With the explosion of the Internet and the Linux OS, more people are developing an interest in UNIX. Sun’s Solaris (a UNIX-based OS) is running at many manufacturing sites and is maintaining much of the Internet infrastructure. If you would like to gain some experience using Solaris, follow my guideline on how to get started without having to drop too many dollars in the process.

The first thing you should consider before looking at hardware is what you want to do with the system. If you just want to learn the ropes of Solaris and aren’t planning on supporting a large number of users or running a massive database, you can get by with some of the older Sun hardware.

The older Sun machines were built well, and continue to perform for many years. Many networks still utilize these old boxes as lower volume FTP, DNS, mail and chat servers, or as routers or firewalls. If you want to run the X Windows System (otherwise known as X) and have it perform well enough to use some of the contemporary applications, you’ll need to make sure you are buying a unit with enough processing power, RAM, hard drive space, and graphics capability. Thanks to the design of X, it is possible to run X applications off of the Sun box and display them on another machine (say a Linux box), if you opt to run the machine headless (no monitor).

Sun started out using Motorola processors, and then deviated briefly by using Intel. With the SPARCstations, Sun released their own RISC processor, the SPARC, which was produced for Sun through the years by various manufacturers. The machines I mention in this Daily Drill Down all use the SPARC processor.

Video considerations
If you come from a PC or Macintosh background, you need to be aware that the video output from a SPARCstation is different than a typical home machine. You will either need to acquire a Sun monitor, or an adapter that can convert the video signals for a standard SVGA monitor. The older Sun frame buffer (video) cards were good in their day and still run at fairly high resolution, but most only display 256 colors (8bpp). The keyboard and mouse, too, are specific for these boxes, so that’s another thing to keep in mind when purchasing a used SPARCstation.

SCSI is the standard interface on these types of machines. Most SPARCstations come with on-board SCSI support on the motherboard or an additional card. Depending on what you end up purchasing, your machine may have a mix of internal and/or external hard drives. Sizes will generally be 1 to 2 GB on an older machine.

If you buy a new hard drive to use on the machine, be careful what you buy, as not all are compatible. You’ll also need a CD-ROM, unless you do a network install from another machine. These, too, are SCSI devices, and not all of them are compatible.

Some specific machines and comments
All of the listed machines are “pizza box” (a thin, rack-mount box) type cases. The Sun’s Sbus and Mbus are not compatible with PC hardware. These are the used units commonly seen for sale at reasonable prices.

SPARCstation 2
This is the base unit that many people have bought. A lot of ISPs stack these up and use them as small servers, as they can be purchased quite cheaply, and seem to run forever. A typical machine will have a 40-MHz processor and 64 MB of RAM, with a 1- to 2-GB drive. (The Solaris 8 OS will not run on this machine, however.) I’ve seen these for sale as low as $20. A loaded machine with enough hardware to be useable will be more like $200. For use while writing this article, I set up a SPARCstation 2 with an 80-MHz Weitek CPU running Solaris 7. It’s not a bad machine; it runs a little slower than a Pentium III machine, but it’s useable. X is real smooth with the Sun GX video card. I think it primarily needs more RAM, as at 64 MB it seems to be using swap too much.

SPARCstation 5
This SPARCstation is a step up from the SPARCstation 2. It’s capable of running the Solaris 8 operating environment.

SPARCstation 10
The SPARCstation 10 is a decent machine. We have the SPARCserver version at the plant where I work, and it supports about 15 to 20 users and our MRP system.

I’ve moved file services from this box to a PC running Linux to somewhat lighten the load on it. This SPARCserver also runs FTP, POP, and SMTP services, but only for internal use. I have a couple of Microsoft Access databases served up via Samba, for convenience sake, as they tie into data from the MRP system. Users access the MRP system by running an X server on the Windows client machine and by running an xterm on the Sun box. Both this unit and the SPARCstation 20 support multiple processors. One thing to note is that the on-board Ethernet device on the SPARCstation 10 has a problem. I had several lockups on our server until I found out this little tidbit and moved the Ethernet device to the port on the second SCSI card. Now, we run continuously for months.

SPARCstation 20
If you can get one of these SPARCstations, you may get a little more bang for the buck than with the SPARCstation 10. I’ve purchased but not yet received a SPARCstation 20. When I do get it, it will be interesting to see how it performs compared to the SPARCstation 2 that I’m used to. The SPARCstation 20 I’m waiting on has 160 MB of RAM and I have two 50-MHz SPARC processors to install in it. Some of the SPARCstation 20s also have an on-board frame buffer which, once you populate the motherboard with VRAM, will allow running X at higher bpp (color depth) than some of the other stand-alone frame buffer cards.

There are many other Sun platforms out there. Some even use PCI cards, just like PCs. Of course, there are also the current Sun systems, which are much more powerful and much more expensive. You can sign up for their developer program and get a brand-new Ultra 5 workstation for about $3,000. Sun also offers trade-in deals on older machines.

The ultimate reference on older Sun hardware can be found at the Sun Hardware Reference site.

Where to look for hardware:

  • eBay—Do a search for SPARCstation or SPARC.
  • Server/Workstation Expert magazine—This magazine usually lists a number of vendors of used/refurbished systems.
  • Processor.com magazine—This newspaper style magazine is nothing but ads for systems and hardware, both for PCs and servers.
  • Sun Microsystems—Sun sells refurbished systems, as well as auctioning off equipment on their site.
  • Sun Usenet newsgroups. Log on to your nearest Usenet server and have a look at the following groups:

Use a PC
Another alternative to purchasing a Sun machine is to run Solaris on your standard PC hardware. Sun offers an Intel version of Solaris, so if you’ve got a spare PC sitting around, that may be the way to go. One caveat: If you are trying to learn Solaris to pick up skills for an admin job at a place that’s running Solaris, you may need to get familiar with the actual Sun hardware.

There are some significant differences between Sun machines and PCs, and you may have a better chance of getting that admin job with some hands-on hardware experience. If you do opt to go the PC route, you’ll need to check out Sun’s hardware compatibility list to make sure your hardware is going to work with the Solaris OS.

Obtaining the OS
Many used systems will have an evaluation copy of Solaris onboard. You can also get Solaris direct from Sun—both the SPARC and Intel versions usually only run about $75 for a media charge for systems with eight processors or fewer. You may also check out Sun’s Binary License Program Page.
If you are installing the OS on a SPARCstation 2 or lower, Sun is less generous on the cost of Solaris 7. On the phone I was quoted a price of $245 for an upgrade license, plus a $75 media cost. It may be better to spend that money on a better machine. I was also told I could get about an 8% trade-in on a new Ultra system, for the SPARCstation 2.
Getting started
I’m going to assume you will be installing from a CD. You can also install from another Sun system acting as an installation server, but if you are just getting started in Solaris, you may not have that resource available.

To begin, insert the installation CD in your CD-ROM drive. If it’s an external drive, it should be set to SCSI ID 6, as that is where the SPARC expects the CD to be. Boot the machine, and get to the ok or > prompt and type:
b cdrom

or on the SPARCstation 20, type:
boot cdrom

You should see some activity on the CD, and something like this on the display:
Boot device: /sbus/esp@0,800000/sd@6,0:c

I had success using an old NEC changer I had lying about, as my SPARCstation 2 did not have a CD-ROM drive. Depending on the speed of your CD-ROM and machine, you will eventually get into the X-Windows System environment and the install program.

The install is typical; you are asked your locale (language and country), asked to provide a hostname (shemp in my case), and whether or not you are networked. You are then prompted for an IP address, and what (if any) name service you will be using. You are also asked if you are part of a subnet, what time zone you are in, and the date/time.

There is a sizeable delay at this point, but eventually you will see:
Starting Solaris installation program…

If you already have an evaluation copy on your machine, you will be asked if you want to upgrade or do an initial install. I chose the initial option. You are asked whether you need support for diskless clients, any additional languages, and what software to install. I chose the Entire Distribution + OEM support at 903 MB. Other options ranged from 135 MB to 855 MB, or you can customize.

You are asked whether you want to preserve the existing partitions, and then what disks to partition. You have the option to specify your partitions or use Auto Layout.

The program then confirms your selections, and begins the partitioning and installation. You are warned this can take up to two hours, depending on the speed of your CD and the software selected. You are also given the choice of receiving a prompt for reboot, or having the machine to reboot automatically. On this slower machine with a 2X CD-ROM, the install ran about one and a half hours.

On reboot you are prompted to enter a root password, or hit [Enter] twice if you don’t want to use one. (I don’t recommend having no root password, unless you don’t care about your system.)

Then, you boot into the system. Once you log in, you may select to use either the CDE (Common Desktop Environment) or OpenWindows.

Once you are working in your preferred X environment as root, set up a user account for yourself using admintool. The admintool can be accessed from the GUI menus or by typing admintool in a terminal command line. You will be prompted to set a user password on your first login.

Internet connection
Okay, now you’re up and running. But what should you do next? Connect to the Internet of course! If you are familiar with setting up PPP on a Linux box, the drill is similar, yet different. What I’ve found in working on the various flavors of UNIX systems is they all use the same underlying methodology, yet each one approaches specific tasks from a slightly different approach (such as the way it handles configuration files, etc.).

I’ve found, however, once you get comfortable on one system, it’s not too much of a reach moving to another one. Rather than going into the details here, I’ll refer you to the Solaris Resources at Kempston site that has everything you need.

I followed the documentation, from the above site, and was able to connect to both my ISP and the servers both at work and at my clients. Sun’s HotJava browser is installed by default, and Netscape is included in the supplemental CDs. I did have to fine-tune the port speed for the SPARCstation 2 and the modem initialization string for my modem, but other than that, it worked exactly as advertised.

Solaris provides a GUI administration tool, called admintool. As the root user, you can configure hosts, users, groups, serial ports, and printers. It is a GUI application, so it requires X to be running. It only does some of the basic administration tasks, so to go deeper into the system, you will need to get comfortable with the command line. Speaking of the command line, if you’re coming over to Solaris from Linux, bash is not the default shell, and in fact is not even installed. As a result, you don’t have some of the comforts at the command line you may be used to, such as command completion and command history.

To get into more detail on administration tasks, again check out the Sun Usenet groups, in particular comp.sys.sun.admin or there is also an excellent site at Sun Computer Administration FAQ.

Typically ufsdump is used for backups under Solaris. The syntax is:
ufsdump -f /dev/nrst1 files-to-backup
/dev/nrst1 is an example tape device—yours may vary.
You can also use tar, which is more commonly used in Linux.

A full security lockdown is beyond the scope of this article. A cursory netstat -a shows a number of ports open, which could be cleaned up after a standard install. Telnet and FTP are enabled by default, and you may want to replace these with ssh, scp.

Adding consoles
Admintool will allow you to set a serial port for connecting a dumb terminal. To do so, follow these steps:

  1. Select Browse | Serial Ports.
  2. Double-click on the port and set it for Terminal – Hardwired.
  3. Set the baud rate and the terminal type, and click OK.
  4. Exit admintool.
  5. Now, connect your terminal to the serial port, with proper cabling, and you should be set.

Remote access
Telnet is enabled by default; dial-in access can be setup via PPP or a terminal program. You need to setup zsmon to monitor the modem line for dial-in (using Admintool). For PPP or modem dial-in, Kempston gives a comprehensive setup for both dial-up, and PPP server setup.

Admintool will set up printing. I passed the print jobs on to another server/printer on the network, however. Having several different types of computers, I’ve found it best to put my printers on a separate print server on the network so all the machines can share them. To do this, use the following steps:

  1. Select Browse | Printers
  2. Edit | Add | Access to Printer…
  3. Fill in the fields for the remote server name, a description, and whether or not you want to set it up as the default printer. Then, click OK.
  4. Exit admintool.

The typical productivity applications come standard. You have a cardfile (addressbook), an appointment calendar, a mail program, a text editor, etc. If you need a full office suite, StarOffice is included with Solaris 8, and if you are using Solaris 7, it can be downloaded from Sun.

If you are a developer, you’ll probably want to visit Sunfreeware.com to pick up your favorite language tools. They have the GNU C++ compiler, Perl, Python, tcl, tk, and more. Being a Sun product, Java (of course) comes with the system.

In this Daily Drill Down, I’ve covered the basics on obtaining a Solaris system, and then installing the OS. If you follow my steps, you should have no problem putting together your own functional Solaris system. You should be able to log in from the console or remotely, be able to print, and have a good understanding of the basics for administering your system. You should also have connectivity to the rest of your network and to the Internet. Where you want to go from there is wide open. Check out Sunfreeware.com for additional applications you can add to your system, and then pick up some books or online guides and start using them. Take your Sun machine apart, snag some hardware upgrades on eBay and add them in, but above all have fun learning. If you’re really serious about going into Solaris administration, there are courses and certification programs available. I hope this guide has been helpful, but if you should run into a problem, send me an e-mail and I’ll try to help.

Stew Benedict is a systems administrator for an automotive manufacturer in Cleveland. He’s also a freelance consultant; his company, AYS Enterprises, specializes in designing printed circuits, creating Microsoft Access solutions for the Windows platforms, and utilizing Linux as a low-cost alternative to commercial operating systems and software. Stew has been using and promoting Linux since about 1994. When not basking in the glow of a CRT, Stew enjoys time with his wife, daughter, and two dogs.

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.