Posts Tagged ‘Sun Fire


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 I logged in and found a hideously out of date FVWM installed as the default window manager, time to install some software!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.


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.’


ESR Meter, Logic Probe and a Sun Frame Buffer

Recently I built two kits that I was given for my birthday. I had asked Dad for them as they will later help me diagnose and hopefully repair old computer electronics, well at least I hope so. The first kit is a simple logic probe, the second an ESR meter. I’ve assembled a few kits before so I’m not the best at soldering but I’m good enough for through hole components. Fortunately these kits were through hole only.



The logic probe was by far the easier one to build, mostly because of the smaller number of components. It consists of a single logic chip filled with NOR gates and some basic passive components around it. It took about 2 and a half hours to complete with pretty much no problems. For those who don’t know a logic probe basically will tell you is a line is high or low, and with this probe it can also detect floating lines (a voltage that is neither high or low). It is a pretty simple device to build and use.

The ESR meter was a completely different kettle of fish. For starters it has many more components, it took me an hour just to position all the resistors on the board there were that many! The size of the pads for the components also seemed closer together and smaller making any soldering work much tighter and more fiddly. Controlling the amount of solder applied to joints helped form, but it was easy to use too much. The chips and display were all socketed which whilst isn’t easier to solder, it does mean you’re less likely to overheat the components. In hindsight I probably could have foregone the sockets as I can solder IC’s with out too much trouble now.

An ESR meter is a useful bit of kit to have for a few different scenarios, the most common being detecting faulty electrolytic capacitors. These caps (as they are commonly known) are a common cause of faults with power supplies, CRT’s, main boards, you name it. It is often an easy fix if you can identify the faulty cap. This is where the ESR meter makes things easier as it can test caps in circuit. If you want to know more about ESR meters look here.

I hope to use both these new tools to solve some issues with some of my older machines.

Frame buffer

Frame buffer

Finally, a PCI frame buffer card that I got off ebay recently. It is a Wildcat Expert3D-Lite which has some basic 3D acceleration, I’m hoping to be able to use it as a frame buffer for either my Sun Fire R280 or Sun Fire V440. Unfortunately I did some web searching and it seems unlikely that it will be compatible, but one can hope. In either case it’s a nice addition to the collection.


Inside a Sunfire V440

This weekend I decided to take a look inside my second Sunfire V440 to see if there was anything obvious stopping it from functioning properly. When I got the other machine running I also tested this one and unfortunately it didn’t boot. I have a key to be able to put the machines in diagnostic mode, which I did. There were a large number of messages on the serial terminal that scrolled past quite fast. From what I could read it seemed like one of the processor modules is likely to have bad RAM in it or has failed itself. I had a look to see if anything looked obviously corroded and if a simple cleaning might fix it.

I took some photo’s of the inside for your enjoyment.

Continue reading ‘Inside a Sunfire V440’


Hardware pickup: New Sparc servers!

Now I’m not the one to normally brag about getting new hardware that I’ve acquired (I am collecting on a regular basis), but I have recently been given some hardware that just makes me giddy with excitement! A friend of a friend of mine was looking to get rid of some computer hardware and I was fortunate enough to get to choose some of it to save from the scrap heap. I got 3 Sun Microsystems Sun Fire servers that are in good shape. One is a Sun Fire R280 which is basically complete with the exception of a RAM module that I will have to seek out. It has both its CPU slots populated and a couple of high performance hard drives, so the system is basically complete with that minor exception. The other two systems are both the same: Sun fire V440 machines. These have both been upgraded to have all 4 processors but are missing hard disks at the moment.

Now what will I do with these machine you might ask? Well I’m still deciding but it will certainly be fun setting them up and using them. I will have to dream up some kind of processor intensive use for them. I’m still thinking about which operating system to install on them. Fortunately being one of the newer sparc architectures, most Linux and BSD operating systems will have pretty good support for them. At the moment I’m thinking of putting FreeBSD on one, and Debian on one of the others. I may use the BSD one to build all the packages for the sparc platform just for the heck of it! I’m planning on scrapping one of the V440s for spare parts for the other one. It appears to have a problem I haven’t been able to diagnose yet, but it has many spare parts that may be useful if I ever need to replace any in the working one. There may not be much wrong with it so I will try to get the management console working over serial first to find out what is wrong with it. The serial adapters I have don’t seem to communicate with the V440 machines, but work with the R280. I suspect that the newer ones require different serial adapters that I will have to seek out.

I was hoping to find some parts for my SparcStation 20, I found some hard disks that may fit but didn’t find what I wanted most. I am after a Mbus module that has one or two super sparc processors on it, but was unable to find one. That being said I was very happy to find what I did! I never imagined I would ever get to have machines such as these ones, and I am very very grateful to the person who donated them to me! They certainly will get looked after!

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