Friday, April 1, 2011

OpenBSD on 32-bit SPARC in 2011


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I’ve been going back and forth on whether to get rid of my Sun Sparcstation 20 and all of the hardware and software that goes with it.

Once I got the SS20 for $10 plus a nominal shipping fee (and it’s the shipping that’ll kill you) from eBay, I got it running with OpenBSD and Solaris 9. Yeah, it’s a 1995-era system, and even though SPARC is optimized for Unix in a way x86 will never be, there’s only so much you can do with a 50 MHz SPARC CPU and 256 MB of RAM.

Even though I have a boxed edition of Solaris 9 for SPARC (I paid $1 for it), I don’t have access to updates, so it’s basically a system that is preserved in digital amber circa 2003. Not much help. And I’m not crazy about Solaris.

Both a couple of years ago and today, NetBSD is pretty crashy on this particular SS20, so then as now, I turned to OpenBSD.

In a worrisome development, OpenBSD 4.8 and 4.9-current have problems booting that relate to the SCSI hard drive. It keeps throwing off errors of some kind that make booting an excruciatingly long process.

I had an OpenBSD 4.4 SPARC 32 disc lying around, and I used that to do a trouble-free install. I’m posting this entry from the console with the Lynx text-based web browser just to see if it works.

And if you are seeing this entry, it does.

I’m not crazy about being stuck back in time with OpenBSD 4.4. I don’t know at what point in its development OpenBSD started having these disk problems (with my particular system and disk, anyway). OpenBSD was the last OS to install and run well on this 1995-made box. If the project is leaving my SPARC hardware behind, it’s probably time to junk this heavy hunk of computer.

But it does run OpenBSD 4.4 so incredibly well — and I’ve never found a computer that wouldn’t run OpenBSD, which is more universal than The Universal Operating System in that regard.

But the Sparc 20’s SCSI disk problems that only manifest themselves in OpenBSD 4.7/4.8/4.9-current at this point (and I will go into detail on this in the near future) trouble me — Is it just my SS20, or the whole of 32-bit Sparc that’s dying without a modern OS to cling to?

  1. Curt Howland

    Monday, April 4, 2011 - 20:27:15

    Three times I had the pleasure of installing Debian in SPARC-32 hardware, and each time it ran so very, very well.

    The OpenSPARC project was one I was seriously hoping would take off, but with the advent of commodity 4, 6 even 12 core CPUs, the x86 platform continues to represent where all the raw speed is.

    Anyone who thinks the Debian installer is ugly has never tried to install a system using the serial console port!

  2. Curt Howland

    Monday, April 4, 2011 - 20:31:53

    “Is it just my SS20, or the whole of 32-bit Sparc that’s dying without a modern OS to cling to?”

    The reality is that the hardware platform is dying simply because it’s obsolete. Moore’s Law and its corollaries have created an environment where any hardware that doesn’t have massive R&D investment continuously will fall behind and people will simply not use it.

    When Debian dropped the SPARC-32 platform, that’s when I knew it had been left behind. I leared UNIX in 1992 on a SPARC-2, that quiet, clean pizza box holds a very dear place in my heart. But heck, I wouldn’t even know what to DO with one, I cannot imagine setting it to transcode some video, it would take days!

  3. Tony Miller

    Tuesday, April 5, 2011 - 13:43:30

    Ahh, memories. I had some Sun hardware I had bought from Ebay and/or our local Salvation Army Store (that’s what happens when you live in Blacksburg, VA, you get a Sparc 5 for $1.75 in 2002). I had a dual processor Sparcstation 10, an UltraSparc 1, and the aforementioned Sparcstation 5. At the time I could run Solaris 8 and 9, and they seemed OK, although X on the really-non-optimized 256 color frame buffers of the 5 and 10 was painful (lucky you with the 20 and the full color graphics!). I even had the audio box for the 10. Besides Solaris, I tried out NetBSD, and it seemed OK, but since I was a Solaris/Linux guy (mostly Linux, with lots of Googling for Solaris stuff) it was really foreign. What I did with the machines was get them hooked up at work and crunching on Seti@Home. I remember having to Ebay a SCSI CD-ROM drive that would work with the 512k block sizes that were the assumption on that generation Sun hardware. Good Times. I eventually moved a couple times and eventually recycled the stuff. I hated to see it go, but it’s kind of like where you are now.

  4. Tom

    Tuesday, April 5, 2011 - 17:46:32

    I have a Sparc LX I use as an SSH gateway box. It’s got a slower CPU then the 20, but I don’t need much.

    Sun hardware will run & run & run 24×7. The 20s were very good.

    If you have a 2nd network port OpenBSD makes a nice firewall.

    If you have SCSI devices you need/want to access. Which might lead to a backup server. It’d be limited by tape size and network (100T) bandwidth access.

    Solaris 10 would be very slow. Solaris 2.4 -> Solaris 9 can run on it. OpenStep was available.

    If you’re interested in supporting the the BSDen or Linuxen on Sparc, it’d work well.

    As a desktop, I can’t think of any reason I’d prefer it over an x86 based system.

    Nostalgia is the only real reason I’d keep a non x86 server. The lack of SATA, PCI devices, Gigabit ethernet and USB limit the uses.

    As a desktop, Video and Sound will limit it. Further, if you surf the web you’d be lagging with the browser, wouldn’t have Flash, etc…..

  5. Branedy

    Wednesday, April 6, 2011 - 14:42:18

    I didn’t have any issues with OpenBSD 4.8 when I loaded it to a ‘gifted’ SS5. I did document a bit at my blog, if you wish to see my results. The issues I had / are having is that the 1GB disk is only barely able to load the full instance of 4.8 leaving almost no space for applications.

    The thought comes to mind that the SS5 and SS20 are slightly different in the I/O section which may be your issue with the SCSI drive.

  6. steven

    Thursday, April 7, 2011 - 03:04:04

    I isolated the problem. It’s the hard drive, a 35 GB Hitachi SCSI drive that works great with Solaris 9 and OpenBSD < 4.8.

    I pulled the Hitachi drive, dropped in a 2 GB Seagate drive (you can swap them very easily - pop the lever down, lift the drive out), and then OpenBSD 4.8 had a clean dmesg with no errors.

    Unfortunately, beside being only 2 GB in size, the Seagate is noisy as hell.

    So I installed OpenBSD 4.7, and that is doing great.

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Steven Rosenberg writes about many things in many places, including Debian (and FlatPress) right here.

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