which did things like this and allowed you to specify any command for “DOS” to execute.

For OS-9, the code on track 34 contained a booter, which knew how to find the “OS9Boot” file, and the OS-9 kernel module. DOS would load that in to memory and the boot process would begin, hopefully ending with an OS9: prompt.

Since booting begins with the “DOS” command, we can only boot from whatever device it supports. If the CoCo only had Disk Extended Color BASIC, that device has to be a floppy disk. The boot track on that floppy disk could then contain a hard drive boot module that goes on and finds OS9Boot on a hard drive (MFM/RLL, SCSI, IDE, Drivewire, CoCoSDC, whatever the booter knows how to work with).  Thus, we had a two stage boot: Boot is loaded from floppy, then boot loads OS-9 from the hard drive.

The only way to boot fully from the hard drive was to use a Disk BASIC replacement like RGB-DOS (today known as HDB-DOS and freely available). RGB-DOS altered Disk BASIC so commands that normally read from a WD1773 floppy drive controller would read from a SCSI hard drive. (HDB-DOS was later updated with versions for IDE hard drive controllers, Drivewire, etc.). Using RGB-DOS, it was possible to put that initial OS-9 boot floppy on a virtual hard drive floppy and boot entirely from the hard drive. The “DOS” command was still acting like it was reading sectors from a floppy disk, they were coming from a hard drive.

When using RGB-DOS, typing “DOS” would go to a virtual floppy disk, load in the boot track, and then proceed. Once the booter track was loaded from the virtual floppy drive, it took over and then … would look for OS9Boot on the physical floppy drive. Why? Because the boot code on track 34 was still floppy drive code. As mentioned earlier, replacement boot modules were needed to finish loading OS9Boot off of whatever hardware was being used.

The boot process, therefore, includes:

  1. Typing “DOS” to load the boot track. If using Disk BASIC, this was a physical floppy disk. If using RGB-DOS/HDB-DOS, this was a virtual track from a hard drive parition.
  2. Low level “booter” takes over and loads “OS9Boot” and starts OS-9. If using stock OS-9, the booter looked for OS9Boot on a physical floppy disk. If using an alternate booter, it could look for it using SCSI, IDE, Drivewire, or whatever.
  3. OS9Boot takes over, and OS-9 is running using whatever OS-9 hardware drivers it has to access floppy drives, hard drives, serial ports, etc.

That may seem like a lot of pieces, but it’s really only three steps.

CoCoSDC Changes Everything

Historically, the only way to boot CoCo OS-9 was through the “DOS” command, whether that be the standard version that loaded from a physical floppy drive, or a modified version that loaded from a hard drive. There was nothing that required this to be so — it was just how it was done.

When Jeff Vavasour wrote the first CoCo 3 emulator, he created a replacement for the BASIC ROM that did nothing but simulate the DOS command by loading a virtual track from a virtual hard drive image. This let OS-9 users who had no use for BASIC boot directly in to OS-9 without even needing the CoCo ROM files. This could have easily been done on a real CoCo, perhaps by replacing the ROM on a KenTon SCSI hard drive interface with code that did nothing but boot OS-9. It seems likely this was done, but I never heard about it.

Recently, David Ladd began working to do this using the CoCoSDC. The CoCoSDC is an incredible floppy drive replacement that. Unlike RGB-DOS, it let you copy a standard floppy boot disk to a virtual .dsk image file and “DOS” boot from it. Both Disk BASIC’s floppy code and OS-9’s floppy booter code still think they are talking to a real floppy so “it just works.” But, another feature of CoCoSDC is virtual ROMs. There is 128K of flash onboard that can be configured to look like up to eight different 16K ROMs to the CoCo. It ships with SDC-DOS in bank 0, and pure Disk Extended Color BASIC 1.1 in bank 1

David wondered if he could just take the track 34 boot code and put it in ROM somehow, and thus never need a boot track again. By theory, this should be very simple, but If you simply clone all of track 34 and write that out to a flash bank (starting at $C000),  that won’t do anything but crash the system when the CoCo starts up and tries to execute $C000. Instead, $C000 needs to contain a small bit of code that will copy the boot track code (from just after it in the ROM) down to $2600, and then JMP $2602 to start it — just like DOS does. Easy!

With six available ROM banks in the CoCoSDC, one bank could have the KenTon SCSI boot track, another the Cloud-9 SuperIDE boot track, and another the Driverwire boot track. What a great idea!

But … there is a problem.

In the next installment, I will discuss that problem and how to solve it.

2 thoughts on “Manually making a bootable NitrOS9 hard drive image – part 1

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