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About two months ago I wrote an article on the Sun Ultra 10, a workstation from the late 1990s. This time we’re going to take a look at the first machine in the Sun Ultra line, the Sun Ultra 1 which launched in 1995.

Before we get into the article though I wanted to point out that I could not get this particular example to display and thus could not acquire some of the finer details or system specs. Also, as I’ve stated prior, I have very little experience with workstation type PC’s and thus will not be able to go into as much detail or specifics on various components. Please consider this article more of a simple overview and look into the internals of a Sun Ultra 1 case.

The Sun Ultra 1 uses a fairly compact desktop style case. Looking at the front you may be a little confused as to why there are no drives or maybe presume they are located under the holed grate which perhaps acts as a cover. Next to the Ultra 1 logo there is a green LED power light.

Turning the case to the side reveals that the drive bays are actually on the side of the computer. There is a floppy disk slot carved into the case of the computer intended for a standard 1.44MB floppy drive and a standard 5 1/4 drive bay on top generally occupied by a CD-ROM drive or a tape drive.

The keyboard for this PC is very similar to the one I have for the Sun Ultra 10 with a few differences, namely there is no individual LED lights on the top. Like the many Apple keyboards the Sun keyboard also has a connector on it for attaching a mouse. This keyboard is a little beat up with a cap missing but it feels like a fairly solid and heavy keyboard.

Here is the rear of the Ultra 1. Starting on the left we have two standard 3-pin power connectors, female and male, as well as a power switch that can be used to turn the Ulta 1 on and off. Moving to the right and ignoring the connector on top for now, the first port we come across is a parallel port and next to it is the keyboard/mouse port. The port above these built-in connectors is an expansion slot currently occupied by the video card.

To the right of the Keyboard/Mouse port is the AUI port or (Attachment Unit Interface), which according to the internet is apparently an interface between the network interface card and the ethernet cable. To the right of the AUI is the TPE (Twisted Pair Ethernet) Ethernet port. Above these ports are two serial ports labeled A and B.

Lastly to the right of the AUI and TPE ports is an external SCSI connector and four audio jacks. The four jacks from left to right are Headphones, Line Out, Line In and Microphone. Above these are two more slots for optional expansion cards.

Opening the case is a pretty easy process through the screws are interesting and have little springs on them. I’ve seen this before but not often on simple case screws.

Here is the Ultra 1 with the top of the case removed.

The upper right hand of the case has room for two hard drives. This example has two Seagate ST32155WC SCSI hard drives. These are server grade 2.1GB drives.

Now to look at the board itself and see if we can identify some parts.

1 ) CPU – The CPU area is covered by a plastic shield which I suppose acts as a sort of dust shield. Under the plastic is the CPU itself which is configured in a pretty common configuration for the time with a small black heatsink and small fan screwed on top. The CPU is a 64-bit Sun UltraSPARC processor, though since I haven’t removed the heatsink, boot to an OS or find a model tag I have no idea of the speed. Ultra 1’s came stock with CPU speeds of 143MHz, 167MHz and 200MHz, I suspect this example is the 143MHz model since the service ID tag has “140” within the ID which I’m guessing corresponds to the 143MHz model number.

The four screws that hold on the plastic shroud also hold the CPU fan to the heatsink. Also under the shroud are a number of tall back chip heatsinks that seem to be working to cool a number of chips located around the CPU. I’m guessing these chips are the 512KB of L2 cache for the CPU but I am unsure. On my Ultra 1, three of these heatsinks were extremely loose, one falling completely off the chip, and required some new thermal adhesive.

2 ) RAM – The Ultra 1 can accept up to a whopping 1GB of 60ns ECC RAM via eight slots. From my understanding the RAM is somewhat non-standard and is about the tallest I’ve ever seen RAM be. The RAM must be installed in pairs and the memory slots do use a special lever on the sides to secure and release the individual RAM modules.

3 ) The Ultra 1 has three SBus slots. These are Suns high-speed bus slots for connecting things like the video card. This model has three SBus connectors but some “E” models only had two SBus slots with an additional UPA slot (Ultra Port Architecture) for high bandwidth video cards.

The Ultra 1 unlike the later Ultra 10 does not have built-in video capabilities. The most common video card that seems to of come installed with the Ultra 1 is this card below from LSI. This card, like most Sun workstation video cards, uses a DB13W3 video connector so you will need a Sun DB13W3 to standard VGA connector adaptor. Make sure the adaptor is wired for Sun computers since Silicon Graphics workstations use the same style connector but are wired different.

This video card interfaces via one of the three SBus connectors on the motherboard.

I do not know the specifics of this card but it is a little odd as I’ve never seen a video card with LSI chips before this one. Also on the card are the names of various individuals, presumably the designers, but two of these names are crossed out. Was there some kind of falling out on the design team?

4 ) The board itself is covered in various proprietary chips that I couldn’t begin to tell you what they do.

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5 ) SCSI cable & connector.

6 ) Battery – Much like the Dallas RTC the battery on the Ultra 1 is enclosed in a hard plastic shell. Thankfully the battery is socketed and can be removed and replaced or even modified like a Dallas RTC to use a Lithium coin battery.

7 ) Sound – Sound on the Ultra 1 is provided by a Crystal CS4231A-KQ chip.

And that’s about the extent of my journey with the Sun Ultra 1. I could not get the machine to display on any monitor. I’m unsure if my issue was my DB13W3 to standard VGA adaptor for the video output or a more serious issue with the video card or board itself. Doing a bootup diagnostic test via holding the STOP key and the D key I did not get any kind of error codes so I’m at a loss. The Ultra 1 was said to be one of the workstations used to produce the hit movie Toy Story so it is quite a capable 90s workstation and graphic design PC but for gaming, obviously, look elsewhere.

5 Comments

  1. Nice to see another Sun machine! It won’t display anything on screen unless it has a keyboard connected, and won’t display until it has passed some extensive tests, so you might have to wait a while. If you want to see what the machine is doing you can connect a terminal (or computer) to the serial port, diagnostic messages will turn up there. I think the serial baud rate is 9600 8 bits 1 stop bit and no parity.

    If you want to find out more about the graphic card I believe it’s a Sun TGX. Which is fairly similar to the TGX+ I have in my Sparcstation 20. I think most graphics cards for Sun machines were designed by Sun at the time this was released. The chips are probably designed by Sun, but made by LSI.

    I think they used the older Sparcstation 20 machines for the render farm when they made Toy Story. I think this particular machine was released after the movie was made.

    • thanks for the info. I found the reference to toy story on a site that had a pretty decent write up on the Ultra 1 but it could of been wrong.

      I did have a keyboard connected. tried two different ones actually and let it sit a good 10 minutes and no image.

      • There’s almost certainly something wrong then, only the console messages from the serial port will tell you what that is. Thankfully it gives a pretty detailed output when it does the tests. It’s just a small hassle to set up the serial, you might want to look up a manual online as it may require a straight through cable instead of a null modem cable.

      • I’ll pass the info along to my friend since its his machine. he only paid $20 for it so even if he can’t save it he not out too much.

  2. Assuming you have a type 5 keyboard, when you power on you will see the kb led’s flash.

    1.Connect the video cable to the framebuffer
    or serial cable terminal to ttya

    2.Connect the keyboard/mouse. If a SUN type keyboard/mouse are
    being used with a monitor, plug the cable into the keyboard DIN8
    connector.

    3.disconnect all external SCSI devices (such as disk and tape) to the
    Ultra SCSI connector. Remember to terminate the last device on the
    bus.

    4.disconnect your network. Your LAN connection can be made by using
    either the MII or the 10baseT/100baseTX connector.

    5.Make sure all connections are secure both to the system and to
    the peripherals.

    6.Plug in the AC power cord to the system and all peripherals.

    7.Power on your system.

    8.Your system executes a series of tests before video appears
    approximately 2 minutes later. The time may vary depending on
    system configuration.

    9. reseat both the memory DIMM’s and the CPU
    (if the CPU is not easily removed and re-inserted
    disregard removing the CPU)

    Generic Sun keyboard flash sequences below:

    Symptom Problem Corrective Action

    No flash No power Check AC power cord,

    1 flash CPU test failed Reseat DIMM’s,CPU modules

    2 flashes Memory test failed Reseat DIMM’s,CPU modules

    3 flashes Video test failed Reseat video PCI card

    4 flashes No video display possible bad motherboard


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