Published in PC Week by Emily Berk and Joseph Devlin Click here for list of articles
  September 26, 1988 Another Sun Also Rises Over Unix Developers With Release of Sun 386i
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Developers Find Plenty to Like in Sun's 386i Workstation

 

     

Sun Microsystems Inc., long a golden child of the Unix marketplace and lately the darling of Wall Street, has released a new computer that addresses nearly every issue of modern operating-system design.

Whereas MS-DOS lacks concurrency, speed, a graphical interface and sophisticated file, user, task and device support and OS/2 promises them but hasn't delivered yet -- Unix has provided them for years. Sun has bundled its multi-user, multitasking version of Unix with development software and multiple windows into the DOS universe, wrapped it up in a desktop environment and called its new 80386based machine the "Sun 386i".

The $15,000 price tag on a 386i with 8M bytes or RAM, hard drive, 8M bytes of memory and color monitor serves notice that it is a workstation, not a IIS/2 clone. Each 386i arrives bundled with SunOS (Sun's version or Unix), SunView (Sun's windowing shell), a C compiler, VP/ix (which allows the 386i to run numerous DOS 3.3 tasks), debuggers and other programming support tools, plus Sun's excellent NFS networking software.

Sun's tools work together seamlessly in the 386i's Unix environment. For example, the debugger relies on SunView to support multiple windows in which software creation and testing take place. In a typical debugging session, one window might display source code to be edited, a second windowed tusk might compile and link that source, and a third window might display a working version of the being created. Meanwhile, in the background, the 386i mediates device and file-contention problems and takes care of housekeeping chores such as print queuing without impinging on the debugging task.

In general, the 386i does a superb job of shielding both user and application from mundane housekeeping chores that can chew up so much time in the DOS world. For example, installing a 386i into a network is a breeze. The first time a user turns on his or her workstation, its factory-installed Network File System (NFS) attempts to incorporate itself into a LAN. If no physical connection to the LAN is available, NFS automatically configures the 386i as a stand-alone system.

For some installations, a LAN in which each node contains a CPU proves too expensive. Admittedly it is cheaper to install a single 386-based running a multi-user operating system such as XENIX and supporting several dumb terminals. However, Sun's approach ensures easy installation, training, administration and support of the LAN. If every user has a CPU on the desk, performance degrades more slowly as users are added.

How does the 386i compare to other 386-based Unix platforms? Neal Nelson, the Chicago-based Unix consultant who also performs benchmarking tests, pitted a 20Mhz 386i running SunOS (without SunView) against a 20MHz Compaq 386 running XENIX 386.

In general Nelson's Business Benchmark indicated that the Compaq handled CPU- tasks such as integer and floating- math and text-processing better than the 386i. Mr. Nelson suggested that SunOS's shortcomings may be due to the fact that it has not yet been optimized for the 80386 CPU, as was the Santa Clara Operation's XENIX. Mr. Nelson did indicate that both machines are excellent choices for multi-user Unix platforms.

386i comes bundled with VP/ix software from Phoenix Technology and Interactive Systems, which allows Unix to run multiple DOS tasks in separate windows. VP/ix does an excellent job of isolating applications from the hardware so that even poorly behaved DOS applications run concurrently with other Unix and DOS tasks. SunOS provides cut-and-paste data-exchange capabilities between all running tasks, DOS and Unix alike.

Sun does not promise 100 percent DOS compatibility. Nevertheless, we eventually got every applications program we tried -- including Lotus 1-2-3, Generic CADD, Framework III, Sidekick Plus, Lattice C and Microsoft Windows -- up and running. Speed in a multitasking environment is difficult to measure. Single-tasked DOS applications running under VP/ix on the 25MHz 386i we tested ran slightly slower than on our Acer 1100 16MHz 386-based clone. How fast an application runs in a multi-user environment such as the 386i depends on what else is running and on the priority assigned to each task. Our benchmarks show that performance of each task degrades faster when more than one task runs.

Unix tasks running under SunOS can take full advantage of the 386i's high-resolution monitors. However at present, Sun boxes DOS applications into small fixed-size windows. The default is Hercules monochrome mode, but Color Graph Adapter (CGA) mode is also supported.

On the 386i's monochrome display, where pixels are relatively large, the little screens were quite readable. But on Sun's high-color monitor, pixels are tiny so text is faint and small.

Sun is planning to release Enhanced Graphics Adapter (EGA) and Video Graphics Array (VGA) boards as well as full- drivers for Microsoft Windows and Lotus 1-2-3 this winter. Users will need time and patience to run graphics-intensive DOS programs on the 386i, but most will eventually run.

For example, Tetris a memory-resident game that relies on simple CGA graphics loaded on our Acer 1100 in under two seconds. It took good two minutes to load on the 386i. But after a number of failed loading attempts, Tetris was off and running well on the Sun.

SunOS partitions its single hard drive into virtual drives that DOS can use. MS-DOS software had difficulty coping with Sun's virtual D drive. Every package except SideKick Plus, which accepted the D: drive with remarkable aplomb, preferred the virtual C: drive that is configured to more closely resemble what DOS expects. Thus, space on the 386i's virtual C: drive becomes a valuable commodity to those with large or numerous DOS applications.

Sun would like the 386i to serve as a "bridge" that allows DOS developers to port their applications to Unix. The 386i workstation gives MS-DOS users a taste of a "real" multi-user, multitasking operating system like Unix, while providing DOS 3.3 as a fallback for those who can't be weaned from their single-tasking applications.

It should also appeal to the burgeoning pack of DOS C programmers who are planning to port their applications to multitasking or multi-user environments.

However, given the limitations of its DOS implementation and the elegance of its software development environment, the Sun 386i's primary audience will likely Unix developers and power users such as CAD/CAM engineers who occasionally perform DOS chores.

Emily Berk and Joseph Devlin are the principals in Armadillo Associates, a computer benchmarking and consulting company with offices in Half Moon Bay California.

 
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