• Please review our updated Terms and Rules here

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

Chuck(G)

25k Member
Joined
Jan 11, 2007
Messages
40,218
Location
Pacific Northwest, USA
It's the peripheral equipment to some of these old horses that can give you fits. Why not just run Unix/Xenix/BSD under emulation? You get the experience without the frustration.
 

Eudimorphodon

Veteran Member
Joined
May 9, 2011
Messages
5,308
Location
Upper Triassic
It's the peripheral equipment to some of these old horses that can give you fits. Why not just run Unix/Xenix/BSD under emulation? You get the experience without the frustration.

I don’t want to “yuck anyone’s yum” by relating the following, but maybe it’s worth chucking out this cautionary note: back in the early 2000‘s I ended up with a small collection of old workstations, including some Sun boxes and an SGI Indy, because they were literally free for the taking and I was stoked to actually get a chance to own a ‘real’ UNIX computer instead of just a free UNIX clone running on a boring PC. And, frankly… it pretty thoroughly put me off bothering with these things. I mean, there’s only so many times you can fire up ‘fsn’ and deadpan “It’s a UNIX system!” before the novelty wears off. An Indy with Irix was undoubtedly amazing in 1993, but in 2001 it felt old, slow, and clunky compared to any rotgut Celeron PC running Linux and getting any software for it was a huge PITA.

So… I dunno, maybe that old line about never meeting your heroes might apply to these things.

(That said, I still have a little bit of a soft spot for the Suns because they were *very* well supported by free OSes and they have some really great features, like being incredibly easy to NetBoot. If you have Sun peripherals already lying around slapping a basic Sparcstation in the middle and setting it up as a retro X-terminal would be an educational weekend.)
 

bladamson

Veteran Member
Joined
Nov 11, 2018
Messages
914
Location
Appalachia
Things to maybe keep in mind:

- The Sun keyboards were made by Keytronic, and as such may need to be "refoamed". It's not hard to do. You can make your own foams if you are really industrious, but TexElec makes a kit.

- If you get a Unix workstation that is new enough to run X11, you may be able to do some remote X stuff with a raspberry pi or something to make the machine a little more useful than it would be otherwise.

- The Ultra 5 and 10 also have swappable CPU cards. As far as I know, they are basically the same machine, except the 5 is a pizzabox and the 10 is a midtower. I think the fastest CPU available for the 5/10 is what, 400MHz? Even though the 5 takes the same RAM as the 10, the 5 can only accept 512m without mods because the floppy drive gets in the way of installing the taller 1024m simms. Even though it looks like regular PC ram, it isn't; it's some kind of parity ram.

- The Sparc 20 is the more "classic" machine. I haven't finished fixing mine yet, but iirc the fastest CPU for it is 200 MHz, but it can run more CPUs than the Ultra 5/10. This is the one I have the most nostalgia for, though.

- The IPX is going to be really slow I 'spect, if it's anything similar to my LX.

- About any Sun of a certain age you get is probably going to need the Dallas clock chip either replaced or hacked for an external battery. This isn't a difficult mod either.

I have an LX, a Sparc 20, and an Ultra 5. The Ultra 5 is the most pleasant to use, even though I think the Sparc 20 is cooler.

The SGI workstations were cooler from a hardware perspective, but I liked Slowlaris better than Irix. *hides from the pichforks and torches lol*

If you get like a Sparc 20 or something, you can run Slowlaris on it for the SysV experience, or SunOS if you want the BSD experience. On my ol' Sparc 5, I used to run Slowlaris on the internal HD and SunOS on an external and dual boot it. I am not sure if the Ultra 5/10 will still run SunOS or not.
 
Last edited:

bladamson

Veteran Member
Joined
Nov 11, 2018
Messages
914
Location
Appalachia
It's the peripheral equipment to some of these old horses that can give you fits. Why not just run Unix/Xenix/BSD under emulation? You get the experience without the frustration.

I understand where you are coming from, and I'm not trying to be difficult or anything. But for me, I am really more interested in the hardware than the software. Farting around with crappy old half-dead computer hardware is my version of playing with classic cars or something. ;P
 

bladamson

Veteran Member
Joined
Nov 11, 2018
Messages
914
Location
Appalachia
One last post and I'll shut up for a while lol.

I keep making moves to set up some kind of obsolete computer VPN, that didn't route back to the internet other than through some proxy servers and stuff like that, so anyone interested could tunnel their old insecure boxen into and we could all play.

It would be interesting if all of us that like old Unix junk could tunnel all our talkds together somehow or something.

Or if we had some kind of free public Unix server to all play on. Multi-user Unix and the community of people hanging out on such a machine is what I am really nostalgic for, and that's pretty hard to replicate just fiddling with the old hardware by my lonesome. :p My internet access back in ye olde days was a dialup shell on a multiuser SCO machine, and then back in college a bunch of us went in on a colocated machine that we all hung out on. I suspect that much of my nostalgia is pretty rose-colored though, haha.
 

xelalex

New Member
Joined
Jan 24, 2022
Messages
5
Location
Munich, Germany
One thing to keep in mind about Sun IPC & IPX is that most likely the PSU will be dead. They both use the same PSU model made by Sony, which suffers from poor quality capacitors. In both my IPC and IPX they had leaked badly, luckily not onto the main board. Thorough cleaning and recapping fixed the problem. Besides that, I really love these little machines. It's a neat form factor. I use RaSCSI to boot them, so I can quickly switch between different OSes and play around.
 

Eudimorphodon

Veteran Member
Joined
May 9, 2011
Messages
5,308
Location
Upper Triassic
I am not sure if the Ultra 5/10 will still run SunOS or not.

Nope, Sun 4m is the end of the line for the BSD SunOS. You also need to stay away from Ultras if you want to run some of the really hardcore oddities like NextSTEP for Sparc.

(I guess if we really want to go down the rabbit hole you also need to be a little careful about which CPU you get if you want to run the absolutely widest selection of software. For instance, the highest clocked 170mhz version of the Sparcstation 5 used a slightly oddball ‘TurboSparc’ chip that breaks compatibility with a few things. That may also apply to certain CPU cards for other systems.)

I was going to say in a way my favorite Sun is probably the Sparcstation 5, just because it was simple and one of the fastest single CPU 4m machines. Owned several of them, got them all for free. And then I looked at eBay to see what they’re asking for one, and the answer seems to be “starts around $400, goes up fast from there”. Oh no. Just… no.
 

whartung

Veteran Member
Joined
Apr 23, 2020
Messages
616
And, frankly… it pretty thoroughly put me off bothering with these things. I mean, there’s only so many times you can fire up ‘fsn’ and deadpan “It’s a UNIX system!” before the novelty wears off.
I'm in this camp. It's not really interesting to me to put in some work just to successfully get a $ prompt, the same $ prompt I can get by opening a new terminal window on my Mac.

"yay"

Would it be interesting to see an old Sunwindows desktop, or OpenLook? Yea, maybe.

But I can get CDE on a modern machine right now with a package install.

Unix wasn't just a great playing field leveler in terms of software, it was similar with hardware. Some machine had interesting graphics solutions, but after a while, seen one "3M" machine, you've seen them all. Only NeXTStep really stands out here, and maybe SGI.

That said, I've always enjoyed the pizza box form factor.
 

NeXT

Veteran Member
Joined
Oct 22, 2008
Messages
7,073
Location
Kamloops, BC, Canada
Get a Sun. Be it a lunchbox, pizzabox or a tower if you want Unix there you go and you can still find them for considerably less that most of the other RISC-era Unix machines because they were the back-end for The Internet and enterprise for over 30 years. There's also still lots of spare parts.
The OS is easy to source without licensing issues. (you can even get it on CD, so you have none of the nasty QIC tape pitfalls) The compilers and licenses are relatively obtainable, you can have a framebuffer, keyboard and mouse if you want it and if you want to be traditional a terminal on the serial port is perfectly usable. You also get onboard ethernet, internal and external SCSI and quite a few people still know SunOS/Solaris.
Your only drawback is a lack of third party commercial software packages, but you never said you were looking for that. ;)

It's a bit newer than what you want but a bulletproof Sun would be a Blade 100. Takes standard SDRAM, IDE CD and hard drive, VGA out, USB mouse and keyboard (which is not a keyswitch anyone finds desireable so they are cheap) and Solaris 8, 9 or even 10.
 
Last edited:

Eudimorphodon

Veteran Member
Joined
May 9, 2011
Messages
5,308
Location
Upper Triassic
USB mouse and keyboard (which is not a keyswitch anyone finds desireable so they are cheap)

I have one of those Blade 100 era USB keyboards, which I can’t motivate myself to get rid of because its layout is an interesting novelty, and yeah, there’s good reasons they’re cheap. I assume it’s rubber dome, I’ve never taken it apart, but it’s just… nasty.

FWIW, it was mentioned earlier that old Sun keyboards were based on that Keytronic foil system, that only applies to the “Type 4” and older. Most 90’s Suns came with (or work fine with) the rubber dome “Type 5”, which is about as nasty as the USB type six. But on the bright side it is *massively* common and I suspect even easier to find than the USB one.

(That you can use a generic USB mouse is a significant win for the Blade, I guess.)
 
Last edited:

Eudimorphodon

Veteran Member
Joined
May 9, 2011
Messages
5,308
Location
Upper Triassic
Unix wasn't just a great playing field leveler in terms of software, it was similar with hardware. Some machine had interesting graphics solutions, but after a while, seen one "3M" machine, you've seen them all. Only NeXTStep really stands out here, and maybe SGI.

SGI was the undisputed king of “interesting” graphics hardware, but the dirty secret is that their most common workstations usually lacked it. For instance I think there’s like only one video card for the Indy that includes a 3D accelerator at all. To really see what made SGI famous you need to seek out rare heavy-duty hardware, and then somehow find the software to show it off. (Which is a massive headache all its own. Tons of software for these platforms was locked down with dongles and license servers and… ugh. Life is too short.)
 

commodorejohn

Veteran Member
Joined
Jul 6, 2010
Messages
3,182
Location
California, USA
For non-USB Suns, there were converters to use PS/2 peripherals with them; you can still find them on eBay, though they've gone up a bit since I got mine :/
 

mdog69

Member
Joined
Sep 8, 2019
Messages
17
Location
West Midlands, UK
For non-USB Suns, there were converters to use PS/2 peripherals with them; you can still find them on eBay, though they've gone up a bit since I got mine :/
Those work well until you need to do STOP-A - the keystrokes for that are either not documented or don't work.
Personally I try to stick to a serial console, because (a) I know it will work (and I can send BREAK instead of STOP-A) and (b) most of my Sun playing is actually work, as I provide support (backup/restore/odd component level repair) for legacy systems that still run the likes of Solaris 2.3 on SparcStation 5, and 2.6 on U5's.
 

oldpcguy

Experienced Member
Joined
Sep 23, 2021
Messages
255
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?
This is called a 13W3 connector.
 

Eudimorphodon

Veteran Member
Joined
May 9, 2011
Messages
5,308
Location
Upper Triassic
This is called a 13W3 connector.

IE, this:

310px-13W3_Stecker.jpg

The "large pins" are miniature coaxial connectors for the R-G-B signals. In a way it's kind of a shame from a reliability standpoint it wasn't more widely used, but it does of course come with the downside of being a lot more expensive than DE-15. A thing to watch out for with this connector is it was used by several different UNIX workstation vendors, but the pinout varied between them such that an adapter for, say, an SGI workstation might not necessarily work with a SUN box. My vague recollection is that some older Sun framebuffers only output composite sync, which can be a compatibility gotchya with generic monitors. A lot of older monitors work fine with composite sync but newer and/or cheaper monitors tend to have more rigid ideas of what qualifies as a valid VGA signal.
 

Chuck(G)

25k Member
Joined
Jan 11, 2007
Messages
40,218
Location
Pacific Northwest, USA
If you've ever tried to build a cable using 13W3 connectors, the disadvantages should be obvious.
My Daisy monitors (as did several old NEC LCD monitors) use BNCs for all signals. Makes more sense to me.
 

seaken

Experienced Member
Joined
Jun 20, 2016
Messages
234
Location
Shokan, New York
I've learned a lot from this thread. I'm in the camp that is in favor of exploring the original hardware even though it can now be emulated, or at least simulated on other more modern equipment.

I was considering adding some SUN or SGI equipment to my collection. But I am not sure I want to spend the money to acquire it or learn a whole new platform. But it is interesting nevertheless. Having no history in this platform it will be easy to reconsider and maybe pass on buying into it. But for those who have history with these old UNIX systems I completely understand the appeal.

Seaken
 

commodorejohn

Veteran Member
Joined
Jul 6, 2010
Messages
3,182
Location
California, USA
My vague recollection is that some older Sun framebuffers only output composite sync, which can be a compatibility gotchya with generic monitors. A lot of older monitors work fine with composite sync but newer and/or cheaper monitors tend to have more rigid ideas of what qualifies as a valid VGA signal.
I don't know exactly what goes on under the hood, but Suns of at least back to SPARCStation 2 vintage are kinda middle-tier in terms of how picky monitors get with them. It's not like, say, the VAXstations where you'll need a monitor that can handle full-on sync-on-green output, nor does it have problems with green tinting on monitors that don't know how to separate out the sync like some SGIs do. On the other hand, my SS2 does still have issues with the cheapest and commonest of my LCD displays - but I think it's more a matter of the onboard controller not knowing what to do with an uncommon resolution like 1152x900; a slightly less cheap monitor of comparable vintage handles it just fine.
 
Top