The SparcStation Odyssey

posted 10/23/2003

When I moved from the BBS world onto the internet in early 1994, it opened up a whole new world of fast connections and powerful computers for me. No longer was I accessing 386's and 486's running WWIV, I was accessing big, powerful computers running things like VMS and UNIX.
Yeah, UNIX is fun - back in those days, various versions of BSD Unix were highly popular on the college-dominated internet - but it was the hardware that always held my interest, the Vaxen and various Sparcs.
Ah, the Sparcstation. I'd never seen one then, but everyone at the time wanted one, myself included. Fast, powerful, and arcane, it was the ultimate geek computer in an era when a 486DX-33 was a fast machine. While, admittedly, most people in the BBS scene probably confused the little Sparcstations and the earlier, much bigger, much more server-looking Sun 3-series, the Sparcs were the almost-attainable Holy Grail of personal computing. (Like you're ever going to own a Cray.)
It took nine years, but my teenage dream has finally come true - I own a Sparcstation. The $10,000 machines of the early 1990's are now $10 giveaways on eBay and at garage sales, and I decided to get one, because, dang it, I always wanted one.
My, there are a lot of Sparcs out there. The IPX, IPC, LX, and Classic, to name a few. Plus the numbered Sparcstation 1,2, 4, 5, 10, and 20, though they were released in a different order. So many choices, how was I to choose? No, not get one of each - that's just silly. So, in a typically testosterone-filled moment, I decided that the little "lunchbox" sparcs were actually pretty darn cute, and eliminated the numbered series of Sparcs. So, having narrowed the field to a small number of physically-similar grey boxes, how to proceed? The time-honored fashion of "whatever runs best".
Some time later, I became the proud owner of a Sparcstation IPC with an "aftermarket" Weitek Powerup CPU. The Powerup upgrade is a "clock doubler" that runs at twice the speed of the "standard" CPU, producing in this machine, yes, 80MHz. In terms of raw computing power, according to some, it's in the range of a 486DX-66. It's small, it's that ubiquitous computer beige-grey color, it doesn't run Windows, and, let's face it, it's a decade old and darn near obsolete. Nonetheless, it runs Linux and BSD amazingly well.
Of course there were complications. I mean, you should have guessed that, I titled this the Sparc Odyssey, not the Sparc Picnic. It seems darn near nothing in the Sun world is compatible with the IBM world. Monitors usually aren't compatible, and even the keyboards and mice are different. Thankfully, you can connect via a null-modem serial cable...if you can find one. That item located, I booted up the IPX and connected via a serial connection.
It worked, thankfully, but the odyssey wasn't over. The battery on the NVRAM was dead and, oh yeah, I had no way of installing a new OS on it yet. Some searching on the internet turned up a hack to replace the NVRAM battery, which were dutifully followed. A Sun CD-ROM was acquired to load an OS from CD. Then I eventually located the correct external SCSI cable and connected the two. I installed Debian Linux from CD and got another nasty shock: A 220MB hard drive. While it's possible to install Debian in that space, and even add in a few niceties like networking tools and an HTTP server, it leaves, er, about 10MB of free space. Not great. So it's off to find a new 50-pin SCSI hard drive.
I got one, a factory-refurbished 4GB Seagate Barracuda. It works wonderfully, except that it just might be the hottest-running 7200RPM drive ever made, getting so hot when running it's painful to touch. Not a good thing in a cramped, crowded case. So, out with that drive and in with the new, a 2.1GB Seagate Hawk, a slower, quieter, cooler drive. Debian reinstalls without a hitch.
So now I've got this cool little machine running...over...there. Why isn't the power light on? Oh, Linux 2.2 kernels on Sparc systems turn the freakin' power LED off after they boot, and there's nothing I can do to fix this? I sigh, and install a small green light on the front of the case, attached to the power cable from the floppy drive. So, then, NOW I've got this cool little machine running over there, but what am I to do with it? After a few weeks or refreshing myself on Linux administration commands and configuring the system to my liking, it hits me: Why not use this thing as a webserver?
Okay, in 2003, the typical webserver has 1GB of RAM and a pair of 2.4GHz Pentium-4's; can an 80MHz machine with 32MB of RAM really be an useful webserver? Yes, it can. Many sites on the WWW are actually running on old Sparcstations, usually on their owners' DSL lines. I don't have DSL, so that means if I want to put this thing on the net, I'll need to colocate it somewhere.
Colocation normally starts around $50/mo for a 1U rackmount server. An IPX can't be rackmounted, and $50 per month is far more than I want to spend on a webserver, sorry. But I look around, ask questions, and, hey, find a few people who will co-lo my little machine for a pittance.

Well, I picked a place, set up the machine to run, and shipped it off to California. Weeks went by, with promises that "I'll get it online today" coming every couple of days. Eventually, it was connected... but didn't run, having apparently died in transit. I don't have the time right now to diagnose the problem... so the Sparc Odyssey comes (temporarily) to an end, as Buggrit moves to yet another home on a BSD server. Someday, maybe, Buggrit will be back to it's Sparcstation, but not, I'm afraid, anytime soon.


All Contents of BUGGRIT.COM are (C) 2002-2004 M. Gilday. All Rights Reserved. No portion may be reproduced in whole or in part without the express written permission of the owner.