Vintage Mac Living

Setting Up a NetBoot Server for Your Macs

- 2007.01.18

I recently acquired quite a few Macs that run best in Mac OS 9, and I've been spending a lot of time setting them up. Sure, it's fun to spend time setting up an OS and all of your applications some of the time, but when you're doing it on a number of machines at once, it can become tiresome.

I decided to find a better, faster way of installing all of my software onto a number of machines at once.

A few years ago - when I got a dozen or so 5200s - I made a list of all of the programs I used and burned a few CDs with several software packages on them to minimize disc swapping. It helped, but I still had to install everything on each machine.


Most of the machines I've received over the last few months have been iMacs and B&W G3s. When I thought about it, the answer became clear: Use the Power Mac 9600 I have that's running Mac OS X Server as a NetBoot Server. (You can install OS X on a PCI Power Mac upgraded using XPostFacto.)

So I hooked up a monitor to my 9600 (it's a headless server, and I haven't had a monitor hooked up to it since September, right before I started my 30 Days of Old School Computing series), and I installed the NetBoot software, which creates a bootable disk image for remote Macs. That took about 15 minutes, and then I had to run the Setup Assistant.

Setting up a NetBoot server is really easy: All it really wants to know is what Dynamic IP range you want for the client machines. After I set up the NetBoot system, all I had to do was connect one of my iMacs to my ethernet network, restart it, and hold down the "N" key while it booted.


Then I hit a snag. I was holding down the "N" key, but the system was hanging. I checked the ethernet connection on both the iMac and the hub. Both were connected, so it must have been a problem with the server.

I went into Server Admin and looked at the DHCP/NetBoot Panel. There was the problem - the IP range I gave for net booting overlapped the main DHCP server's range. I don't know why it didn't warn me about that when I set it up, but I fixed it.

Maybe the iMac would boot off of the network now. I restarted the iMac, and this time it found the network disk. I got a Happy Mac icon, but that was as far as I got before the iMac crashed.

Restart again. This time it got halfway through loading the system extensions - and then it crashed again. I was getting a little bit upset, so I told myself this would be the last time restarting this machine.

I restarted it again, and it finally booted!

Now I was in the Mac OS 9 Finder. All I had to do now was put the NetBoot CD in the server and run the NetBoot Desktop Admin application. I had to decide how much I wanted to expand the "NetBoot HD", and I decided to expand it by 200 MB. (All NetBoot Macs share the same disk image, so it doesn't matter whether you're running an iMac G3/233, blue & white Power Mac G3, G4 iMac, eMac, a Power Mac G4, any G5 Mac, or Intel-based Mac. All models that support NetBoot can run from the same disk image. ed.)

So I clicked "copy", and it started copying the NetBoot HD image. This took about 15 minutes.

As soon as it finished copying the image, the iMac restarted and booted from the copied disk image on the server.

Installing Software

As soon as the iMac finished restarting, I started to install programs onto the image - at least I thought I was going to install some programs.

As I was installing AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), the iMac crashed. No big deal - just try again. I managed to get AIM installed, but when I try to install Internet Explorer (IE) 5.1, it crashed again. I was starting to wonder what was wrong.

At that point, I'd been working on it for about two-and-a-half hours, so I decided to take a break. When I got back to work, I got IE installed, and then I went to install AppleWorks.

Guess what happened. You got it right - it crashed again.

So I restarted again, got AppleWorks installed, and decided to save the changes to that image and try using another machine.

I put the NetBoot CD back in the iMac, ran the NetBoot Desktop Admin, and told it to save the changes.

When I did that, the program unexpectedly quit.

I'd had enough with this iMac, so I unhooked it and hooked up another iMac, a slot load model without a hard drive. I turned it on; it froze on startup. I waited for awhile, and the mouse cursor turned into a bomb icon. Funny, I've seen that icon in bomb dialog boxes, but I've never seen the mouse turn into a bomb.

At this point I decided to use my sister's blue & white G3. I started up the B&W, deleted the copied images that it couldn't use, ran NetBoot Setup Admin, made a new copied image, and started installing everything all over again.

This time I managed to get some of my stuff installed, but I stopped, not because the machines stopped working, because it was 4:00 a.m. and I was too tired to keep going.


I woke up and decided to start up one of the iMacs just to see if it would work - and it did.

All I needed to do was finish installing the rest of my stuff on the NetBoot disk image once, and I might never have to go through the process of installing everything on an iMac or Power Mac G3 or G4 unless I want to.

Once I got past the road bumps, the NetBoot Server and client machines seem to be running very smoothly, even over my "slow" 10Base-T ethernet network.

Without hard drives, the slot-loading iMacs are silent - totally silent - which is a real plus.

Let's hope that this setup will last. That way if I get another iMac or Power Mac G3 or G4, all I'll have to do is plug it into my network, hold down "N" while starting it, and it will automatically have everything it needs. LEM

Appendix: NetBoot Mini FAQ

  1. NetBoot is designed to run on a Mac with OS X Server, but see Make any Mac a NetBoot Server if you want to try it on an OS X Mac that isn't running OS X Server.
  2. The NetBoot disk image can have Mac OS 8, 9, or X installed.
  3. The oldest Macs that support NetBoot 1 are the original iMac and the blue & white Power Mac G3. Macs based on G4, G5, and Intel CPUs support NetBoot 2.
  4. You can run NetBoot Macs with no hard drives installed.
  5. NetBoot only works over a Mac's built-in ethernet. You cannot NetBoot using a third-party ethernet card or any wireless protocol (including all versions of AirPort).
  6. You can run more than one Mac simultaneously from the same NetBoot image. However, if you have more than a few Macs, you may want to stagger startup to keep from overwhelming your server.

Additional Reading

These articles cover setting up or upgrading several older, pre-NetBoot Macs.

  • Setting Up a 6100, Dan Knight, Mac Musings, 1999.10.18. Setting up three used Power Macs for home use.
  • Installing Mac OS 8.1, Dan Knight, Online Tech Journal, 2000.01.14. Tips on installing the same version of the classic Mac OS on a number of networked Macs.

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