posted by Tony Bourke on Wed 21st Jan 2004 02:41 UTC
IconA few weeks ago, I stubbed my toe on my old Sun Ultra 5 as it sat there lifeless and unused in my apartment. Once my primary desktop, the envy of my geek friends, and a way to woo the ladies, its glory days have long since passed. As much as I would like to let it live out its days looking sexy and taking up space, I live on the island of Manhattan, where space is a premium. Since I can't charge it rent, I decided I'd better use it or lose it. But what to use it for? What operating system would I run on it? Solaris? What about Linux? FreeBSD? NetBSD? OpenBSD? They all run on the SPARC platform, so I thought why not do a quick review.

What began as a simple review of some operating systems to run on an old Ultra 5 quickly grew into a behemoth project, a black hole in some respects, consuming more and more of my time and curiosity. The more I dug into the issue, the more tangents I found myself flying off on.

As my initial questions about available operating systems were answered, other questions started to arise. What about Sun's compiler suite on Solaris, is it really that much faster than GCC? What about GCC 3.x versus GCC 2.95 on creating SPARC code? How did the various operating systems compare to each other performance-wise? Why was SSH so slow on SPARC?

The 64-bit environment of the UltraSPARC platform put forth even more questions. Would running 64-bit operating systems be faster? Would compiling my binaries in 64-bit be slower as everyone claims? If slower, how much slower?

Surprisingly, Google provided very few concrete answers and quite a bit of hearsay taken as fact. So I plunged in, and what was going to be one article eventually turned into several articles, and even required this article just as an intro.

I ended up on a trip through 64-bit land, running into problems and issues that I hadn't even considered in my 32-bit world, or bothered to ask when I first ran the Ultra 5. Back then, 64-bits was more of a marketing tool, and in many respects, still is.


The Ultra 5 is an entry-level UltraSPARC-based 64-bit workstation from Sun. Initially released in 1998, it has been updated several times with faster processors, larger disks, and better graphics. The Ultra 5 was one of Sun's most controversial systems. To bring the price down, it was among the first series of Sun systems to use an IDE drive instead of SCSI. In fact, without a PCI card, the Ultra 5 had no SCSI bus at all. Many of the other components where PC-esque as well, including the frame buffer which was actually an ATI Mach64 chipset with Sun ROMs. As a result, the Ultra 5 was the target of much derision by more refined Sun system admins. "IDE? Well I never!"

Despite increasingly clever derogatory puns (such as "hung like an IDE bus untarring a file") by the Sun sysadmin elite, the Ultra 5 was a huge success. In a time when Linux was still in the "prove it" stage to enterprise customers, the Sun Ultra 5 was an attractive, low cost Unix system running the well respected Solaris operating system, now in 64-bit Solaris 7 flavor. In fact, to Sun's annoyance, it was used not only as a workstation, but also extensively as a server, supplanting the much more expensive (and lucrative, for Sun) Enterprise 250's, which at around $20,000-$30,000 were (incredulously) Sun's idea of a low-end web server at the time. First released with 8-bit frame buffers and 270 MHz UltraSPARC IIi processors with 256 KB of cache, subsequent releases saw Ultra 5's with up to 400 MHz UltraSPARC IIi processors with 2MB of cache and 24-bit capable frame buffers.

The Goods

The system I'm using is a second generation of the Ultra 5, released in late 1998. Here are the specs:

System: Sun Ultra 5
Processor: UltraSPARC IIi 333 MHz, 2MB cache
Memory: 256 MB
HD: Seagate Medalist 7200 RPM IDE Pro 9140 8.4 GB
IDE Controller: Built-in UDMA2, 33 MB/s max
Video Controller: Sun PGX24 (ATI Mach64), 4 MB VRAM
Network: Built-in 10/100 NIC (hme, "Happy Meal" interface)

The system is stock, and exists as it did when I first bought it. The only changes I ever made were the addition of larger capacity hard drives, however, for this test I'm using the origional 8.4 GB hard drive that came with the system.

So not only do you have the option of using one of several open source operating systems (Linux, FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD), but also the ability to use Solaris at no additional cost as well, giving you several options.

If you're using it for non-commercial or educational use, you can get and use the Solaris operating system (legally licensed) through the Free Solaris Binary License Program.

One of the misconceptions about Solaris is that it's free to use, which isn't quite the case. It's free to download (most recently for x86 as well). To qualify for a free binary license, it needs to be non-commercial, educational, or developer use on a uni-processor system.

I found my original invoice from March of 1999 when I paid $2,395 for the system, and another $1,000 for the 21-inch Sun monitor (which is an excellent monitor, and one I still use). The pricing was part of a Sun educational promotion. For a comparison, Intel's fastest processor was the PIII 500 MHz, released in February of 1999, which ran about $800 for the processor by itself. The 333 MHz UltraSPARC IIi and the Pentium III 500 MHz were roughly the same class, with the PIII measuring 20.7 for CINT95 and 14.7 for CFP95 in SPEC's CPU 95 tests. The Ultra 5 333 MHz system rated a 14.1 CINT95 and 18.3 for CFP95 (taken from 98Q4 and 99Q1 SPEC results).

After nearly a 4-year run the Ultra 5 was finally retired in 2001 and replaced by the Sun Blade series. The Ultra 5 still stands as one of the most successful Unix workstations to date.

Table of contents
  1. "Sun Ultra 5 review, Page 1"
  2. "Sun Ultra 5 review, Page 2"
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