A 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
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 system I’m using is a second generation of the Ultra 5, released in late 1998. Here are the
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
CD-ROM: 32x IDE
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
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.
For those that wish to trick out your Ultra 5, there are a few options depending on your needs and
Storage: The case fits a single standard sized 3 ½ inch IDE drive, although some say you can
remove the floppy drive and put in two (but be careful about heat dissipation). The Ultra 5 should
take any standard IDE drive, although it probably won’t handle over 137 GB. Also, it should be
noted that the IDE interface on the Ultra 5 is UDMA2, or 33 MB/s. I’ve put in a 40 and 80 GB
Western Digital drives and they ran fine.
As far as DVD ROM drives and CD burners, I really couldn’t say, as I’ve never tried to install
Memory: Memory is an issue, though, as memory upgrades, even off eBay, can be almost as
expensive as the system itself. It’s just not standard RAM. Currently I’ve got 256 MB on my
system, and even as a desktop, it’s not bad. The max RAM you can put in is 512 MB.
There are 4 memory slots, and they must be installed in pairs.
Video: For video upgrades, you’re stuck with slower PCI-video cards, and if you’re using Solaris,
expensive slow PCI-video cards. Sun has offered up the PGX32 and PGX64 PCI-based video
cards which offer 8 MB of VRAM.
The PGX64 is listed on Sun’s site for $405, which for a 8MB PCI video card seems a little pricey.
If the subtleties of irony didn’t translate over my mangling of the English language, $405 for a PCI
video card is a lot pricey.
You can find the PGX32 cards, and even some PGX64 cards much cheaper off of eBay.
Because of the way Sun’s X works, you can’t run the desktop in 16-bit modes. It’s either 8-bit or
24-bit, which is a bit of an annoyance, because the VRAM is sufficient to run 1280×1024 in 16-bit
mode, which is better suited for large monitors.
However, if you run Linux you could probably run any PCI-video card that had a XFree86 driver.
Because the Sun video requires special ROMs, you wouldn’t be able to use it in console mode;
only X11. You can pick an 8 MB ATI PCI card for about $15 on eBay. Linux also allows you to
run 16-bit graphics, so you can 1280×1024 with the PGX24 built-in video on an Ultra 5.
Remember though, it is PCI graphics, so even a faster card isn’t going to be that much faster.
The video port is a standard VGA HD-15 pin configuration so just about any display should work,
without a need for a Sun-branded adapter.
Keyboard/Mouse: Unfortunately, you’re stuck with Sun keyboards and mice, as the connector is Sun-specific, as well as certain specialty keys. There may be adapters, but I don’t know how well they’ll work with the specialized keys.
So in the next series of articles (two will be published on OSNews this week, the rest very soon), I’m going to be reviewing several aspects of the Ultra 5. Available operating systems, compiler performance, and 64-bit versus 32-bit binary issues will be addressed. Here are the articles that are ready and will be released shortly.
• Are 32-bit Binaries Really Slower (on Solaris SPARC)?
• Sun’s C compiler versus GCC (both 3.3.2 and 2.95.3)
• SPARC platform operating system overview
• Solaris 9, SPARC
• Linux (Debian Woody release, and others)
Plus a few more as I get them completed. If you’ve got any particular questions or suggestions for
benchmarks, please feel free to drop me a line. And yes, I will be using Felix’s benchmarks from here, although because of porting issues, it will probably be limited. The purpose of these articles is to evaluate this hardware in a way that hasn’t really been
evaluated before (at least that I’ve seen, forward me any links if my assumption is incorrect).
This system sure brought back a lot of memories, back to a time when SPARC meant something.
It meant power and elegance, in a way that no longer quite applies. It brings me back to the days
of hanging HyperSPARC processors around our necks, akin to Flavah Flav.
It reminded me of when my friend Josh, who personally owned more Sun hardware than anyone
I’ve ever known, including two VME-based systems, and he owned them for no other reason other
than as a hobby.
He since has gotten rid of most of his hardware, holding onto only a dual-processor Ultra 2. He did
donate one of the VME systems to the effort to port FreeBSD to the sun4c systems (FreeBSD
currently only works on sun4u, UltraSPARCs).
So why should you be interested in a 5 year old piece of hardware?
If you’re looking to play with 64-bit operating systems but aren’t willing to sink the dough in an AMD x86-64 solution, the Ultra 5 is a good place to start. I’ve seen them on eBay for anywhere from $200 to $400, depending on the configuration.
While not the fastest piece of hardware, it’s incredibly relevant for a system of its age. It’s a great learning tool for a variety of operating systems, as it’s widely supported, and great for exploring the 64-bit realm.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy, and maybe learn a little bit about this piece of inexpensive hardware that I’ve grown a newfound, deeper respect for.