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Newbie looking to get into vintage unix workstations, requesting advice.

Dai

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Hey vcfed,
I'm looking for some advise. I have had some hands on experience with a pdp 11/70 kit that I had purchased from Oscar w/ Obsolescence Guaranteed and needless to say I got a little more thirsty. I have always wanted to try and source a Unix based workstation as I felt my play room was missing representation from this sector. What would be a nice and easily accessible option from say 1980-1995 (I know, large gap) or so that will help scratch that itch? I'd love to try and spend less than 500 usd if possible as I know some things can go to the moon cost wise. Thanks!

 

commodorejohn

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The HP-9000/700 series (particularly the pizzaboxen) work with standard VGA and PS/2 peripherals, and on the 32-bit models you have your choice of HP-UX or NeXTSTEP.
 
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Chuck(G)

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Be a bit cautious, however. If you found a great deal on a Fortune Systems 32:16, for example, you need to understand that without the software that's tied to the physical system, it's just a paperweight.
 
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Eudimorphodon

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32 bit Sun Sparcstations need proprietary keyboards/mice and adapters to work on normal monitors, but they at least used to be about the cheapest entry level UNIX workstation and the easiest to find. (The Sparcstation IPX, IPC, 4, 5, 10, and 20 were all sold in relatively huge numbers compared to most workstations.) They also run a fairly broad assortment of alternative OSes, the exact choices depending on the model or hardware config.

Of course, this is me remembering 20 years ago when it was pretty easy to find someone willing to pay you to haul one off, no idea what the market is now. I also think a lot of them still around will need TLC to get going. (I recall several of the most common models used those annoying Dallas clock chips with the built-in battery, those will all be dead by now.)
 

bladamson

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The Sun Ultra 5 and Ultra 10 are ubiquitous and cheap and (other than the keyboard and mouse) use PC-type stuff. VGA, IDE, etc. You'd be looking at running Solaris or an older Linux distribution. Using older sun stuff with 13w3-to-VGA converters is dicey, as some of them output a weird 1152x900 resolution that not all monitors are happy with. You get into the post-5/10 Ultras and they are way more PC-like and easier to get going, but they are really nothing more than hopped up expensive PCs.

The DEC Alpha pizzaboxen were pretty cool, but maybe newer than what you want?

The Irix boxen are really nifty, but still pretty expensive unfortunately. :(

That being said, if money and weird hardware are no object, my bucket-list Unix boxen from a coolness perspective would be a VAX running some variety of 4.xbsd or a PDP-11 running 2.11BSD. I almost have all the parts to put together the latter, but the former is still out of reach. :p
 
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Chuck(G)

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There were several 68K or Z8000 boxes running Unix (In 1983, it seemed as if you couldn't avoid running into one at NCC). Many are long forgotten, such as Plexus and Onyx. Others seem to survive by reputation, such as Apollo and Daisy. I don't know how easy it is to find these dinosaurs today.
 
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Unknown_K

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More than a decade ago the cheapest UNIX machine would have been a Sun Ultra 5 which is what I snagged. There are bootable SCSI cards you can install which is what I did along with 512MB RAM. U5's have an ATI video chip and VGA output making life easier, but the keyboards and mice might be harder to find these days.

The Ultra towers allow you to install a SUN graphics card if you can find one.
 
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Eudimorphodon

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The Ultra 5/10’s IDE and VGA ports do definitely make them a bit more accessible than the older SUNs, but if you get the 13w3 adapter it’s not too hard to get them running on many older 17-19” LCDs. (Granted that odd resolution tends to look a bit shoddy scaled to the native 1280x1024.)

I think personally I have slightly fonder memories of the 32 bit Suns, but that’s probably in part because the computer lab at my college used them, and partially because one of my first ”real” IT gigs was supporting Solaris on Ultra 5s. Solaris was such a dog on those things. Ugh.
 
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Unknown_K

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I have a couple boxes of the last edition of Solaris for Sparc and it is kind of a pig even with decent memory and a fast SCSI HD.
 
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Al Kossow

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There were several 68K or Z8000 boxes running Unix (In 1983, it seemed as if you couldn't avoid running into one at NCC). Many are long forgotten, such as Plexus and Onyx. Others seem to survive by reputation, such as Apollo and Daisy. I don't know how easy it is to find these dinosaurs today.

I have never heard of a surviving Daisy, even a Personal Logician. I've been looking for decades. I have a Multibus Logican 386 board set, but not a copy of the software.
 
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Chuck(G)

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For years, I used a 19" Daisy (Mitsubishi IIRC) monitor on my PCs. Essentially fed EGA frequencies with a sync combiner and D2A converter (RGBS). Worked remarkably well. Darned thing was heavy, however--somewhere around 70-80 lbs--my desk bowed under the weight, which prompted me to pick up an Acco workstation from a surplus outlet. Still have those beasts, but the monitors are long gone.
 
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bladamson

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There were several 68K or Z8000 boxes running Unix (In 1983, it seemed as if you couldn't avoid running into one at NCC). Many are long forgotten, such as Plexus and Onyx. Others seem to survive by reputation, such as Apollo and Daisy. I don't know how easy it is to find these dinosaurs today.

And the TRS-80 Model 16!! (basically a Model II with a 68k addin card) I'm slowly working getting a 68000 board going in my Model II, but I haven't collected all the parts yet. :( Seems like it's really fiddly to get a hard drive solution working that Xenix supports.

Really interesting architecture, but there's no decent tcp/ip solution for them that I know of. They ran Xenix, but afaik it was all pre-IP. There were arcnet adapters, but they used some other networking protocol.

I been kinda thinking like maybe I'd be better off to make some kind of CH376 + ESP-01 card for it and try to get Fuzix running on it instead.
 
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Eudimorphodon

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There, I fixed it for you. ;3 *ducks*

We always called it "Slowlaris...."

Heh, not going to argue there. True Solaris patriots would always throw out some excuse along the lines of “but on the right hardware it can really fly!”, but, yeah, sorry, no. When it seems like 95% of the hardware you’re chucking out the door is single CPU bottom feeders like the Ultra 5/10/Blade 100 or Netra T1 servers that’s what you’re going to get judged on.
 

Chuck(G)

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And the TRS-80 Model 16!! (basically a Model II with a 68k addin card) I'm slowly working getting a 68000 board going in my Model II, but I haven't collected all the parts yet. :( Seems like it's really fiddly to get a hard drive solution working that Xenix supports.

Really interesting architecture, but there's no decent tcp/ip solution for them that I know of. They ran Xenix, but afaik it was all pre-IP. There were arcnet adapters, but they used some other networking protocol.

I been kinda thinking like maybe I'd be better off to make some kind of CH376 + ESP-01 card for it and try to get Fuzix running on it instead.

Yeah, I had one of those--gave it to a collector a few years ago. I had the original 16 with lots of field patches. I wasn't impressed. Really, up until about 1989, Unix seemed to be best suited to a bigger platform like a VAX. We ran Xenix on an 80286-6 with an 80186 doing the I/O, but in a 5-terminal setup, it really wasn't any faster than an 8085 running the same business applications.
 

Dai

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32 bit Sun Sparcstations need proprietary keyboards/mice and adapters to work on normal monitors, but they at least used to be about the cheapest entry level UNIX workstation and the easiest to find. (The Sparcstation IPX, IPC, 4, 5, 10, and 20 were all sold in relatively huge numbers compared to most workstations.) They also run a fairly broad assortment of alternative OSes, the exact choices depending on the model or hardware config.

Of course, this is me remembering 20 years ago when it was pretty easy to find someone willing to pay you to haul one off, no idea what the market is now. I also think a lot of them still around will need TLC to get going. (I recall several of the most common models used those annoying Dallas clock chips with the built-in battery, those will all be dead by now.)
I actually think that I have a mouse, keyboard and display for some sun workstation that I got in a large lot at the recycling center years ago. I never used them as they were all proprietary and n system to go along with it. I know the crt monitor had some weird connection with some large pins in them and bunch of regular ones in it, Size wise id say the connector was a little larger than a dvi connection. I'll dig them out of storage and see what maybe they would go to and maybe go that route if the system can be had for a decent price. the "Sparcstation IPX, IPC, 4, 5, 10, and 20" might be the systems that would work with those peripherals?
 

Dai

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There were several 68K or Z8000 boxes running Unix (In 1983, it seemed as if you couldn't avoid running into one at NCC). Many are long forgotten, such as Plexus and Onyx. Others seem to survive by reputation, such as Apollo and Daisy. I don't know how easy it is to find these dinosaurs today.
I'd love to source something ideally from that era since it's much closer to the pdp 11/70 that I've been toying with. In regards to the rarity I can imagine anything slightly obscure from 40 years ago being almost unobtanium though. Neat to know though so I can keep a look out and make some saved searches on ebay. Thanks
 

Dai

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And the TRS-80 Model 16!! (basically a Model II with a 68k addin card) I'm slowly working getting a 68000 board going in my Model II, but I haven't collected all the parts yet. :( Seems like it's really fiddly to get a hard drive solution working that Xenix supports.

Really interesting architecture, but there's no decent tcp/ip solution for them that I know of. They ran Xenix, but afaik it was all pre-IP. There were arcnet adapters, but they used some other networking protocol.

I been kinda thinking like maybe I'd be better off to make some kind of CH376 + ESP-01 card for it and try to get Fuzix running on it instead.
That's pretty sweet! I just picked up a model III the other day but have always been on the lookout for a II/12/16. Never found out at the right price though unfortunately and they only seem to be going up.
 
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Juror22

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I know that you are looking into running real hardware here, but if you need to investigate a little further, before you leap, don't forget that you can run Solaris and AIX in emulation (I have not been able to get QEMU setup for AIX yet, but I have seen the web page where they claimed to set it up).

Running old HP-UX, Solaris, or AIX on the original hardware is great, but can be tricky to setup, so make sure that you have the peripherals that you need, although most of these will use some manner of SCSI.

Here are some of my favorites.
If you can find a nice IBM B50, you can run AIX 4.3, which is a nice old UNIX.
If you find an HP 9000/360, you can run HP-UX from 7 through 9.x (I recently grabbed up a 385 for under $400 shipped)
The later HP PA-RISC boxes (like the ones that commodorejohn mentioned) will let you run HP-UX in the 10.2 - 11.x era.
As mentioned above, the SPARCstations can run a variety of software.
"Sparcstation IPX, IPC, 4, 5, 10, and 20" might be the systems that would work with those peripherals?" From your description, yes, it sounds like it. I have an adapter that is similar to what you describe that adapts my SPARCstation 5 to a VGA monitor.
Don't expect ANY of these to set speed records, but that's not why we do this, right?

Shipping is going to kill you on almost any of these, outside of the old pizza box sized units, but a lot of those were built like tanks too.
You might try a local CL or something similar if possible. About 8 months ago, there was someone nearby me who was selling some older IBM AIX hardware. I was recovering from surgery at the time, so I didn't get to buy any, but they do still show up from time to time. Good luck and I hope you find something that you like.
 
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Eudimorphodon

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All of the SparcStations I mentioned are relatively small, taking the form of either a varying-thickness pizza box or a stumpy ”lunchbox” form factor vaguely reminiscent of those Mini-ITX PC desktops that went through a popular phase between around 2003-2009. They’re fairly heavy for their size but shouldn’t be worse to ship than a normal PC tower.

The best ones in that lot are the 10 and 20, as they use a modular motherboard with separate CPU cards, allowing configurations with up to four CPUs, and they also have the highest memory ceilings. Downside is a desirable configuration is undoubtedly going to cost far more than it’s worth these days, and I wouldn’t recommend buying a low-end one with the intention of trying to find the parts separately to max it out because my vague recollection is getting all the right parts for a CPU swap is kind of dark science.

If you just want a simple old-timey Unix workstation for casual playing the single CPU models like the 4 or 5 were very reliable in their day and used to be dirt cheap, but… it’s been a long time. They were super systems for running NetBSD on… 20 years ago.
 
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