I have an old SPARC ULTRA 10 lying around, and I thought to myself that as it wasn’t doing anything, and as there was a Debian distribution for SPARC, I’d give it a go. After all, installing Debian on Intel boxes was easy, wasn’t it? Eight hours later I can affirm that no, it is not easy at all. In fact, there are any number of pitfalls along the way for the unwary, and just following the instructions Debian give you will lead to staring at a blank screen wondering what went wrong. All this information is somewhere in the internet, but it’s not even remotely in the same place. So, in the interest of all you people who might want to try to run Debian on a SPARC, here are my tips for successful installation. Not that I promise they’ll work, but they might at least help . . .
I decided to go for a network install CD, which is 140 MB, and sets up the core system, downloading everything else. So here comes problem number one. The official Debian SPARC network install image is here, but you don’t want that, because it crashes half way through trying to boot the kernel. You want the testing version of the image, which you download here:
Okay, so now you can do
to get to the kernel boot prompt. You might think the obvious thing to do would be just to press enter to go for the default boot. And if you try that then things go swimmingly right up to the point where the Debian installer tries to install DHCP, at which point it finds the package doesn’t have a valid PKI signature, and it asks you what to do about it. Unfortunately, it asks you via the serial port. So, you could connect up a terminal emulator to the serial port, or you could do this: when you are asked to select a boot type, enter:
Selecting a kernel
I chose linux-image-3.0.0-1-sparc64 out of the available options. It seemed sensible to have the most up-to-date alternative.
Now everything will go fine right up to the point where the base system s installed and you have to decide which of the major software packages to install. Things like web server and graphical user interface. Whatever you do, do not select any of the groups. If you do, then it will install all of them and then, just as it’s processing the last one, the installer will crash. Just go with the pre-selected set of utilities, press go, and after a wait, you should end up with a basic text-based Debian system.
I say should: it depends on your choice of network mirror. Bizarrely, slow mirrors seem to work better. So if it crashes the first time, try another mirror. However, in that case the safest option is to skip this step entirely, and jump straight to installing the boot-loader.
The software selection
Now is the time to work out what you actually want running on your SPARC. the GNOME desktop environment does slow the thing down tremendously, so if you want to use the machine primarily as a server, I recommend just installing the packages you want with aptitude. However BEWARE:. If you try to install too many packages at once, aptitude will crash. So just install a few at a time. Alternatively, install as much as possible from the command line with apt-get (running as root).
This naturally means installing GNOME is a positive minefield. If you must do it, invoke the following:
apt-get install xorg gdm gnome gnome-desktop
That should work. If it crashes, reboot, then do
dpkg --configure -a
and then re-run the apt-get.