Saturday, April 7, 2007

Schrödinger's Sparc

What really happened to Sun Microsystems? Once the company of choice for professional workstation and server needs, the place where Java was born, it is now a mere shadow of itself. Scott McNealy, founder and CEO, probably now stalks the hallways, keeping the ship together through sheer will power alone.

I did a lot of work using Sun machines back in college, so they have a certain nostalgic value to me. So much so, that when a company I worked at was disposing of old Sun workstations, I rescued a couple of them from the garbage: A SparcStation 10, and a SparcStation IPX.

I got rid of the SS 10 a while ago, taking it to a computer-recycling center (reuse and recycle those old computers!). When I brought it in, a number of hard-core Sun nerds shuffled out of the dark corners of the warehouse-like building and stood around it, staring at it as though I had bagged a rare wild animal. “Does it still work?” one guy asked me. “Probably, " I responded. "I think the hard-drive is dead, but it still powers up.” He nodded sagely, and disappeared back into the shadows.

I kept the IPX, however, because it made the perfect CRT monitor stand for my desk. You can see it in the picture to the left. However, as I’ve upgraded to a LCD monitor with an adjustable height stand, I realized, it was finally time to let the poor fellow go.

The IPX has a small, squat form-factor, unlike the SS 10, which is much wider, but much shorter. We used to compare them to donut boxes and pizza boxes respectively, in college, but I later learned via hardware manuals that the official names are “lunch box” and “dinner box” formats. What’s much more interesting is that inside the IPX, on the circuit board, is an etching of a cat:

I stumbled upon this when I first opened the IPX years ago and was greatly surprised. What was the significance of the cat? Was there some sort of Sun Microsystems lore behind this? Did any “lunch box” model besides the IPX (e.g. IPC, Classic) have the cat? The answer to the last question, by the way, is “no”.

Naturally, today there's plenty of information on the web about this mystery feline (as a starter, try this), so my curiousity and questions can finally be put to rest. Sort of.

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