Originally Published: Monday, 27 November 2000 Author: Ross Sanders
Published to: enhance_articles_hardware/Hardware Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

A Different Approach (Part IV of V): SPARC Systems

Having covered PowerPC and Alpha systems, Ross Sanders delves into the world of SPARC systems in the quest for his ultimate Linux machine. Enjoy!

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This week I promised you a look at Sun computers. I must apologize for a slight misnomer on my own part; I should have said "SPARC based systems."

The two aren't the same. Sun Microsystems is simply the most visible user of the SPARC processors. The SPARC name/acronym is owned by a company called "SPARC International, Inc.". For those that don't know, SPARC stands for "Scalable Processor ARChitecture".

There are a variety of systems that use SPARC processors and not all of them are the usual desktop systems or servers. There are embeddable systems, rack mounts, VME/CAMAC/Fastbus controllers. You name it and it's likely to have a SPARC version somewhere. I could actually camp in this realm of odd systems of the computer industry for several articles by itself, but that is a topic of a different series.

However, there are a couple of avenues to explore in this one small corner of the SPARC realm that could easily fit my needs. One is a major investment of funds in some more "serious" hardware, and the other is the usual desktop workstation such as the Sun Blade1000, just as an example. I am going to try very hard here to condense this article to less than 100 pages (kidding!). I'll deal with the easiest part first: the ubiquitous workstation. Along with Sun there are other providers of SPARC processor based hardware.

Some of these include but not limited to: Rebel.Com, Aries Research, and Toshiba (or Toshiba Japan for our friends in Japan). Most of the systems you will come across in this fashion are listed to support some version of Solaris. I can hear you readers groaning, but Sun does have a powerful influence on the commercial market. The good news is that many of these OEM vendors also have equipment that is supported under Linux. In some cases, like the SPARC notebooks from Tadpole, they are targeted more for the professional type that would like some uniformity in his travel. He uses a SPARC system at work, and would prefer one when he travels for compatibility sake. These tend to be cheaper than the outrageously priced desktop systems that our professional colleagues who have the corporate or government funds to spend on them.

Some of my readers probably are wondering where I'm rambling to. Others, I'm sure, know where I'm heading. Scalability is the keyword when you are short on cash but need or want an enterprise class system. Last week, I mentioned the alternative practice to being on the bleeding edge of computing. Buy older, create software for newer. Many SPARC systems of the same class using the same OS are backwards and forwards compatible with each other like the UltraSPARC, unless you cross architectural boundaries such as PCI to SBUS.

The main draw for a SPARC system, be it an Ultra, Super, or Micro, is that you can write your software on a cheaper used computer system similar to the systems you would actually like to run your more resource intensive calculations. Buy a dual-processor UltraSPARC used for about $3000 and this puts you into the position of being able to just recompile the software for a $150,000 64 CPU computer you can gain access to through contacts with minimal problems if any.

This takes care of computations naturally. The two major drawbacks to this technique is that you don't have access to the $150,000 computer's graphics capability if it has them and not everyone has contacts at corporate R&D departments or a National Lab. However, a two year old SPARC system, as long as it is a PCI based motherboard, can overcome the first problem. Just upgrade the video card. Naturally, it's not the fastest thing on a desk anywhere, but it can match my needs of rendering CCD images and pattern matches quite well. This type of scalability will work with almost any computer system of the same class and basic architecture. An AlphaStation 400/233 from 4 years ago will still be compatible with an Alpha from year 2000 with 64 CPUs with only a little optimization. The same works with SPARC and MIPS systems. Unfortunately, and this is the main reason I am going to all this trouble sifting through RISC type systems, you cannot do the same with an x86 PC trying to run the same code on an SGI Crimson without some major rewriting. The very way instructions and data are handled is completely different. I've looked closely at some older SPARC systems, since new ones that are "bleeding edge" are way out of my price range, and there are some very good buys if you can catch them at times from the used/refurbished dealerships. Sometimes you can get CPU boards for less than the cost of a hard drive for a PC.

Drawback to some of these systems, however, is lack of compatibility. Especially since they often use SBUS and/or SCSI hard drives on most of the SPARC computer systems. Expensive to replace/maintain/upgrade and really not as good as the current EIDE and PCI technology for a simple workstation. This makes it necessary to be careful when mixing the old and the new.

Data Instruments, Inc. has a price list of refurbished Sun computers that are representative of the SPARC refurbished workstation market. There are several in the $1,500 to $3,000 range that I'm trying to stick to. There are also a scattering of plain-jane motherboard-only vendors that can offer SPARC based systems so that you can build your own if you are so inclined.

The Ultra10 series from Sun has the general requirements for my projects: PCI support, RS-232 support, good Linux support. Just a shocker on the price tag, which is no real surprise since, like IBM, they are not really marketing to consumers, but to corporations and governments. Specifically, I'm looking at the $1,900 Ultra10 300 listed on Data Instruments' site as my third choice. While the online descriptions aren't that great (consisting of a few photos), I do know that coupled with scaling and having legacy support for RS-232 and PCI support, for the price it's a strong contender in the running. The added bonus here is this particular system is a complete workstation with disks and memory. However, Solaris won't be sticking around in favor of Linux and possibly dual boot with NetBSD. This computer comes in relatively slow on the SPEC2000 benchmarks, but that's mainly due to comparing it to current computer systems which in all fairness, I would not do usually, but in this case it's justified since I actually am considering buying one.

Next week I'll bring you my decision on the workstation I will be purchasing, and all the in's and out's and wherefore's of why I chose this particular architecture over the others. The article after that I'll take a look at the second part of this article with a little more generalization to it. Rack mounted computer systems such as the VME architectures. A broad topic that deserves it's own article or series, since it's a major investment for those serious about data collection and have the funds to do so.

Ross is getting closer to sanity...

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