Posts Tagged ‘Sun Microsystems

01
Jun
17

SparcStation Desktop project.

Unfortunately I’ve been neglecting my poor old Sun hardware, mostly because of time and space constraints. I thought I’d try to go some way to correcting this by actually beginning the process of setting up the SparcStation 20 as a vintage desktop work station. I’d been planning on doing this for ages, as long ago as when I built the replacement server machine.

Hardware wise I’ve not acquired anything new, although everything needed a test and some basic cleaning to get it working. I’m still having issues, but I’m unsure if it’s an hardware fault or a problem with the software I’m installing. We’ll get to the software in a moment, first we’ll look at the hardware installed.

At the moment I have 3 CPUs in the machine. They are all V8 Supersparcs with two 50Mhz chips on one module and a 60Mhz one on a module on it’s own. Each module has 1Mb of cache memory which doesn’t sound like much now, but was a large amount when these machines first appeared.

Frame Buffer

Frame Buffer

I’ve currently got about 304Mb of memory installed, I had more but unfortunately one of the sticks that was in it fails to detect anymore. I’d like to have a VSIMM as that would allow me to use the built in cg14 frame buffer (graphics card) which is probably the best performing one available for machines of it’s type. I managed to purchase a 2Mb TGX+ frame buffer and adapter to connect it to a VGA screen, which is doing an odd resolution of 1152×900 at 8 bits per pixel. It’s obviously not the fastest, but it does the job. I’ve selected an 136Gb 10K RPM SCA drive for the hard disk, certainly a bit of overkill, but it would just be sitting on my shelf otherwise.

The initial issue I had was stack under run errors after the boot screen came up and the machine attempted to boot. My first instinct was of course failed memory, which lead me to find the undetected memory module. But no matter which memory I ran I had the same problem. After some poking into the system environment (kinda like the BIOS settings in the PC but without the nice interface.) I found some items that were not at their defaults and changing them back seems to have fixed the stack under run.

Dual CPU MBUS module

Dual CPU MBUS module

Unfortunately that’s not the end of the issues, as after installing and running NetBSD for a while the machine will hang, reset or have a watchdog timer trigger. This certainly could be faulty RAM, but the power supply is also a potential suspect as is the operating system itself. I need to follow this up with some more testing, unfortunately I don’t have a spare PSU to test with.

Software wise I’m much more prepared and have had much more success. I’ve been using Qemu, which does full-system emulation for a number of old and different platforms, including Sparc systems. Qemu has been useful for building packages and the kernel specifically for my machine. Something I had done ages ago when I first intended to do the install.

At the time I built for NetBSD 6.1.4 which is the OS I’ve installed and tried out on the machine. It’s out of date by quite some margin now, so I’ve set up a new virtual machine to start work on getting 7.1 packages and kernel built. It has a bunch of improved hardware support, particularly in the frame buffer acceleration, so I’m keen to see how it goes. I’m still building packages I want for it, but I’m happy with 7.1 under qemu so far. I’m hoping the improved hardware support helps with the hang/watch dog/reset issues.

When it’s all done, I’ll post about what it’s like to use the machine for specific tasks, like say browsing the web and checking email.

19
Feb
15

Hardware pickups

Recently I’ve been able to pick up some interesting hardware and I thought I’d share some photos of it with you. It was also an opportunity to try out some better lighting in the hope of getting better pictures.

387sx 33MhzThis unfortunately wasn’t the greatest photo due to the reflectivity of the packaging.

First up is a pair of 80387sx co-processors from the mid 80’s. Very few people actually bought and installed these chips as floating point arithmetic was mostly only used in scientific applications or Computer Aided Design. Consequently chips like these can be quite rare, and this pair clock in a 33Mhz making them some of the faster 387’s.

Intel weren’t the only company making co-processors for the 386, these included Cyrix, Chips and Technologies,  IIT, ULSI and Weitek. Most of these were faster than the Intel part, but had some compatibility issues, and some were of completely different designs.

Interestingly the NPU’s as they were known could be clocked asynchronously from the CPU. They also could operate whilst the CPU was busy doing something else, which gave machines with these some very crude parallel capabilities.

Here we have a Sun Microsystems mainboard from a Sparcstation IPX. The machine came in a neat lunchbox form-factor that was actually impressively small. This particular board has a Weitek Sparc processor that ran about 40Mhz. These chips had an FPU on-die, so they would have been similar to the 486 in performance. The LSI chip and some of it’s supporting chips are likely the 1Mb of system cache which was quite large for the time. The Sun GX chip is a graphics controller which contained some basic drawing acceleration. These features made the IPX quite an impressive little workstation. Most of the chips and the board itself appear to be manufactured in 1993.

It’s a shame I don’t have the rest of the machine, I’d like to be able to run this little beast. I’m not even sure I can get RAM for it, or if what I have is compatible. I’ll have to keep an eye out for the chassis and other parts.

Mechanical Keyboard

Mechanical Keyboard

This might look like an ordinary keyboard, but it is a proper mechanical switch keyboard that came with the next piece of hardware (a PC clone). Despite its very plain looks it feels fantastic to type on and has that distinctive mechanical sound. It has a larger DIN plug which actually suites many machines up to and included many Pentium based machines. It is a bit grubby but in otherwise good condition.

 

Lastly we have an interesting PC clone. This one was made by a company called Microbyte, which turns out that they were an Australian company based in Adelaide who made PC clones such as this one. It is clear that they designed and built their own boards and wrote their own PC compatible BIOS. Quite an achievement for what must have been a small engineering company. I found very little information about them online unfortunately.

My machine is a PC230sx, which has a 386sx@20Mhz with a Trident VGA card. It has SIPP memory fitted for both the main memory and video memory. They installed an unusually large amount for the VGA, having a full 1Mb of video memory. The system RAM is 2Mb in total.

When I bought this machine I didn’t think it had a hard disk, but it turns out that it has a Seagate ST3144A which is 130Mb. Probably an impressive and expensive drive in it’s day. This drive still works, I just had to configure the CMOS with the drives details which are handily written all over the machine.

You may notice the socket for a WD33c93 chip, this was a SCSI controller chip. This would have to be one of the few older machines that have the capability of on-board SCSI. I’m not sure why the chip is missing here, but these machines were apparently commonly fitted with SCSI drives instead. Looking in the BIOS seems to indicate that they were supported for booting. I may have to find one of these chips and see if I can get SCSI to work.

Between the VGA chip and VLSI chips lays an extremely long header where the expansion riser card would normally be inserted. This machine doesn’t have the riser card, so I can’t plug in a sound card or anything else which is a bit of a shame. I’m surprised the machine works without it as I’ve seen many other machines which don’t work correctly or at all when it is missing.

This board has some stickers that look like they were written by a service technician, they are attached to a part of the board under the floppy drive where there is a blank area containing no visible traces or chips. The first sticker reports an invalid opcode at a particular memory address which could indicate a problem with RAM or software.

Fortunately after testing the machine I’ve found the only problem so far is the malfunctioning COM1, the rest of the machine appears to be functional, and the IDE hard drive boots DOS ok. I have noticed that the Floppy drive light stays on, something which sometimes indicated incorrect installation of the cable. In this case the cable is correct, and the drive even reads disks, so there is likely a jumper setting on the drive that needs correcting.

I benchmarked this machine with Topbench to see how it compares to others. It was marginally faster than a 286@16Mhz with a 287 co-processor. I think there may be a few factors that contribute to this. Firstly I think the RAM must be a similar speed to that in the 286, thus slowing down the memory and opcode tests. It does perform better in the 3d games test which I found interesting as that has some floating point arithmetic. Luckily this is perfect for testing my homebrew platform game.

Finally I’m pleased with how the extra lighting has improved the pictures, but my technique still needs work. Perhaps another source of lighting is called for, or perhaps finally a step up to a better camera.

20
Oct
14

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.

 

17
Nov
13

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.

30
Oct
13

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.

Kits

Kits

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.

19
Aug
13

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’

01
Jul
12

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!




Blogs I Follow

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.

ancientelectronics

retro computing and gaming plus a little more

Retrocomputing with 90's SPARC

21st-Century computing, the hard way

lazygamereviews

MS-DOS game reviews, retro ramblings and more...