Sun Microsystems loaned OSNews the high-end version of the new Sun Blade 150 series workstation, which sells for $3,395 USD (no monitor). Since this Solaris 9/SPARC machine is intended as a workstation, it is here reviewed as such in this article and not as a server.The Blade 150 comes in three flavors (small, medium, and large), and the one we have here is the “large.” It features a 650 Mhz UltraSPARC-IIi CPU with half a meg cache, 512 MB of RAM, 40 GB of 7200 RPM IDE, a 10/100 NIC, USB, Firewire, DVD-rom and Solaris 9 pre-installed.
The machine is slick-looking, with a big Sun logo on the front between the DVD drive and the smart card reader & floppy. Booting Solaris 9 takes about 50 seconds or so. The first time you boot the machine, it will ask for the networking settings and after you enter them, it displays the graphical login prompt (OpenBoot and Solaris also boots in graphics mode). The only available desktop environment you will find installed by default is CDE.
The CDE version installed is 1.5, running on top of the proprietary Sun X11 server version 6.6.1. CDE hasn’t changed much the last few years. On one hand, this DE might look already dated for many, but for its old and loyal users, CDE “just works”. For me, CDE is simple enough and it doesn’t have to be pretty, but it is true that is is not intuitive or modern. Moreover, the desktop can be filled from apps written in Motif or in Java and they don’t look similar. In other words, there can be UI incosistency problems. Under CDE you will find a number of applications and tools, mostly written in Java, to help you manage your Blade. You will find developer tools, add-users, smart card readers and more. A full version of Star Office 6 is also included.
Though this is a workstation machine, actions easily done on desktop operating systems like Windows and Mac are not as easy on Solaris 9. For example, changing the resolution was one hurdle, changing the color depth was another. It took me about an hour searching on Google to find information and how to handle the non-integrated graphics card, SUN XVR-500. Basically. For each graphics card, you may need to use a different command line utility to adjust the resolution. The one that was for my card was easy to change the resolution (after I found which utility was needed, of course) but setting the color was not as straightforward because the naming of the attributes on the help pages are not standard. And to successfully change color depth, you had to log out and back in again (resolution could change on the fly though).
Installing applications with the included command line utility was not great either. I downloaded a third party apt-get-like app that could install applications for Solaris a bit easier. This is how I was able to install Gimp and some other libraries. But overall, there are not many third party applications for Solaris. They are limited in numbers and the GNU ones from the Linux world don’t always compile successfully on SPARC.
After a few days with CDE, I decided to install the latest beta of Gnome 2 for Solaris, beta 3 (based on code of the stable Gnome 2.0.x). Installation went well and the automatic configuration would allow me to pick Gnome 2 as the DE of choice in the login screen. Gnome2 is much slower than CDE on this $3,400 machine. For comparison, Gnome2 runs almost as it does on my dated Dual Celeron 2×533 Mhz PC, which these days wouldn’t sell for more than $340. Besides the fact that Gnome2 is still buggy and crashed on me twice already (which is of course expected being a beta), some applications are slow to open, moving windows around is painfully heavy on the graphics card and as you can see from the last screenshot, when I move the selection inside Nautilus the CPU jumps to 100%. In that screenshot, the blueish selection is extremely slow to redraw, it is jerky and far from smooth. Even my 4 year old dual Celerons are smoother than that on Gnome2 under Linux. Of course, there are many possible reasons why Gnome2 is so slow on the highest-end “cheap” Blade model: slow CPU or slow graphics or simply the fact that Gnome2 is making some assumptions that it runs on XFree86 and tries to base its performance on XRender or other XFree modules that are not available on the Sun version of X11. Personally, I do not expect that the final version of Gnome2 will be much faster on this machine. The problem doesn’t seem to be the fact that this is a beta (I have tried Gnome2 for Linux betas too, and they weren’t as slow) but something more. However, OSNews revealed last week that Sun is porting XRender on their X server and they also working on creating GTK+ widgets for Java, so the desktop will have a more unified look and it might get a speed boost. Update: A Sun engineer just informed me that installing the VIS MediaLib libraries would help out Gnome2’s performance. I don’t have the SPARC machine anymore though, so I can’t test this.
Despite its steep price, the Blade 150 does not employee a lot of the proprierty Sun hardware architecture, but it is a PC with a SPARC (IDE drives instead of SCSI etc.). As for the documentation and extras, I think Blade is great. There are a lot of docs either online or in electronic form (CD) that come with the machine itself.
Overall, I feel that Solaris 9 SPARC is a great Unix; it works well and it is very stable. But I would’t recommend this machine (and especially not it’s smaller models which are much slower mostly because of their even slower graphics card) to people who want to use Solaris on an everyday basis with Gnome2. If you are willing to use CDE instead, this machine can indeed serve you well. But with Gnome2 on it… I just can’t see it flying.
In conclusion, companies with Sun contracts might have an interest in the cheaper versions of Blade 150 (which weirdly enough are recognized by the OS and BIOS as a “Blade 100”, though they are Blade 150s) as cheap workstations for some Java work, or as thin clients, but I don’t see any individual buyer being happy with the overall performance on more demanding graphical environments like Gnome2, which is the environment that Sun wants to make default on Solaris 10.