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The SPARCStation 10 was Sun's first desktop multi-processor SPARC workstation. It used basically the same chassis as the much earlier SPARCstation 2, but manages to jam a MUCH more powerful machine in the same space. This was also the first and only pizza-box sun4m which did not use the Aurora chassis. This has the effect of making it just a bit trickier to work with than its later cousins, the SPARCstation 4, 5 and 20.

Specifications

  • Production dates: 1992 - 1995. Officially replaced by the SPARCstation 20 in 1994, but production continued for a short while thereafter.
  • Model Number: Way too many to keep straight - this was produced in at least 30 different variations.
  • Application architecture: sun4
  • System architecture: sun4m
  • Processor: 2 MBus slots, many options available. Each slot can hold a single or dual processor module, and up to two can be installed, for a maximum of 4 CPUs. Most dual-processor modules are double-width, and will block the adjacent SBus slots, but there are single-width/dual-CPU modules. Speeds from 33MHz through 200MHz are available, in at least two families (Sun/TI SuperSPARC and Ross HyperSPARC), both with and without cache. The MBus on the SS10 runs at 40MHz maximum, making the whole system a bit slower than the SPARCstation 20, and is pickier about modules than the 20.
  • RAM: Up to 8 SIMMs, 512MB maximum. Two of the SIMM slots have an extension to one side, and can also hold VSIMMs for the SX framebuffer, if and only if you have the unusual SPARCStation 10 SX. Non-SX SS10s have the slots, but putting a VSIMM in them does nothing.
  • Graphics: The SS10SX has an onboard CG14 (also known as SX, accelerated 24-bit). All models have 4 SBus slots. The SX needs a VSIMM, either 4MB or 8MB to operate. The 8MB version supports higher resolutions and refresh rates. 2 VSIMMs can be installed for dual-head, doing this requires a rather hard-to-find extender card which fits into an SBus slot.
  • SBus graphics options: BW2 (mono, no acceleration), CG3 (8-bit color, no acceleration), CG6 (8-bit color, accelerated), CG8 (24-bit color, no acceleration), ZX (24-bit color, accelerated 3D, abysmal 2D performance). Others exist, but are poorly known.
  • Floppy: Standard Sun-type 1.44MB or 2.88MB floppy.
  • Hard Drives: 2 bays for standard 50-pin SCSI disks. The mounting system relies on some very nonstandard nubbins that fit into plastic brackets in the chassis. Unlike the drive sleds for the SS5/SS20, or the spud brackets for the later Ultras, these are quite hard to find. The SPARCstation 4 used a similar arrangement, but had a different type of mounting nubbin.
  • Audio capabilities: Integrated AMD sound and ISDN chip. 8-bit, 22050 kHz (radio quality) for both input and output. No MIDI synthesizer though it's possible to emulate one in software. (See TiMIDIty). Unlike the SS4/5/20, the SS10 does not have onboard sound jacks, instead wanting a speaker box, akin to the one used by NeXT machines, that attaches to a combination sound and AUI port on the back of the case. 2 RJ45 S/T ISDN interfaces are provided as well. Information on the ISDN chipset is sparse and hard to come by.
  • Expansion:
    • 4 SBus expansion slots
  • External ports:
    • 1 Sun Type 4/5/6 keyboard port
    • 1 PC-style parallel port
    • 2 RS232 high-speed serial ports, mini-HD male (230kbps maximum), one nonstandard port
    • 1 RJ45 Ethernet port (Sun Lance)
    • 1 combination sound/AUI port, requires a special breakout box to use either feature.
    • 13W3 video port for onboard SX framebuffer, SS10SX only.
    • 1 50 pin Fast SCSI port

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

The SS10 was Sun's first real multiprocessing desktop workstation. It was decidedly quirky in several ways, and was missing several important features, the most important of which were the easy availability of 24-bit graphics and an internal CD-ROM. Both of these shortfalls were rectified with the later Aurora-chassis SPARCstations, and with the SX card on the SS20, or the AFX-bus TCX on the SS5. The graphics problem was also fixed with the late and rare SPARCstation 10 SX. These quirks aside, however, it was quite a powerful machine in its day. It saw use for desktop publishing and text processing, image editing and video capture, and some early efforts at 3D modeling and rendering. (Though, back then, the market was almost entirely dominated by SGI). It also saw use as a server, for web, NTP, DNS, mail and similar services.

Today, its best niche is as a lightweight server. The difficulty of obtaining 24-bit graphics, unless you have the SS10SX, makes it a poor fit as a workstation or X terminal. However, if you do have the SX, or you've found a rare and hot-running ZX, then it might make a decent X terminal, or perhaps a workstation if you have multiple CPUs. Finding the mounting nubbins for internal hard drives can be tricky, so you might be forced to boot entirely from external drives. Fortunately, neither the firmware nor the OS has any serious problem with this.

What operating systems will run on it?

The most obvious choice is Solaris. All versions up to Solaris 9 work, though later versions are somewhat RAM-hungry, and may not be terribly fast. Replacing the stock CDE with XFCE, Window Maker or IceWM will go a long way toward fixing this, though. Linux is another very good choice, supporting basically all the onboard hardware and a large range of SBus expansion cards. Indeed, with Solaris being at its end-of-life on this platform, Linux may well become the OS of choice once Sun drops support for Solaris 9. FreeBSD doesn't support the 32-bit SPARC, but NetBSD and OpenBSD do. Both have tradeoffs, with OpenBSD having no support for multiple processors, while NetBSD's X support is weak. The older BSD-based SunOS 4.x will run on the SS10, but SunOS 4.x is more than slightly long in the tooth, and it's quite difficult to persuade modern software to run on it.

An interesting option is NeXTSTEP or OPENSTEP. Both are significantly picky about hardware: only the SuperSPARC CPU modules work, and only one of these. Also, NS/OS only support the BW2, CG6 and SX graphics options - but the SX works very well indeed. If you're not lucky enough to have the SS10SX, the CG6 is quite serviceable and fast, but being limited to 256 colors can be a bit annoying. OPENSTEP 4.2 is the recommended version, though NeXTSTEP 3.3 does work if you have a particular reason to prefer it.

Finding one, and how much you can expect to pay

The SS10 isn't in particularly high demand anymore, so finding one cheaply shouldn't be difficult at all. The SS10SX is markedly harder to get, primarily because very few were ever made, but if you can find one, it's a better deal. Better still, just get an SS20 - they're a lot less quirky.

This isn't a bad machine for learning the ins and outs of non-PC hardware. It's a bit weird relative to the later, PCI-based Sun Ultras, but it's still a moderately well laid out machine, with all the parts easily accessible for cleaning, upgrading and experimentation. The disk mounting hardware is more than a little wonky, and it can't take an internal CDROM, and it also has some cooling issues relative to the SS20, which makes quad-processor arrangements tricky.