back to article ‘Staggering’ cost of vintage Sun workstations sees OpenSolaris-fork Illumos drop SPARC support

OpenSolaris ‘spork’ Illumos has decided to deprecate support for SPARC CPUs. A README posted to GitHub says the decision to drop SPARC is rooted in the fact that the OS was written for silicon that hasn’t been sold for a decade. “The most recent SPARC machines for which we have relatively direct and complete support were …

  1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

    Sad but understandable. We have good memories of the Sun SPARC machines of the day, well built and reliable compared to the cheap (and not so cheap) x86 boxes we had. But in time they became too expensive for the performance offered and Linux became pretty good.

    Then Oracle took over and it was clear fairly quickly that no more SunOracle kit would be bought or used.

    1. Korev Silver badge

      And the servers were a nice purple colour :-)

      1. Anonymous Coward

        I smell an Apple lawsuit.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward


          Don't I just feel a right twat thanks to you. I re-read that article twice to spot where Apple had been mentioned. The I finally twigged the colour purple… Have an upvote, but you can buy your own beer!

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        We threw out a fully kitted SPARC server rack, with terminal, tape backup, the works. Can't sell it or even donate to a museum because policies raurhruhrhhgh.

        I jacked the keyboards. They have Super and Hyper keys!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      That was a really long time ago, because all SPARC workstations from the U5 onward were at least overpriced, and most of them were also pure crap.

      /somebody who had to work on a Sun Blade 100 from 2005 to 2009 while managing older workstations

    3. Steve Graham

      We found that £2000 x86 blade servers with Linux outperformed our £20,000 SPARC servers. We didn't buy any more after that.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        But in the 90s a Sparc5 outperformed a bunch of Vaxen by a similar margin and you got a mouse instead of VT220 graphics

        1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

          VT220 terminals were text-only. The ReGIS terminals in that generation were VT240/VT241 which were monochrome and colour respectively.

          Some manufacturers made VT220 compatible terminals with Tektronix 4014/4015 emulations built in. My favorite was the Falco 5220 (Falco was set up by some engineers who left Wyse to set up their own company), which allowed me to write a terminal definition for the Access 20/20 spreadsheet to switch modes to allow text mode for spreadsheets and Tektronix mode for graphs in the same session.

          It also had other interesting features, including a second RS-232 port which could be used as a second session to another system, either in a separate scroll region or a hot-key swapable screen, or to attach a printer. I worked out a way to control this to allow text files to be copied from one machine in the first session to a second machine on the other session. Before the days of general networking, was often the easiest way of moving files between to systems, especially when used with uuencode/uudecode.

          All a bit passe nowadays, but fun and useful at the time.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        We found that £2000 x86 blade servers with Linux outperformed our £20,000 SPARC servers.

        Depends on the workload. For systems of the same generation (i.e. comparing, say, 2015 SPARC with 2015 x86) you'll get better performance with x86/Linux on basic stuff where the OS doesn't have to do much. Try it with massive (PB) databases and encrypted filesystems, though, and SPARC/Solaris will still beat any x86 box.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          I'll call your bluff on that one. Solaris was never all that much better than Linux post-2000. That applies both to the OS and the hardware support.

          Solaris was well built (presumably because there was a more centralised design of the OS), but for every important workload Linux had been hammered into being the obvious choice by 2003 or so.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            How well does Linux on x86 cope with 4000+ cores supporting a 20Pbyte RDBMS, networked through 4-8 100Gbit/s Ethernet links. All encrypted on the fly?

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              At a guess it'll at least have drivers for the hardware. Solaris usually didn't.

  2. ptribble

    Will continue in another form

    While SPARC will be removed from upstream, that isn't quite the end of illumos on SPARC. Tribblix will simply fork illumos and continue with it's illumos on SPARC distribution from what will then essentially be a static base. Makes life easier on both sides - illumos mainstream can evolve more aggressively, and those of us using unchanging SPARC hardware can evolve much more slowly.

    1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

      Re: Will continue in another form

      Tribblix - Apart from the rapid reproduction, just like Tribbles!

      "They are depicted as a small, furry, gentle, attractive, and slow-moving but rapidly reproducing lovable species."

      Have you considered a character like Tux for the project, based on the likeness of a Tribble?

      1. davidp231

        Re: Will continue in another form

        "Have you considered a character like Tux for the project, based on the likeness of a Tribble?"

        Far as I know, Tux (and derivatives) are more for Linux projects, and not those closer to Unix (eg the BSDs).

        1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

          Re: Will continue in another form

          Well FreeBSD has the Beastie mascot, OpenBSD the pufferfish and DragonflyBSD has (surprise!) a dragonfly, so character mascots are not unknown in the BSD world.

          NetBSD probably should have a toaster mascot.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Pity I scapped all my old SPARC desktops, instead of trying ebay.

    Still, the models supported by illumos are very old. Oracle and Fujitsu still make new SPARC boxes with more modern processors, but there's so little demand for desktops that the video driver support is minimal now.

    1. SteveK

      I have a bunch of SPARC desktops and servers that have been gathering dust in a basement (along with my collection of acquired SGIs, all waiting for a time that I never had to bring them to life) which I'd been thinking to scrap. Maybe I'll try eBay instead...

      1. nintendoeats Silver badge

        I'd be interested in your SGIs...

        1. juice

          > I'd be interested in your SGIs...

          I'd semi-love to get hold of an SGI O2 - it was the first real workstation I ever used, and I spent several years hacking up code on one; I even learned how to use Vi on it.


          Then too, it's got that sorta-cool curvy-vaccuum cleaner look to it.

          OTOH, I've not really got any use for it, and any potential projects (e.g. slapping a Pi inside it) will probably end up on the large pile of similar potential projects which have been gathering dust for quite some time.

          And the Ebay prices are definitely prohibitive!

          Mind you, the same's also true for Sun IPC/IPX, and at one point I had several dozen of these, thanks to work doing a mass clearout of obsolete kit. C'est la vie...

          1. nintendoeats Silver badge

            I have an R5K O2, it's what got me into SGIs. Unfortunately the cases are made from really brittle plastic that just disintegrates, so using them as a case is basically a nono. I also don't know how people can ship them safely.

            I just enjoy mine for the real-time video features. It looks like garbage :/

            Actually, I use an Indy as my...daily driver?...SGI. It's easier to keep running because you can easily run it off a SCSI2SD, and hasn't fallen apart.

          2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

            I'd enjoy having a Sun-3 for the same reason. I think that was my first UNIX workstation. Used it at university for C, LISP, and Scheme coursework.

            Or an IBM RT PC, which was the first workstation I used at work, and consequently wrote considerable non-trivial software for. Mine ran AOS (IBM's BSD port), not AIX. Unlike the SGI machines there was nothing sexy about the RT PC, but I have a perverse fondness for the ol' boat anchor.

            1. David Halko
              Thumb Up


              Do you have any of the old Sun-3 hardware & software that ran SUNVIEW?

              I loved those systems, with integrated mail, integrated dbxtool, etc.

              Do those run in an emulator, now a days?

      2. Michael Hoffmann Silver badge


        There wouldn't be an original Indigo among them? Every so often I look for one. Looking back, when we got some of those at work, an argument could be made that it set my whole career on a different path.

        1. Alan_Peery

          Re: Indigo?

          I was looking for one last weekend. :-)

          Or truth to be told, I was looking for an Indigo case, because MIPS hardware is old and you can get that level of performance and memory with an up to date and patched OS for much less money. The prospect of gutting the internal was still a sad one, and has stopped me from the project in previous times.

          1. nintendoeats Silver badge

            Re: Indigo?

            The SGI community has particularly strong feelings against that sort of thing (but you know, other people ain't yo problem yo)

          2. Cragganmore

            Re: Indigo?

            Will be putting an Indigo 2 R8000 on eBay in the next week or so...

            1. nintendoeats Silver badge

              Re: Indigo?

              You should do well, the R8000s are an interesting oddity.

    2. Roger Greenwood

      I have a couple of old Sun monitors here, the only reason they are not in a skip is because they are the size of a skip :-)

      1. Dr_N
        Thumb Up

        AKA Sony Trinitrons

        1. Gene Cash Silver badge

          Re: Sony Trinitrons

          I had a Sony Trinitron last 21 years before it finally just wouldn't turn on.

          It lost a bit of brightness, but the colors were still true.

      2. BinkyTheMagicPaperclip Silver badge

        Please don't stick them in a skip, CRT monitors are in short supply, especially if they're in decent condition.

        Put them on ebay, you will get some interest.

      3. juice

        > I have a couple of old Sun monitors here, the only reason they are not in a skip is because they are the size of a skip

        At one point as a student (way back in the 90s), I was living with a housemate who had just finished uni and started a Real Job. And the company he was working for was having a clearout of old *nix kit - I don't remember which manufacturer it was, but I've got a feeling it might have been ancient DEC Alpha stuff.

        Anyhow, some friends had expressed an interest in said kit. And that's how we ended up with a house rammed full of workstations and massive monitors.

        Perhaps unsurprisingly, the friends who expressed interest never got around to collecting it, and none of the kit was really of any use to us - IIRC, most of the monitors were monochome, and those which weren't used some sort of component video cable with BNC connectors, rather than VGA.

        Still, the workstations had desktop cases rather than towers, so I ended up building a little coffee table out of several. And my housemate eventually managed to find a home for them all, once it came time for us to move out of said house. Via a van, and with much cursing as said kit was slowly lugged out of the house...

        *hums the Young Ones theme tune*...

        1. DougMac

          You'll for sure find interest on the Rescue mailing list for your monitors. I don't know how much action you'll get since it will cost hundreds of $$s to ship those beasts.

      4. Blank Reg

        I used to have a pair of them on my desk, not much room for anything else once those were in place

      5. Evilgoat76

        There is an upper limit to how many you can keep in the same place before causing the formation of a black hole.

        Indy 2 Solid Impact was my desktop of choice in 2000

    3. Antron Argaiv Silver badge

      SPARC desktops

      I have fond memories of the SPARC desktops, since that was the first Unix machine I had continuous access to at Data General. We were all given these to do our schematics on, DG having figured out that rolling their own CAD system to run on MV workstations was more expensive than using something purchased.

      When not using the machine for schematics, I spent a lot of time investigating USENET and downloading Linux floppy images. Then, I discovered that Linux on an x86 was significantly more reliable than anything Microsoft was supplying at the time (Win 3.1, I believe).

      Still using Linux at home. Thanks for the memories.

  4. Gaius

    I never thought I’d see the day

  5. Anonymous South African Coward

    And another stalwart bites the dust.

    Hamba Kahle.

  6. xyz Silver badge

    And they were really good heaters..

    I used to hug them when I was stuck in a cold server room.

    1. ptribble

      Re: And they were really good heaters..

      Quite. A lot of the illumos on SPARC support was done on the handful of machines in my home office. They would never get turned on if it was a warm summer day, but came in quite useful in the middle of winter.

  7. Binraider Silver badge

    It wasn't that long ago we decommissioned our UltraSPARC IIs... Spares came from eBay for years. We replaced it, unsurprisingly with X86_64.

    There wasn't really any choice in the matter, the price tag associated with current SPARC is utterly obscene; no matter how well designed they are.

  8. Dr_N

    Ah happy days

    Remember when things were brought up and just stayed up? Year in, year out.

    Desktop computing at its best.

    1. jtaylor

      Re: Ah happy days

      Remember when things were brought up and just stayed up? Year in, year out.

      When I left one company, I left behind a Sun Ultra 5 with uptime over 5 years, which was when I had upgraded the RAM.

  9. Xalran

    Well I have a working and kitted ( more HDD & RAM than initially ) Ultra45 sitting in another room.

    I fire it up from time to time when I need to do some unix related stuff or when I'm in front of the binocular ( which is on the desk that hides the U45 ) trying to identify microminerals ( I then use the U45 to browse mineralogy reference websites )

    I also know where to find an Ultra 2 with a bunch of Unipacks and Multipacks. ( but those have been taking dust in a cellar for quite some time )

  10. Alsibbo

    I've got 3 SPARC machines (v880, M4000, v240) and all 3 together cost me less than £600 second hand complete and working

  11. slimshady76

    Solaris alltogether needs to die

    I know a lot of folks have a soft spot for that polished turd, but it's just Stockholm syndrome. It was the most obnoxious piece of software I had the tragedy of dealing with. Oh, the LDOMs, the lack of (native) LVM support, all the disc slices nonsense, having the swap space and /tmp as one device, mixed with the SAN scan crap, "touch ./reconfigure sync sync reboot"...

    I remember the day we moved to AIX and I couldn't believe how easy all that stuff was there... And then Linux adopted LVM natively, and better journalled filesystems came in!

    1. AJ MacLeod

      Re: Solaris alltogether needs to die

      I have to say I totally agree. I used then maintained a SUN network in the late 90s/early 2000s and Solaris was frankly horrible to work with. All the new machines bought after I took over were bog standard PCs running Linux which vastly outperformed the SUNs despite being a tiny fraction of the cost - not to mention being far easier to keep updated and having a much more pleasant userland. They ran both our own Fortran based CFD code and the commercial CFD software we previously used on Solaris.

      What really surprised me was that our code ran faster on the Ultra10 running Linux compared to the same machine running Solaris. I did like the aesthetic though, and some of those monitors were nice.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Solaris alltogether needs to die

      I have some good news for you, then: Solaris has been effectively dead since 2017. For those late to the party or confused by the language used in the article: Solaris is a proprietary operating system owned by Oracle. OpenSolaris was an open source licensed series of releases of most of the Solaris code by Sun; open and collaborative development was intended but never really took off, and these releases stopped altogether when Oracle bought the company in 2010. At that point, Oracle effectively made a proprietary fork of OpenSolaris they continued to develop and offer as Solaris, while the open source OS was renamed illumos; open Oracle-free development of that OS continues to this day, and that's what this article is about. There are no forks (nor sporks) of OpenSolaris because OpenSolaris doesn't exist. illumos is the trunk and Oracle have a proprietary hard fork; other open forks like Tribblix also exist. illumos development today includes all the kinds of work you'd expect in an actively developed OS: support for new hardware (and yes, deprecation of support for the no longer useful), new standards, bug fixes, new features, workarounds for broken hardware, etc.

      You can still buy Solaris, and Oracle have promised to continue supporting it for many more years, but they're not investing in much new development. El Reg has covered this extensively; you can learn more about this state of affairs at and much more recently

      Most of the technologies you mention haven't been relevant during illumos's existence: LVM, journaling filesystems, and the need for disk slicing/partitioning were effectively replaced by ZFS with S10u2 in 2006, around the same time as the first OpenSolaris release. OpenSolaris is long gone and Solaris is going, but illumos is very much alive!

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Solaris alltogether needs to die

      Oh, the LDOMs, the lack of (native) LVM support, all the disc slices nonsense, having the swap space and /tmp as one device, mixed with the SAN scan crap, "touch ./reconfigure sync sync reboot"...

      RTFM, much?

      LDoms are hardware partitioning at chip level. More performant, and more secure, than software hypervisors. IBM does the same thing, with LPAR. Of course there were also software hypervisors available, not to mention "containers" (aka zones) a decade or more before docker reinvented them.

      You have LVM support as well, either natively in ZFS or via SVM on older Solaris versions with UFS.

      There was no requirement to have /tmp on swap, although it was the default just as it is on many Linuxes these days. Much more practical to have temporary space on volatile storage, essentially a "ramdisk", with /var/tmp as non-volatile, but trivially easy to change.

      1. slimshady76

        Re: Solaris alltogether needs to die

        Back in the day when I entered the corporate IT world, Solaris 10 was at its peak. ZFS was a distant ship on the horizon, disk slicing was necessary -seasoned with some Veritas to make the life of a SysAdmin bearable- and the separation of the swap space and /tmp wasn't a requirement of the design documents put together by The Powers That Be. Mount some development zones on top with mediocre coders messing with them and you have a recipe for disaster.

        Not to mention the comparative cost of operation for a comparable POWER frame was lower and you had effective VM separation, instead of those early attempts of containerization called "zones".

        I'm not denying Solaris was a foundational piece in some of the technologies we enjoy today, but some of its core requirements (maintaining backwards compatibility with obsolete prior versions to name one) made it harder to administer than its rivals. Even more with some incompetent head architects. Let's face it: playing the old, tired card of "back in the day you really had to know your ways around $PIECE_OF_SOFTWARE" only speaks about your grumpyness.

        And I'm not talking about dealing with a couple servers, of which you could eventually get to know every single quirk. I'm talking about ruling over three hundred physical servers, with LDOMs and zones so poorly distributed (dev/staging/prod on the same blade) you'd learn to hate Solaris the way I did.

        Again, when we finally got off them and flew to AIX 6.1 and Red Hat with XFS support, we couldn't believe how much our SysSdmin lives changed.

        Icon because I think a chat like this deserves to be enjoyed along a good one.

        1. Down not across

          Re: Solaris alltogether needs to die

          And I'm not talking about dealing with a couple servers, of which you could eventually get to know every single quirk. I'm talking about ruling over three hundred physical servers, with LDOMs and zones so poorly distributed (dev/staging/prod on the same blade) you'd learn to hate Solaris the way I did.

          Then you were not doing it right. I've experienced environments much larger than that, running Solaris, with no appreciable maintenance/upgrade headaches. Yes of course time and effort was spent to get the basic setup (scripts/tooling) right, but after that it makes no difference how many hundred servers you have.

          I'd say OS is pretty irrelevant in that discussion anyway, as you would have to get the basic setup right regardless of the OS. If you do it well enough your install/management/monitoring is probably fairly OS agnostic anyway.

          1. slimshady76

            Re: Solaris alltogether needs to die

            Yup, but at the time I was a junior SysAdmin with no authority to reply to the architect/head SysAdmin. I'd certainly send him to RTFM before designing anything nowadays.

  12. DrBobK

    Old stuff

    I've got a DEC AlphaStation 500 and an IBM PC (the original with twin floppies, from about 1982) in my office - are they actually valuable? They both still work.

    1. The Unexpected Bill

      Re: Old stuff

      I can't speak about the DEC (it probably has some value), but an original IBM PC is worth anywhere from one to a few hundred bucks, depending upon how complete it is and whether or not it works. Unusual options and upgrades certainly help the value. Of course, all of this hinges on finding the right person in your part of the world.

      I remember legions of the original IBM PCs flooding area computer stores as businesses got rid of them, in the late 1990s. A lot of these places resorted to scrapping them as soon as they showed up. I rescued mine before they'd done any truly irreversible damage (like breaking off expansion card tabs for the gold contact fingers), but they did get as far as yanking all the cables that would come out of it. It survives today (albeit in somewhat disheveled condition) with a 286 upgrade and a VGA card. I'd like to get an XT-IDE board for it at some point.

    2. BinkyTheMagicPaperclip Silver badge

      Re: Old stuff

      The PC is definitely worth money, particularly if it has the monitor and model F keyboard. How much depends on the options. CGA will be worth more than MDA, colour monitor more than monochrome. If you've got an IBM EGA monitor that's rare and worth a lot more.

      You could of course keep and enjoy it yourself, there are various modern upgrades such as the already mentioned XT-IDE, even a USB storage option(!).

      No idea about the Alphastation 500, depends what the collectors out there want for it. There's a few on ebay but I suspect they're more aimed at companies desperate for legacy kit than retro collectors, and they're not selling.

    3. deadlockvictim

      Re: Old stuff

      Check them for batteries and remove them if you find any.

      I know from old Macs that the PRAM batteries explode and damage nearby traces and ICs.

      The same may also apply to capacitors.

  13. Anonymous Coward

    I just checked eBay

    I searched for Sun Blade 2500.

    First, they aren't rare at all. I got plenty of results.

    Second, the price hovers between $1850 - $1950. Below USD $2000 for a Blade 2500 with an XVR-100, 8 GB RAM and a 72GB HDD. Yes, you'll probably need to up the RAM and get a second HDD.

    For an Ultra45 Workstation, the price is around $2500, also with an XVR-100.

    For comparison: an Alienware laptop will cost you around $2500 these days.

    This is neither shocking, nor new, nor outlandish. This is the same price that used/refurbished Blade 2500's sold for on eBay 10 years ago. Inflation-adjusted, they are cheaper now.

    So, the availability of refurbished Sun SPARC Workstations hardware is not the reason for bailing out of SPARC support. Fess up to the real reason.

    1. BinkyTheMagicPaperclip Silver badge

      Re: I just checked eBay

      I don't know about the US, but definitely in the UK a handful of years ago Blade 1000 and 2000s were going for prices that weren't terribly excessive, and I don't think the 2500 was much worse. Since then they've become somewhat more expensive.

      I didn't bother at the time simply because the Blade workstations are a pain, noisy, power hungry, not particularly fast, and more importantly uses FCAL disks making storage replacement expensive.

      Having said all that, yes, it's clear that this stems from the dev team not wanting to support Sparc any more, and the userbase not particularly caring either.

    2. ptribble

      Re: I just checked eBay

      People (and the article) seem to pick one specific item here and fixate on it. The reality is that cost and availability are just a couple of the many discouragements that SPARC support faces.

    3. erikscott

      Re: I just checked eBay

      I took a look myself. The older stuff is kind of obscene for what it is (a SparcStation 5 should not cost $400-500). On the other hand, a much newer and much, much faster Ultra 5 is cheaper and almost faintly reasonable at $300. Supply and demand, I suppose. :-)

  14. DougMac

    Questionable "costs"

    Most people give away Ultra SPARC hardware now-a-days to other collectors.

    The only people paying large amounts of money for any SPARC gear is the poor soul trying to maintain their mission critical whatever that company management is too shortsighted to pay for migration off of ancient museum level hardware that should have been migrated a decade ago, and they run around with their head chopped off shoring it up the dam that is about to burst with anything they can.

    If they don't spec out the last generation of UltraSPARC that they want to target (ie. generally the last hardware that OpenSolaris supported) and looked for something slightly older, they'd find tons available for free or the shipping.

    But I'd agree that there is no reason I'd look to run Illuminos on SPARC for any reason what-so-ever. No matter what version of Ultra SPARC they want to support.

  15. orly_andico

    Getting ancient applications off old SPARC hardware is trivial - just use Charon-SSP.

    I've benchmarked this and on a modern processor (AWS C5 instance) you get core performance equivalent to a 1.5 GHz UltraSparc III (I got some old SPARC boxes from ebay for the purpose of doing this comparison, also because I was nostalgic for the old days).

    Charon-SSP is not as fast as a SPARC64, M5/T5, etc. but those ancient applications aren't running SPARC64/M5/T5 (which can't boot Solaris <11 anyway) - and any application running on a SPARC64, M5/T5 etc. can run on the latest Oracle hardware.

    Migration is generally done using ufsdump/ufsrestore (you'd need to install a fresh Solaris OS on the Charon-SSP emulated hardware first.. so finding an old Solaris 8 ISO is going to be hard, but not impossible.. I found a Solaris 2.5.1 install disk on an abandonware site).

    Re: ebay, I managed to get a v210 and a T4-1 for fairly cheap recently. The 32-bit SPARC's (SS5, SS10, SS20) are hideously expensive, although an Ultra 5 can be had for $200 and with the NVRAM fixed. Too bad, I'd have liked an SS10 or SS20, I learned Unix on Solaris 2.3 on an SS10.

    Compared to DEC, IBM, or SGI hardware, Sun hardware is actually the cheapest you can get on ebay. I'd get an M4000 but the shipping costs would kill.

  16. This post has been deleted by its author

  17. Nastybirdy

    Damn. And suddenly I regret getting rid of my little collection of Sun Ultra machines! Could have been sitting on a nice little payday there.

    Ah well.

  18. Zippy´s Sausage Factory

    I have fond memories of Solaris. Now I want to see if I can get OpenSolaris running on a VM, with a view to that maybe being my next operating system on my Thinkpad (it's due an update, Ubuntu 18.04 is getting a bit long in the tooth)

  19. orly_andico

    I alway associate Adafruit with Arduino boards, but...

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