NetBSD and my Sparc Station 20

A couple of months ago I purchased a Sparc station 20. This was because back when I was at uni, I used to use sun Solaris on similar machines and Intel workstations. I wanted to recapture a bit of my history, get a unique piece of hardware, and in part play with Solaris. Much to my dismay, when I got the machine I found that the installed version of Solaris was basically broken, and without discs to reinstall it I would be unable to fix it. So began the search for an appropriate free OS to run on it.

The Hardware

Before I selected the OS it was kinda important to consider what hardware I had on my hands. The processor installed is rather limited, it has a SuperSparc 50Mhz module, which fortunately for me was at least on a dual mbus module. There are mbus modules that run faster (and have more cache) but I couldn’t find any locally that suited my budget and my needs. I was fortunate that this computer had been upgraded to hold about 320Mb of ram, so it has a reasonable amount considering it’s age. Storage is in the form of two 2g scsi hard disk drives which is enough for my purposes. As a bonus I also got a DDS tape drive, some scsi cables for external drives and some tapes.

Selecting the OS

Finding an OS to run on this hardware was interesting. Linux was out for several reasons, basically modern versions are too bloaty to work well on such old hardware, and no current distros support the sparc (32bit) platform. I couldn’t get a copy of Solaris that would work on it for free, as with Linux they had dropped support for the platform. FreeBSD did not seem to have support, so that left me with the option of either OpenBSD or NetBSD. I’m a bit of a BSD newb, so I spent several days reading about the two before settling on NetBSD. This was mainly because SMP support is not really functional on OpenBSD, and machines with multiple CPU’s can have issues booting. Also NetBSD being famous for running on anything (almost) made me think it would be a better option.


Installation on my machine was pretty straight forward. This machine has a CD drive which I could use to boot up the machine, I just had to connect my PC to it via serial so I could control the boot rom and go through the install process. I installed NetBSD 4.01 as at the time this was known to be more stable on the sparc platform. I haven’t seen any information to the contrary yet about either 5.0 or 5.1 yet. The base system is pretty neat, you can install all the basics for a unix machine, and it only has the minimum of programs started by default. This makes NetBSD excellent for running on old machines such as this one. The full installation with X and everything (including games) was about 400Mb from memory. The only caveat is that you really have to know your unix stuff as everything useful is disabled by default. For the most part it’s pretty easy to get going, in a matter of an hour or two I had all the basics I wanted (that were in the main install disc) set up and running. I set up SSH and xdm first so I could tinker with the server over the network instead of having to use the serial link. As I don’t have the appropriate keyboard or mouse I set up xdm to not run a local X server, but to allow connections via xdmcp.

Adding More Software

The package system that NetBSD uses is called package source (pkgsrc for short). There were few pre-compiled packages available for the sparc platform and version 4.01, so I downloaded the current pkgsrc repository to build my own software from source. I had a bit of a mixed experience with it, finding that many more complicated pieces of software that I wanted would not compile, usually stuff such as firefox or other web browsers. I was able to compile addition software that I really think should be in the main distro, such as nano and rsync. I put lynx on as I couldn’t get a graphical web browser running, and a few other small command line utilities.

As for X programs I did manage to get fvwm2 working as a better window manager. I used to use it back in my uni days so there were no surprises there. Icewm also works quite well but isn’t as fast as fvwm over a network connection. I also built some other utility programs such as nedit and a few others, as long as a few particular libraries were used the programs would compile.

You may ask, why would I install X and associated programs on a machine that has no head (for the uninitiated that means screen, keyboard and mouse). The big reason is this is how I used to use the terminals back in the day, and I wanted to try out some games, and programs available on NetBSD. I may write a short review/description of some of these in the near future.

Now for the software that makes it a useful server, I found that I was able to build and install most of the basic services you may want to run on a unix machine. Samba, apache, subversion, and openvpn all work quite well. You do need to know how to configure these programs as the default configurations are those from the maintainers of the software. I also built php and mysql, but the combination of the two (or php on it’s own) was too slow to be useful on my hardware. Php was difficult to build as well, a couple of the versions available did not pass the basics tests or just segfaulted when run, although this may have been corrected by now.


NetBSD is a great operating system for people who have good unix knowledge. It has a very small footprint on first install and is customizable to the nth degree. Unlike many newer *nix like systems, it isn’t ashamed of its unix heritage, and exposes you directly to it. This can be a bit of a downside if you’re not used to systems like that already, but if you are, you’ll find it relatively easy to install and set up. If you’re running sparc hardware, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything much better (unless you have a functioning version of solaris), and on other platforms such as Intel, it will run on pretty much any old hardware you can lay your hands on, and likely out perform other operating systems. These factors make it an excellent choice to install on any vintage hardware you may happen to have.


Guide to MBus modules

Sparstation 20 wikipedia page


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