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So, you've decided to take up computer collecting, or you want to teach yourself about Unix and Sun hardware - or maybe you just want to see what something other than a PC or a Mac looks and works like. Either way, you're now in the market for a Sun system, and you want to know where to start looking - but right now, all you know is that they're made by Sun, and they run some kind of Unix! Well, I'm here to fix this.

Why would I want to buy a Sun system?

Well, for the most part this guide is written for those that have already decided that they want one, but I'll share the main reasons why I like Suns.

  • Excellent enclosure construction
  • Good support for both serial consoles and graphics consoles, with multiple monitors if desired
  • Featureful, programmable firmware
  • Good integration - in other words, use Sun software on Sun hardware, and things Just Work - for much the same reason that they Just Work on a Macintosh
  • Reliable hardware
  • The ability to continue functioning smoothly even under abnormally heavy load. On a Sun, it's rare for a single program to drag the entire system down. This is a feature of both the hardware and the OS, but both Solaris and the SPARC hardware it runs on do a great job at this.

Older Sun Systems

Sun has built a number of different systems over the nearly 30 years that they've been in the business, but they fall into four major groups - Sun1, Sun2, Sun3 and Sun4, plus some strange side forays. This writeup largely ignores the later Sun x86 and AMD64 machines - most of these are new, built from 2003 onward, and they are mostly standard PCs, albeit well-constructed ones. Most of them are shipped with Solaris or Linux, but nothing stops someone from installing Windows on one of them.

Sun1 systems were Sun's first foray into the workstation market, and among the first workstations from any company. They were based on Motorola's 68000 and 68010 processors. Very few were ever made, and the few that still exist are phenomenally hard to find, and exceedingly expensive even when you do. Furthermore, they're nearly impossible to find software for, and would be quite slow even if you did. By the time you actually want a Sun1 in your collection, you'll know precisely what you're looking for.

Sun2 systems are a bit newer and less weird than Sun1, but are still based on Motorola CPUs, mostly the 68020. They sold reasonably well and quite a few of them are still out there, but like the Sun1, software is hard to find, and not very useful even if you do. There is an emulator for Sun2 systems called TME, if you want to emulate one instead.

Sun3 systems are a slight revision of the Sun2 design, using Motorola 68020 and 68030 processors. With the Sun3 series, the first real desktop cases appear, and there is also one pizza box-style machine, but overall, Sun3s aren't much less of a pain to get working than Sun2, and aren't much faster, either. They're also old enough to be proper antiques in computer terms, and will command a high price. Beginners are advised to avoid these, unless they can be found cheap. TME can also emulate a Sun3.

Sun386i is a Sun machine similar to the Sun3 series based on the Intel 80386 processor. It had a fairly short run of things. It's not a run-of-the-mill PC despite using the same processor as PCs - it ran a modified version of SunOS which contributed to the later development of Solaris x86. It came with a virtual machine system similar to Microsoft's NTVDM that allowed it to run DOS, and with considerable difficulty Windows 3.1. This was never very fast or reliable, but it was available if you desperately needed DOS applications.

Sun486i was the later 80486-based successor to the Sun386i. Only a few hundred were ever made, mostly prototypes. One of these would be a rather nice find, due to their rarity, but not especially useful. They ran the same software as the Sun386i.

More recent Sun systems

Sun4 is Sun's latest system architecture, but it's over 15 years old. The Sun4 design was the first to use Sun's own SPARC processor. Every Sun machine since the original Sun4/110 that uses the SPARC processor has been a variant of the Sun4 architecture. In theory, a program built on one Sun4 machine will run on any other Sun4, as long as it's at least equally recent. This isn't perfectly true, but it's pretty close. You could take the 'vi' binary off an old Sun4/330 and transfer it to a new Sun Ultra 45, and it would still run (as long as all the libraries were there). TME can also emulate a Sun4 machine, specifically a SPARCstation 2.

There are several sub-architectures (called kernel architectures in Sun parlance) under the Sun4 heading. The major ones are:

The original Sun4 systems are generally too old, bulky and slow (and hard to find) to be good for a beginner. Sun4d kit is usually pretty inexpensive these days, but it's heavy, bulky, power-hungry and not very fast for what most users would do with it. It's designed for high-throughput server uses. Also, most Sun4v kit is far too expensive due to its newness. Therefore, a beginning collector would be well advised to look in the Sun4c, Sun4m and Sun4u ranges.

The rest of this writeup will focus on Sun4c, Sun4m and Sun4u machines, except where noted. I'm mostly ignoring the various Tatung, Solbourne, Tadpole, NatureTech and Ross SPARC machines of the time, with the exception of the Ross HyperStation 30, which was basically a SPARCStation 20 on steroids, and one of the NatureTech laptops, which Sun briefly sold as the Ultra 3.

Sun4c-series machines

By the time of this writeup, most Sun4c-series machines are very old, some of them over 15 years. These machines are well constructed and were quite fast for their time, but by now they are definitely a bit long in the tooth. The Sun4c machines that a collector might want to consider are listed below.

SPARCStation 1
The first pizza box SPARC. This machine is very cheap, worth next to nothing on the used market and very limited. No built-in graphics.
Overall rating: Slow and limited, not very interesting.
SPARCStation 1+
A SPARCStation 1 with a faster CPU.
Overall rating: See SPARCStation 1. The extra speed is unlikely to matter with any kind of modern software.
SPARCStation IPC
One of the classic lunchbox Suns. Low maximum memory capacity and not much faster than an SS 1. Built-in grayscale graphics: very slow in addition to being monochrome.
Overall rating: Perhaps interesting for odd network fuzzball jobs, like time or DNS in a very small LAN.
SPARCStation IPX
The big brother of the IPC, the IPX has a faster CPU and 256-color accelerated graphics.
Overall rating: Possibly the best of the Sun4c series, overall.
SPARCStation 2
A more advanced SPARCStation IPX without the integrated graphics, in a pizza box. It has twice as many hardware contexts as the IPX, but the lack of integrated graphics is annoying.
Overall rating: Technically superior to an IPX, but unless you find it for dirt-cheap, an IPX is often less work.

Sun4m-series machines

The Sun4m-series is quite a bit more modern than the Sun4c-series, and usually much more upgradable. They vary widely in capabilities, though - a SPARCclassic isn't even as fast as an SS2, while a SPARCStation 20 with all the goodies is in some ways better than a low-end Ultra. Keep a close eye out, there are still an awful lot of these floating around, and a few shops are still using them. Solaris 9 is the latest version of Solaris that will run on these. They are also the newest machines able to run the older, BSD-based SunOS 4.

SPARCclassic
An early Sun4m with a MicroSPARC CPU in a lunchbox enclosure.
Overall rating: Sad. Just skip this one.
SPARCStation LX
A significantly beefed up SPARCclassic with better graphics and sound.
Overall rating: Better than the SPARCclassic, but that's not saying much.
SPARCStation 4
The first machine to use the Aurora chassis, it's a classy-looking machine and more capable than the Classic or LX, but not as capable as it should be, or as cheap. No sound. No upgradability to speak of, and the onboard graphics chip is neutered relative to the one in the SS5.
Overall rating: Skip this one if you can find anything else, even an SS2, on the cheap.
SPARCStation 5
The stronger cousin of the SS4. It can take twice as many disks and has decent onboard audio. If equipped with one of the faster processor options and the AFX-bus graphics option, it can make a reasonably nice workstation.
Overall rating: Decent power on the cheap.
SPARCStation 10
Sun's first desktop multi-processor machine. Unlike the SS4, SS5 and SS20, it uses a chassis similar to the old SS2, but a bit thicker. Needs a weird external speaker box for audio, but has ISDN.
Overall rating: Decent if you can find it with a good CPU module. The clunky chassis is annoying, however. Get an SS20 if you can, but the SS10 isn't a bad machine
SPARCStation 10 SX
An SS10 with onboard 24-bit graphics. Otherwise equivalent to the SS10.
Overall rating: Get this instead of a regular SS10 if you can help it, but the SS20 is still better.
SPARCStation 20
Sun's ultimate 32-bit workstation. Not very expensive anymore, either, except in 4-way configurations. This is the Sun4m to get, if at all possible. Requires a strange and hard to locate VSIMM for its onboard SX graphics, but this is a much nicer way to get 24-bit graphics than the slow, hot Sun Leo. Audio is on the motherboard, but lacks ISDN.
Overall rating: The best of the Sun4m machines - mostly.
Ross HyperStation 30
Not strictly a Sun, this is a compatible system made by Ross Systems. It's mostly interesting because it's more or less a newer revision of the SPARCStation 20. It can take 1GB of RAM and can run its MBus at 66MHz, which can markedly improve the performance of Ross HyperSPARC modules. Its case can also mount a full-size CD-ROM drive and has better cooling than the SS20.
Overall rating: The best 32-bit SPARC workstation, bar none. Nearly impossible to find and viciously expensive when you do. For the cost, you could get a very nice Sun4u system.

Sun4u-series machines

The Sun4u series makes use of Sun's 64-bit UltraSPARC processor, or Fujitsu's nearly-equivalent SPARC64. They are still in production, and with the exception of the Ultra 1, are still supported under Solaris 10. This writeup will focus primarily on workstation-class machines, with a few forays into server territory. Big-iron Sun4u machines are a completely different beast.

The Sun4u workstations can be separated into four basic generations: first-generation SBus-based machines, second-generation PCI-based UltraSPARC-II and US-IIi machines, third-generation PCI-based UltraSPARC-III (and US-IIe) machines (Blade series) and fourth-generation PCI-e based machines.

A bottom-range first generation Ultra is often not even as good as a tricked-out SS10 or SS20, while the top-end machines are still worth well over ten thousand US dollars and are some of the fastest non-x86 workstations out there. Careful shopping can yield some major bargains, though. Note that first and second generation Sun4u systems want proprietary Sun keyboards and mice, while third and fourth generation ones use industry-standard USB peripherals. Sun does make a USB version of their Type 6 keyboard and mouse, and the Type 7 is USB only.

First-generation systems
Ultra 1
Sun's first foray into 64-bit computing wasn't exactly impressive. It was still limited to SBus graphics, had only one processor and still used narrow SCSI. While its 170MHz UltraSPARC-I processor ran circles around any single 32-bit SPARC chip, first-revision Ultra 1s were not infrequently thrashed in benchmarks by multi-processor SS20s.
Overall rating: Avoid it, the first-rev Ultra 1 is a piece of crap.
Ultra 1 Creator
Also called the Ultra 1e, the Ultra 1 Creator featured a UPA slot for a Creator3D or Elite3D graphics card, fast ethernet and wide SCSI. Still held back by the UltraSPARC-I processor at a time when the Ultra 2 had moved on to UltraSPARC-II, it's not great - but much better than its predecessor.
Overall rating: If, and only if, you can get one with an Elite3D or a Series 3 Creator3D graphics card, this might not be a half-bad machine. That said, skip it and get an Ultra 2 if at all possible.
Ultra 2
Sun's 64-bit answer to the SS20. Able to take two replaceable CPU modules, up to 4GB of RAM, two fast-wide SCSI disks and a full-sized CD or DVD, plus UPA graphics, all wrapped up in a double-thick slab case, the Ultra 2 is a very capable machine. It can take 400MHz CPUs, though the modules are difficult to find. It's also the earliest machine that will run Solaris 10.
Overall rating: With its convenient form factor and considerable power, the Ultra 2 is a perfect starter machine. Furthermore, nobody wants them anymore and they sell fairly inexpensively, even well configured.
Ultra Enterprise 450
Somewhere between a mammoth workstation akin to the SGI Onyx and a medium to large server, the Enterprise 450 is a beast. As a workstation, it's not much better than an Ultra 2, but it can take tons of fast disks and lots of expansion cards.
Overall rating: If it's a server you want, this is a great choice. If you're looking for a workstation, it's just too huge and loud.
Second-generation systems
Ultra 5/10
The same motherboard in two different enclosures. Both use PCI expansion cards and IDE disks. The U10 can take a vertical UPA graphics card, while the U5 cannot due to its case design.
Overall rating: The UltraSPARC-IIi processor used in these machines is much less capable than the full-on US-II used in their kin, and their cases are cheap and flimsy. They are, however, quite a lot of power on a budget.
Ultra 30
A step up from the Ultra 5/10, but best described as a neutered Ultra 60. It features fast-wide SCSI, 64-bit PCI, dual UPA slots and a full-on UltraSPARC-II processor. It is limited, though, by only being able to take the 250MHz and 300MHz modules. In general it doesn't cost much less than an Ultra 60.
Overall rating: I want to say 'yuck', except that the prices are now so low that you might be able to get one practically free. If you can, it's worth it. If not, save a few more Lincoln pennies and get an Ultra 2 or Ultra 60 - you won't regret it.
Ultra 60
A great machine. Compared to the Ultra 30, it can take 2 CPU modules which can go up to 450MHz, and it has Ultra Wide SCSI, making its disks twice as fast as the Ultra 2. Not very expensive these days either.
Overall rating: This is probably the sweet spot right now. Lots of power, not too many bucks. It can take newer graphics cards, too, like the XVR-1000 or XVR-1200, and still runs Linux well. Here, or the Ultra 2, is probably where a beginner should start looking.
Ultra 80
The heavy artillery companion to the Ultra 60, this beast of a machine features four 450MHz UltraSPARC-II processors, and still has room for dual UPA slots. It does this by moving the power supply to the side of the case and moving half the RAM to a riser card. The resulting asymmetrical case, combined with its beige-and-lavender color scheme, looks downright odd.
Overall rating: Weird-looking, but powerful and cheap. Awfully heavy and power-hungry, though, and the RAM riser card is a huge pain in the arse. A great machine for the money but it has some drawbacks.
Third-generation systems
Blade 100
In many ways, the Blade 100 is a gussied up Ultra 5. It's missing the UPA slot of its predecessor, but given its slab-style case design, it wouldn't be usable anyway. The Blade 100 has a faster IDE bus and 64-bit PCI, and it's also the first SPARC system to have USB and Firewire. The hobbled UltraSPARC-IIi processor has been replaced with the low-cost but more capable UltraSPARC-IIe. The IIe can be thought of as a full-on US-II with less cache, mostly. It's actually a little faster for some things.
Overall rating: Not at all bad for what they cost. Not as powerful as an Ultra 60 or 80, but smaller, lighter and more PC-like.
Blade 150
A powered-up Blade 100 with faster IDE, faster memory and more CPU options.
Overall rating: Just like the Blade 100, but faster, with a corresponding price hike. Still, they're not much more expensive.
Blade 1000
The designated successor to the Ultra 60 and Ultra 80. It features dual UltraSPARC-III processors, dual UPA slots and Fiber Channel disks, all in the same enclosure as the Ultra 80. Amazingly, the change in color scheme manages to make it look half-decent.
Overall rating: Quite fast, not bad for the beginner if it can be found at the right price. It's heavy, though, and the Fiber Channel internal disks are a pain.
Blade 2000
Almost the same machine as the Blade 1000, but with a slightly newer motherboard revision and a different color enclosure. Comes with faster CPUs than the Blade 1000, though nothing stops someone from putting the faster modules in a B1000.
Overall rating: A faster, newer Blade 2000. Expect to pay accordingly. Once in a while, though, one of these is available on the cheap - if you can find a deal like this, don't pass it up, despite the annoying disk issue.
Blade 1500
Ick, who ordered this? The designated replacement for the Ultra 30, which nobody really wanted in the first place. No more UPA, but it has PCI-X instead of mere 64-bit PCI, and it's back to using SCSI disks. It uses the socketed version of the UltraSPARC-III chip rather than the slotted ones in the B1000 and B2000, but it only has one.
Overall review: Not even as capable as a Blade 1000, and usually twice as expensive. Just avoid it, unless it's dirt cheap.
Blade 2500
The Blade 1500's big brother. This one's actually worth something, and features two socketed UltraSPARC-III CPUs, up to 1.6GHz. No UPA, but that's not a huge loss in this case. Sun produced about three zillion different case color variations on this one, ranging from the spiffy (red and black) to the thoroughly dorky (gray and pink).
Overall review: Too often awfully expensive, and the build quality isn't quite as nice as the B1000/B2000, but it's plenty fast if the price is right. Not too many collectors have these, and they're still in service, so demand is high.
Ultra 3
The Sun Ultra 3 is actually two different machines, both of them laptops, built by NatureTech but sold by Sun. One is a laptop version of the Blade 150, while the other is a laptop Blade 1500. In a laptop form factor, the Blade 1500 platform's shortcomings aren't so glaring. Both of these are powerful, but expensive systems.
Overall rating: Nice, powerful hardware, convenient laptop form factor, but awfully expensive and rather niche. No hardware-accelerated 3D, which is an annoying handicap. Usually they cost more than they're worth for a collector, but they'd be very cool to have.
Fourth-generation systems
Ultra 25
Essentially the PCI Express equipped successor to the Blade 1500. Other than being able to use the new XVR-2500 graphics card, it's not a whole lot better than a Blade 1500, especially considering the price it commands.
Overall rating: Too expensive for what you get.
Ultra 45
A considerable boost from the Blade 2500, the Ultra 45 has dual PCI Express slots for graphics and high-speed I/O, plus four internal bays for SAS or SATA disks, two more than most SPARC workstations. It also features USB 2.0 and Firewire, plus Ultra320 SCSI in addition to SAS. It supports up to 32GB of RAM.
Overall rating: Very fast, the best SPARC workstation you can get, but still very expensive, often over $7000. Not worth it yet, but in a few years time, this will be the Sun to get.

Closing notes

Hopefully that should help you decide which system to buy. Once you have decided, the next question becomes figuring out exactly what hardware you have and how to use it. For more information, see the following:

Suns are great machines to start with for any computer collection - tinker with a Sun machine for a while, and I'm sure you'll agree. Happy Hacking!


Sources: Sunshack.org, wikipedia, Sun BigAdmin, Google, my own experiences as a computer collector and Sun system administrator. A large part of the inspiration to write this came from the Frequently Asked Questions About Buying an Old Sun System (FAQABOSS) by Brian Brush - without that, I might never have thought to compile all this in one place.

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