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‘Staggering’ cost of vintage Sun workstations sees OpenSolaris-fork Illumos drop SPARC support

Dev team doesn’t have necessary hardware, and even if they could afford it eBay is empty

OpenSolaris ‘spork’ Illumos has decided to deprecate support for SPARC CPUs.

A README posted to GitHub says the decision to drop SPARC is rooted in the fact that the OS was written for silicon that hasn’t been sold for a decade.

“The most recent SPARC machines for which we have relatively direct and complete support were contemporary at the time of the fork; viz., the UltraSPARC T2 family of servers, such as the T5120 and T5220,” wrote Illumos core team member Joshua M Clulow. “The last of these systems reached their end-of-life between 2011 and 2012.”

“In the decade hence, the size and quality of the pool of second hand systems available through eBay and other vendors has dwindled, and prices have risen to match. Desktop systems in particular are popular for collectors, and are thus now staggeringly expensive if you can find them at all.”

Clulow says old Sun kit is now so expensive that the Illumos team “does not currently have access to a permanent official SPARC build machine.”

The developer says cross-compilation and emulation have both been considered, but dismissed because they’d require an awful lot of work and even then the results would not be great.

“In theory one might emulate SPARC systems with QEMU, but reports in the field suggest that this does not work well enough to run modern illumos,” Clulow wrote. “Even if it did, it may take a very long time - e.g., weeks! - to build the operating system under full emulation.”

He also points out that it’s become clear nobody cares enough to keep Illumos-on-SPARC alive.

“If a community of users was going to emerge to provide engineering effort and build resources for SPARC, it likely would have done so by now.”

“It is always sad to close a chapter in our history, and SPARC systems represent a strong and positive memory for many of us. Nonetheless, the time has arrived to begin the process of removing SPARC support from the operating system.”

Illumos came into being in 2010 when, as The Register reported, OpenSolaris developers tired of Oracle’s indifference to their efforts. So they decided to make a properly open version of the OS, but to keep contributing to the OpenSolaris core tended by Oracle. We therefore described Illumos as a “spork” as the dev team was both staying close to Oracle – we used the term “spooning” – while also creating a new project.

The strategy delivered an OS with support for SPARC, plus 32-bit and 64-bit x86. 32-bit x86 support was dropped in 2018.

Now SPARC support is also on the way out. ®

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