moria.de Michael's home page Computing A new SUN IPC

A SUN IPC workstation in the 21st century

I always liked Sun workstations a lot for both software and hardware being easy and nice to use. The IPC/IPX/classic line was a typical workstation targeting the mass market: Small, rather inexpensive, but fully equipped with all interfaces you needed, modular, easy to take apart, upgrade and repair. It was a good idea back then, and it still is. Unfortunately Sun Microsystems is gone and nobody else builds something like an IPC. Did you try to exchange something in a small Barebone PC? Horrible.

Casemodding

If you look at its back, the IPC case just asks for a mini-ITX board. After checking some benchmarks, I decided against a Via CPU and got a Commell LV-671 mainboard with a 1.6 GHz Pentium-M.

After removing all electronics, I sawed away much of the back of the bottom half to make room for the new connectors. A small part was glued to the right of the former SCSI connector for optical reasons. Although a Dremel would make the job easier, a small saw blade does just as well.

The board came without an ATX shield and it contains an external power connector outside the ATX shield, thus asking for a new solution anyway. I wanted convert two (there is no room for more) of the internal USB ports to external ones, so I took a plate of thin aluminium, filed after a mask made of cardboard.

I glued this shield with epoxy glue to the case and it already looked pretty nice. There was a little too much glue here and there, which was hard to remove, but I am satisfied with the result.

Since the mainboard contains a PCMCIA and a CF slot on its bottom, I needed more room than common mainboard screws offer. The solution was not mounting the screws to the bottom of the case, but to a spacer sawed from a board of polystyrol. Two rubber pads that supported the old Sun mainboard now do just the same for the new one.

Finally, I glued the spacer into the case. Now it was ready to take the mainboard and most of the mechanical work was already done.

The original Sun power supply was not suitable, because the Commell board requires only 12V DC. I removed the electronics, but kept the case and mounted a Spectra ECM60US12 power supply inside. I removed the power out connector, because it was a little in my way and I don't use it anyway.

I took the old power LED and glued it to the case after soldering a short cable to it. Then the speaker cable got a new plug, I mounted the USB socket and the mainboard. Do you think everything was too easy this far? You're right.

Putting it all together, I found out that it would have been better to mount the board about 2 mm farther away from the power supply fan. Oh well. I took a file and shortened the fan as much, discovering the next problem: The parallel connector was about 1 mm too high. Again, the file helped and finally the case closed without efforts.

As you may have noticed, I do not use a reset or power button. I rarely ever use reset and configured the BIOS to start the system when switching the power supply on. That way it does not require any standby current.

Getting the hardware to work

The 40 mm fan that came with the mainboard is not able to keep the 1.6 GHz CPU cool: With opened case, the CPU temperature quickly rises to 50 degree Celsius and above. I aborted the test at that point.

Using a standard 50 mm fan resulted in a stable temperature of 39 degree Celsius. When closing the case, unfortunately the whole machine quickly heated up and again I aborted the test at 50 degree Celsius. I found out the fan could not draw enough air and drilled more holes into the power supply case that sits above it. Now the temperature increased slower, but again crossed 50 degree. After connecting the power supply fan, the temperature stayed stable at 39 degree Celsius. All this is under full CPU load. Regular operating temperatures are much lower, but the system should be stable even under load on a hot summer day.

Unfortunately, the old Sun IPC fan was too noisy. I bought a Papst 612 NGML, but still no luck: On its own, it was almost silent, but mounting it in the power supply resulted in noisy vibrations that could not be avoided. Then I got a Revoltec Air Guard 60 mm fan, a truely silent fan, and for a remarkable low price, too! Plus it fits in the case without any modifications.

The Commel LV-671 requires unregistered DDRRAM, although it supports ECC. I wish the manual would state that clearly, because I first got registered ECC DDRRAM and the board did not recognize it. Then I tried unregistered DDRRAM (no ECC, because I could not find unregistered ECC), which works fine. Using DDR400 is no problem, the board runs it as DDR333.

And that's the finished system from the two interesting angles people reading this far like, opened and from behind:

My new workstation: Small, very silent despite the two fans, 1.6 GHz Pentium-M CPU, 1 GB RAM, 1 Gbit/s Ethernet and a classic look I still enjoy. Why can't machines like this be bought?

Linux

This small system just asks for Solaris, but I doubt it can be installed diskless these days, so I run Linux just like I do everywhere else at home, having made the usual half dozen tries until I knew the required drivers and kernel options. Here is list of the hardware specific options. At first, the X-Window server insisted on the resolution of 640x480. After a while, I found out that the board thinks I have a flat panel screen connected besides the CRT. Switching the BIOS setting from AUTO to CRT causes X11 to ignore the flat panel (that really isn't there), allowing different resolutions.

I would have liked to replace the EPA logo (stored as AWBM file), but did not find a Sun logo and did not feel like making one myself.

Speedstep (Linux calls it frequency scaling) does not work with Linux. I tried various options, but the kernel never even gave an error message - quite typical for Linux. Don't try to flash release 2.0 from Commell in the hope it may help or you will lose PXE! If you want to flash a new BIOS, the awdflash.exe program does not work when booted using pxelinux and memdisk and you need to connect a real drive.

More casemodding

Back then, SCSI was what USB is today: An universal interface for many I/O-devices. As it seems, USB is there to last, so finally even I switched and modified an external SCSI enclosure to an external USB enclosure, mounting a chip card reader inside. It does not need the power supply, but I did not remove it, as other devices may. Later, I got a second enclosure, modified it just the same and mounted a DVD burner with USB/IDE interface inside.

Old Sun workstations had optical mice, whereas PCs had ones with a ball. While PCs went to optical mice, because they just work better, Sun now delivers cheap ones with a ball - does time run backwards for them? I got an optical PC mouse and mounted its electronics into the Sun mouse case. It works nicely, and unlike the original Sun mouse, even without a mouse pad.



Michael Haardt