Rescuing Collectible Sun Equipment with Debian Linux
Desktop Training - Linux Newbie

Rescuing Collectible Sun Equipment with Debian Linux

Being an uber-geek doesn't always mean wanting to own the baddest, fastest computers that money can buy. It can also mean paying homage to the past, collecting computers from bygone years. Thanks to Ebay, a serious collector can find computers of just about any type, and of any vintage.

A while back, we bought a Sun Ultra 5 workstation with a winning bid of about $20.00 or so. It has a 360 MHz SPARC processor, 128 Meg of RAM, and an eight gigabyte harddrive. Most computers from Ebay are sold without operating systems, and this machine was no exception. Installing an operating system on Sun equipment isn't hard, once you know how to do it.

Sun Ultra 5

BIOS vs. OpenBoot PROM--This is the first major difference between Sun equipment and regular PC's. Sun's have OpenBoot PROM, which is more flexible and more complex than the BIOS that you'll find on PC's. This is what you'll see when you first boot your Sun machine. Unfortunately, even if you download the official equipment manuals from the Sun website, you still won't find everything you need to know to get it to load your operating system. We finally found the answer by performing a Google search, which led us to a Sun Q & A forum.

Booting from CD--You can boot a Sun machine from a CD, but it doesn't happen automatically as it would on a normal PC. You'll have to issue the "boot cdrom" command from the OpenBoot PROM command prompt. However, getting to the command prompt can be a bit tricky.

By default, a Sun workstation will first try to boot from the harddrive. If it doesn't find an operating system there, it will then try to boot from the network. Unless you know how to break out of this routine, the machine will continue trying to boot from the network until you turn it off. (This is the part that isn't documented in the manuals, and that we had to perform a Google search for.)

Sun keyboardThe "Stop" key--A Sun keyboard is quite different from what you're used to, and a normal PC keyboard won't work. The keys on the left are unique to Sun, and are necessary to control the Open Boot PROM. We'll use two key sequences--both involving the "Stop" key in the upper left-hand corner--to perform our Linux installation.

Stop-n--Simultaneously pressing the "Stop" and "n" keys during the boot sequence will reset the OpenBoot PROM back to its default values. Sometimes, you may get a machine that's been reconfigured to boot to the command prompt, instead of continuing to try booting from the network. Still, it's good practice to reset everything, anyway, since you don't know what other weird settings that the machine's previous owner may have made.

Stop-a--Simultaneously pressing the "Stop" and "a" keys will break the machine out of its network boot routine, and will present you with the OpenBoot PROM command prompt. Now, you can place your installation CD in the CD-ROM drive, and enter:

boot cdrom

to begin installing the operating system.

Depending on your particular machine, you might be able to install either Solaris or Linux. We first attempted to install Solaris 10 on the Ultra 5. It seemed to install okay, but when we rebooted, we received all kinds of error messages about how either our hardware was broken, or we were missing drivers. So, rather than trying to mess around with that, we downloaded the SPARC version of Debian Linux, and installed that.

Rather than download all twenty of the Debian CD images, we only downloaded the Network install CD. Once you boot from it, just follow the on-screen directions. From this point on, the installation procedure is exactly like that of installing Debian on a regular PC. When the installation completes, just open Synaptic Package Manager, and choose the software packages that you want to install. (You'll have the same selection that you'd have with Debian on a PC.)


Sun-Debian Desktop