Posts Tagged ‘Sparc


3rd Aniversary and Work on the Sparcstation

This weekend marks the third year I’ve been writing this blog. The first thing I wrote about was my Sparcstation 20, which I had just acquired at the time. I installed NetBSD 4.01 on it, which was reasonable then, but has become quite out of date now. So 186 posts and 3 years later I’m in the process of upgrading the machine to NetBSD 6.1.5.

Machine without the PSU

Machine without the PSU

This has been a long time coming, and there are a number of reasons for the upgrade. Firstly, the older version of NetBSD was becoming more difficult to keep software up to date on. I had stuck with 4.01 for some time because of performance issues I had when trying out 6.1.2 last year. But some packages didn’t update properly lately and I had been left with some software working and others just becoming broken. I could have stuck with an older version of pkgsrc, but that has problems as well.

Another reason is I’ve received the hardware required to use the machine as a desktop machine with screen,keyboard and mouse instead of a headless server. I retired the machine from active server duty and built a replacement server quite recently to facilitate both upgrading the OS and hardware to try and make it a practical desktop workstation. I was very fortunate to receive a donation of a keyboard and mouse suitable for the machine, and have since bought the frame buffer card and adapter to complete the hardware necessary.

Frame Buffer

Frame Buffer

I got the hardware up and running last weekend and powered up the machine with everything set up for the first time. I was happy that without upgrading the OS, I had the display, keyboard and mouse all working with an X server with little effort. I was impressed that the X server seemed quite speedy compared to what I expected. However X server (Xsun) was really outdated and didn’t seem to support everything thrown at it.

So I began to install NetBSD 6.1.4. I found it was best to use the serial console for the install as the install disk does not handle the sun console on the frame buffer properly. It seems that it just doesn’t have the TERMCAP entries for the sun console, as once the system is installed the console works fine. The install worked pretty much the same as the older version with a few minor changes. The performance of 6.1.4 seemed better than the last time I tried an upgrade, but still isn’t as fast as the older 4.01 release.

So I’ve begun building the system from sources to take advantage of the V8 Supersparc. I’m assuming the binary distributions you download are actually built for the slower V7 Sparc that can be common in some of the other older and slower machines. The build process is surprisingly very easy to follow. We will see if there is any significant difference when it’s finished building.



Building a Replacement Server

I’ve been using my old SparcStation 20 for about 3 years for storing my source repositories, allowing VPN access and web serving among other functions. I originally set it up like this as an interesting project to see if I could make good use of exceptionally old hardware with more modern software (NetBSD in this case) and it turned out to be quite handy. The experience as a whole has been a very positive one.

Sun Keyboard and Mouse

Sun Keyboard and Mouse

Now the time has come to not so much retire the SparcStation, but move it into a new function as a vintage workstation. I was very fortunate to receive a donation of a type 5c keyboard and mouse suitable for use with it, all I have to get is a frame buffer card and I can plug in a screen and use it as a desktop. Fortunately frame buffer cards are much easier to find than keyboard/mouse combinations so I shouldn’t have an issue finding one.

Having decided to build a new server machine, I went looking through my collection of old hardware to see what I could build out of my spare parts. I already had the large tower case recently donated, so I checked out what was installed in it. Turns out it was a Duron 800, which is quite reasonable, but after measuring its power consumption (about 70W without hard drives) I decided I could make a machine that was cheaper to run with some other parts.

Obviously I want something more efficient than the SparcStation, which uses around 130W with everything installed. It turned out to be quite difficult to find x86 hardware that is efficient once everything is installed. After looking at what I have and doing a bit of research I decided to try out the old Coppermine Celeron 800Mhz as it had quite a low TDP. Powered up with a graphic card but no hard disks it used about 60W, unfortunately it didn’t want to boot, and no amount of prodding got it to work.

Looking in my collection of old hardware I didn’t have many alternatives. I could use a socket 7 based system, but that would likely be _slower_ than the sparc and may use a similar amount of power. I have some Pentium II boards, but I wanted them as spares for my Win98 system. In the end I used some suitable socket 478 (Pentium 4) hardware, which initially looked bad efficiency wise. The P4 of course was known for running hot, and hence also using lots of power.

My older brother donated a MSI socket 478 mainboard to me some time ago without a CPU. I looked through my collection of CPUs and found a Celeron 2.4Ghz and heat sink. I installed it and 1Gbyte of DDR and it worked with little effort, but the power consumption without hard disks was about 80 something watts, not ideal. I decided to press on with this hardware as I had no other vintage parts that would be suitable, and that power usage ought to be the worst for the board and processor. That and I don’t have money for new hardware at the moment.

Machine Assembled

Machine Assembled

So I assembled the machine in the chassis with a Pioneer DVD drive and two Western Digital hard drives. I selected two 80Gb ATA WD drives as they turned out to have the best power consumption and reasonable capacity. All together, just sitting at the BIOS screen the machine used about 100W. Again a worst case and not that great a saving, but at least it’s significantly faster.

I decided to stick with NetBSD for this build for a few reasons, firstly it is simpler to migrate the configuration and data from the old machine. Secondly I like NetBSD because of how light it is and how easy it is to work with. I downloaded the latest version (6.1.4 as of this writing) and went through the install process. Installation was fairly easy, but I couldn’t get X to work correctly on my hardware. I didn’t have a local X server before, so I didn’t worry about getting it to work beyond XDMCP.

After installation I measured the power consumption of the machine at idle, I was pleasantly surprised that it dropped to about 65-70 Watts, a nice improvement over the sparc. Power usage peaks at about 100W when the machine is under full load as I first thought. After setting up the hard disks to power down after idle for a while I managed to reduce this to just bellow 60W.

I’m now happy with the hardware I have set up, although I could use modern hardware and save even more power. I’m currently in the process of setting up the software. I’m rebuilding the kernel and userland for NetBSD. It’s a surprisingly easy process, and well worth it especially for older hardware. I’m not ready to deploy the machine yet, but it looks like it will work well.


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.


Some NetBSD Games



Having recently upgraded the disk space on the Sparcstation I decided I would go about installing a bunch more useful utilities and some games. I installed some image processing and capture software called XV so I could capture screenshots on the machine, this is what I’ve used to capture todays screenshots. Todays games were too small to justify a whole post to themselves, so I thought I’d post about a few of them together.




One of the first games I built and tried was greed. It runs in a colour terminal and can be played via SSH or telnet. The game is very simple, you are an @ symbol in a playfield full of numbers. You move in the direction of one of the numbers which causes you to move that distance, erasing numbers as you go. In order to be allowed to move in a direction you must be able to travel the full distance specified by the number without hitting a border or an area you’ve already erased. The game ends when you can’t make any more valid moves.

You use the numeric keypad to move, which for me felt reasonably intuitive. The game has some nice in game help, and is simple to get running and play. It doesn’t take long to play so it’s good to for a quick distraction.




This game is modeled after missile command from the arcades, but with one difference, it’s in 3d. The vector graphics are quite nice but can be a little slow over a network connection for some reason. Fortunately the game has some built in commands to change the graphics settings. The controls are also a bit awkward, I found that it was too sensitive, such that small mouse movements often moved my targetting reticule way too far. Fortunately the difficulty curve isn’t too steep, but the control for this really let it down.




Xbomber is based on the bomberman series of games. It is interestingly a multiplayer game, but not implemented the way you might expect. The one program can connect to multiple X servers, allowing two players per server sharing the one keyboard. There is a maximum of four players over four X servers. You can also play solo against the computer AI, but it really is quite a weak player, it looks like it is just making random movements. It is probably not the easiest thing to set up the multiple displays, X authority stuff would surely get in the way, but I’m sure it can be done.




XJump is a simple platform game where you have to climb a tower. If you fall off the bottom of the screen the game is over. Controls are simply the arrow keys and work quite well. The part of game that will catch you out most often is the seemingly frictionless movement of your character. It is quite easy to jump and fly off the other end of the platform you’re jumping for. So it means you have to be quite careful how fast you move when jumping larger distances. Another game that is quite fun, but short.




I’m not sure where the name from this one comes from, it is a simple maze shooter, where you have to collect a number of animating stars around the level. You have to either avoid or shoot the badies around the levels, some of them will shoot at you. I’ve been caught out by bullets wrapping around the edges of the screen, I often shot myself! You can use this to your advantage, but more often than not it ends up hurting you. It’s a good little distraction, but the graphics could have been a little prettier.




Finally XWorm is basically a snake game plain and simple. It has some nice graphics, and simple controls that are easy to use. It plays quite fast, so you have to have pretty good reflexes to play for very long. There is only a bunch of mushrooms on screen to avoid, and a fence around the edge, so even Qbasic Nibbles has a bit more variety! Otherwise it plays quite well.

So there you have it, a few simple games that work on pretty much anything you can run NetBSD on with an X server (or from an XTerminal). Most of these were simple little distraction type games rather than anything you’d spend a lot of time playing. They are for the most part quite fun, and a reminder of what games under *nix like systems used to be like.


Upgrading the SparcStation

This weekend I was fortunate in that I finally got another mbus module for my Sparcstation 20. I was however  unfortunate in that my data drive in it has failed. Because I back up on a regular basis, nothing much was lost, just some work I had done over the week that I also have stored elsewhere.

The machine had only 2 2Gb drives in it previously so I decided I would take the opportunity to also upgrade the hard disks. I had two fujitsu 18G  10K rpm drives set aside for just this purpose. Seeing as this would mean re-installing the OS, I thought I’d give the latest NetBSD (6.1.2) a try on the machine.

The mbus module I got is a SM61 that fortunately works out-of-the-box with the dual 50Mhz processor board I already have. Sun Sparc machines are unusual in that they support mismatched processors running in the same system. In this case as long as the motherboard is happy, and the processors are the same architecture (supersparc) everything is peachy.

So I burned a copy of the NetBSD 6.1.2 install disk and began the installation process. I noticed straight away a performance difference between 6.1.2 and the older 4.0.1. It seemed bogged down and slow compared to the older release for some reason, and the install disk would not extract the system from the CD. I had to instead use HTTP to get the base system installed.

I installed some packages including a benchmark utility called bytebench. Benchmarks like it are useful for determining if there is any change in speed of the system. I was unimpressed that the test results said the machine was _slower_ despite having an extra processor and faster hard disks. The old NetBSD with old hard disks and only 2 cpus would get about 7.2, where as the new setup maxed out at 6.2.

It may be possible that it requires a recompile to make it work faster. I suspect the distribution is compiled for the lowest cpu in mind, a V7 sparc. This system has V8 processors and should be faster. I however don’t really want to spend the time compiling the entire system, just for what might be a small gain.

Instead I’m reinstalling the old 4.0.1 version of NetBSD. Fortunately there isn’t much disadvantage in doing so. I’ve been able to build packages from recent versions of pkgsrc without a problem, and everything seems to work. I noticed the improved speed as soon as I fired up the installer. I have a bunch of binary package builds from the last install I had so that will also save me some time. I may try building this system from sources eventually if I have time, we’ll see if it makes a difference.


Frame buffer and hard disk follow-up.

I investigated a couple of interesting things hardware wise yesterday that may be of interest.

Frame buffer

Frame buffer

Firstly I tried out the Sun Wildcat Expert3d lite frame buffer card I got during this week. To my surprise it does indeed work with my systems, in fact it seems to be hardware compatible with both of them.  For those who haven’t read my earlier posts, I have two more “recent” Sun machines, a Sun Fire R280 and a Sun Fire V440. I tried the frame buffer card in both machines and the ROM not only recognised the cards but displayed boot messages on the screen.

I don’t have any Sun keyboards or mice for either machine so I wondered if I could use a standard HID compliant PC keyboard and mouse. This also surprisingly worked quite well both systems recognised the keyboard as being connected as long as you plugged it into port 0 (the left most bottom connector looking at the back). I wondered what issue people were having with these machines, I didn’t wonder long.

Continue reading ‘Frame buffer and hard disk follow-up.’

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