Working with SPARC

Nearly two weeks ago I replied to a email offering up some old hardware on the Manchester Linux Users list, Tim was offering up a few SPARC machines amongst other things, and due to my interest in different CPU architectures I bit his hand off.

I’m now the lucky owner of two amazing little workhorses, a SPARCStation 20 and a UltraSPARC IV, both true workhorses of the Sun/Solaris era. The SPARCStation is a old world SPARC machine, in its pizza-box format and the interesting MBUS and SBUS connection interfaces with a sprinkle of SCSI, the Ultra on the other hand is more modern PCI and IDE so I was able to get fast network cards and big disks without much issue. due to the old nature of the SPARCStation hardware I’ve not really invested much time into it, I’ll have to poke at it sometime this weekend and get the old thing up and running.

For the moment I was far more interested in getting the Ultra running as a OpenBSD firewall / router, the Ultra is relatively small (but large when compared to the SPARCStation) and allowed me to tuck it under a table to run, much to the disappointment of my other half. The existing DD-WRT based Linksys was starting to show its age and was becoming flaky after a few years of running overclocked without added cooling. The SPARC machine presented an excellent opportunity due to the good support of OpenBSD and the amazing pf packet filtering included.

The next few days were spent faffing with the hardware and re-installing OpenBSD 4.5, I had numerous small issues that were all down to a faulty network card, possibly a faulty PCI slot but i’ve not had the time to push it further. The PCI issue was quite difficult to diagnose for someone whose had no experiences of the platform before hand, I’ve now had a days crash course in OpenBoot. I have to say, that OpenBoot is a fantastic platform and it aided me a lot in diagnosing the strange issues.

Unfortunately, there’s always one problem you can never get to the bottom of. I updated the box with a new PCI network card, a old CDROM and a fresh HDD, A day or so passed and no matter what I tried I couldn’t get the machine to boot from CDROM, it refused to detect media and even some times the drive. Thankfully, the previous owner had left a basic OpenBSD install on the machine that allowed me to download the install image and write to the swap partition, allowing for a quick and simple reinstall using the swap partition as the boot media. The CDROM works perfectly in OpenBSD, I don’t have the energy to chase down this bug any further.

Finally, after what feels like a week of work, I have a small footprint firewall that kicks the arse out of my existing DD-WRT box. While it may not be a amazing icon to show off, like Chris as his SGI coffee table, it gives me warm fuzzies that technology that would generally be disposable by modern standards has its use somewhere. Now the box is up and working, it’ll slowly disappear from my radar and the experiences I had with this individual bit of hardware will slip away, that is, until OpenBSD 4.6 or another hardware failure.

Fingers crossed eh?