Quite a while ago I bought a Sun frame buffer (Wildcate Expert3d-lite) on ebay in the hopes of turning either my Sun Fire machines into a workstation. I had FreeBSD on the 280R and Gentoo Linux on the V440. FreeBSD didn’t like the card as it doesn’t have support for it, the version I have installed has become out of date and was having trouble updating packages. The Gentoo install had suffered a similar fate, I went to update it and found that the package system had become broken and couldn’t download the latest update.
So this weekend I decided to try a number of different operating systems to see if I could get the frame buffer working and see if there was a newer OS that would work better. Here are some notes about the different systems I’ve tried.
I decided to use the V440 as the base machine for performing the tests. I had been using Gentoo linux on it and had some minor success using the frame buffer. I was able to get a basic text console working beautifully, and it even displayed Tux the Linux penguin during boot up. But unfortunately the fbdev driver for X didn’t work producing some horrific corruption on screen, but the mouse and keyboard appeared to work.
The first fresh OS I decided to try out was NetBSD as it works well on my older Sparc machine. The installation went relatively smoothly, but I had to use the serial console in order to do it. I looked for support for my particular frame buffer but didn’t find any, even for some of the other available hardware. At this point I went to the documentaion online and realised I need not have tried it as the UltaSparc machines I have are not in the supported list for NetBSD. Although most hardware works, it seems that older machine are supported much better.
Next I decided to try the latest FreeBSD, the first time around I was using 8.3 which was quickly superseeded, but it was the only one that worked on the Sunfire 280R. So I downloaded the latest at the time of writing this, 10.0. Reading the documentation seemed to indicate that I’d be unlikely to get anything on this frame buffer at all, but if I buy a different type in the future there is good support. The installer was much easier than last time, again it required the serial terminal but it had everything set up very quickly. Of course the downside is the amount of time needed to build packages from ports, but thats a minor inconvenience if you leave it to build over night. I built and installed X, and with no surprise this frame buffer didn’t work.
In searching the internet for systems that support this particular device I came across OpenBSD. I had not really tried it out before so I didn’t know what to expect, but my hardware was listed as supported including the frame buffer. So I downloaded the install CD and began the process of installing. Compared to the other systems the installer is very _very_ basic, but at least you could do it from the computers console. Unfortunately I couldn’t get this one to complete installing, as the system rebooted every time it tried to extract the base system. At first I thought it likely this would be a hardware fault (as I had some in preparation for this) but I ran the system through its diagnostics multiple times and it passed every time. I may transfer the frame buffer into the SunFire 280R and try this system out again, but I think there’s something wrong with the installer/disc. The real shame is I saw in the kernel messages that it does indeed support my card!
Lastly I returned to an old favourite, Debian Linux. It is similar to Gentoo in that it supports the basic hardware and some framebuffers. Since Gentoo had some basic functionality I hope Debian might work better. I booted up the installer and was surprised to get the normal console-based Debian installer on the machines frame buffer. The installer was nice and easy, no major problems. I reboot into the new installation to see what would happen. Just like Gentoo the text console worked beautifully on the frame buffer, but X didn’t work. You could see the login screen behind some kind of strange corruption, but it seemed the keyboard and mouse were working as I could log in! I suspect Debian would work very nicely if I had a different frame buffer, but perhaps the guys working on the kernel will eventually fix the wildcat support.
So to summarise I found that Debian and FreeBSD would be quite workable if I had another frame buffer (or didn’t want to use it) and that OpenBSD might work well with this one if I could just manage to work out why it is crashing during install. NetBSD just doesn’t support the newer UltraSparc hardware well enough to use with a frame buffer, but might work quite well as a server. Basically I’m going to have to get another frame buffer card, then I can install either FreeBSD or Debian and have quite a nice Sun workstation.