Evie Beer

Hmmm, from my menu of choices for a RetroChallenge project for this July, the ship has hit a few icebergs already…

Museum Blues

Galaxy Pressed may well be a non-starter, looks like I am 10 years too late: obtaining a 30+ year-old Sun SS600-series mainboard for less than an arm and two legs is already impossible. After spending 10 days trawling online, phoning friends, looking up previously-used suppliers, deep delving ex-Government and ex-military equipment disposal companies, posting on numerous newsgroups, retrocomputing-forums, and even pestering private collectors and musuems, a blank is all that can be drawn. Even those equipment-warehousing organisations that have them in stock won’t let them go for (quote) “less than museum prices, due to rarity”.

Sigh. And as for a 3-slot Sun-9U VME enclosure, the situation is even worse: not at *any* price.

It is doubly frustrating as these items could be picked-up on eBay 15 years ago, for a reasonable price.

Looks like I have missed the boat, but I still have a couple of pies with a finger in, so with one day to go before RetroChallenge starts, I’m hanging on in hope, like a darned fool…

Wrong End of The Stick

BASIC Distinct also has issues as a project idea: although I have not downloaded FreeBASIC source yet (after all the competion has not started!), just reading about other people looking into porting FreeBASIC away from x86-land, even for the C-generator back-end, it looks like a ***lot*** of work, which kind of spoils the whole idea, which was to spend time messing about with BASIC, rather than spending the whole month *implementing* BASIC to play with… There are alternatives to FreeBASIC for this project, but none of them looks very promising from the requirement of (mostly) QuickBASIC language compatibility.

Dead Trees Society

As my better half pointed out, the idea of documenting a single personal story about a particularly insane computer mass-storage journey should really be done as a book in dead-tree format if I want it to be really retro. I’m not convinced, but I am now starting to doubt myself on this one!

Chin Up and Drink Up

Which only leaves the “messing around with a 68hc11 single-board computer” as the only project idea that still has all it’s legs intact. I have ordered a second-hand Motorola 68hc11 EVBU (68hc11 evaluation-board SBC), hope it arrives without delay – on this particular rock, you usually need to add an extra day or two for postal deliveries.

So welcome to my project for RetroChallenge 07/15: “Evie Beer”, or how to mess about with a retro chip-eval board, and both celebrate and despise the 68hc11.

Of course, I might just change project mid-challenge, should the Gods smile on me!

Summer Make?

Once more, we approach the time of year when RetroChallenge takes over for a whole month… but what project to do this time around? It’s hellishly busy at work at the moment, so that will probably colour my choice of project.

I have a few old project ideas that I will be weighing up:

  1. Indigo Tendencies
    This is too similar to my last RetroChallenge project, so perhaps stow this one for now.
  2. Galaxy Pressed
    Unlikely to be enough time to even source the hardware for this one, but…
  3. I’m also tempted to try mucking around with a 1990 Motorola 68hc11 EVBU board, re-learning 68hc11 assembly and embedded microcontrollers and interfacing (which might at some future point lead to a resurrection of the aborted Fraggle Jock project, but that’s a whole other story).
    These Motorola evaluation boards still crop up for sale even now, so this might be on.
  4. BASIC Distinct
    Going back to my first ever programming language…
  5. And Finally: to write-up a 15-year personal computer-storage journey: a story of dead-ends, frustration, mystery, incredible feats (for the time), utter misfortune, incredible good luck, and a happy ending. What more could you want?

I’m hoping that these are all suitably useless, whimsical and unproductive… but which one to do?

Watch this space… and pray!

BASIC Distinct

And another potential project for RetroChallenge… where do these all come from?

The idea: Going back to my first ever programming language (ouch, that *was* a long time ago, do you remember the RM380Z?), by porting FreeBASIC to Solaris and then porting/adjusting/improving some classic BASIC and QBASIC games so that they run on an Ultra-10 workstation (or any other aged SPARC workstation, perhaps even on the Indigo too).

How about playing the original BASIC Super Star Trek from 1978? Or perhaps Jeff Lewis’ QBASIC Tank Game?

Galaxy Pressed

Yet another whimsical retro-computing project idea for RetroChallenge… to turn some big-iron into small-iron.

Back in the very early 90s, Sun Microsystems produced their first multi-processor capable system, codenamed “Galaxy”, in fact a family of three big server systems based on the same motherboard:

  • SPARCserver-630 – a large tower chassis incorporating a 5-slot VME enclosure and 520W power-supply.
  • SPARCserver-670 – a super-wide tower chassis incorporating a 12-slot VME enclosure and 925W power-supply.
  • SPARCserver-690 – a 56-inch datacenter cabinet, 19-inch rack-mounted chassis incorporating a 16-slot VME enclosure and a 1200W power-supply (that’s not including the cabinet PSU to drive the cab fans and SCSI disk-trays!).

The smaller ones look like this:

All three types of chassis were mounted on industrial castors, because you would never be able to move them otherwise. As you can see, all big stuff. However, a populated SS-600 series motherboard alone is (power and disk-drive excluded) a fully functional self-contained SPARC computer, complete with 4 SBus I/O expansion slots, built-in SCSI, serial ports, audio, Ethernet, upto 4 CPUs and upto 512Mb RAM. OK, without the big chassis you can’t load it up with enormous slow old VME I/O cards, lots of house-brick-sized disk drives or any of the other 1980s mega-oversized heavy-metal detrius that you wouldn’t need today (or even yesterday).

So the project would be to mount an SS-600 series motherboard in a smaller Sun-compatible 9U-VME chassis that provides enough 5VDC and 12VDC power. Given that the Sun 9U VME boards are non-standard-VME (by definition, standard VME boards are either one-plug 3U or two-plug 6U cards – there is no standard or even commonplace pinout for the “third” plug on 9U cards – Sun use the middle row merely for additional power), you can’t just grab any VME chassis that takes 9U cards, only Sun ones will work.

So what to do? Well, the earlier Sun-3/110, Sun-3/140, Sun-4/110 and Sun-4/310 workstations (super-slim-tower chassis) provide 3 “Sun-Style” 9U VME slots and enough power to run a populated SS-600 series motherboard. In principle, you need at least 2 VME slots, as the SS-600 series motherboard has sticky-up components so you need a black space above it. In principle, even a Sun-3/75 (2-slot VME desktop) might do, but power would be very tight.

If one could obtain one of these chassis (originally produced 1986-1988) with a working PSU, then you could create a mythical SPARCserver-610; a micro-Galaxy small enough to actually lift and thin enough to fit unobtrusively next to a desk.

The problem is going to be finding one of those very old Suns to use as a chassis-donor. They were exclusively rare 10 years ago, but now are pretty much impossible to obtain, for love or money, apart from robbing a museum or private collection…

Watts Up: Packaging to the End

Now that we have a working system, it’s time to package the new PSU so that it fits inside the SPARCstation-10. Given that the SS10 is a very slimline, cramped chassis, this took some ingenuity. I knew it would even before I started and had picked the PSU/components/mounting-location/etc cleverly to make internal mounting possible. But there’s a huige difference between theoretical “oh yes, that will fit in there” and the actual practicalities of allowing for screw-width, the mounting rubber grommets that the SS10 requires for drive bays, and so on and so on.

Craggy Island
In spite of not living on Craggy Island, it took four weeks to source a Dremmel-like mini hand-grinder/cutter/low-speed-drill tool. Hardware stores, ironmongers, friends and acquaintances all came up dry. *Eventually*, only yesterday (with RetroChallenge time running out), I found the last one in town in a petrol station, and snapped it up. Good job, too, because it would have been impossible to finish the prject without it.

Boxy Horror Picture Show
Two days, a complete weekend (apart from a break to play hockey) of measuring, marking, drilling, grinding, cutting, bolting, screwing, unscrewing, rescrewing… I’m exhausted, but got there in the end…

First up was fitting a fan (and the necessary cutouts and plastic bolts in each half of the plastic box enclosure obtained in Episode One)20150201_12044820150201_120521Oh yeah, and drilling the vent-holes. The fan blows “inwards”, from where the AC terminals will be to where the DC output harness and the vent-holes are – mandated by TDK NV1 application notes and handbook.

20150201_04240220150201_04242120150201_042444You will notice that the PSU is “raised” off the floor of the box by plastics bolts and a couple a “spacer” plastic nuts – necessary because the few surface-mount components on the underside of the PCB get slightly warm, so there needs to be at least some airgap there.

Final adjustment to the old APS-39 PSU chassis was a cutout to be able to route the incoming main cable so that it wasn’t in the way of the other cables:20150201_042527

Next up was a cutout in the main cross-bar of the SPARCstation-10 lid (originally intended to reduce RFI/EMI emissions from 1990-vintage disk-drives from effecting adjacent memory-modules, and vice versa, but not a problem these days, I won;’t be running a Seagate upside-down 10-platter 1st-generation thermonuclear Barracuda disk drive ever again!).

And here is the completed adapted new PSU all wired up:20150201_195913

Finally, and this took several hours of sweat and tears, was to mount and install this monstrosity in the chassis, using the SPARCstation-10 drive-mounting grommets, which have to be very accurately positioned so that it will just slot into place. But after a lot of fiddling, measuring, drilling and screwing, I got it into shape to just slide in (and more to the point, just slide out again if needed)…20150201_225747.

And the main trick is to hide the cables underneath the diskette drive, just about the only “unused” space in the SPARCstation-10 chassis. The end result is pretty neat and tidy:20150201_225849

Yes, you *can* relieve yourself of having to limp along with the original APS-39 PSU in a SPARCstation-10, but it’s virtually impossible squishing anything else in there, especially something that can provide 5.1VDC @21A, unless it is a naked TDK Lambda NV1-350-TT or NV1-350-TT-N and some clever home-brew plastics (the pre-boxed versions of the NV1 are too long).

Finally, never assume that ATX crimpable female blanks and a standard AWG-18 ratchet-crimp-tool will go perfectly together. They won’t. You’ll usually need to pre-cut the tangs on the blanks so that they’ll crimp properly with the tool you have. And in spite of all the advice *not* to pre-solder the wires before crimping, you will probably have to pre-solder when doing two-into-one crimps.

It’s done and works, but it will be a long time before I talk myself into doing this again! I’m off for a well-deserved kip now…. zzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZ

Watts Up: Back in the Game

As discovered last episode, the SS10s are both still alive. Good ole serial console debug!

The problem running the SS10 off my adapted NV1 PSU is that the SS10 really wants 5.1V, not 5.0V. It will run rock-solid at 5.05V but anything below that is a bit hit-and-miss.

From Russia with Data
Although I had managed find numerous TDK Lambda NV1 handbooks, datasheets, application-notes and so on, from the UK and US TDK websites, they had no documents describing the really critical bits: does the PSU have built-in across-the-line AC filtering and line-to-ground filtering, and what is the actual maximum (trimmed) output voltage of channels 1 and 3?

As is so often the case when needing such specification details, the information was available from Russia. TDK’s Russian website, to be precise. Even though the “17159-20″ handbook is freely available from that site, I always feel a little bit surreptitious getting such information from tertiary manufacturers sites. A hang-over from kremvax days, I suppose.

Thanks to the Russian-sourced data, I can see that the NV1-175 (NV-350TT flavour) has user-adjustable trimming-potentiometers and the nominal 5V channel 1 is formally rated upto (and qualified for) 5.5V before the over-voltage protection cuts-in, here’s a close-up of the trimmers:20150130_165600

Twiddler On the Hoof
Most potentiometers are eg: 10-turn devices, but the suckers on the NV1 are way way way more than that, dozens of turns from bottom setting to top. I initially was turning the adjuster as slightly as possible to avoid overshooting (once you push the NV1 into over-voltage-protection, it’s a bit tricky to get it out again, except by blind adjustment whilst removing/reapplying main power).

Of course, my very delicate touches were making absolutely no difference to the measured voltage – were the pots broken or the Russian document incorrect, or what?

Poking a screwdriver into the guts of a live PSU is pretty scary, not something to take lightly, so big twists on the pots just didn’t seem like a good idea at the time. Eventually, after I plucked up the courage to twist the driver enough to make *some* difference, *any* difference, I managed to get the nominal 5V line to 5.1V (instead of the 4.98V it had been opriginally). However, without the PSU under load, the measured voltage wobbles around quite a lot, it just wouldn’t go stable. Given that I picked the NV1 particularly because it had no “minimum load” requirement, this was a bit disappointing.

After several hours without getting stability, flickering between 5.0V and 5.19V, I decided that I would have to make the tuning adjustment “in-situ”, actually hooked-up to the SPARCstation-10 with everything switched on. Now this is starting to sound very dangerous! If that big cap on the NV1 board blows or fails-short, well…

It still took a while, I had to pretend I had four hands (one for each probe, one for the jewellers screwdriver, and one for the mains plug). Eventually, though I could get a stable 5.1V on the nominal 5V lines and a stable 12.0V on the nominal 12V lines (which had been at 11.97V beforehand).

That should do it! For anyone else trying this: be prepared to take a *lot* of time here, these pots’ screws have some “slew” (changing twist direction does not take effect immediately).

Operating System
Now it was time to try installing an operating-system, Solaris 2.6 has modest requirements, and works very well on this class of machine, so that is what I chose. In this picture, the external CDROM drive and NV1 are connected, all ready for Solaris installation.20150130_114105. The stuck-on paper envelope is there to keep the fan-air over the CPUs rather than escaping into the room… touch-tests show that it is necessary… The O/S installation went through fine:20150130_112221.

The Moment of Not Telling Too Many Lies
Well, now that we have an O/S and a working system, surely it is time to try running the pair of 180MHz HyperSPARC CPUs that the original PSU could not manage?

It would be exactly that time, except that I have misplaced those darned CPU modules (Where’s Wilma?)!!!

Never mind, this gives me the opportunity to show the SPARCstation-10 doing something rather unusual, something that very, very few other systems of the time could do, and that many modern systems still cannot do: run three CPUs with different base speeds, cache sizes, and different number of levels of cache, all under control of a single operating-system instance: I have another single-CPU 180MHz module, and a dual-CPU 90MHz module. That all adds up to 360MHz, and that earlier dual-90 unit actually consumes more power and dissipates noticeably more heat than the newer die-shrunk 180MHz modules do, so in terms of stressing the new PSU, this configuration will be even *more* of a test. Does the system still boot? It sure does! (video). And repeatably consistently, yay!!!

Here are the views of the graphical login and desktop screens:20150130_153231

And the final piece of today’s cake: internet access using the ancient (and somewhat incapable) “hotjava” web-browser:20150130_155306How retro is *that*?

Watts Up: Episode 14 – Ear Cable

After suspecting that I had killed both my production and spare SPARCstation-10 motherboards, it is time to prove it one way or the other.

For SPARCstation-class machines, there is a handy trick that can be used to prove the main memory bus, the memory-controller, the CPUs, the basic “aliveness” of the on-board peripheral devices, and SBus plug-in cards: the serial console in firmware-debug mode. This spits a *lot* of self-test messages to the serial-port (at 9600 baud 8n1), even ultra-low-level tests of eg: “is the CPUs on-chip TLB storing, returning, and searching for entries correctly”, is the CPU-module cache-RAM working properly, are the hardware page-table-walkers working, etc. Extremely comprehensive, these identify any failing (or partially-failing) CPUs, DMA controllers, main memory MMUs, I/O-MMU, SBus devices, memory DIMMs, and so on.

Getting into Firmware-Debug Mode
The standard way to get the SS10 into firmware-debug mode: hold down the “Stop” and “D” keys on the Sun keyboard whilst powering up the system. Obviously, this won’t work if the keyboard is busted (or missing!) or if the keyboard UARTs or EBus on the motherboard are not working…

But there is another way to force firmware-debug mode – remove the NVRAM chip (the one with a barcode sticker on it, and mounted in a plastic DIP carrier) before powering-up.

Of course, to see the test/trace messages, you will need to connect a serial terminal (or terminal-emulator) to the SS10 serial-port via a “null-modem” cable. Although I used to have null-modem RS232 cables coming out of my ears, I have not needed one in anger for a few years and don’t seem to have any around any more; so I had to make one by rewiring a “straight-through” RS232 cable.

Trace Messages from Production Machine
Let’s see the results from the “production” SS10 (with HyperSPARC CPUs): (10-minute video). Hey, it is still alive, takes a while to come fully “up”, and can’t “see” the keyboard, but once it has booted fully, can access it over the network! Phew!

The problem of not “seeing” the keyboard is most likely due to the slightly iffy cable-socket on the keyboard itself: after being detached/reattached hundred of times over the last 20 years, the pins in the cable plug don’t always quite connect to the conductors in the socket. Takes a little bit of wiggling sometimes. Well, it’s either that or the secondary Zilog 8530 UART on the motherboard is busted, but given that everything else is working fine, I suspect that the problem is the keyboard socket.

Trace Messages from Spare Machine
To prove the death or otherwise of the spare machine (with SuperSPARC CPUs), I swapped-in the PSU from the production machine: (another 10-minute video). Hmmm, that one is alive as well, although it has a dead battery in the NVRAM chip (does not stop it from booting manually, just delays things whilst the firmware figures out that the NVRAM contents are corrupted). Phew again!

Of course, the next step is to see what we get when this spare SS10 is running off the new NV1-based adapted PSU… does *that* really work?