posted by Tony Bourke on Wed 31st Mar 2004 19:38 UTC
IconFreeBSD has a solid reputation in terms of features and performance on x86, powering sites from Hotmail to Yahoo, yet it doesn't tend to be the first (or even second) OS that comes to mind with many people when thinking of Solaris alternatives for the SPARC platform.

While I've run plenty of other non-commercial operating systems on various non-x86 platforms, I've only ever used FreeBSD on x86 hardware. So in my research on non-Solaris SPARC operating systems, I was actually a bit surprised to find that not only does FreeBSD operate on UltraSPARC-based SPARC systems, but it's considered a Tier 1 port as well, along with x86, x86-64, and Alpha.

Thus in my continuing series evaluating the operating systems for my Sun Ultra 5, I took at a look at FreeBSD 5.2.1, SPARC64 platform.


My test system is a Sun Ultra 5, and the specs can be found here. The complete list of supported systems for FreeBSD SPARC64 can be found on FreeBSD's 5.2.1 Hardware Notes.

FreeBSD only supports UltraSPARC/sun4u systems. There is no current FreeBSD port for sun4/sun4d/sun4c/sun4m systems, so if you've got an older system such as a SPARCStation 5, then you'll have to look at other operating systems.

FreeBSD currently doesn't officially support frame buffers/graphics for the SPARC platform, so this will be a server-only review (the format of this document changed with 5.1, and it doesn't mention graphics at all). There has been discussion of getting it to work, but I haven't seen anything official.


Here's important issue to be aware of before installing FreeBSD on a SPARC system, and I shall italicize and bold-face it to highlight its importance:

FreeBSD for SPARC (as of 5.2.1) will not install from the screen/keyboard, you must use the serial port.

The install taunts you from the keyboard/screen, as the installation menu will come up and teases you with its attractive menus. However, the keyboard drivers don't work for a Sun keyboard, and will mock you as you try to navigate a menu.

There's no mention of this anywhere during the install, and it is not documented in the most recent SPARC64 installation instructions (it even refers to the keyboard), or the 5.2.1 SPARC64 release notes. There is indirect mention of it in the 5.0 hardware notes, but not in the subsequent hardware notes. As a result, the FreeBSD SPARC64 mailing list has a couple of “why doesn't this work” messages scattered about.

This can be annoying if you don't keep handy a serial cable with null modem cable, which can be the case if you're accustomed to dealing with SPARC hardware and its serial ways. I had already built myself a quick adapter (from my Serial Madness article), and proceeded with the installation.

To start the install, I downloaded the installation ISOs from FreeBSD's FTP site and burned them to a CD. A simple boot cdrom from OpenBoot brings up the installation.

When the system boots from the CDROM drive, it gives you 5 options for terminal types:

These are the predefined terminal types available to
sysinstall when running stand-alone. Please choose the
closest match for your particular terminal.

1 ...................... Standard ANSI terminal.
2 ...................... VT100 or compatible terminal.
3 ...................... FreeBSD system console (color).
4 ...................... FreeBSD system console (monochrome).

5 ...................... xterm terminal emulator.

Your choice: (1-5)

Selecting ANSI will render nice and clean looking menus during the install, but lacks arrow key functionality. I used VT100, and while the borders of the textual menus showed up as garbage characters, the arrow keys did indeed work. The other options didn't work for me at all.

        |  Host:                            Domain:                    |
        | |zorak                  |        |         |        |
        |  IPv4 Gateway:                    Name server:               |
        | +ÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄ+               +ÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄ+          |
        | |     |               |     |          |
        | +ÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄ+               +ÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄ+          |
        |       +ÄÄÄÄÄ Configuration for Interface hme0 ÄÄÄÄÄÄ+        |
        |       |  IPv4 Address:            Netmask:          |        |
        |       | +ÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄ+       +ÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄ+ |        |
        |       | |    |       |   | |        |
        |       | +ÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄ+       +ÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄ+ |        |
        |       |  Extra options to ifconfig:                 |        |
        |       | +ÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄ+       |        |
        |       | |                                   |       |        |
        |                                                              |
        |              +ÄÄÄÄÄÄ+            +ÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄÄ+                |
        |              | [OK] |            |  CANCEL  |                |

As you can see, the menus with the VT100 option are a bit on the ugly side, but plenty readable.

Installation went pretty quick, and took about 20 minutes to complete a full install of developer tools, including a kernel source.

Table of contents
  1. "FreeBSD 5.2.1 SPARC64, Page 1/3"
  2. "FreeBSD 5.2.1 SPARC64, Page 2/3"
  3. "FreeBSD 5.2.1 SPARC64, Page 3/3"
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