Posts Tagged ‘Debian


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 FreeBSD didn’t like the card as it doesn’t have support for it, the version I have installed has become out of date and was having trouble updating packages.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.


Sunfire V440 working!

I recently got all the parts together for finally testing and installing an operating system on the Sunfire V440 machines I had donated to me quite some time ago. The last piece of the puzzle arrived whilst I was sick, it is a system configuration card. It was a little difficult to find, and I only found one, so I can only get one of the two machines to work.

The first hurdle to get over was working out how to connect to the ALOM card via serial cable. I have a couple of DTE adapters to connect serial via RJ 45 cable (ethernet cable basically) so I initially tried just using these with a simple cat 6 cable to get a connection. Strangely it didn’t work. After a bit of googling and reading of sun manuals for the machine I found out that the serial connection requires a Null Modem adapter/cable.

I have several null modem cables, one being dual connector (9 pin and 25 pin) that is extremely useful. So after getting a 9 pin D-shell gender bender adapter I was able to cobble together a cable that worked. The ALOM messages came through to my terminal program and asked for a login. Fortunately as the SCC was new to the machine I should be able to use the default user/password to log in to the ALOM when I eventually need it, but in the mean time I just wait for the timeout to display the serial console for the machine.

Now having the serial connection I could finally turn the machines on and see the OpenBoot ROM messages and test the machines in diagnostics mode. One of the machines turns out to have something serious wrong with it as it fails a memory/CPU test quite badly. The text scrolled past quite fast so it was difficult to determine what exactly was wrong, but this will be something to investigate in the near future. The other machine however passed its diagnostics and even booted the Debian Linux Net install disc! Time to set up an OS!

I’ve been fortunate enough to recently get some nice 10,000 rpm drives for the machine, so I went about installing and testing them for bad sectors (using the Debian rescue function on the install disc). Luckily both hard drives passed their tests and I was ready to install an operating system.

I have already got NetBSD and FreeBSD running on two other Sparc systems, so I chose to install the Sparc64 edition of Debian on this particular machine. The install went pretty smoothly for the most part and everything server wise worked like a dream. There was even a package for installing the OpenJDK on the system, something the BSDs have yet to accomplish. Clearly Debian is a viable OS for running a server on these types of machines, but when I went to install a desktop environment such as Gnome I found that Gnome didn’t work at all. Unfortunately this also seemed to break many of the useful X11 applications that you can install. Other window managers seemed to work, but with applications being broken it was hardly worth the effort.

So installing Debian was only mildly successful. I was hoping to be able to log into the system via XDMCP, but with Gnome being as broken as it is under Sparc64 this isn’t really an option. I will be looking to install something else instead, but am now unsure as to what I will try. I could of course install something I know works well such as FreeBSD or NetBSD, but I’d like something different for this machine. I did think about installing Solaris, but I’m unsure if I can because of licensing. Whilst I have several Sparc machines, I don’t have any Solaris Licenses, so I don’t know if I am allowed to install it on this machine.

Does anyone else have any suggestions as to what OS I could install? Is Solaris an option? If I install Solaris would I be able to install free software? (via ports or pkgsrsc?) It seems I have some research and work to do!


Xboing on NetBSD

Xboing is a breakout style game for the X windows systems, it was written by Justin C. Kibell in the years 1993 – 1997. It is written using the basic X toolkit libraries so will run on pretty much any Unix system with a half decent compiler set. The game models itself after an arcade machine, and even goes as far as having an attract mode (or demo) to show the basics of the game.

The graphics are very colourful and pleasing, and I’m happy to report it works very well even on very old hardware, or via an XDMCP session over the local network. I found it worked quite well on my old sparcstation. The animations and movement of the paddle and ball are fast and this helps the controls be responsive.

Sound didn’t work very well for me, it froze the game on the sparc, which could be caused by any number of issues. The game doesn’t suffer for not having sound, so if you have similar issues, I’d just turn the sound off.

Gameplay is very similar to all the other break out classics around with some differences. For instance, the power ups do not drop out of bricks when they are broken. Instead they themselves are bricks that when you break them give you the power up contained therein. You get a limited supply of bullets in the game to help you clear areas faster. This is very handy when there are only a handful of bricks left that are quite hard to hit with the ball. That being said, because you have a limited supply, you aren’t tempted to go shooting down every brick in a level as it will affect how much ammunition you carry over to the next level. Interestingly you can accidentally shoot your ball and end your game if you aren’t careful. I’ve also noticed you can squeeze the bullets up between columns of blocks to hit something at the top of the screen. This was useful when the “eyeball dude” went past, I had a chance to shoot him for points.

The default setting for the game is quite fast, so you will probably want to slow it down. Don’t slow it down too much however as this impacts your ability to score and get bonus score for completing a level quickly. Control is via the mouse, and is very responsive and quick. The only problem I had was when I accidentally moved my mouse out of focus and the paddle stopped moving. This may not be a problem for you depending on your window manager, I could always configure mine to improve the situation!

I found that the game was quite fun, and offered something different to the other breakout games out there that mostly follow after the classic Arkanoid. The challenge is high enough depending on the speed you set, and you shouldn’t find yourself bogged down trying to get that last one or two bricks for very long. So if you are a fan of breakout games, have a Unix system, and want to play a good breakout game, I’d recommend giving Xboing a try.


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!

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