I just picked up a DEC VaxStation 4000 model 90 with a built in CDROM and an auxiliary SCSI storage module with tape archive drive. I believe it is functional although I cannot test it yet since I still do not have a working terminal or monitor. I can get a VT-520 terminal and keyboard and will also try to resurrect a separate now defunct Radius monitor with the BNC connectors and I believe the ability to sync on green (somebody unfortunately tried to convert that monitor to a standard VGA connection and butchered it in the process). I am fairly comfortable with Linux and have played around a little with FreeBSD and Solaris in the past. I have never used VMS in the past. This is the first time I am working with a VAX computer.

I have a few questions:

Which Unix version to install on the VAX? Original UC Berkeley BSD Unix? OpenBSD? NetBSD? Ultrix if I can get a legal copy? AT&T Unix? For emotional reasons I may prefer to install some version of the original UC Berkeley BSD (1980s Bill Joy/Marshall Kirk McKusick Era), but will go with whichever is easier to install, the machine is newer (production started 1991) than the original BSD Unix versions. I would call it nostalgia except I never did use the original BSD Unix! Another consideration would be some version of AT&T Unix if it will run.

Is there a version of FreeBSD for the VAX?

If there is a functional VMS install on the machine's 4 hard drives (2 each in the machine and the auxilliary SCSI storage module), is there a way to dual boot between Unix and VMS?

I presume that I can get some version of Emacs running on this system, it does not have to be recent. While Vi may be more historically correct on this machine I much prefer Emacs.

Any suggestions or ideas?

My cell phone probably has significantly more computing power and far more memory and storage than this "minicomputer", I am approaching this as a hobbyist. I hope to use the system to explore BSD Unix (and possibly AT&T Unix) further and do some C programming on it. I anticipate to be working purely from the command line. I may explore VMS also at some point.

  • 9
    you might want to cc this question to comp.os.vms as there are VMS and Vax experts there and old timers who might know as well.
    – Nasser
    Commented Jan 16, 2013 at 16:51
  • 7
    Congratulations to the purchase of a VAX :)
    – Marco
    Commented Jan 16, 2013 at 16:54
  • 1
    Try to get hold of Ultrix for that machine (a BSDis Unix by DEC); failing that, 4.3 BSD worked fine. Perhaps one of the current BSDs still adhere to the "if it has a CPU, it has to run BSD" philosophy enough to get it working (NetBSD would be my first bet). Old CD drives are extremely picky with what they read, burn any CD at the lowest speed (and don't dare skimp!). We had a similar beast (sans CD), installing from tape sure was a bear. [I do envy you...:-]
    – vonbrand
    Commented Jan 21, 2013 at 19:52
  • btw, support area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/46660/retrocomputing if you feel like it. Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 19:52
  • wrt older CD drives -- they will often read CD-RWs but not CD-Rs. Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 19:53

4 Answers 4


You're question is pretty general, so I'll just take a little stab at the NetBSD part:

The webpage of NetBSD's vax port lists supported machines (such as yours), many can use NetBSD 6.0.1, some are only supported in -current.

It also points to VAXarchive, a website collection some information that might help you further. It also points to the vax port of OpenBSD (supported machines includes your Vaxstation 4000/90)

Finally, both of these ports have mailing lists: NetBSD's is pretty active, OpenBSD's not so much.

Edit: here are a few historic UNIX releases that might be of interest...

  • 1
    Release 5.9 was the last OpenBSD release to officially support the Vax hardware platform. It was then discontinued.
    – Kusalananda
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 7:16
  • NetBSD 9.0 (from February 2020) still supports VAX in tier II.
    – Oskar Skog
    Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 15:04

My answer is to the "any suggestions" part of your question.

While you hunt down a terminal, note that if you have another computer with a serial port, you can use a null modem cable and a terminal emulator program to connect to the console. On windows you can use putty, tip on solaris, or minicom on linux.

(if you have USB but no serial port, you can use a USB-serial adapter)


Which Unix version to install on the VAX? Original UC Berkeley BSD Unix? OpenBSD? NetBSD? Ultrix if I can get a legal copy? AT&T Unix?

I'd go with NetBSD, but there is also a Linux port that may support 4000m90. There is no FreeBSD port.

Original (4.x) BSD does not have CPU support code for this model, and neither do Ultrix and AT&T Unix.

Is there a way to dual boot between Unix and VMS?

Yes -- keep them on separate physical disks.


There was a version of FreeBSD for the VAX. Now, I think it has descontinued. But you can get a better than the old 4.3 BSD from the archive.

Also, from NetBSD you can get a version for the vax, and probably from OpenBSD. Just browse on their archives.

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