Wyse Vx0: Fattening Up a Thin Client

You ever notice thin clients? They are all over the place, but the lines have blurred substantially from what a thin client used to be.

You see, back in the day, a thin client was not a capable computer in its own right. They were an evolution of the super old school dumb terminals: able to drive a monitor and let you connect a keyboard (and later, a mouse), but the work you were doing was actually taking place elsewhere on a server.

Today we take terminal emulation and remote desktop protocol for granted as just another way to access a computer remotely, but back then, what we call emulation today was in fact a piece of real hardware.

This is a Digital VT100, arguably the OG of “dumb” terminals. This was not a computer. It wasn’t even a thin client; it was literally just a command line running over the network to your desk. All of that chassis beef was dedicated to housing the CRT, keyboard, and network circuits. No (accessible) memory of its own, no CPU, no graphics card, no HARD DRIVE.

Fast forward a little while, and terminals start to be replaced by standalone workstations at the office desks, produced by Commodore, Tandy, and eventually Apple and IBM (or at least the companies that moved in to make a killing selling PC clones). These systems were just like home computers, but perhaps tweaked a bit in the hardware for durability or cost, and in software for keeping Jones over there from spending his whole day playing Solitaire, the slacker!

But having a bunch of full-fledged standalone computers got expensive fast, especially for the big offices. What they started looking for was a way to go back to the centralized processing model of the dumb terminal days (which centralized costs to one or two big components in the server room, rather than dozens or hundreds of expensive desktops), while still providing a familiar working environment for the employees.

Once Microsoft introduced Windows 3.11 (Windows for Workgroups), and eventually Windows NT, the business world was off to the races. Suddenly you had the ability to run virtual desktops, rather than individual, independent desktop computers. This not only saved on hardware costs, but also greatly simplified file management for the companies. Everything lived on the server(s), nothing lived separately on the desktops.

This is where the thin clients came into play. They were computers, but they were not reliant on having the fastest processor or the most RAM. They had just what they needed to boot a lightweight embedded OS, then launch a remote desktop session to the company server, and that was it.

However, they weren’t immune to that spec creep of the desktops; only just resistant. Eventually improvements would come along in the form of higher display resolutions, alternate input methods (USB) and even sound. Also, as technology progressed, that sweet spot between price and performance climbed as well, so it only made sense for thin client manufacturers to bump the bits upward as they marched through time.

Now computer technology is ubiquitous and cheap, and has reached the point in its evolution where you can emulate those things you need to maintain for whatever reason, while still having access the Big New Shiny of Today. There are still some Big Iron servers running out there, but the smart folks have at least taken what used to run on cantankerous, expensive hardware and crammed it into a fast and simple virtual machine container. Like stuffing a foam dinosaur cutout back into a water-soluble capsule again. But, those are the smart folks, which let’s face it, aren’t all that numerous. Somebody could make a killing keeping the monolithic greedy money monsters stumbling forward.

Somebody did.

Wyse (now owned by Dell) has had skin in the game since 1981. They used to be pretty much synonymous with dumb terminals, like Photoshop is to image editing today. They did pretty well, moving with the times and evolving their products to ensure there was always something of use to both the forward-thinking companies, and those stubbornly sticking in the past.

Today the brand is used by Dell for that strong association as a thin client manufacturer. Dell is selling micro desktops and all-in-ones as thin clients, but ones which are actually pretty capable (if stripped-down) desktop systems. They are used effectively as thin clients, but they’re not simple remote desktop terminals any longer; it’s all interactive and powerful cloud stuff now.

Meanwhile, anybody pausing to look backward for a moment might come to realize something, in this time when Youtube and Instagram influencers are driving the secondhand legacy PC market into ridiculous levels of frenzied price-gouging: some of those thin clients have some pretty decent specs, from a raw hardware perspective.

A closer look might reveal that the only thing that kept these things from being used as standalone desktops back in the day was their limited and locked down embedded OS, coupled with limited access to specialized hardware and software (at the time).

Now? That’s all out the window. We can buy and/or download anything we need to hound these little buggers into installing and booting the software we want, locally. They don’t have to connect to a remote desktop any longer, if we set things up properly. It takes a little bit more than the mostly straightforward DOS and Windows installations of yesterday, but it’s still worth giving it a try.

That’s what I’m setting out to do.

This is a Wyse Vx0-V10L

CPU

VIA C7 Eden 800MHz

RAM

512MB

DISK

128MB

VIDEO

64MB onboard

The idea is that the hardware is technically similar to a DOS/Win95 system, and with hardware and software handy thanks to the internet’s blessings, this is a worthy project!

So the first thing to think about is what exactly is my goal here, anyway.

The answer is a rather vague, non-committal shrug. I just want to bring back some of the cool DOS stuff I was doing back in the day, primarily playing with music trackers, but any old thing could bubble to the surface with something like this. Heck, maybe I’ll try setting the system up as a file host for my Commodore 64, or create my own CNC router controller, since the hardware and software to do so requires a DOS era system!

So if nothing else, I know I want to start with DOS; a pure DOS, not a mode of Windows itself. This means Windows 98 SE at the latest. We still have the ability to start in a relatively pure DOS environment if needed, with access to better USB and memory management at the same time. Let’s just say it’s all the good parts of what I’m after, without the total hassles of trying to stick with DOS 6.22 alone.

A 100MB drive and discs

Here’s the rub: this older thin client might have USB ports, but making a drive that actually boots on it takes some specific finagling. Just because it has USB ports does not mean it’s necessarily ready (or even capable!) of booting from USB devices. We’ve gotten used to having the BIOS of the computer offer that capability natively, but back in the day, these ubiquitous little storage devices were nowhere near as common. For USB-based storage, external disk drives were the norm. ZIP drives, in fact. These were a kind of “mega-floppy” introduced by Iomega that had enough adoption to become a storage standard of its own, to the point that our BIOS has an option specifically to boot from a ZIP-USB. Before you run out and look to buy a ZIP drive, be warned: they’re expensive these days. Collectors, etc.

However, since we are talking about USB in 2024, we can take advantage of the proffered option, and fake ourselves a ZIP disk on USB. However, awesome as this is, there are limitations that will take effort to get around.

I am still exploring options and alternate processes to make the initial installation process easier, but given the initial starting point I had to work with, I think the process I worked out from here will get most folks started pretty quickly.

We’re going to assume the initial goal is to get DOS installed, the system booting from the internal drive, and then reading USB storage so we can proceed with installing Windows itself. Here’s the thing to remember: USB in DOS is not capable of refreshing the device on-the-fly. What does this mean for us?

  • At least initially, whatever you are able to stuff on the boot disk is everything you’ve got to work with. If what we need isn’t on that boot disk, we won’t be able to just swap out the thumb drive and access other resources. Yet.
  • We are limited in the initial amount of storage available. We’re going to be making a fake ZIP/floppy drive, so our initial storage will be a little cramped.

Right, so we’re going to look at the creation of a boot disk image from the starting point. We will be working with software that is technically still under copyright protection, but has been offered up freely by many publicly-accessible websites for years without backlash now, so with the exception of the utility programs we put to use, I’m going to gather many of them up here on this site, rather than make you run around the web, dear reader. There will be links to the sources as well, for as long as they are accessible.


Software

// Shortcut: Get disk images and drivers pre-packaged

// Long Way: Make your own disk image


Hardware


If your unit still has its stock WYSE internal drive, it’s likely too small to be of much use. If you’re already aware of that and have an upgrade ready to go, open the system up and swap the disk-on-module. Two screws in the back, lever open the case, and find the stock DoM up near the front of the board, near the front panel USB port. Pull the stock unit straight out, plug the new one in. Mind the alignment key in the port!

With that done, you’ve got space ready to go, just not prepped for our needs yet. It doesn’t matter what might still be installed on the drive or even how it’s formatted. We’re going to level that whole playing field.

So now, we have to think for a moment about the state this system is in, and what we’ll have to do to get it into a more familiar state of behavior.

You see, right now, if you haven’t swapped the DoM, the thin client is set up to boot exclusively to its own specific little lightweight OS, just enough for the purposes of connecting to a remote desktop server and getting that session going. Normally, all of the user’s work is being done on that remote server; nothing except for a handful of configuration settings is changeable locally. If you have indeed swapped the DoM, at this point the unit is a doorstop. Well, for the moment it is, at least. This is pretty much a new-build DOS box right now, and the hard drive is completely invisible and unusable (for our purposes) in its current state.

So with this system, we’re faced with a challenge, in that we’re working with hardware that doesn’t know how to boot from a flash drive natively like today’s systems can, and it doesn’t have the standard boot media of the day available (a standard 3.5″ floppy drive). However, the BIOS in this case is natively ready to boot from ZIP devices, which we can actually fake with a modern flash drive.


Select your lockpick

You’ll want a meh thumb drive but something of a major brand will help ensure success here. I’ve used PNY, Sandisk and Lexar to good effect. Anything from 4GB and up should be fine, just know that we won’t be using more than a couple of GB at a time anyway.


Clear the field

On your PC, plug in the drive, and launch Disk Management console (just open the Start Menu and type “disk manage”, then launch “Create and format hard disk partitions)

Scroll to the thumb drive select any partitions and delete them. (You were warned, bye-bye data!)

This is necessary to do here, because RMPrepUSB won’t wipe existing partitions, and will throw an obscure error if it finds one already in place.


Create the special boot space on the drive

  • Install and launch RMPrepUSB. Make sure your thumb drive is selected, and match these settings.
    • Partition size: 2000MB (way bigger than we need at first, but it’s the max FAT can do)
    • Bootloader Options: MS-DOS bootable
    • Filesystem and Overrides: FAT16, Boot as ZIP (A: with MBR)
  • Click “6 Prepare Drive” and follow through confirmations

Enlarge an existing disk image for more breathing room

  • Install and launch WinImage
  • Go to File > Open
  • Select the Windows 98 boot disk img file
  • Click on Image menu, select Change Format
  • Select 2.88 MB and click OK
  • Click File > Save As
  • Select file type IMA and give it a unique name

Yes, you read that right. 2.88MB capacity disks were a thing, they just weren’t all that common. Since we’re going to be pretending to have a ZIP disk, we could technically go bigger, but it’s easier to run with the available presets than start editing file allocation tables by hand.

This way, we can take advantage of booting from a cheaply-available USB thumb drive, without having to figure out what to throw out from the original image, and still have plenty of space to add our own necessary modern tools on there!


I have been assuming all we have to work with is some USB drives and the Wyse unit (because I do), but at this point, you might have alternate options, depending on the hardware you have available.


Add our own content to the floppy image

Here’s where we throw extra tools in our backpack to make setting up our permanent space on the internal hard drive a little easier.

  • Launch DosDiskBrowser
  • Click Load Image and choose the .ima file you created previously
  • Some other walkthroughs will have you removing files to save space at this point, but it’s not necessary here, because we have the space of two standard floppies to play with now!
  • Extract the XCopy archive and drag the individual files over
  • Drag in a folder with the following files from the USB drivers zip
    • USBDRIVE.COM
    • USBHOSTS.COM
    • USBUHCI.COM
    • USBUHCI.OVL
    • USBUHCIL.COM
    • USBUHCIL.OVL
  • Click Save/Export
  • Select IMG file type and give the file a name

Burn that image down!

Let’s make our big ole fake DOS boot (thumb)disk!

  • Launch UNetbootin
  • Select Floppy from the diskimage dropdown
  • Click the Browse “…” button to the right of the filename field, and navigate to and select the floppy image you just saved from DosDiskBrowser (or downloaded during the shortcut process).
  • Make sure your USB drive is selected, then click OK.
  • Your image is written to the drive and all is ready!

Now it’s time to work with the hardware. I’m assuming you’ve at least tested your machine and ensured things are working properly. If you have a PS/2 keyboard, GREAT! If not, be aware there may be a glitch that makes USB keyboard inputs just stop working for some weird reason. This is a known bug in the firmware. We’ll get to that in a moment.

First, we need to prep the thin client to boot from our media. Most units will have been configured to boot from the network first, and perhaps secondary media not at all. So make sure you’ve got a keyboard connected, plug in your thumb drive, and boot ‘er up.

Start hitting the DEL key when you see the Wyse logo screen, or any other content appear, and you will be taken to the BIOS config screen, potentially with a password entry dialog. The default value is Fireport.


Go to Advanced BIOS Features


Set the boot order as shown (enter selects, arrow keys move)

Also set Display full screen logo to [DISABLED]


Back out (esc) and go to Integrated Peripherals

Set OnChip EHCI Controller to [DISABLED]


There may be other settings in the BIOS relevant to your interests, but they are beyond the scope of this post. I’m just here to get you into a locally-installed alternate OS.

Hit F10 to Save and Exit, Y to confirm, Enter for the “Yes, REALLY” finishing move.


Now you should see details about your hardware, followed by a Unetbootin launcher screen, and completing with “A:\>” and a cursor (possibly after a short wait and a screendump of scary words)!

So if you got that big screen of text, it’s basically telling you that the hard drive it found installed during startup does not have any recognizable partitions on it. Believe it or not, this is actually expected for all stock “L” model systems. Wyse used a custom Linux installation on these machines, which naturally don’t use any of the FAT variants DOS understands. We will need to get rid of these partitions to pave the way for DOS to install.

Anyway, CONGRATULATIONS! You have successfully booted into a DOS environment from a fake floppy, on a system that was not designed for these shenanigans whatsoever! You have picked the lock, and are now standing just inside the front door.

Time to change the locks and redecorate this place to our own preferences!


Type ‘fdisk’ to launch the disk partition management program.


Select 3 to delete a partition.


Select 4 to delete a non-DOS partition.


Select the number partition to delete, repeat until all removed.

If you still have the stock DoM installed, you should see 3 options to begin with, similar to the example here. The Non-DOS partitions represent the Wyse ThinOS installation, and all need to go. Select a partition to delete, then keep repeating the cycle until they’re all gone.

If you replaced the drive with a bigger one, you may see one or more NTFS partitions instead. Yank ’em.


Go back a step, then Create DOS partition

Pretty self-explanatory here. I just chose the whole thing, made it active and boom all done.


Format disk for system, copy stuff.

  • A\:> format c: /s
    • This formats the drive and copies the booting system files over
  • A\:> xcopy /s *.* C:/
    • Everything on the A: drive copies to C:, so now, everything you have in front of you when booting from the “floppy” is what you’ll have when booting from the internal hard drive instead.

Remove thumb drive and reboot!



We’re gonna need a bigger drive

Now you can format another USB drive as FAT32 (no bigger than 20GB!) and copy the WIN98 folder from a Win98 SE install disc or ISO to the thumb drive.

After the reboot, you should be looking at a C:/> prompt on the WYSE monitor. Plug your transfer drive into one of the back USB ports (the front port will not work!)

  • C:/>usbuhcil
    • Answer Y, you’re sure
  • C:/>usbdrive
  • C:/>D:

You might have to Retry a few times while the thumb drive gets itself situated, but after a moment you should see the D:/> prompt, indicating you’re looking at a secondary storage location!


Copy Windows installer files over to C:

It’s time to move the Windows 98 SE installation files over to the internal drive. This will enable the installation process to move much more quickly (because remember, our USB connectivity is really basic and slow right now).

  • D:/>xcopy /s win98 c:\
    • This should copy the win98 folder, and all of the other folders and files inside, to the root of the C: drive

Now, wait…


Reboot and install

All done copying? Awesome, pull out the thumb drive and reboot the system.

When you’re back at the prompt,

C:\>CD win98
C:\>setup

Walk through the Windows setup process until you’re at the desktop


Finalize, install drivers

Once everything is stable, go to the C:\Drivers folder, and install the chipset drivers first.

Reboot, go back and install display drivers next

Reboot, go back and install Audio, LAN and USB 2.0 drivers next

Then install the USB Mass Storage driver, and reboot one last time


Put the pedal down

Now, you can go back into the BIOS > Integrated Peripherals and set OnChip EHCI Controller to [ENABLED] again.

Shiz just got real, son. 🙂


You’re good to go, enjoy your Windows 98 wayback machine!

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