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
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
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.
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