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The Sun Ultra 10 was one of two machines designed as part of Sun's exploration of the low-end workstation market. Due to its low cost and relatively good performance, it was one of Sun's most successful workstations.

Specifications

  • Production dates: 1997 - 2002, one of the longest production runs in Sun history.
  • Application architecture: sun4
  • System architecture: sun4u
  • Processor: one CPU module, UltraSPARC IIi, a low-cost version of the UltraSPARC-II with lower floating point performance. Clock speeds from 300MHz through 440MHz are available, with 333 and 440 being the most common.
  • RAM: 4 168-pin DIMM slots, 50ns EDO DRAM with parity. Note that parity and non-parity EDO DIMMs are not compatible. SDRAM also does not work. This RAM isn't quite proprietary, but it's hard to come by.
  • Graphics: Onboard PGX8, ATi Rage II+DVD (Mach64 GT) with 2MB RAM. Due to firmware and driver limitations, this card is limited to 8-bit color. Later models have the PGX24 instead, which is the same chipset with 4MB of RAM, allowing 24-bit color. Very late-model motherboards use the Rage XL chipset with 8MB of RAM instead, but these are hard to find. In practice the Rage XL models offer the same capabilities but are slightly faster. One UPA and four PCI slots are available for expansion.
  • UPA graphics options: Creator/Creator3D, Elite3D, Expert3D. The XVR-1000 will not physically fit, though there's no other impediment to its use.
  • PCI graphics options: PGX32, PGX64, XVR-100. Other PCI framebuffers use a 64-bit interface, and the Ultra 10 has 32-bit PCI, so they may not work correctly, if at all.
  • Floppy: Standard Sun-type 1.44MB or 2.88MB floppy.
  • Hard Drives: One internal bay, plus an additional 5.25" bay for a CD or extra hard disk. Standard 40-pin IDE. The IDE bus is limited to a maximum capacity of 137GB, but this is still pretty considerable.
  • Audio capabilities: Integrated Crystal Semiconductor CD-quality audio with onboard jacks.
  • Expansion:
    • 2 5.25" drive bays. One is normally filled by a CD-ROM or CD-RW drive.
    • 3.5" drive bay, designed for a PCMCIA bus bridge which is exceedingly difficult to find. Industry-standard PCMCIA bridge 'drives', like those made by Dell, will not fit.
    • UPA expansion slot
    • 4 PCI expansion slots
  • External ports:
    • 1 Sun Type 4/5/6 keyboard port
    • 1 PC-style parallel port
    • 2 RS232 high-speed serial ports, one DB-9 male, one DB-25 female.
    • 1 RJ45 Ethernet port (Sun hme)
    • HD15 video port for onboard PGX8/PGX24

What the Ultra 10 did, and what it can do now

The Ultra 10 was one of Sun's first two real low-end workstations. It used a lot of PC-derived technologies: it was the first Sun to feature PCI instead of SBus and IDE instead of SCSI, HD15 video connectors instead of the traditional 13W3, and entirely lacked the AUI or MII ethernet interfaces found on earlier machines. Because its tower enclosure allowed access to the UPA slot which was blocked on the Ultra 5, it could be used for 3D graphics. As such, it was the machine of choice for those who needed Solaris, SPARC CPUs and 3D graphics on the cheap, filling much the same niche as the SGI Indy did some 3-4 years earlier, albeit with somewhat less panache. The Ultra 10 thus saw use in the 3D modeling and rendering fields, along with desktop publishing, software development and small-time electrical engineering. Curiously, it was also often used as a lightweight server or firewall, despite its somewhat anemic I/O capabilities.

Nowadays, it pales in comparison to other Sun machines, but it's still reasonably capable, and usually quite inexpensive. It can make a reasonable workstation, or a decent network server for mostly network-intensive applications, like NTP, DNS or firewalling. Its mass storage system is particularly poor, however, and therefore it makes a weak fileserver or development machine - an awful lot of time will be spent waiting on the disk. If you have one of the PGX24 models, or one with a Creator3D, it makes a serviceable if large X terminal, though this is really more of an Ultra 1 or Ultra 5 niche. Although it's not the best example of Sun engineering around, it has a few nice features (like UPA), and is pretty PC-like. Therefore, if you want just one Sun to fiddle around with, I'd probably recommend this one - with the caveat that the enclosure is singularly klunky.

What operating systems will run on it?

The most obvious choice is Solaris. All versions work. Linux is another very good choice, supporting basically all the onboard hardware and most PCI expansion cards. FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD are reasonable choices too, particularly if you don't want or need X. For use as a desktop, though, Solaris 10, or a recent Linux distribution like Ubuntu or Gentoo is probably the best bet.

Finding one, and how much you can expect to pay

The Ultra 10 was produced for a long time, and purchased in huge numbers. As such, the used market is inundated with them. This is counterbalanced somewhat by the fact that is has a reputation as the cheapest Ultra, and as the best value for the money. This is no longer strictly accurate, as this honor likely belongs to either the Sun Ultra 2 or the Ultra 60 now, but the perception is still there. This has driven the price fairly low, but kept it from really falling through the floor. Expect to pay between $30 and $100 for a well-configured one - but expect to have to replace or upgrade the hard drive. Particularly, look for one with a Creator3D or Elite3D graphics card, and with as much RAM as you can get. The onboard graphics card is not particularly impressive, and RAM is perhaps the hardest thing to come by for these systems.

This is a good machine for those who just want to learn about Sun hardware, or who just want one Sun to monkey with. Its rather weak storage system makes it a poor choice for serious work, though, unless you're willing to put some significant work into it. The case is not particularly well laid out. This is also true of the Ultra 5, but the 10 is even more guilty of it. The drive bays are cramped, the case housing slides off downward, and the PCI cards insert upward, with what's usually thought of as the top of the card facing the bottom of the case. Yes, this is weird. The IDE subsystem is also terribly slow. This is not just a case of SCSI bigotry, either - even relative to other IDE controllers of the same generation, it's a turtle. All that said, although the physical layout of the machine seems gratuitously bogus, it's really not too bad. The very fact that it succeeded to the degree that it did might be seen as proof that worse is better, at least sometimes.

Tweaks and upgrades

As has been mentioned before, the onboard IDE is pants. It is, however, possible to get around this. What you'll need is a SCSI card that has OpenFirmware support, or even rarer, a good IDE controller with OpenFirmware support. Unfortunately, SATA is not supported at all, but if you really want to use it, and aren't afraid to pay a fair bit, Sun makes a PCI Serial Attached SCSI controller which can use SATA drives. Any of these routes will give you a much faster I/O bus, which will give performance a real shot in the arm. Upgrading the CPU if you don't already have the 440MHz model helps too, as does adding more RAM. If you don't already have a 24-bit graphics card, a Series 2 or 3 Creator3D (FFB2/FFB2+) can be had fairly inexpensively, and provides high-resolution, hardware-accelerated 3D. The Elite3D is also fairly cheap nowadays. It's possible to overclock the CPU through hidden settings in the firmware, but this is Considered Harmful.

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