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Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Reviving An Old Sun Computer Part One: NVRAM Fix

If there's one thing I love about vintage computing, it's being able to play with equipment, platforms or architectures that I never had a chance to see when they were brand new. Every month when I was 13 or 14 I would read about some new technology like the Pentium or 3dfx cards or a Sound Blaster card and wish I had one. Years later, I got to experience all of these things first-hand because their price plummeted when they were superseded by newer technologies. But that's the charm of vintage hardware - going back in time and experiencing that nostalgia from youth - experiencing an old favourite game in a new way.

Another example of a technology that I had no chance of experiencing back in the day was Sun hardware. Sun Microsystems started out as a bunch of graduates from Stanford University, who had created a workstation for their network, inspired by the Xerox Alto. That first SUN workstation was a significant piece of history, After Sun was established as a company in 1982 and during their relatively long existence in the industry, Sun had a huge influence on networking, RISC processing, operating systems, and the promotion of open systems as a whole. Their legacy is significant, even if they don't technically exist as a company anymore. So a couple of years ago I saw an advert on Gumtree for a pair of Sun computers and they were FREE. This guy was moving house, didn't want to take the systems with him, and didn't want to throw them away. This was an opportunity I could not pass up. So I drove all the way to Epsom (about 40 miles) to collect a bunch of stuff, the only thing of interest being a Sun SPARCstation 5.

Almost instantly I realised I was completely out of my depth. At first I was getting nothing on screen and, even when I did, it was in a loop and I was unable to stop it. Do you know how many online resources there are for using a Go prompt on a Sun workstation? Almost none! None of my DOS, Mac, Linux or UNIX shell experience could help me here. Sun's firmware is completely proprietary (although I understand it has similarities to some other dev platform). The official manual is available online but it's kinda useless to a noob as it's massively technical. I have subsequently found stuff like the OpenBoot Prom Quick Reference Card, but only because I have now developed the correct vocabulary to be able to search Google effectively. There ain't no such thing as Sun for beginners (although this isn't far off but I literally only just found it).

Anyway, even when I did eventually work out how to boot from the hard drive, I didn't know the root password so, at this point, I had a useless pizza-box in front of me. But I never give up on such things for long. I tend to take these kind of challenges personally so I forged ahead and researched some more.

Part of the problem was that the NVRAM battery was flat. I had read about a similar problem on PCs with the Dallas RTC chip and that you could hack a coin cell onto the chip to get it working again. This is actually one thing about using Sun equipment that is well documented. In particular you have the Sun NVRAM FAQ, an unofficial but very detailed document telling you more than you need to know about fixing common hardware problems with Sun systems. There's a lot to take in and a lot to learn, so much so that I decided to make a Youtube video on how to do the whole process in the hope that someone would find it useful. Once I had done this I was able to install an operating system from scratch (that comes in part 2).

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Dual Tualatin Server Build

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This one's actually a long story. The short version is that, after recently acquiring a dual PIII ready server, I re-housed it. Skip the next paragraph if you don't want the background as to why I did this, but here's the video of me starting it up for the first time:

Background (aka TMI)

I originally inherited a Dell PowerEdge 500SC from my job at the time (circa 2003) and was using it as a file server. IIRC it was a PIII 866MHz and, while it was a noisy beast, it worked perfectly for years. At some point around 2005 I migrated it all to an original G4 Apple Mac mini (subsequently replaced by an i5 model in 2011). I think the logic was to do with power consumption and the fact the Mac was on 24/7 anyways as a media player for the TV in my bedroom.

I eventually got sick of OS X not playing nice with Windows clients, plus random shutdowns and lack of internal storage (didn't want to spend money on installing an additional drive). So I set up a new Windows-based system last year specifically for serving files. Looked at what gear I had lying around and settled on an ASUS board (P5GC-MX/1333 - good storage options) with a 2.66Ghz Celeron D (balance between speed an power consumption), 1GB RAM, etc. and an appropriate case (i.e. one with many drive bays). But I was running Windows 2003 Server and, while serving the files worked like a charm, actually using the machine sucked because some of the hardware wasn't recognised by the aged software, etc, etc. Yes, I could have used something like FreeNAS but I wanted Windows Deployment Services for the many XP and Windows 7 builds I do on a regular basis for myself and others, plus many other features such as enterprise-level backup software, etc.

So when I unexpectedly acquired the dual CPU-ready server, I suppressed the desire to simply preserve the system and instead decided it was serendipitously my perfect server solution. This, combined with W2K3 Server, is the perfect blend of software and hardware.

Taking Shape

The original system is an HP tc3100. It came with:

1x PIII-S 1.4GHz
2x 512MB ECC 133MHz SDRAM
2x 9GB SCSI 10K RPM Seagate Cheetahs
1x HP Tape Drive
Internal SCSI-3 and an LSI-based SCSI card

I stripped the components out of the behemoth case and put the case into storage (in case I want to restore the system at a later date). Here are the components that will comprise the new incarnation. These are all parts I already had in use or in storage, except for one item:

The Motherboard

It's a modified ASUS TR-DLS (link to manual), and is missing a few of the headers on the board e.g. the primary IDE channel, a front case fan header, etc. - stuff HP decided they didn't need and got ASUS to omit for the OEM version. It has built-in ATi Rage XL graphics, which will do. The board was pretty clean and the caps look great.

The CPUs

The one on the left came with the board, and the other is one I found on eBay months ago because it was so cheap (less than a tenner). I was advised that I wouldn't be able to used mixed steppings with Windows, but subsequently discovered that, provided the speed and cache matched, and that the older stepping was the bootstrapping CPU, it would work.

RAM and Expansion Cards

This is the RAM that came with the board, as I have no other ECC parity parts. Lucky it's 1GB - might try and track some more down. Purchased the PCI-X SATA card specifically for this project (the only thing I didn't already have). Just bought whatever I could find on eBay at the time rather than do any in-depth research. It was cheap as they're not hard to come by. IMHO you can't go far wrong with Adaptec where drivers are concerned, certainly. I am yet to measure performance, but I would be interested in doing a comparison between a) SATA b) SCSI with caching controller c) SCSI with built in controller d) EIDE. The second SCSI card was going to interface with the tape drive, but I found a SCSI-2 to SCSI adaptor so I'm using the built-in SCSI.

Internal Storage

500GB boot drive, 2x 1TB drives to hold all the files. I've been intending to set up RAID 5 for a while now (or RAID 0+1 if I can get 4x drives for the same price as 3) but for now the data is split across two partitions. No way I'm striping.

Removable Storage

Bezel-less LS-120 taken from an external parallel-port unit (goes with the case, luckily), the DDS3 tape drive that came with the tc3100 (still testing this - might need to be replaced), the optical drive was chosen based on the diversity of formats it supports (required me inventorying all my optical drives first) and memory card reader. This will connect to the single USB header on the motherboard.

The Case & PSU

This is the only one I have with 4x drive bays. Actually it has 5, so I can leave space between each drive. I have fitted a silent fan to the front of the case blowing in and the larger of the two at the back, sucking out. I also managed to find two almost-matching heatsinks and then tested all the fans I've got to find the quietest ones. As a result, this machine is near-silent, despite the 4 fans.

The hefty Delta PSU that came with the original machine probably would have done the job, but I went with a newer HIPRO unit instead - more amps on the 12V rail, plus SATA power (not that I don't have enough adaptors for Molex-style).

System Assembly

I need to buy some actual cable ties to finish it off, but the airflow is what's most important. I'm annoyed about the cable for the media card reader going over the CPU fan but it's not obstructing the blades themselves. I need cable ties to hold the ATX power bundle out of the way.

All configured and ready to go. Now to install Windows 2003 Server, maybe do some benchmarks.