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Sun Microsystems was an American computer company founded in 1982. They seem to be most widely known for their Sun workstation computers based on their own 64-bit RISC-based SPARC processors. In this article we will be taking a look at a later offering from the late 90’s, the Sun Ultra 10, a tower form factor workstation PC that utilized an UltraSPARC IIi CPU but also a number of less proprietary PC parts.

This article will be my first ever experience with a Sun computer so it should prove to be a learning experience for myself. I generally stay away from workstations as my interests primarily lay with PC gaming and workstations with their proprietary parts, non x86 architectures and very often non-game friendly OS’s severely limit gaming. The Sun workstations are no exception to this. I have been told that there may have been ports of games such as Sim City to the Ultra 10 and its Solaris operating system but I have yet to find any evidence these ports actually exist.

With that introduction out of the way, let’s take a look at the Sun Ultra 10.

The Ultra 10 along with its little brother the desktop form factor Sun Ultra 5 were launched in 1998 and shipped into the early 2000’s. These workstations would have been contemporary with the late Pentium IIs as well as the Pentium III and early Pentium 4s. The form factor of the Ultra 10 tower is fairly standard though it does show some artistic flair to its design. The case is not quite as wide as a standard PC case of the time and reminds me of the slightly smaller width of the Dell Dimension cases. My machine came with a standard 1.44MB floppy drive as well as a CD-ROM drive which is obviously a later replacement. There is also a second bay for a 5 1/4 device as well as a second 3 1/2 inch bay above the floppy drive with a lift up cover. I would at first assume the second 3 1/2 bay would be for a tape drive but referencing the service manual indicates the bay is intended for a PCMCIA interface. There is no reset button or HDD activity LED that I could spot and simply a power button on the right side of the case and a power LED above it.

The rear of the case doesn’t appear too odd but first, let’s take a look at the lower section of the case. On the left lower side of the case we have a db-25 serial port and under that, we have a VGA monitor port for the built in video and under that an Ethernet port. To the right of these ports we have a db-9 serial port and under that a parallel port.

There are four PCI expansion slots of which my system has PCI slot 3 occupied by a multi Ethernet card sporting a number of Sun chips.

Above all these expansion slots and I/O ports is a lone horizontal expansion punch out with a monitor symbol under it. This is for an optional Sun high-resolution UPA graphics card.

Moving back up, let’s take a look at those audio jacks and the keyboard port.

For the four audio jacks, we have what I believe is labeled line in and out on the right. On the left, the jack with the headphone symbol I assume would be the speaker/headphone jack and above that, I’m going to assume is the microphone jack, though the symbol doesn’t make this very apparent as it just looks like a ring in a purple background to me.

Under this, we have the proprietary keyboard port that somewhat resembles a PS/2 port or Apples ADB port. Without a keyboard connected the Ultra 10 actually defaults as a console and you will not even get a video out signal.

The keyboard looks pretty standard at a glance but if you look closer there are key differences to a standard PC keyboard. This Sun keyboard actually reminds more of an Apple keyboard. In the upper right corner, there are buttons for volume control as well as a power button. Some of the buttons are labeled as “Compose” and “Alt-Graph” which I’m not sure what they do. There is even a button that is completely blank in the upper left hand of the board. On the left, there is also a dual vertical row of function keys with labels such as “Again”, “Stop”, “Copy” and “Paste”.

Just like most Apple keyboards the mouse attaches to a port on the keyboard as opposed to having its own port on the tower itself.

One of the things I do find pretty weird about the Ultra 10 is the manner in which the case opens. The case comes open by removing four screws on the back and taking off one big piece that comprises both sides of the case. Even though by the late 90’s most cases would allow you to remove the sides individually having a case that removed the entire casing consisting of both sides, as well as the top of the case, was not very uncommon. The thing I find weird about the Ultra 10 is that instead of the side and the top the case comes apart with the sides and the bottom. Okay, maybe that rambling seemed a bit confusing so let me use an image instead.

It’s basically the opposite of every other case design like this that I have ever seen. There’s nothing wrong or worse with doing things this way, I just find it unusual.

With the case removed we can now see the motherboard itself. This case does also have a proper PC speaker which you can see peeking out right above that middle divider at the front of the case. Like a Macintosh the speaker is connected to the sound chip so if no external speakers are present you can at least get some sound via this speaker.

Being a sort of none standard workstation PC the Ultra 10 on the inside isn’t all that strange and shares a lot in common with late 90’s Macintosh machines.

The Ultra 10 does not have expansion slots directly on the motherboard but uses a riser card which has four standard PCI expansion slots.

1) CPU – The CPU for this system is a 440MHz RISC based UltraSPARC IIi but models also came with the same CPU clocked as low as 300MHz and several speeds in between. This CPU came in a sort of CPU package that reminds me of a G4 PowerPC CPU. L2 cache varied by CPU but I believe the 440MHz variant of the CPU came with 2MB of L2 cache.

 

I’ve even read that the SUN UltraSPARC CPUs are “PowerPC processors done right.” Unfortunately, I can’t really comment on them more than that As I could find no games to benchmark to compare to an X86 system. As far as speed there are the same difficulties as with a PowerPC in trying to equate them to an Intel x86 CPU equivalent. Despite the lower clock speed, I would assume these CPUs at 440MHz are roughly equivalent to the later Pentium IIIs.

I did not remove the CPU but it appears they connect to the motherboard via two pin connectors.

2) Video – In another similarity to late 90’s PowerPC Macs the Ultra 10 comes with on-board video in the form of the Rage Pro Turbo on the PCI bus. This chip is perfectly serviceable for late 90’s gaming though I have no idea how well it performs for workstation tasks. As a general VGA chip though it’s pretty good but since I couldn’t find a single game for the Ultra 10 or the Solaris OS it’s all rather moot as far as games go.

3) NVRAM – Unfortunately the Ultra 10 uses a battery method not unlike the old Dallas RTC batteries where the battery is encased in a hard plastic shell. Thankfully on the Ultra 10 the NVRAM is not soldered onto the motherboard but is instead socketed which makes life much easier when the battery does die. Like the Dallas RTCs there is also a method to connect a coin battery holder to the NVRAM and use coin batteries. That mod is detailed in this video (not mine) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lP4rXua1Lo

On the other side of the riser board we have some more familiar components to anyone that’s opened a PC and taken a look inside.

4) RAM – The Ultra 10 supports up to 1GB of Buffered EDO ECC RAM via four 168-pin DIMM slots. My machine came with the maximum 1GB of RAM installed via four 256MB sticks.

5) Sound – Sound is provided by a Crystal CS4231A-KQ chip.

Disconnecting the IDE cables we can see some more of this side of the motherboard.

6) UPA slot – This is the UPA or “Ultra Port Architecture” slot. This was a 100MHz bus developed by SUN for the use of higher bandwidth high-resolution graphics cards. I believe this was a proprietary slot only found in SUN workstation PCs. Several UPA graphics cards were produced such as the Creator, Creator3D, Elite3D and XVR-1000. If you do not have a UPA graphics card installed it does not appear having the AUX power connector is necessary and the machine powers up fine without.

7) The Ultra 10 uses standard floppy and IDE controllers for its interface so finding a replacement hard drive, CD drive or floppy drive is very cheap and simple.

The Ultra 10 uses a CMD646U chip to control the IDE. I believe this gives speeds of ATA-33.

The Ultra 10 also has room for several hard drives including the ability to mount one under the power supply as can be seen above with the Seagate Barracuda IV hard drive being mounted under the PSU.

8) Power Connector – The power supply for the Ultra 10 is 250w and the board does have a AUX connector though I’m unsure if the wiring for the AUX connector is the same as a standard AUX connector. The ATX connector appears to be standard though so as long as your not using a UPA graphics card it appears you can use a standard ATX power supply.

Unfortunately, I was not able to access my SUN Ultra 10 due to a password so as far as I could get was the Password prompt for the Solaris 9 OS. On booting up my Ultra 10 I was greeted with a white screen and eventually a power-on test error and an “OK” prompt. tying in “boot disk” at this point led to several minutes of the OS loading from the HDD and finally the password screen.

I wasn’t really able to delve much into the Ultra 10 running due to the password roadblock but in retrospect there wouldn’t be much I would want to do with it anyways. This machine is a workstation and as my interest primarily lies with games the Ultra 10 leaves very little for me. For those of you that do enjoy working with, restoring and using older workstations The Ultra 10 appears to be a fairly user-friendly model seeing as it has many things like sound and video built in and seems to have very few proprietary hardware components. Just be sure if you do pick up an Ultra 10 (or 5) to grab the keyboard and mouse along with it.

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3 Comments

  1. Nice, these are very interesting machines, although you’re right not really that useful for gaming.

    This one is modern enough it will run a linux distribution, you might have better luck getting a game working there rather than solaris. The internal speaker is more like that of a Mac, it’s connected to the sound card and is used if external speakers aren’t connected.

  2. nice article justin.
    the RAM in your system may be upgradeable to 2 GB, i have come across some questionable indication that 256mb sticks do exist for 168pin sun ram although thay are fairly uncommon, i did see some on ebay about 1 year ago. they should work without a BIOS update. your memory slots are identical to my SUN E250, and the ultra10 is quite similar in many ways in terms of CPU, and expansion, although mine does not have UPC compatability at all and has a 66mhz PCI instead. the overall power of your system will be equivilant to a mid to late socket 478 system.

    • Interesting about the RAM. I wish I could test that. That’s pretty impressive that a 440MHz CPU would be equivalent to a socket 478 CPU. When I think of mid / late socket 478 I’m thinking 2GHz+ Northwood and Prescott P4s


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