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SparcStation 20


I've always been fascinated by obscure hardware, especially stuff like Silicon Graphics and Sun since these expensive beasts were usually getting real work done in businesses and hospitals and stuff instead of being fiddled with by the enthusiasts. The public is largely unaware of just how cool some of these machines can be; in addition to being absurdly powerful graphics workstations at a time when owning a PC meant staring at a DOS prompt, they also have a certain solidity about them which can't be matched by any of the classic macs. Pick up an old Sparc some time if you don't believe me, they weigh a ton and a half, at least.

One of the many perks of volunteering/working at a computer recycling center is that you see a lot of unusual hardware coming through.

I mean a LOT.

So it should come as little surprise that I ended up with quite a collection of these machines. In the end I sold, gave away or recycled many of the less interesting ones to make some space, but I decided to keep the SparcStation 20 and the SunBlade 150 to have something to play with. But before the other machines went out I grabbed any interesting looking hardware out of them, as well as scrounged up a few more tidbits from free geek. The result is FrankenSparc, one of the coolest SparcStations ever to boot Solaris.

It started life as a bit of a base model. A single 50 MHz SuperSPARC CPU if I recall, a noisy old Connor hard drive and a piddly amount of RAM. With all the Sun hardware at my disposal it would be a shame not to Jax it up a little. So that's what we'll do.

First thing I did was removed the extremely strange SCSI CD-ROM drive from the Sparc 10 I was about to recycle and slid it in place. It's a good thing I had a donor, or else I'd never find one the right size to fit.

Next I went through my pile of Sun4m RAM and pulled out a nice pile of 64 meg modules.
I should pause here and explain an interesting fact about the SS20. It has 8 RAM slots, but 2 of them are longer than the rest. You can stick normal Sun RAM in them and it'll work fine, or you can put an optional longer (and hard to find) framebuffer module in its place. This contains all the important parts of what we PC users would normally call a video card, and routes its video signal through the motherboard to a previously disused monitor connector on the back. Seriously! Isn't that just wild? You can even add two of them if you're lucky enough to find that many, and manage to source the optional second video port riser thingy.

There's two advantages to this wonky setup. One, it doesn't use up an SBus slot (Though this machine already has 4! and 2 MBus slots!) And Two, the 8 meg framebuffer seen here gives you 24 bit colour, while the far more common GX framebuffer cards are all 8 bit. I'm willing to give up 64 megs of RAM for that.

There's also a 4 meg version which is limited to 8 bit colour, but I was fortunate enough to find the 8 meg.

So now we're up to 448 megs of RAM with a 24 bit framebuffer and an optical drive, but that connor hard drive is just earpiercing. Thankfully I'm the sort of person who has a literal drawer full of SCSI drives, so I went digging through it and pulled out a nice 9 gig 10,000 RPM Fujitsu. So what if it's HP branded? It's fast and it's SCA. That's fine by me.

At this point my luck went from great to fantastic. I was poking around on eBay for weird vintage parts as I so often do when I came across an auction for a pair of brand new ROSS 125 MHz HyperSPARC CPUs with 1 meg of cache each. Opening bid was just 99 cents and there had been utterly no interest in them. Perfect! I waited until the auction was minutes from ending and went for it. I shouldn't have bothered waiting, no one even tried to challenge it. I got them for $1.

Whee!

This is one of those rare finds that any collector drools over. I was slightly annoyed to have to open them at all. But they'd do more good inside a machine that sitting on a shelf, and a boxed CPU upgrade for an old sun doesn't make a very good conversation piece with most people.

Now it was out with the old...

And in with the new!

All that's left is a quick firmware swap and we're good to go.

Now that the machine was moving along at a respectable speed and there was great gobs of unused RAM and drive space, it was time to look at filling up those SBus slots. In the end I went with a SunPC card (133 MHz AMD 5x86 on a card, allowing Windows 95 to be run within Solaris, ) the second revision SunVideo card (Video capture,) a sun HME SCSI+10/100 ethernet card, and a fibre networking card ('cause fibre makes you go faster!)

All that was left to do was install Solaris and I had an absolute beast of a machine.

And here it is on my vintage desk with a few similarly Jaxed up machines.

The machine has been just great since I started working with it. Very reliable, and quite quick now that I've had my way with it. Perhaps one day I'll find a pair of dual 200 MHz ROSS CPUs, or the SBus PCMCIA slot module, but until then I'm happy with what I have.

I'm walking on sunshine