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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Thu, 07 Apr 2011

No, a 16-year-old Sun Sparcstation doesn’t work like a new x86 box

My recent foray into running the 1995-era Sun Sparcstation 20, lately with OpenBSD, isn’t because I think a 16-year-old box will be in any way comparable to a modern (or even 10-year-old) Intel-based box. Because it won’t.

Honestly, I didn’t know what to think when I got the SS20 for a few years ago. But I wasn’t out a lot of money. I made sure to wait for a Sparcstation that was close to home to minimize shipping costs.

In case you’re wondering (and I know you are), it’s almost impossible to do “modern” computing on the Sparc. If it were a 64-bit SPARC box and not a 32-bit architecture, there would be a whole lot more options.

As it is, with 32-bit Sparc and Solaris 9 you can run the old Netscape browser that shipped in 2003. You can find packages for Firefox 2.0.0.x. That’s about it.

No current Linux that I know of runs on 32-bit SPARC. Again, 64-bit is a different story. Even FreeBSD runs on 64-bit only.

Unless you want to stick with Solaris, and let’s be honest — since you have to pay for Solaris updates, you’re stuck with a very unpatched box, you don’t want to do that. Unless you really, really, really want to learn Solaris (and use Solaris 9 to do it). I think Solaris 10 works on the SS20, but the Solaris 9 box of software cost me a big $1.

NetBSD and OpenBSD still support 32-bit SPARC. I’d love to use NetBSD, but 5.x crashes early and often on this particular SS20. (NetBSD 4.x ran better.)

OpenBSD does not crash on my SS20. From what I can see, OpenBSD on 32-bit SPARC runs very well.

I have a 50 MHz CPU and 256 MB of RAM. OpenBSD doesn’t support multiple processors on 32-bit SPARC. Solaris 9 supposedly does, but I really noticed no difference when I loaded up the box with two 50 MHz CPUs as opposed to one. (OK, you can all stop laughing now …)

But OpenBSD is very stable on this old, old Sparcstation. X works out of the box. You just can’t do much with it in the realm of desktop apps. The times when I was able to run NetBSD (the 4.x era), there are a lot of packages for 32-bit Sparc, but a great many of them won’t run. They’re auto-built, I think, and there’s a lot of dead weight in that repository.

There aren’t nearly as many 32-bit Sparc packages for OpenBSD as there are for NetBSD. The difference is that the OpenBSD packages, relatively few though they are, do actually run.

You can build other things from ports, but my experience is that if it’s not in an OpenBSD 32-bit Sparc package, chances are that it either won’t build or won’t run.

“Intense” GUI applications don’t run so great on this old box. The Sylpheed mail client works, as does the Geany text editor. But they’re slow. I stick to things like Nedit, which are much faster on this old desktop.

The Dillo web browser used to be in the 32-bit Sparc OpenBSD repo. It’s not there any more. (Maybe Dillo will build from Ports … you never know.)

So right now, the text-based Lynx is my web browser in OpenBSD 32-bit Sparc.

I’m really just using this box for fun. The idea of having a Sparcstation in the ’90s is … a pretty cool idea. Having one now, the hardware being virtually worthless and all, is still kind of cool. I’m just having fun putting the box together with cheap parts I’ve cobbled together from here and there, installing OSes and seeing how they run.

My next project is going to be a small, fanless, power-sipping server. Something modern.

But I’ve had fun with the Sparcstation 20, and I’m not letting go of it just yet.


Original comments from the Flatpress version of this entry:

Chaoticmass Tuesday, April 12, 2011 - 15:42:06

I used to play with a SparcStation LX, 50Mhz with 128MB RAM. I has Debian 5.0 running on it. With some heavy optimizations to the start sequence I could get it to boot from POST to a login prompt in one minute flat. Starting X took some time, and launching FIrefox 2.0 took two whole minutes. Once Firefox was running it wasn’t too bad as long as you stuck with basic pages. Trying to load a page like facebook would be painfully slow. As long as you stuck to bloat-free apps it wasn’t such a bad workstation. It was fun to play with.

michael Tuesday, April 12, 2011 - 16:21:07

just fyi, solaris 10 only runs on the ultrasparc 200mhz (64 bit) and up processors. so the ss20 is out.

michael Tuesday, April 12, 2011 - 16:24:03

the ss20 and sol 9 will actually run four processors… though, that makes for a rather hot box grin it doesn’t make things faster, adding more processors, but it’ll do more without slowing down. ps, ss20s make nice firewall/routers, if you can’t think of anything else to do with ‘em Grin

Me Tuesday, April 12, 2011 - 16:26:47

I remember drooling over a Sparcstation with the large (18” ?) B&W monitors. They were the poop back then. I’ve always wondered (and been too lazy to research) how they compared to modern hardware. Seems very sad that such an icon has been so thoroughly thrashed by modern hardware. 2 minutes to open Firefox ! What should we expect with 128MB of RAM ? I can just imagine the hard drive thrashing that must occur to make it happen. I almost ordered an i7 last week. In a laptop no less. For ! What has the (hardware) world come to ?

Curt Howland Tuesday, April 12, 2011 - 17:35:01

I loved Linux on the SPARC-10 I last used. That was 2003. But as you say, the hardware is now utterly obsolete.

Tom Tuesday, April 12, 2011 - 19:00:12

I think OpenBSD or maybe debian is the most modern choice for 32 bit Sparc. I’m not sure that OpenBSD does > 1 CPU. I run OpenBSD on an LX as an SSH server. Reliable, keeps up w/ incoming ethernet (> 10baseT) after adding a card. It would work decently as a firewall w/ a 2nd ethernet.

racy_rick Tuesday, April 12, 2011 - 20:14:20

You could probably load up Openstep or NeXTstep if you found the install disks. I used to run a sparc 5 with a 24 bit color card. It was pretty sweet. Also the dev tools are way ahead of their time.

steven Tuesday, April 12, 2011 - 21:21:18

Debian hasn’t released for 32-bit SPARC since Sarge, and I’ve never successfully installed it.

Even FreeBSD does 64-bit SPARC only.

I’ve been able to install NetBSD 4.x on the SS20, but 5.x crashes early and often.

Solaris 9 installs fine, but it’s stuck in the software equivalent of 2003-era amber without the paid-for patches.

Right now the only game I see other than Solaris is OpenBSD. The base system runs rather well, as it does on every platform I’ve used it on (i386, amd64, powerpc and sparc-32.

Way back in OpenBSD 4.4, they still had the Dillo browser in OpenBSD for Sparc 32-bit, but now Dillo is gone (and won’t build from ports, either) for 32-bit SPARC.

I don’t recall anybody but me putting this in writing, but with OpenBSD, chances are that if it’s not available for your architecture in a binary package, it’s a pretty good bet that the port won’t build either (and if it did, there would be a package). It’s a bit of a circular argument, if that’s what you call it.

Jay Tuesday, April 12, 2011 - 21:46:10

Your next rproject is

“My next project is going to be a small, fanless, power-sipping server. Something modern.”

I am in the same spot as you.

Thinking of getting a mini-ITX board, and cramming it into my old Sparc20 case, doing a nice case mod and making the old box a fast modern machine that looks like the old Sparc.

The Egg sells modern server power supplies that look like they will fit in the case.

WimB Tuesday, April 12, 2011 - 22:16:48

“Thinking of getting a mini-ITX board, and cramming it into my old Sparc20 case”

That’s just what I did.

Stripped two Sun SS10’s and one Sun Ultra1 and put an Intel Atom A510 mini-itx board in all of them.

Running at 2x 1,66 ghz and 2 gig of mem.

There is room enough for two harddisks and it all runs energy efficient

on a 60W external laptop powersupply each.

Great stuff for an X-server or Iscsi-server and it looks pretty good with a pile of Sun boxes on your desk :)

Steven Rosenberg Wednesday, April 13, 2011 - 00:57:46

(I’m posting from the Fedora 15 Alpha … if that means anything to you).

I’m not so much attached to the Sparcstation 20 box. I’m going to get a small mini-ITX case. I don’t know if I’ll go for one that can hold 1 or 2 laptop hard drives. It might be nice to run them together in LVM, or back up from one to the other.

CaptainDangeax Wednesday, April 13, 2011 - 10:40:47

My 2c.

My 2 last experiences with Sparcstation :

-In my last job, I replaced two old Ultra2 running SunOS 5.6, with 3 Ultra5, running Debian5, just to run the BIND service. The ones un SunOS didn’t receive updates anymore.

-I had a Blade100, with 1,128GiB of RAM I found by a local reseller. I tried to run Debian on it, but it was a pain comparing to the moderns AMD64 or Core2 I own. Unable to put bigger disks in it, for a file server, I tried Solaris10. 3 times, the system crashed after a daylong of patches. I got the RAM back, and the Blade100 went to recycler.

I promise, I’ll never loose my time with older hardwares.

Chaoticmass Wednesday, April 13, 2011 - 15:02:55

My old Sparc LX running Debian Sarge:

http://www.imgur.com/Xxloh

I wrote a lot of code on this machine. With a high resolution display you could easily open up four xterms. I writing C on a slow system was fun.

steven Wednesday, April 13, 2011 - 21:05:59

Sweet! I’ve tried to install Debian Sarge before but always failed. But I decided to try again, and I’m rolling Sarge onto the Sparcstation 20 right now.

brian Friday, April 15, 2011 - 20:59:56

Nice article. You can install OpenSTEP 4.2 on your non-turbo Sparc if you’re looking at doing some good hobby hacking. Check out www.nextcomputers.org, they have a group dedicated to running OpenSTEP on SUN hardware.

Enjoy the vintage computer. I remember back when they went for over a pop. With inflation, that’s probably over nowadays. It’s hard to imagine paying that much for a computer these days.

Anonymous Wednesday, June 15, 2011 - 03:46:22

newLISP (www.newlisp.org) compiles and runs out of the box on this:

SunOS carbon 5.8 Generic_117350-25 sun4u sparc SUNW,Ultra-2

Michael Wednesday, June 15, 2011 - 06:32:49

Where are you? I have a Sun Netra X1 you can have. It’s a little more modern that what you’re working with, uses a little less power, and can run 64-bit. It’s yours for asking as long as you can pick it up in the Toronto, Canada area.

I personally promote the low power MiniITX board, such as the AMD A350. I picked up one from Sapphire (http://www.overclockersclub.com/reviews/sapphirefusionapuminie350/16.htm) for about to run a GPU miner. It runs everything I’ve tried reasonably well.

steven Wednesday, June 15, 2011 - 06:44:54

I’m also trying to get my Sun equipment to a good home - The Sparcstation 20 and Alix/Hyundai SS10 clone. If you’re in L.A., come and get ‘em.

Mike Wednesday, June 15, 2011 - 08:52:28

Hey, this brings back memories. My first real server was a sparcstation IPC. 207mb internal hard disk, plus an external box with a tape + 667 mb hard disk. Almost 1 GIGAbyte of storage. I got it cheap, for . Still have it in a closet, couldn’t part with it.

Many years later, I got a sparcstation LX, hacked the ISDN stack and had it do voice calls in and out. Great machine.

Now times have changed. I have a small intel server. It’s a fit-pc2, which is a wonderful little server running CentOS. It’s an atom processor using 6-8 watts of power, is capable and fast. If I were to do it again, I might spend a bit extra to get the Z530 or Z550 atom with virtualization hardware. :)

http://www.fit-pc.com/web/fit-pc2/fit-pc2-specifications/ Oh, and it is VERY small.

anthony lambert Wednesday, June 15, 2011 - 09:42:14

Why not lash out on this:

http://cgi.ebay.co.uk/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=250829748521&ssPageName=STRK:MEWAX:IT

Sun Microsystems Sunfire V490 4×1.05ghz 16gb RAM

I couldn’t bring myself to pay the courier $$$ to the UK.

steven Thursday, June 16, 2011 - 01:05:30

P.S. I finally managed to get Debian Sarge on the SS20 with working X and everything.

It only runs with the 2.4 kernel (hangs on 2.6, and you have to reinstall). Slow!

h4ngedm4n Monday, July 4, 2011 - 05:58:15

I have a SS10 and SGI Indy that I bought to play with like many of us here. What I am wondering is what do you do with these once you are done playing? They are such nice vintage computers that I’d hate to chuck them in the e-waste bin, but at the same time they are totally obsolete. Even setting them up as some kind of server seems to be a waste of electricity.

steven Thursday, July 28, 2011 - 18:18:02

I’m facing the same thing with my Sparc hardware. I have a lot of miscellaneous parts as well as two boxes, the SS20 and an Axil clone of an SS10. The Axil is going for sure, as well as my box of 50 MHz Sparc CPUs (who needs 30 of them?).

I’m still on the fence with the SS20. If I could get a “real” Sparc monitor, it would be a totally vintage rig. As it is, with the VGA adapter it only works with CRT monitors, not with LCDs, so I need to keep at least one of them around.