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Old Iron for Fun and Profit!

by Drew Dunn
2003/07/24

I got out of the US Navy about eight years ago. When I served on shore duty, one of the jobs that I had was working in a desktop publishing organization designing training manuals. Now, this was in the era when a 386 was the mainstream CPU and 486's were just entering the market. You could buy a fully loaded 486-based computer with a 750MB hard drive, 1X CD-ROM and 16MB of RAM for around $4000.00. There was still some question about whether or not Amigas were going to make a serious run at the PC. Windows for Workgroups was for the masses, but OS/2 Warp was gaining ground. But none of these systems were powerful enough to do what we wanted to do with our graphical publishing system.

We used Sun SparcStation 1+ systems. Of course, today those funky little boxes would be considered archaic dinosaurs, just like the 80386's that the rest of the world was using. That was twelve years ago. Fast forward to today.

You can run down to your local department store and buy a pretty powerful computer for less than $1000. If you build it yourself, you might save a little bit. If you install a free operating system like Linux or FreeBSD, you'll save again. And if you shop around on Ebay or in your local classifieds for a used system, you can find some real bargains.

I've done that and managed to come up with enough computers and parts to keep the NOSPIN Network Operations Center running on a shoestring budget. But the problem with buying used PC hardware to use as servers or even as a desktop system is that PCs are designed with a relatively short useful life in mind. The upgrade cycle for them is around 18 months. Of course, that doesn't mean that every year and a half your computer dies, but they aren't put together with an eye toward lasting a lifetime. And at the commodity prices they command, I don't see that as a problem. Except, of course, that I want to run a network on a budget.

With that in mind, I kept thinking back to those old SparcStation 1+ systems. In many ways, they were leaps and bounds ahead of what was available at the time. They had built in networking, video, audio, SCSI controllers and were reasonable powerful. The case was very small (the term "pizza box" originated with these computers) and somewhat stylish, compared to the dull, beige boxes of the IBM era. But in other ways, they were behind the times. They used proprietary expansion slots and memory. They were expensive to fix and complicated to configure. We spent a lot of money on maintenance contracts and had a full time system administrator to keep them running.

You could probably find one of those SparcStation 1+'s on Ebay for a few bucks. And, honestly, that's about all it's worth. But, of course, there's a point to this story, so you know that there must be more to old hardware than just PC's and SparcStation 1+'s. And there is.

What if I told you that for under a hundred bucks you could buy a 64-bit Sun workstation and have it delivered to your door? Well, you can. No, it won't be the latest and greatest...it won't rival the speed of your Pentium 4 PC. It probably won't even be loaded with memory. But it will be cheap, well built and just the thing for cutting your teeth on UNIX.

Remember when I talked about running a network on a budget? Old PCs are nice because they're cheap, but they also wear out. Replacing parts isn't much of a financial burden because the parts are what make the PCs cheap in the first place. But the time and aggravation has a cost. When I reached the end of my rope (aggravation-wise), I started looking at Sun workstations and servers to replace the Pentium II and Pentium III based systems running the NOSPIN network.

For about $300.00 (including shipping), I ended up with two SparcStation 20's and two Ultra 1's. Look around Ebay...you'll find that a typical system has 128MB to 256MB of memory and 1GB to 8GB of hard drive. The Ultra 1 systems will support up to 1GB of memory and both systems will accept large hard drives, 18GB and over. And better yet, you don't have to pay for the operating system.

Aurora Linux is a port of RedHat Linux to the SuperSparc and UltraSparc architectures. That covers just about every Sun system made. A few odd configurations don't work, but you'll find descriptions of them on the web site. Currently, Aurora Linux is based on RedHat 7.3, but a port of RedHat 9.0 is underway.

I suppose the obvious question is how does a $100 Sun workstation compare with a PC? If you're comparing dollars to dollars, $100 of Sun comes out way ahead of the PC in performance. Even a dual 75MHz SparcStation 20 will outperform a similarly priced PC. But obviously there are drawbacks. You won't be playing games on this computer. You also won't be using any Microsoft products on it. But you will find that it's an excellent web-browsing and emailing system and since these computers were designed for UNIX, you can't ask for a better environment to learn on.

SparcStation 20's support up to four processors: SuperSparcs at 75MHz max and HyperSparcs at 150MHz max. You can fill them up with eight memory modules of 64MB each. Want 24-bit graphics? No problem, just replace one or two of the modules with a SparcStation VSIMM. Two serial ports, a parallel port, video, networking...it's all built in. The system is self contained. There are expansion ports, using Sun's MBUS and SBUS slots, but there really isn't much that you'd want to add to one of these. The Super/HyperSparc processors are 32-bit CPUs. But, given the price that these systems sell for on Ebay, that's not much of a drawback.

The Ultra 1's have either a 140MHz or 170MHz processor that is fixed - what you get is what you get - no upgrades. The eight memory sockets support up to 1GB of memory. For high color graphics, you'll probably have to look around Ebay. The standard graphics adapter usually only supports 8-bit color. But you'll find 24-bit SBUS cards for under $20. All of the ports of the SparcStation 20, but the external SCSI port supports wide (16-bit) data paths, or Ultra Wide devices. This is a true 64-bit system, although Linux is a bit confusing on them. The operating system itself is 64 bits, but the programs are only 32 bits. According to the gurus on the Aurora mailing list, that's not a drawback until you start dealing with more than 4GB of memory. Since a gig is the max on an Ultra 1, no sweat!

If you decide that one of these examples of mid to late '90s workstations is for you, you'll also want to keep in mind that the keyboard, mouse and video is also proprietary. But don't lose hope...Sun keyboard and mice combos are dirt cheap and you'll find video adapters that let you hook up a modern PC monitor to a Sun computer.

Will one of these replace your desktop system? I doubt it, but they are excellent learning tools and great conversation starters (in a geeky sort of way). And you can impress your friends by telling them that your spare system is a Sun workstation. You don't have to tell them that it cost less than a hundred clams!

Helpful Resources on the Web:

Obsolete and Elyte
Aurora Linux Project
Sun Workstations on Ebay

 

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