The Sun Ultra 60 was the first PCI-equipped dual-processor workstation produced by Sun Microsystems. Unlike the earlier Ultra 1, 2 and 5, it is a large tower, resembling a larger version of the Sun Ultra 10. It is capable of handling most modern desktop needs quite easily despite being a somewhat older machine, and can use multiple graphics cards easily.

Specifications

  • Production dates: 1998-2001. Officially replaced by the Sun Blade 1000 in 2000.
  • Model Number: four model numbers, 1360, 2360, 1450 and 2450. The first digit corresponds to the number of CPUs installed, the next three to the clock speed of the CPU. Any model can be transformed into any other by replacing the CPUs.
  • Application architecture: sun4
  • System architecture: sun4u
  • Processor: Slots for 2 Ultrasparc-II series processors. Standard configuration is either 1 or 2 360MHz modules with 2MB of cache each, or 1 or 2 450MHz modules with 4MB of cache each. 400MHz modules designed for the Enterprise 250 and E450 work, but are not officially supported. (This is, however, what I'm using in mine, to good effect).
  • 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 60 did, and what it can do now

The Ultra 60 was designed as a replacement for the Ultra 2 in much the same way as the Ultra 2 replaced the SPARCstation 20. It was used for software development, graphics and 3D modeling, digital effects, CAD, scientific and engineering calculations and simulations. Many continue to be used for this today. Its combination of built-in fast Ethernet, PCI expansion capability, fast disks, dual CPUs and Unix also made it common as a low-cost network server. Nowadays, though there are many machines that are more powerful including Sun's own Blade 1000 and Ultra 45, many continue in use as scientific and engineering workstations. Still more persist as servers. They also make quite serviceable desktop machines. With enough RAM, nearly any modern desktop productivity application should work fine, including such things as OpenOffice, Mozilla Firefox, mplayer and Xchat. While the various graphics cards available were veritable 3D beasts in their day, only the XVR-1000, XVR-500 and XVR-600 are useful for any sort of heavy lifting today. The Elite3D and Expert3D, though, will handle lighter 3D design and even the odd game of GLTron.

So, what operating systems can it run?

Solaris is the native OS for the Ultra 60, and it's still one of the better choices. Solaris 2.5.1 is the oldest version that will run on the U60, 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.

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. Debian, Gentoo and Ubuntu are the distributions that, as of 2007, have the best SPARC support, but others work too. Beyond this, FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD also work. Lately an awful lot of hardware support has been added to OpenBSD, and it now supports the Expert3D, Expert3D-Lite and XVR-500 graphics cards, and has added SMP support. This makes it the strongest choice among the BSDs, since NetBSD has limited graphics support and FreeBSD's SPARC port is only minimally maintained.

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

Prices on the Sun Ultra 60 have come down sharply in the last 2-4 years, and the supply on the used market has gone up, since more companies are replacing their Ultra 60s with newer machines. As such, the U60 is now probably the most powerful Sun workstation available for the money. (The Ultra 80 or Blade 100 may displace it in this role soon, though) You can find them swap meets, auctions, surplus shops and other such sources, as well as the obvious eBay. A well-configured Ultra 60 will likely cost between 200 and 400 USD, with some considerable variation. As the 360MHz and 450MHz UltraSPARC modules are still somewhat expensive, it's worth the extra effort to find one with dual processors. The price of RAM has come down sharply, but it's still worthwhile to find one with at least 512MB already. More is better. Graphics cards are less important, though higher-end cards like the XVR-1000 and XVR-500 are still rather costly. The SCA SCSI disks that it needs have a reputation for being expensive, but 36GB models are quite affordable, and with some looking 73GB and even 146GB models can be had for a reasonable price.

These machines are not only one of the best values for Sun hardware, they're also a very nice way to learn about non-PC hardware, while not being so odd as to be completely unfamiliar. They're also particularly well laid out internally, which is typical of Sun engineering, but may surprise those used to dealing with the somewhat low-rent Ultra 5 and Ultra 10. The hard disk cage opens to the right side of the case, rather than to the rear, so there's no need to try to finagle a bulky disk around cables and cards like there is on PCs. The CPU slots, UPA and PCI expansion slots are nicely accessible, and the floppy/CDROM bay pulls out of the case entirely. Even better, it pulls out through the front of the case, rather than the side, and is held by spring-loaded captive screws, so there's nothing to lose or misplace. The only wart in an otherwise clean design is the fact that the power supply blocks the RAM slots. However, Sun handled this well, by securing the power supply with captive screws and mounting it on rails, allowing it to be partially pulled out for RAM upgrades.

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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