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Thread: Building a quasi-supermini in 2017 (Unix-based)

  1. #1

    Default Building a quasi-supermini in 2017 (Unix-based)

    This will sound like the oddest idea (or wish), and I am afraid I'll attract some criticism as well: I have wanted a Unix supermini since I was a kid. That little kid has been waiting four decades for his wish to come true, but the finances just don't seem to make it possible. I would have liked something akin to the AT&T 3B2: a fairly standard Unix running on hardware that supports multiple terminals.

    Since I can't have the real thing, I thought I'd at least build some kind of replica. Hell, call it a poor imitation even.

    With currently available hardware, I want to have
    - multiple COM ports (at least 8 - yes, it feels arbitrary, I know)
    - a Unix-like OS. I think the best candidate for the OS is FreeBSD. Solaris would be nice, too (I've used it a lot)

    How to do this?

    One idea would be to get a relatively new Sun server. These can be had at relatively low prices (I am in Europe) of a couple hundred EUR. The OS fits the bill, the machine would "feel" a bit like a supermini, except for the lack of a sufficient number of serial ports. And to be honest, I have no idea if an expansion card with multiple COM ports for a Sunfire 480 could be had for a reasonable price. Maybe a Sun Blade workstation could do the trick? I don't anymore remember if those used standard PCI slots, though.

    Another idea would be to use a PC running FreeBSD. I suspect that cheap multi-COM cards are available for PCI slots at relatively low prices. But I am still lacking the detailed info such as: does FreeBSD support such cards, and which ones? And yeah, where do I find a suitable card? I could even use an ISA motherboard, if ISA COM cards are available, but I guess not (or not cheaply).

    I used to work with HP-UX as well, but HP-UX workstations are extremely expensive, and the same problem with COM card availability exists as with the Sun servers.

  2. #2
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    Quote Originally Posted by Al Kossow View Post
    sigh..

    that is what a terminal server DOES

    interfaces an ethernet to multiple RS-232 ports

    <plonk>
    Or one RS-232 to multiple RS-232 ports...

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    Buy a bunch of USB-to-serial dongles and a USB hub or two and use any modern PC and distro.

    Put it in the largest box you can find.

  4. #4

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    Quote Originally Posted by Chuck(G) View Post
    Buy a bunch of USB-to-serial dongles and a USB hub or two and use any modern PC and distro.

    Put it in the largest box you can find.
    Thanks, but I'd really like to use a multi-COM card.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Sir_Fartalot View Post
    Thanks, but I'd really like to use a multi-COM card.
    If you insist on RS-232 cards, those are still available in PCI and PCIe forms for under $100. Even available with the low profile bracket needed to use it with SUN. I leave it to you to determine if your preferred UNIX inspired OS supports any specific card.

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    Old Sun pizzabox and lunchbox systems are still pretty available, and can be expanded with serial terminals through SBus cards pretty cheaply. You can run SunOS, Solaris, NetBSD, older OpenBSD (they dropped SPARC32 support after OpenBSD 5.9, which is still pretty recent), and some Linux distros on them. Best of all, they're pretty small and quiet, especially the lunchbox form factor systems. You also get two serial ports, Ethernet, SCSI, etc. right on the mainboard. And of course you can add a framebuffer card and a keyboard (or use the built-in framebuffer, in some boxes) and have a graphical console, if you like.

    If you want to try out multiple OSes, the easy way to do it is with an external SCSI enclosure and multiple SCSI disks (or multiple enclosures). You could also use something like a SyQuest 1.5 GB SyJet removable hard disk cartridge drive, and just swap drive cartridges. The good thing about using an external SCSI enclosure is, you can use cheap, newer SCA drives and not worry about reliability issues.

    The lunchbox form factor machines were kind of a "let's make a sorta cheap UNIX desktop" attempt and don't have stellar performance, but something like a SPARCstation 10 or SPARCstation 20 is actually quite usable for semi-modern workloads. For instance, running OpenBSD 5.9 and with a SBus 4-port 10/100 Ethernet card, you can route 20-30 mbit/sec on a SPARCstation 10. The SS10 and 20 can be upgraded with multiple CPUs, and there are third party serious CPU upgrades like the Ross HyperSPARC modules. Any of them would be fine for IRC, text editing with vi/vim/etc., programming in C or Perl, setting up a shell with email, or whatever you'd like to do with a UNIX box.

    I'm working on clearing out a few such machines if you're interested in buying one, I don't mind shipping overseas. I don't know how available they are in Europe, but they're pretty common here in the US.

  7. #7

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    Quote Originally Posted by krebizfan View Post
    If you insist on RS-232 cards, those are still available in PCI and PCIe forms for under $100. Even available with the low profile bracket needed to use it with SUN. I leave it to you to determine if your preferred UNIX inspired OS supports any specific card.
    I had a look on eBay and found an 8-port that is sub EUR 100 in price, and is supported by FreeBSD. I would prefer to run Solaris, but I have no idea which of the 8 port cards are supported. There are some super-cheapo Chinese 4-port cards, but those are a total mystery in terms of OS support.
    I'll talk about this a bit more in the next reply, also.

  8. #8

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    Quote Originally Posted by glitch View Post
    Old Sun pizzabox and lunchbox systems are still pretty available, and can be expanded with serial terminals through SBus cards pretty cheaply.
    I need to know more about this option. Please tell me more about these SBus multi-COM port cards.


    Quote Originally Posted by glitch View Post
    I'm working on clearing out a few such machines if you're interested in buying one, I don't mind shipping overseas. I don't know how available they are in Europe, but they're pretty common here in the US.
    In principle yes, but the math just doesn't work out well, for me: shipping from the US + customs will add so much that my cost will more than double. To answer the (implied) question, SunFire, Enterprise T series and M series servers, and Blade workstations, are relatively plentiful but more expensive than what you can find in the US.
    Buuuuuuut.... I am definitely interested in what you have to offer.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Sir_Fartalot View Post
    I need to know more about this option. Please tell me more about these SBus multi-COM port cards.
    There were a number of serial port cards made (technically speaking, they're not COM ports, that's a DOS/Windows thing), Sun made their own, and there were third-party boards. I want to say the ones I've dealt with in the past were made by Magma? Anyway, it's just a SBus card, and if they have a bunch of ports there will be an octopus cable that breaks the individual serial channels out. The octopus card is the hard part to find, make sure the card comes with one if you go that route.

  10. #10
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    Yes, FreeBSD supports (a few makes) of multi-serial port cards. Check the man pages over at FreeBSD.org if you don't have access to a FreeBSD machine (FWIW, you can easily install FreeBSD on a usb memory stick on a modern PC if you want to try it out).

    Question: what defines a unix SuperMini for you?
    For me, it would be the original hardware running a correct (for the time-period) operating system.
    I can run FreeBSD a lot of machines today; it is nice, efficient and I know it well. But for me it is a modern operating system, it doesn't have any vintage "feel" to it.
    YMMV.
    Torfinn

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