Archive for the 'Operating System Review' Category


Redhat Enterprise Linux 7.0 Workstation

At work I have been using Redhat Enterprise Linux 6 for some time to run some multimedia equipment. With the need to upgrade to new software and hardware I’ve had to also look at upgrading the OS to meet some of the requirements for the new software. The new version has some significant “upgrades” in the form of using Gnome 3 and systemd, lets see how good they are.

The desktop

The desktop

Gnome 3 is a significant departure from the previous version, it is clearly heavily influenced by Mac OSX and tablet interfaces. Personally I am not a huge fan. Most of the customisation features that were in Gnome 2.x have been removed. Some I miss the most are placing application launchers and widgets on panels and having a proper visual pager for the work spaces. There seems to be very little option for any customisation at all.

There are some small improvements however. The configuration dialogue for the network setup is nice and simple, but still allows for more advanced settings if required. The calendar is cleaner and incorporates your schedule information in the display. Still it somehow feels very uninspired.

Mac OSX like controls

Mac OSX like controls

Even the lock screen leaves something to be desired. It expects you to uncover the password entry box by swiping upwards or doing the equivalent with your mouse before you can enter your password and unlock the screen. This is annoying every time I come back to my computer as it adds an extra step to an otherwise simple process, it is completely unnecessary. From what I can tell it was added simply as eye candy.

Gnome 3 certainly isn’t ugly, it is full of eye candy everywhere. Lots of animations and fades that you couldn’t do on older hardware because of performance concerns. But I find the lack of customisation features makes the desktop feel sterile, I can’t make it my own, which is something I’d expect from Apple, not a open source desktop environment.

Systemd components (from wikipedia)

Systemd components (from wikipedia)

Systemd is the other perhaps more controversial change, there has been much debate and flaming across the internet from both sides. Basically it is a replacement for sysvinit and a number of other small daemons such as cron and the login process. I did note in this instance that RHEL 7 still includes and runs crond and rsyslogd even though systemd has replacements. I’m guessing they are _trying_ to ease the pain of migration.

I had a look into the configuration files for systemd, and whilst they are at least readable and you can edit them, there are many options that aren’t clear. It is however easier than the old configuration system under sysvinit, but no-where near as nice as the RC system under BSD which is much easier to handle. The thing I felt was the most concerning is the binary log files, which fortunately you don’t need on RHEL 7.0 because of rsyslogd logging in a readable format.

The settings windows

The settings windows

There are many technical issues with systemd that could and should be addressed, but I don’t think they are really the source of most of the conflict. It seems to me that the proponents of systemd have cleverly and somewhat underhandedly managed to force a number of larger Linux distributions to use it. The long and short of it is that because they managed to merge udev into it, and have been swallowing other small important services, it is forcing its way into many distributions regardless of merit. Using such means was always going to upset many people. If they had only replaced sysvinit instead of swallowing up so much and behaved better when it came to bugs and criticism, many people would have fewer or no arguments against it.

On a technical level I understand why systemd was made, sysvinit was a bit of a pain, although extremely flexible. But I disagree with them replacing and swallowing other services into the main init package. Larger more complex software is more likely to have bugs and security flaws, and the init process is perhaps the most important one in terms of security. The fact that they have practically coerced people into using it is distasteful. It seems that the systemd devs are attempting to co-opt the entire Linux eco-system to control for themselves.

File Broswer

File Broswer

I don’t know why OpenRC wasn’t adopted as it’s a quite nice clone of the BSD rc.d system which I’ve found _very_ easy to use and works very well. The problem now is that systemd has incorporated important parts of the Linux OS that now make it difficult to use anything else, and will likely make implementing portability to BSD difficult but not impossible. I suspect that a compatibility layer will eventually be created for the BSD systems.

I didn’t mean this to be a rant about systemd or gnome 3, but there is little else to talk about in the base install of RHEL 7.0. It was pretty bare bones, which isn’t such a bad thing, but it was even lacking some of the useful system tools such as the disk utility. I found many packages seem to be older than they should be, which has caused some minor issues, but this is something common to the older releases. I’ll still end up using this RHEL due to requirements at work that are unavoidable, but I won’t be recommending it to anyone that can avoid it.

I was considering using a form of Linux on my home desktop system to replace the ageing windows install, but seeing Gnome 3 and systemd has made me reconsider my position. I’m seriously thinking FreeBSD may be better for me, but if I do install a Linux it will likely be Debian, as that is generally a bit friendlier to power users. I’ll almost certainly not use Gnome and systemd if possible, but given the politcs currently in process that may become difficult.


OpenBSD on a Sunfire 280R

Last weekend I tried a number of different operating systems on my Sunfire V440 in an attempt to get the Wildcat expert3D-lite frame buffer I have working. None of the systems I tried had any luck on the v440 and the one system that has official support for the wildcat – OpenBSD – would not install because of crashes during the process. I have another Sunfire machine which also needed a new operating system, this one a Sunfire 280R, so I transferred the frame buffer card into the 66Mhz slot in the 280R and began the OpenBSD install process.

Like last time, I was not impressed with the installer. It is very simplistic at best, and not very noob friendly. Fortunately since I’ve installed the other BSD systems a few times I managed to work out how to get it set up. I’d say the least intuitive part would have to be setting up your hard disk partitions, this is done with a command-line utility that wasn’t very easy to use. At least this installer can be run from the machines console instead of over the serial line.

So I booted the new installation up and was happy to see in the kernel messages that the frame buffer is indeed supported by the ifb kernel driver. So I set up xdm to start the X server and configured X with the wildcatfb driver. After rebooting I was greeted with a graphical login! I logged in and found a hideously out of date FVWM installed as the default window manager, time to install some software!

I tried out installing some of the binary packages available, but found the package system a little bit clunky, so I downloaded the ports system for OpenBSD to build stuff from source. It’s often a good idea to build your packages from source with any of the BSD systems as you usually get better performance and can choose features in the software you want to use. Binaries are often compiled for the lowest common processor on the architecture you’ve installed, this makes them slower and they have only the default options enabled.

I installed the latest FVWM from ports and various other bits of software. I found the ports system was fairly easy to use, but it doesn’t have as many packages available as the other BSDs. Many of the packages I installed were also older version than those found on other systems.

It wasn’t until I tried to run some software, such as a web-browser, that I discovered something annoying about the support for the frame buffer. The supported pixel depth for the display is 7 bits per pixel! This was quite annoying and most software is looking for 8bpp at a minimum, and 7bpp has never really been used historically. I may be able to run the display on a lower depth (I haven’t tried this yet), but that probably won’t help for the vast majority of software.

In the end I did manage to find and install some X software that works at 7bpp, but I don’t feel like I have a workable workstation. I couldn’t find all the bits of software I felt I wanted on the machine, and many in the ports collection wouldn’t run on the local X server. Given that OpenBSD isn’t really a desktop OS this is hardly surprising. I’ll be looking for a copy of Sun Solaris for this machine now, as that will have proper support for the frame buffer and I can use either pkgsrc (from NetBSD) or FreeBSD ports to install free software.


OS Shootout: Trying to get the Sun Frame Buffer to work.

Frame buffer

Frame buffer

Quite a while ago I bought a Sun frame buffer (Wildcat 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.

Sunfire V440

Sunfire V440

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.


FreeBSD 9.0

I downloaded a copy of FreeBSD 4.7 many years ago intending to try it out, but never did for lack of spare hardware. Along with its siblings (NetBSD and OpenBSD) to be the closest descendant of the early BSD systems made through out the 80’s and late seventies. I won’t go into details about the history, as I’ll be terribly inaccurate, and there are a lot of documents around the web already detailing the history of Unix and BSD. Here are a couple of links.

The Wikipedia page

The Open Group: Unix History and Time line

Recently I installed NetBSD to run on my old sparc, which re-sparked my interest in the BSD platforms. This week I installed FreeBSD 9.0 on my virtual machine I have on my Macbook Pro as a matter of experimentation to find out what it was like.


Installation was relatively simple and performed via a text mode using simple keyboard commands. There wasn’t much to configure, but also not many options for the base system, which I think is because of the nature of how slim the initial install is. Most of the installation is dealing with setting up the disks and partitions, and which basic services are enabled. I did note that there was no option to install the X windows portion off the disk. Like NetBSD it is important to know your Unix stuff before jumping in, you should be able to use a shell and preferably also know the basics about building software. The amount of disk space you need will depend on the software you intend to install. The base system once installed is quite slim requiring very little in the way of disk space and other resources to run quite well.

Adding More Software

The main package management system for FreeBSD is called ports, it is one of the older package distribution systems and as such has more packages available for it than the other BSD systems, and more than many of the Linux distributions with some notable exceptions. You have two options for installing packages, one is installing binaries provided to you by either CDROM, or download. I wanted to try out the ports system for automatic download and building of packages and I wasn’t disappointed. First I installed bash and nano as the base system didn’t have either of these two there by default. The build process was pretty simple, you just located the directory of the port you want to install, and then type make install. During the build process you are asked about the options you want to use when building the software. This is better than pkgsrc as it required you to edit some files to change what options you wish to use. I went on to build X and attempted to build Gnome 2. I must have changed an option that gnome didn’t like as I couldn’t get it to build completely, but I am sure this was my mistake, I just couldn’t work out how to fix it within the limited time frame. I had a bit of trouble getting gdm to work as well, but that was solved after a bit of reading on the FreeBSD website, but other software such as xdm and FVWM were very simple to get up and running. Xfce built, installed and ran quite well, and to me looks like the best option for user interfaces as it is lighter than both Gnome and KDE, but has many of the features that most users want out of a modern operating system. If you’re after a minimalist user interface, FVWM is a good choice and has one of the later versions in ports as compared to pretty much all the other systems out there. In doing all this I found that it can be a very lengthy process to build the larger bits of software from source, the upside being when it is done, it’s optimized by the compiler for your hardware, and you get the latest version if you keep your ports collection up to date. Otherwise you should pick the binary install option as this will save you alot of time.


FreeBSD is better supported than its cousins NetBSD and OpenBSD, and as such has more in the way of packages that are updated more frequently. FreeBSD and it’s siblings have the advantage over Linux in that they seem to have a more mature and stable code base. For instance, in the time that I’ve been using Linux, the kernel and supporting utilities have changed dramatically, making some older software completely un-buildable now, where as the BSD systems seem to move slower and are keeping compatibility for older software alive. I think this contributes to them being more mature than Linux as the software has time to have the bugs worked out. I’d say this methodology also affects how the design and user interface is built. Configuration via configuration files seems to be easier than Linux, as all the files were generated by humans and as such are easier to read. For instance setting up gdm to start with the system required only adding two lines to the rc.config file.


It seems that some software creators for various reasons are dropping support for BSD and various other Unixes in favour of only supporting Linux. I think some of it is ideological, which I disagree with. Some of it is because of the problems supporting multiple platforms, this particularly applies to projects that are supposed to be libraries or system utilities for other programs. This has a ripple effect making software further down the line also incompatible with non-Linux systems. What is the point in using a library or package that interfaces with the kernel for you if it doesn’t support many kernels/operating systems? You might as well write it yourself! You may have heard that Gnome is officially only going to support Linux in its future releases. I’m not sure how true this is, but it could be quite an inconvenience for a good many BSD users as well as people on Solaris and commercial Unixes that use Gnome. It seems the root cause is that the automounter package used by gnome and a few others (Xfce for example) have decided to drop support for the other operating systems. I hope I’m wrong, as I’d hate to see the community of free software developers divided.

BSD versus Linux

There seems to be a difference in how both the communities view what an operating system should be. The bigger Linux distributions take the view that everything is part of the operating system, which is very evident in something like Ubuntu. There also seems to be a move towards hiding the traditional Unix portions of the operating system from users, which can be a good thing when not over done. BSD seems to see the operating system in a minimalist kinda sense, where the base system is small, stable and mature. Everything else including the user interface is up to the end-user to customise. It’s also not afraid of being a traditional Unix system.

There are also some differences in licenses, but that’s not really something I’ve ever really cared about. I only want to know that the system is free, and the source is available and can be modified.


FreeBSD is a good place to go if you’ve been curious about BSD systems and have some experience with the command line on something like Linux. You’ll find there are more packages, that are updated more often than its siblings NetBSD and OpenBSD. However it’s not as well suited as NetBSD is for using on exotic hardware such as the sparc platform, so you will want to run it on a PC or PC compatible. There is very little in the way of cruft in the base system which means there are few points of entry for hackers, so it would actually be a better option for running a server than many other systems. But you do have to set up all the components yourself, which does give you more control, but also takes more time to do. To use it as a desktop system workstation again needs a lot of time to set it up initially, but you’ll have exactly what you want.


Debian 6.0.3

I started using Debian quite some time ago, it was for work and I was running it on an old celeron 433Mhz machine with very little ram (less than 512Mb). I was using the machine to develop a website in php, and needed a platform to edit and test the website. I had to pretty heavily customise my installation as gnome was a bit too taxing for such a old machine at the time. I installed FVWM and IceWM as replacements, I used IceWM mostly which worked very well. I did eventually get an upgraded machine, I was finally able to run gnome! Today I’ve installed the latest version of Debian via the network installation disk. I’m using the same setup as last time, on my macbook in virtual box, and using all the default settings with the main desktop portion installed.

If you’ve used Ubuntu and Debian, you may notice that they are pretty similar to each other in many ways, in fact using the same package management software at the base level. Ubuntu is in some ways a descendant of Debian, the differences being mainly ideological, aesthetic and in how the packages are configured when installed.

Debian is meant as an universal operating system, having software and components to do pretty much whatever you’d like to do with it. There are lots and lots of available software packages that allow you to set up your machine to do pretty much anything. The question remains, is it easy enough for an ordinary user to use.


I picked the expert installation option as I’m pretty experience with the Debian OS. This wasn’t as complicated as it sounds, and I found it pretty easy to to install. An ordinary end user would probably find this difficult, but that is to be expected. It is true that the expert installer could be easier to use, but if you picked it and can’t use it, you can always switch back to the simple one which is alot like the Ubuntu installer. You get a lot more options for software to be installed, and you can choose a set of packages to set it up as a server or a desktop workstation. Having only one distribution is a nice touch and means that if you are used to dealing with a Debian server and happen upon a workstation running Debian, you are basically on familiar territory. It also means that you can set up your workstation with all the server software for the purposes of development and testing of software you are writing. I installed the basics for the desktop, but also added in a SSH server. I found that the software included in the base desktop was much more comprehensive than that on Ubuntu, you got some decent photo editing software in the GIMP, and tools for making vector graphics. I also noted that the entire Open office suite is included in its original form, as opposed to the version in Ubuntu, which as far as I can tell is not the complete office package, and seems to be a change for the sake of being different aesthetically. There are many other bits and pieces that tell a similar story. Installation of new or extra software is pretty simple, you can use synaptic, or the software centre to select new packages and the software will download everything required to install them.

The User Interface

The interface is no where near as pretty as the Ubuntu one, but I can’t help but feel more satisfied and more at ease with this one. Finding an application is easy, you just navigate the menus at the top of the screen to find what you want. The applications are organised sensibly in categories. In many ways the windows widgets are very much like those from windows XP, which is good for PC users, but probably less so for mac users. What really stands out here above windows XP is the ability to customise pretty much everything that you see. You can change the shape and location of panels and menus. There are many applets that you can add as well, one of my favourites being Wanda the fish, which is simple a graphical way to access fortune. This means if you find the interface annoying in some way you can do something to change it! Something I would have liked in Ubuntu!


Something I noted in testing Debian is that it took longer to load than Ubuntu for some reason. Upon investigation I found more puzzles, Debian seemingly used less ram upon login, and responded faster once it had finished loading. This of course is preferable, it’s just strange. Oddly I suspect this newer version of Debian would work better on my old system than earlier versions did.


The base features are pretty impressive, there are all the basic applications that normal people need such as word processing, email and internet. There are also some extra bits that I was happy to find that would appeal to the more advanced user. For instance there is a decent RDP and torrent client installed. There are nice dialogs for changing system settings, and user preferences that cover all the important aspects of the system, although I was disappointed by the login screen configuration being dumbed down, I preferred how they had things set up with gdm 2.30. The login screen themes are gone, and the configuration program has nothing for remote users via xdmcp. I realise that very few people use X over the network these days, but with thin clients starting to look like a good option, this could be taken better advantage of. On the up side, there is nothing stopping you from editing the configuration manually to achieve the effect you want, it’s simply not in the user interface. You could always use the package management to install a older version of gdm, or use xdm in it’s place. This is the true spirit of Debian in a sense, you customise your installation as much as you need to suite you. There is nothing saying you even need to use gnome, you can elect to use KDE, or install a small form factor window manager such as FVWM.


I kinda have a biased opinion of Debian because I’ve been using it for quite a while. I have found it easy to use, and easy to customise to my needs as well. That being said, the average user may have a fun time doing the trickier things. But at least you have the option or trying, and all the simple things like finding an application are easy and familiar to those of us that have used systems such as windows. Unlike Ubuntu, Debian hides the Unix/Linux part of itself less, which could be difficult for some people, but would allow those interested to learn something about it. Debian also lives up to being a universal operating system, you can do pretty much whatever you may need. I’ve used it as a file server, a web test bench for development, as a games system, and basic desktop workstation. It used to be the case that people new to linux would have had to avoid Debian until they learned more about linux. The newer versions seem to make it easier than it used to be, but the complete computer illiterate should probably get a knowledgeable friend to help them. If you’re interesting in using linux, Debian is fertile ground for learning all about it, as much as you want to learn.  Do I recommend it? Yes!


Ubuntu 11.10 desktop

I’ve got the internet on at my house now so I’ll be able to post on a regular basis again. At work we set up a computer with the latest Ubuntu desktop system. We initially were not really that impressed. This made me think about what operating systems are available, and who they are designed for. So this week and in the coming weeks I will write some short review type stuff about some of the free operating systems. This week I’m starting with Ubuntu Desktop, but I will also be covering Debian, Fedora, Xubuntu, and FreeBSD. To test the systems I will be installing them to virtual box on my macbook, which will be set up to use 2 cores and 1 gig of ram with a 20G virtual hard disk. I won’t be changing the default settings all that much if at all, but I will be installing all the desktop components of the systems. If you have any suggestions for operating systems that I should add or try out please leave a comment bellow.

As I mentioned this week the first OS I’m looking at is Ubuntu. The focus of it is to make a stable and usable free operating system for anyone to use. Given that most people use their systems for surfing the net, checking email and work type applications such as word and excel, this is what I expect the system to focus on.


Installation of Ubuntu is about as easy as it gets with operating systems. It’s a nice graphical system which is reasonable easy to use, especially if you plan on having it exclusively on your system. Installing it in tandem with another OS is pretty straight forward as well, but you really need to be familiar with how disk partitioning works in order to do it. The only real downside of the installer is that you can’t choose what additional software you’d like installed at installation time. This is only really a problem if you want something installed which isn’t already installed. The base installation has pretty much all the basics you might need, but excludes more advanced programs such as the GIMP and some others that more advanced users may find necessary or useful. Fortunately the package management system is relatively easy to use to install extra software. It however does hide the more “technical” packages from view unless you specify you want to see them.

The User Interface

The user interface is very pretty, but I can’t help but feel like it’s a very close clone of the Mac OS X interface. A lot of the design components are very much like those on the Mac. For instance the sidebar is pretty much a clone of the dock, The initial applications there are pretty much just firefox and some basic office applications. I was surprised to see there was nothing there for access to email. If the application you want isn’t in the sidebar/dock you have to look for it elsewhere. At first I found this a little hard to find, you have to click the Ubuntu symbol then search for the application that you want. Surely there is a better way of doing this. I believe the reason they have made this design choice is to de-clutter the screen and menus so as to not overwhelm people. The downside is that even a experienced user such as myself has trouble simply finding applications that they might want to use. Once you have found the application you want, it works pretty much the same as on any other OS, although I did note that scroll bars didn’t have much of a visual presence, so I was never really sure of where I could scroll and where I couldn’t. The standard menu of the application is moved to the top of the screen in the same way that Mac OS does. I’m not really a fan of this on either system, it disassociates the menu from the program, which can be confusing particularly when you have more than one window open. It’s not a huge problem however as unlike Mac OS, you can’t end up with a program running and having a active menu bar, but no windows active.


All the features you’d expect out of a operating system are present. It seems however to be trying to be Mac OS in what it provides. Many features and applications in Mac OS have equivalents in Ubuntu desktop, even going as far as having similar cloud based services. The only feature on Mac OS that I couldn’t find was garage band. It bordered on the eerie when I noticed that even the system preferences looked very similar between the two.


This version of the Ubuntu desktop achieves what they set out to when they created it. It is relatively easy for new users to get started, and for people with only need of the internet and basic office applications. If you are a more advanced user, or in need of applications that do a bit more, you’ll find the experience out of the box lacking. The unix/linux nature of the operating system is very well hidden, which does go in it’s favour for new users, but if you like the command line then you would be better served with either a different Ubuntu variant, or perhaps Debian instead. The main audience of course is the mass market of relatively unskilled users so some of this is to be expected, But a few questions stick in my mind. If this is so much like Mac OS why would someone choose Ubuntu over a Mac? Why would anyone already using a Linux distro want to use it over another distribution or even variant of Ubuntu? Why did it have to be so unintuitive finding applications not on the sidebar? I’d like to hear about your experiences with Ubuntu, did you find it similar to mine, or was it completely different for you? Please leave your comments bellow.


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

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Mister G Kids

A daily comic about real stuff little kids say in school. By Matt Gajdoš

Random Battles: my life long level grind

completing every RPG, ever.

Gough's Tech Zone

Reversing the mindless enslavement of humans by technology.

Retrocosm's Vintage Computing, Tech & Scale RC Blog

Random mutterings on retro computing, old technology, some new, plus radio controlled scale modelling.


retro computing and gaming plus a little more

Retrocomputing with 90's SPARC

21st-Century computing, the hard way