Thursday, April 7, 2011

No, a 16-year-old Sun Sparcstation doesn’t work like a new x86 box

My recent foray into running the 1995-era Sun Sparcstation 20, lately with OpenBSD, isn’t because I think a 16-year-old box will be in any way comparable to a modern (or even 10-year-old) Intel-based box.

Because it won’t.

Honestly, I didn’t know what to think when I got the SS20 for $10 a few years ago. But I wasn’t out a lot of money. I made sure to wait for a Sparcstation that was close to home to minimize shipping costs.

In case you’re wondering (and I know you are), it’s almost impossible to do “modern” computing on the Sparc. If it were a 64-bit SPARC box and not a 32-bit architecture, there would be a whole lot more options.

As it is, with 32-bit Sparc and Solaris 9 you can run the old Netscape browser that shipped in 2003. You can find packages for Firefox 2.0.0.x. That’s about it.

No current Linux that I know of runs on 32-bit SPARC. Again, 64-bit is a different story. Even FreeBSD runs on 64-bit only.

Unless you want to stick with Solaris, and let’s be honest — since you have to pay for Solaris updates, you’re stuck with a very unpatched box, you don’t want to do that. Unless you really, really, really want to learn Solaris (and use Solaris 9 to do it). I think Solaris 10 works on the SS20, but the Solaris 9 box of software cost me a big $1.

NetBSD and OpenBSD still support 32-bit SPARC. I’d love to use NetBSD, but 5.x crashes early and often on this particular SS20. (NetBSD 4.x ran better.)

OpenBSD does not crash on my SS20. From what I can see, OpenBSD on 32-bit SPARC runs very well.

I have a 50 MHz CPU and 256 MB of RAM. OpenBSD doesn’t support multiple processors on 32-bit SPARC. Solaris 9 supposedly does, but I really noticed no difference when I loaded up the box with two 50 MHz CPUs as opposed to one. (OK, you can all stop laughing now …)

But OpenBSD is very stable on this old, old Sparcstation.

X works out of the box. You just can’t do much with it in the realm of desktop apps. The times when I was able to run NetBSD (the 4.x era), there are a lot of packages for 32-bit Sparc, but a great many of them won’t run. They’re auto-built, I think, and there’s a lot of dead weight in that repository.

There aren’t nearly as many 32-bit Sparc packages for OpenBSD as there are for NetBSD. The difference is that the OpenBSD packages, relatively few though they are, do actually run.

You can build other things from ports, but my experience is that if it’s not in an OpenBSD 32-bit Sparc package, chances are that it either won’t build or won’t run.

“Intense” GUI applications don’t run so great on this old box. The Sylpheed mail client works, as does the Geany text editor. But they’re slow. I stick to things like Nedit, which are much faster on this old desktop.

The Dillo web browser used to be in the 32-bit Sparc OpenBSD repo. It’s not there any more. (Maybe Dillo will build from Ports … you never know.)

So right now, the text-based Lynx is my web browser in OpenBSD 32-bit Sparc.

I’m really just using this box for fun. The idea of having a Sparcstation in the ’90s is … a pretty cool idea. Having one now, the hardware being virtually worthless and all, is still kind of cool. I’m just having fun putting the box together with cheap parts I’ve cobbled together from here and there, installing OSes and seeing how they run.

My next project is going to be a small, fanless, power-sipping server. Something modern.

But I’ve had fun with the Sparcstation 20, and I’m not letting go of it just yet.