Monday 29 April 2019

Sun SPARCstation (1989)

SPARCstation 10 (1992)
Introduced April 1989

If you wanted to do serious computing on your desktop 30 years ago, your choices were a bit limited. The state-of-the-art in the PC world was Windows/386 running on a PC with an 80386 processor. It was pretty rubbish. Apple had it a bit more together with devices such as the Macintosh II line, but although Mac OS was pretty to look at it was also pretty basic underneath.

In universities and other research facilities, minicomputers and mainframes provided the speed and sophistication needed to get things done. But you had to share these systems with others, and plugging away at a dumb terminal could be pretty unrewarding.

What if you could have all that power on your desk? Something as capable as a big departmental computer all to yourself? With a graphical interface? And something that you could still work collaboratively on?

Welcome to the world of the Unix workstation. This particular market was dominated by Sun Microsystems who had grown throughout the 1980s to become the company to beat. Starting off with systems based on the Motorola 68000 series of processors (as used in the Mac) they eventually designed their own high-speed RISC processor, the SPARC.

In 1989 Sun introduced their SPARCstation line of Unix workstations and servers. Initially featuring a SPARC running at a leisurely 20 or 25 MHz with up to 64MB of AM, the SPARC was nonetheless faster and more powerful than pretty much anything you could put on your desk.

But it wasn’t just what was inside the box that was important, it was how it looked. House in a wide but flat “pizza box” case with a large monitor on top, a typical SPARCstation install looked both serious and elegant at the same time. The “pizza box” case itself could either be placed on a desk or rack-mounted, depending on what you wanted to do with it.

The SPARCstation evolved over six years it was in production until replaced by the Sun Ultra series. SPARCstations rarely make it onto eBay – probably because they tended to be bought by large organisations – but can command fairly decent prices. For example, a fully-equipped SPARCstation 5 can be £1000 or more.

Image credit: Thomas Kaiser via Wikimedia Commons

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