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The Sun Ultra 80 was Sun Microsystems' top of the line graphics and scientific workstation when it was released in late 1999, and still holds up remarkably well even seven years later. It was Sun's first quad-processor desktop offering since the SPARCstation 20, and displaced the Sun Ultra 60 from its spot as Sun's high-end offering. Until very recently, the Ultra 80 commanded a very high price on the used market.

Specifications

  • Production dates: 1999-2003. Officially replaced by the Sun Blade 2000 in 2002.
  • Model Number: three model numbers, 1450, 2450 and 4450, for one, two and four-CPU configurations
  • Application architecture: sun4
  • System architecture: sun4u
  • Processor: Slots for 4 Ultrasparc-II series processors. Stock configurations shipped with one, two or four processors. The system works with 3 CPUs, but that's not officially supported. Speeds other than 450MHz may work, but are hard to find.
  • RAM: Up to 16 256MB DIMMs, upgradable in groups of 4, for a total of 4GB. Minimum memory configuration is 8 64MB DIMMs for a total of 512MB.
  • Graphics: 2 UPA and 4 PCI slots available
  • UPA graphics options: up to two Sun Creator/Creator3D (Series 2 or 3), Sun Elite3D M3/M6 or Expert3D. The later XVR-1000 is not officially supported but does work, however, due to its physical size, if it's installed in the second UPA slot it will block the neighboring PCI slot. The Creator3D is not officially supported and the series 1 cards don't work at all. Also, the Series 2 and 3 Creator (not Creator3D) cards work only sometimes. As these cards are rather inferior anyway, this shouldn't present much of a problem.
  • PCI graphics options: Sun PGX32, PGX64, XVR-100, Expert3D Lite, XVR-500, XVR-600, XVR-1200. TechSource Raptor GFX various PCI cards. Some other PCI graphics cards may work under operating systems other than Solaris, but do not have boot support. The XVR-500, XVR-600 and XVR-1200 only work correctly in the single 66MHz slot.
  • Floppy: Bay for standard Sun-type 1.44MB or 2.88MB floppy, not normally installed.
  • Hard Drives: 2 bays for SCA style Ultra Wide SCSI (80MB/sec) hard drives. These drives are mounted on drive sleds for faster insertion and removal. These bays, like those found on the Ultra 30, but unlike the Ultra 1, 2, 5 and 10, or the earlier SPARCstations, can accommodate 1.6" large-profile drives. The system can use disks up to at least 146GB. Larger disks should work. Disks over 18GB may present problems with early Solaris versions (2.5.1 and 2.6).
  • Audio capabilities: Integrated Crystal Semiconductor CS-4231 sound chip. 16-bit, 48000 kHz (CD quality) for both input and output. No MIDI synthesizer though it's possible to emulate one in software. (See TiMIDIty). This system has integrated phono style microphone, line in, line out, and headphone jacks.
  • Expansion:
    • 2 5 1/4" drive bay, one is usually occupied by a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive. This is a good candidate for an upgrade to a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo, or better yet a DVD-RW if you're lucky enough to find a SCSI one. The second bay can be filled with another optical drive, a tape drive, ZIP drive or other SCSI mass storage device, including a hard disk. (but only a 50-pin model, which will be markedly slower than using an external wide SCSI model).
    • 1 3 1/2" drive bay. May have a floppy. A SCSI LS-120 is also available.
    • 4 PCI expansion slots, 2 64-bit/33MHz, one 64-bit/66MHz, one 32-bit/33MHz. The 32-bit slot is shared with the second UPA slot.
  • External ports:
    • 1 Sun Type 4/5/6 keyboard port
    • 1 PC-style parallel port
    • 2 RS232 high-speed serial ports, DB25 male (230kbps maximum)
    • 1 RJ45 Fast Ethernet port (Sun HME)
    • 1 MII Ethernet interface (same chipset as above)
    • 1 68 pin Ultra Wide SCSI port

What the Ultra 80 did, and what it can do now

It was essentially a higher-end replacement for the Ultra 60, intended to compete with IBM's high-end RS/6000 workstations and SGI's Octane2, which it did rather well. Its intended roles were much the same as the Ultra 60, with a greater focus on the engineering, simulation and scientific fields, who can make use of the extra CPU power. It also found quite a lot of use by 3D graphic design studios, who could also make use of the 4 CPUs. Nowadays, it can handle all but the very most demanding desktop loads. Multimedia content creation and 3D modeling are still good uses for it. It also makes a workable, if loud, desktop publishing and multimedia machine. They also make quite effective servers, for files, mail, web, authentication or other network services.

What operating systems will it run?

Linux is fairly well supported, unless you're using an Expert or XVR-series graphics card, and offers excellent SMP support. It also supports modern software. The SunPCi PC compatibility card doesn't work in Linux, though. FreeBSD offers similar support, though it doesn't support hardware acceleration for OpenGL on the Creator3D and Elite3D cards. NetBSD has significant limitations in which graphics cards it supports. OpenBSD, on the other hand, will support all four CPUs and Creator3D, Expert3D, XVR-500, Elite3D and PGX-series graphics cards as of 4.5-beta. This makes OpenBSD the strongest choice among the BSD-based OSes.

Solaris, however, being the native OS, is the strongest choice. The Ultra 80 shipped with Solaris 2.5.1 at first, and later with 2.6 or 7, but it will happily run all later versions of Solaris. An upgrade to 10, or better yet Solaris Express is recommended, for the extra features and better compatibility with modern software.

Caveats

There are a few small gotchas to watch out for. Most noteworthy is that if you're using PC-formatted disks, you'll need to label and partition them first, before you can install an OS. If you don't do this, the Solaris installation will mysteriously fail, with errors that falsely suggest that the disk itself has failed! You can safely use and partition scheme, no matter how ludicrous, for this initial labeling: once labeled, the Solaris installer will quite gladly let you repartition the disks.

Also of note is the use of PCI expansion cards designed for PCs. There are three concerns - endianness, drivers and Open Firmware (which Sun calls the OpenBoot PROM, or OBP). SPARCs are big-endian machines while x86 PCs are little-endian, but this rarely causes problems in practice. Drivers are a bigger problem, as Solaris does not provide SPARC versions of every driver that Solaris x86 ships with, and most card manufacturers don't ship Solaris drivers. That said, many cards will work anyway, such as Ethernet, SCSI or USB. (IDE is a crapshoot and should probably be avoided anyway). SATA controllers lack drivers entirely, though at least one SAS card is known to work in Solaris, and SATA hard disks can be attached to it.

Open Firmware support for your card is important if you need to use the card in some way before the OS is loaded. For example, if you want to boot from a SCSI disk attached to a PCI card, you need Open Firmware support for the card. Likewise if you want to netboot from a PCI Ethernet card, or use a USB keyboard on the console. Since the on-motherboard OBP has support for only a small number of devices, mostly produced by Sun, your card will need a Sun-type Open Firmware PROM on it. Apple-type Open Firmware, as found on cards for Macintosh might work, but is not guaranteed to. In particular, Mac-edition graphics cards are only useful once the OS has booted. If you feel clever, it's sometimes possible to re-flash a PC or Mac PCI card with Sun-type Open Firmware. Doing this to a Macintosh-edition ATi Radeon 7000 card will produce what is effectively an XVR-100.

If you want to boot from a PCI SCSI card, and you can't find a Sun-branded one, the built-in OBP supports many Symbios and LSI cards which use the SYM538xx chipset. These are pretty common, stable cards.

Another gotcha, specific to the Ultra 80, is that half the RAM sockets are on a riser card rather than soldered directly to the motherboard. This card is not designed for repeated removal and insertion, and must be secured using a torque wrench provided by Sun. This is a pain in the neck, however it's possible to mount RAM on the card while it's still inserted.

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