The Sun Ultra 30 was one of the first PCI-equipped workstations produced by Sun Microsystems. It was initially the low-end offering in the professional tier of products, replacing the Sun Ultra 1, positioned above the Ultra 10 and below the Ultra 60. It was something of a misfit in Sun's lineup, and never sold particularly well. Sun system administrators often refer to the Ultra 30 as "not quite half an Ultra 60".

Specifications

  • Production dates: 1997-1999. Officially replaced by the Sun Ultra 60 in 1999 and subsequently by the Blade 1500 later.
  • Model Number: two model numbers, 250 and 300. The model number corresponds to the clock speed of the installed CPU.
  • Application architecture: sun4
  • System architecture: sun4u
  • Processor: 1 UltraSPARC II CPU at 250 or 300MHz, with 2MB of secondary cache. The Ultra 30 was never sold with the 360, 400 0r 450MHz versions of the chip. Field testing suggests that the 360 and 400MHz versions work on certain motherboard revisions.
  • RAM: Up to 16 256MB DIMMs, upgradable in groups of 4, for a total of 4GB. Minimum memory configuration is 4 16MB DIMMs for a total of 64MB.
  • Graphics: 2 UPA and 4 PCI slots available
  • UPA graphics options: up to two Sun Creator/Creator3D (Series 1, 2 or 3), Sun Elite3D M3/M6 or Expert3D. The later XVR-1000 is not officially supported but does work, however, due to its physical size it blocks the second UPA slot.
  • PCI graphics options: Sun PGX32, PGX64, XVR-100, Expert3D Lite, Expert3D PCI, XVR-500, XVR-600, XVR-1200. TechSource Raptor GFX various PCI cards. Some other PCI graphics cards may work under operating systems other than Solaris, but do not have boot support. The XVR-500, XVR-600 and XVR-1200 only work correctly in the single 66MHz slot.
  • Floppy: Bay for standard Sun-type 1.44MB or 2.88MB floppy, not normally installed.
  • Hard Drives: 2 bays for SCA style Ultra Wide SCSI (80MB/sec) hard drives. These drives are mounted on drive sleds for faster insertion and removal. These bays, like those found on the Ultra 30, but unlike the Ultra 1, 2, 5 and 10, or the earlier SPARCstations, can accommodate 1.6" large-profile drives. The system can use disks up to at least 146GB. Larger disks should work. Disks over 18GB may present problems with early Solaris versions (2.5.1 and 2.6).
  • Audio capabilities: Integrated Crystal Semiconductor CS-4231 sound chip. 16-bit, 48000 kHz (CD quality) for both input and output. No MIDI synthesizer though it's possible to emulate one in software. (See TiMIDIty). This system has integrated phono style microphone, line in, line out, and headphone jacks.
  • Expansion:
    • 1 5 1/4" drive bay, usually occupied by a CD-ROM drive. This is a good candidate for an upgrade to a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo, or better yet a DVD-RW if you're lucky enough to find a SCSI one.
    • 2 3 1/2" drive bays. One may have a floppy. A SCSI LS-120 is also available.
    • 4 PCI expansion slots, 3 64-bit/33MHz, one 64-bit/66MHz.
  • External ports:
    • 1 Sun Type 4/5/6 keyboard port
    • 1 PC-style parallel port
    • 2 RS232 high-speed serial ports, DB25 male (230kbps maximum)
    • 1 RJ45 Fast Ethernet port (Sun HME)
    • 1 MII Ethernet interface (same chipset as
    • 1 68 pin Ultra Wide SCSI port

What the Ultra 30 did, and what it can do now

The Ultra 30 was something of a misfit, intended to slot in between the low-mix Ultra 10 and the high-end Ultra 60, for users who could benefit from higher I/O throughput and dual graphics cards, but who didn't need dual processors. This turned out to be a fairly narrow market segment, which, combined with the Ultra 30's fairly high price, made it not especially attractive as an option. It was intended for scientific and engineering computing, 3D design, medical imaging and application development. Nowadays, it still handles these tasks reasonably well. It's also suitable for desktop productivity, especially with large amounts of RAM installed, though it's rather less suitable for this than the Ultra 2 or Ultra 60 thanks to its slow CPU options. It does make a relatively good server, though, especially for things like mail, web proxy or firewalling that are more dependent on I/O throughput (of which it has plenty) than CPU performance.

So, what operating systems can it run?

Solaris is the native OS for the Ultra 30, and it's still one of the better choices. Solaris 2.5.1 is the oldest version that will run on the U30, and Solaris 8 is the oldest that will support the XVR series of graphics cards (except the XVR-1000, you'll need Solaris 9 for that). The newest official release, Solaris 10, and Sun's distribution of OpenSolaris, called Solaris Express, are generally the strongest choices for desktop use. Though they're a bit more RAM-intensive than earlier releases, the added features, especially in X, are well worth it. It is worth ensuring that you have the 300MHz CPU option if you're going to try to use ZFS, however.

What if you don't want to run Solaris, you say? Well, Linux is the next best choice. Linux supports the vast majority of the hardware with the exception of XVR-series graphics cards (though the XVR-100 mostly works, and the XVR-500 can be persuaded to work somewhat, with enough jiggery-pokery), and is often a little crisper in interactive performance than Solaris. Both support the same range of desktop environments, with the exception of CDE. Gentoo and Ubuntu are the distributions that, as of 2008, have the best SPARC support, but others work too. Beyond this, FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD also work. OpenBSD, however, lacks SMP support, and NetBSD has fairly limited support for graphics hardware. As such, FreeBSD is the BSD of choice on the Ultra 30.

Finding one, and how much you should expect to pay.

Put plainly, the Ultra 30 is a poor buy for a hobbyist or enthusiast. Because of its PCI and dual UPA capabilities, it commands more money on the used market than the Ultra 2, even though the Ultra 2 is more capable overall. Also, the much more upgradeable Ultra 60 is worth only very slightly more: a fully-equipped Ultra 30 and a fully-equipped Ultra 60 are usually less than $30 different in price. On top of this, they're not especially common on the second-hand market. Because of this, the average hobbyist or collector is advised to pass on the Ultra 30 unless you're lucky enough to trip over a fully-configured one for a very low price (less than about $40-50).

If you can find one for a good price, though, they're not a terribly bad machine for learning about Sun hardware or Unix administration. They're generally snappy enough to be usable for day-to-day work, and the case is quite well laid out internally. They're very much a typical late-1990s Sun design. Indeed, the case is very nearly identical to that of the Ultra 60, except for the color scheme and the CPU support cage.

Caveats

There are a few small gotchas to watch out for. Most noteworthy is that if you're using PC-formatted disks, you'll need to label and partition them first, before you can install an OS. If you don't do this, the Solaris installation will mysteriously fail, with errors that falsely suggest that the disk itself has failed! You can safely use and partition scheme, no matter how ludicrous, for this initial labeling: once labeled, the Solaris installer will quite gladly let you repartition the disks.

Also of note is the use of PCI expansion cards designed for PCs. There are three concerns - endianness, drivers and Open Firmware (which Sun calls the OpenBoot PROM, or OBP). SPARCs are big-endian machines while x86 PCs are little-endian, but this rarely causes problems in practice. Drivers are a bigger problem, as Solaris does not provide SPARC versions of every driver that Solaris x86 ships with, and most card manufacturers don't ship Solaris drivers. That said, many cards will work anyway, such as Ethernet, SCSI or USB. (IDE is a crapshoot and should probably be avoided anyway). SATA controllers lack drivers entirely, though at least one SAS card is known to work in Solaris, and SATA hard disks can be attached to it.

Open Firmware support for your card is important if you need to use the card in some way before the OS is loaded. For example, if you want to boot from a SCSI disk attached to a PCI card, you need Open Firmware support for the card. Likewise if you want to netboot from a PCI Ethernet card, or use a USB keyboard on the console. Since the on-motherboard OBP has support for only a small number of devices, mostly produced by Sun, your card will need a Sun-type Open Firmware PROM on it. Apple-type Open Firmware, as found on cards for Macintosh might work, but is not guaranteed to. In particular, Mac-edition graphics cards are only useful once the OS has booted. If you feel clever, it's sometimes possible to re-flash a PC or Mac PCI card with Sun-type Open Firmware. Doing this to a Macintosh-edition ATi Radeon 7000 card will produce what is effectively an XVR-100.

If you want to boot from a PCI SCSI card, and you can't find a Sun-branded one, the built-in OBP supports many Symbios and LSI cards which use the SYM538xx chipset. These are pretty common, stable cards.

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