Relive The Glory Days Of Sun Workstations

When the IBM PC first came out, it was little more than a toy. The serious people had Sun or Apollo workstations. These ran Unix, and had nice (for the day) displays and network connections. They were also expensive, especially considering what you got. But now, QEMU can let you relive the glory days of the old Sun workstations by booting SunOS 4 (AKA Solaris 1.1.2) on your PC today. [John Millikin] shows you how in step-by-step detail.

There’s little doubt your PC has enough power to pull it off. The SUN-3 introduced in 1985 might have 8MB or 16MB of RAM and a 16.67 MHz CPU. In 1985, an 3/75 (which, admittedly, had a Motorola CPU and not a SPARC CPU) with 4MB of RAM and a monochrome monitor cost almost $16,000, and that didn’t include software or the network adapter. You’d need that network adapter to boot off the network, too, unless you sprung another $6,000 for a 71 MB disk.  The SPARCstation 1 showed up around 1989 and ran from $9,000 to $20,000, depending on what you needed.

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History Of The SPARC CPU Architecture

[RetroBytes] nicely presents the curious history of the SPARC processor architecture. SPARC, short for Scalable Processor Architecture, defined some of the most commercially successful RISC processors during the 1980s and 1990s. SPARC was initially developed by Sun Microsystems, which most of us associate the SPARC but while most computer architectures are controlled by a single company, SPARC was championed by dozens of players.  The history of SPARC is not simply the history of Sun.

A Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) design is based on an Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) that runs a limited number of simpler instructions than a Complex Instruction Set Computer (CISC) based on an ISA that comprises more, and more complex, instructions. With RISC leveraging simpler instructions, it generally requires a longer sequence of those simple instructions to complete the same task as fewer complex instructions in a CISC computer. The trade-off being the simple (more efficient) RISC instructions are usually run faster (at a higher clock rate) and in a highly pipelined fashion. Our overview of the modern ISA battles presents how the days of CISC are essentially over. Continue reading “History Of The SPARC CPU Architecture”

RISC-V: Why The ISA Battles Aren’t Over Yet

A computer processor uses a so-called Instruction Set Architecture to talk with the world outside of its own circuitry. This ISA consists of a number of instructions, which essentially define the functionality of that processor, which explains why so many ISAs still exist today. It’s hard to find that one ISA that works for as many distinct use cases as possible, after all.

A fairly new ISA is RISC-V, the first version of which was created back in 2010 at the University of California, Berkeley. Intended to be a fully open ISA, targeting both students (as a learning tool) and industrial users, it is claimed to incorporate a number of design choices that should make it more attractive for a number of applications.

In this article I’ll take a look behind the marketing to take stock of how exactly RISC-V differs from other open ISAs, including Power, SPARC and MIPS.

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There was a time when SPARC CPUs were the sole realm of pricey Sun workstations, but now you can put one on an FPGA with just a little trouble. The problem is you need a fairly big FPGA which isn’t always cheap unless someone goes out of business and you get lucky. [Ttsiodras] picked up a Pano logic thin client. Pano went under and their entire inventory is out on the surplus market at cheap prices. With a little FPGA magic, you can turn a few bucks into a SPARC-based computer.

The insides of the workstation have a Spartan 6 FPGA inside and you’ll need to solder in some JTAG wires, but that shouldn’t put anybody here off.  Of course, the Spartan 6 isn’t the newest tech so you’ll have to get an old version of the Xilinx tools but that’s not hard either. However, there is a strange irony you’ll need to be aware of if you use Linux.

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Bye Bye Solaris, It Seems.

For readers of A Certain Age, this may bring a tear to the eye. Reports have been circulating of the decision by Oracle to lay off a significant portion of the staff behind its Solaris operating system and SPARC processors, and that move spells the inevitable impending demise of those products. They bore the signature of Sun Microsystems, the late lamented workstation and software company swallowed up by the database giant in 2009.

So why might we here at Hackaday be reaching for our hankies over a proprietary UNIX flavour and a high-end microprocessor, neither of which are likely to be found on many of the benches of our readers in 2017? To answer that it’s more appropriate to journey back to the late 1980s or early 1990s, when the most powerful and expensive home computers money could buy were still connected to a domestic TV set as a monitor.

If you received a technical education at a university level during that period the chances are that you would have fairly soon found yourself sitting in a lab full of workstations, desktop computers unbelievably powerful by the standards of the day. With very high resolution graphics, X-windows GUIs over UNIX, and mice that weren’t just used for a novelty paint package, these machines bore some resemblance to what we take for granted today, but at a time when an expensive PC still came with DOS. There were several major players in the workstation market, but Sun were the ones that seemed to have the university market cracked.

You never forget your first love, and therefore there will be a lot of people who will never quite shake that association with a Sun workstation being a very fast desktop computer indeed. Their mantra at the time was “The network is the computer”, and it is the memory of a significant part of a year’s EE students trolling each other by playing sound samples remotely on each other’s SPARCStations on that network that is replaying in the mind of your scribe as this is being written.

A Raspberry Pi with a Raspbian desktop probably outperforms one of those 1980s SPARCStations in every possible way, but that is hardly the point and serves only to demonstrate technological progress. It feels as though something important died today, even if it may be a little difficult to remember what it was when sat in front of a multi-core x86 powerhouse with a fully open-source 64-bit POSIX-compliant operating system running upon it.

Unsurprisingly we’ve featured no hardware hacks with such high-end computing. If you’d like to investigate some Sun Microsystems hardware though, take a look at the Centre for Computing History’s collection.

SparkFun Gets A Cease And Desist


[Nate] over at SparkFun Electronics has posted a cease and desist letter he received from SPARC industries.  Apparently their legal department feels that his name is close enough to theirs to ignite a legal battle. They are demanding that he transfer his domain to them immediately to extinguish the flames. This all seems a bit silly, his name isn’t really at all like theirs and his product isn’t similar either.  To add to the peculiarity of this, going to their site throws up a big red malware warning for us (in chrome).

[thanks IraqiGeek]