Tech by VICE

Getting Drivers for Old Hardware Is Harder Than Ever

At least one major provider of hardware-level BIOS drivers is actively deleting old stuff it no longer supports, while old FTP sites where vintage drivers are often found are soon going to be harder to reach.

by Ernie Smith
Dec 12 2019, 1:00pm

Image: Getty Images

You’ve never lived until you’ve had to download a driver from an archived forum post on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

You have no idea if it’s going to work, but it’s your only option. So you bite the bullet. I recently did this with a PCI-based SATA card I was attempting to flash to support a PowerPC-based Mac, and while it was a bit of a leap of faith, it actually ended up working. Score one for chance.

But this, increasingly, feels like it may be a way of life for people trying to keep old hardware alive—despite the fact that all the drivers generally have to do is simply sit on the internet, available when they’re necessary.

Apparently, that isn’t easy enough for Intel. Recently, the chipmaker took BIOS drivers, a boot-level firmware technology used for hardware initialization in earlier generations of PCs, for a number of its unsupported motherboards off its website, citing the fact that the programs have reached an “End of Life” status. While it reflects the fact that Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI), a later generation of firmware technology used in PCs and Macs, is expected to ultimately replace BIOS entirely, it also leaves lots of users with old gadgets out in a lurch. And as Bleeping Computer has noted, it appears to be part of a broader trend to prevent downloads for unsupported hardware on the Intel website—things that have long lived past their current lives. After all, if something goes wrong, Intel can be sure it’s not liable if a 15-year-old BIOS update borks a system.

In a comment to Motherboard, Intel characterized the approach to and timing of the removals as reflecting industry norms.

"To provide customers with transparency on product support, Intel communicates guidance on specific products and software that are reaching end of support and end of life,” the company said in a statement. “These notifications are aligned with industry standards. Intel assesses the support needs and capabilities of our products on an ongoing basis. This assessment takes into account multiple considerations, including technical and practical limitations, and customer feedback."

However, this is a problem for folks who take collecting or use of old technology seriously, such as those on the forum Vogons, which noticed the issue first, though it’s far from anything new. Technology companies come and go all the time, and as things like mergers and redesigns happen, often the software repository gets affected when the technology goes out of date.

A Problem For Consumers & Collectors

Jason Scott, the Internet Archive’s lead software curator, says that Intel's decision to no longer provide old drivers on its website reflects a tendency by hardware and software developers to ignore their legacies when possible—particularly in the case of consumer software, rather than in the enterprise, where companies’ willingness to pay for updates ensures that needed updates won’t simply sit on the shelf.

“That goes, you know, back to phone companies having to do this to keep equipment running,” Scott explained in a phone interview.

Driver repositories largely intended for consumers, like Intel’s, reflect an evolution in the way that companies would distribute updates to software packages, something originally done through the mail. By the late 80s, digital distribution options appeared—for example, bulletin boards such as Software Creations, which helped distribute updated versions of Doom.

By the mid-90s, companies started to create FTP repositories to distribute software, which had the effect of changing the nature of updates: When the internet made distribution easier and both innovation and security risks grew more advanced, technology companies updated their apps far more often.

FTP’s Pending Fadeout

Many of those FTP servers are still around today, but the news cycle offers a separate, equally disappointing piece of information for those looking for vintage drivers: Major web browsers are planning to sunset support for the FTP protocol. Chrome plans to remove support for FTP sites by version 82, which is currently in the development cycle and will hit sometime next year. And Firefox makers Mozilla have made rumblings about doing the same thing.

The reasons for doing so, often cited for similar removals of legacy features, come down to security. FTP is a legacy service that can’t be secured in much the same way that its successor, SFTP, can.

While FTP applications like CyberDuck will likely exist for decades from now, the disconnect from the web browser will make these servers a lot harder to use. The reason goes back to the fact that the FTP protocol isn’t inherently searchable—but the best way to find information about it is with a web-based search engine … such as Google.

FTP-based searching is a useful tactic outside of technology; some journalists use Google searches of FTP sites to uncover confidential files hiding on old servers. But vintage tech heads often can find important documents like technical specifications hiding on FTP servers that might not be so easy to find on websites.

And drivers are no exception. Earlier this year, I was attempting to get a vintage webcam working, and while I was ultimately unable to get it to work, it wasn’t due to lack of software access. See, Logitech actually kept copies of Connectix’s old webcam software on its FTP site. This is software that hasn’t seen updates in more than 20 years; that only supports Windows 3.1, Windows NT, and Windows 95; and that wasn’t on Logitech’s website.

One has to wonder how soon those links will disappear from Google searches once the two most popular desktop browsers remove easy access to those files. And there’s no guarantee that a company is going to keep a server online beyond that point.

“It was just it was this weird experience that FTP sites, especially, could have an inertia of 15 to 20 years now, where they could be running all this time, untouched,” Scott added. “And just every time that, you know, if the machine dies, it goes away.”

Can Archives Save the Day?

Realizing that this would be an issue, Scott had the Archive Team save whatever they could from public FTP sites a few years back into a section of the Internet Archive called the FTP Site Boneyard—one FTP site getting the treatment was Intel’s, which has an archive dating to 2014. That’s great news for folks who have devices from before then, though it’s not exactly solace for what comes after.

And the motivation for companies to make an effort to simply keep consumer drivers available may simply not be in a forward-thinking company’s DNA.

“It'd be like trying to ask a company like how their tech product tastes,” Scott says. “They would be like, ‘What? I don’t know.’”

The good news is that we do have archival outlets to find drivers, whether through the Internet Archive’s software collection or through its Wayback Machine.

But even with that resource, it’s going to be a crapshoot—involving deep-sea forum diving; the luck of the draw that an old FTP site has been archived; and possibly even hitting a sketchy Russian download site, which is sketchy, but at least has the file you need. The steps needed to get your 15-year-old device to work are going to start feeling more and more like an adventure, as other companies follow Intel’s lead.

Nonetheless, this all feels like an unnecessary step. Those old files weren’t doing anyone any harm.

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drivers