Friday, 28 May 2010

The joys of SPARC

When I was beginning in the IT game it was a long time ago and Sun Microsystems, IBM, SGI were all huge names. Microsoft was a beginner and all the big machines were Unix based and so were the servers. I was first introduced the web on an old Sun box running lynx. I couldn't think of anything I wanted to look at on the Internet so I left it alone :-)

As time went on, Sun boxes were still the class act. Ultra10's came in and I was fortunate enough to have one with an 18.1" LCD on my desk. Ah the joys of the stability of that machine. Very nice indeed. When the new Sun Blades came out I was too damn busy with dirty old Windows boxes and just starting to get into Linux in a big way so I didn't get to play with them. As my job has changed over the years, my ability to play with these machines has never been renewed... until now!

Recently from eBay I managed to gain for a very small amount both a Sun Blade 150 and a Sun Blade 1500. I haven't had much of a chance to play with the 150, but the 1500 and I have become acquaintances over the last few days. It's been a struggle - the Sparc architecture enjoys quite a bit of support but the XVR-600 video card it has doesn't. I've really struggled with this as I want this machine to be a desktop machine. So after trying Debian's Sparc install, Gentoo and OpenSolaris I've finally settled on giving OpenBSD a crack. Why not, I say? Try everything until you either run out of bandwidth or time!

I haven't really used the BSD range of distributions before, finding them more akin to Unix than Linux and as often as not, I find the time I need to put into learning them is simply not there. Fortunately now I've had some time to put into this and I've discovered a few things. Number 1 - if you haven't been actively learning stuff getting your brain back into that particular mode of thinking takes a while. Assimilating and understanding all of the relevant information can take time and irritating enough, getting your mind back into that thought pattern can be difficult. Number 2 - I'm waaay out of touch with the command line and editing conf files. Although I do a little bit of this still, the requirements of OpenBSD demand an attention to the detail in the confs. That being said, the default installation of OpenBSD is simple and easy - getting to a working system in no time. The ample documentation that I've found is quite clear and easy to work with. Number 3 - learning a new operating system on a complicated bit of hardware probably wasn't the *best* idea I've had. OpenBSD is hard enough, making it work on a Sparc is a bit harder again, especially when you have troubles with some of the stuff I did.

That was namely configuring X. The graphical frontend to Linux/BSD etc is complicated if it doesn't work by default. Most often it does nowadays and I've been blissfully using it without giving thought at all to the old days when I had to hack the X config to get pictures on the screen. So it felt like a return to the days of yore when I had to start looking at crafting an X config to get it to work. There is apparently a bug in OpenBSD and as such, the driver for the Sun Blade 1500 XVR-600 (while fully supported) doesn't get automatically assigned. So with the help of the Sparc OpenBSD mailing list I was helpfully provided with the very basics of an X conf and away I went. I'm experimenting with it now - trying to get better resolution and colour depth. The amount of time I have spent has been prodigious but well worth it. The guys on the mailing list were very helpful and quick to assist me so a big shout out and thanks to them!

I'll add another post when I start to get some traction on what I'm doing. Also, I have a Blade 150 I am going to install up for fun so I'll post details on that. I'm disappointed that I couldn't get Gentoo to work Blade 1500, especially after the 3 GB download. Ah well - I still have the disk in there so maybe we'll get it going :-)