How to netboot and install NetBSD/sparc


I've got a Sun SparcStation IPX which I want to install NetBSD on. This old machine has neither a cdrom nor an USB connector (USB was invented several years after these machines hit the market). You could hook up an external SCSI cdrom or a tape drive, but I have neither of them. Thus, netbooting the installer remains the only choice. The steps described below work out for NetBSD 8.0, 7.1.1, 6.0.1, 5.2, 4.0.1, and 3.1.1. My IPX has quite an old OpenBootProm or OBP, the "bios" of Sparc machines. OBP version 2.4 or older neither boots NetBSD 4.0.1, 5.2, 6.0.1, 7.1.1, nor 8.0 from disk due to an incompatibility with the second stage bootloader. In such case, you have to use the second stage bootloader from NetBSD 3.1.1. Netbooting these releases works fine, though..
The installer of NetBSD (sysinst) has an option to update an already installed system. This howto describes the steps which are neccessary to netboot the installer. Following these steps you should also be able to update your system.



Here's my IPX running NetBSD 3.1.1, 7.1.1 and 8.0:

I recently replaced the old 426 MB SCSI harddrive (Seagate ST1480N) by a whopping 2 GB drive (ST32151N). Thus, I had enough disk space to install all sets.

You need a MAU transceiver in order to connect an IPX to a 10 MBit ethernet network. Serial console requires a custom built mini DIN 8 port to DB9 connector, which nowadays might go to a USB-to-serial dongle:

The pinouts for the serial console are documented in The Sun Hardware Reference Part 2 under the Miscellaneous Pinouts section.


  1. If you downloaded the iso, mount it:
    $ sudo mount -t iso9660 -o ro,loop /path/to/NetBSD-8.0-sparc.iso /mnt
  2. Create a directory that will serve as tftp area:
    $ sudo mkdir /tftpboot
  3. Copy to /tftpboot/:
    $ sudo cp -iv /mnt/sparc/installation/netboot/ /tftpboot/
  4. Check whether your Sparc box has a SUN4M or a SUN4C based architecture. For this, you might visit For instance, an IPX is a SUN4C while a JavaStation is a SUN4M
  5. Calculate the hexadecimal representation of your Sun's ip address, e.g. my IPX uses which is C0A80016 in hex. You can use this command:
    printf %02X%02X%02X%02X 192 168 0 22
  6. In /tftpboot, create a symlink like this:
    $ sudo ln -s C0A80016.SUN4C
    Of course you should replace that hex ip address and architecture to match yours.
  7. Put you Sparc's mac address along with its IP address to /etc/ethers:
  8. In /etc/conf.d/rarpd, set the interface rarpd should listen on, and let rarpd reply even if there's no boot image:
    RARPD_OPTS="-e -v -b /tftpboot"
  9. Start rarpd:
    $ sudo rc-service rarpd start
  10. Start atftpd:
    $ sudo rc-service atftp start
  11. Edit /etc/dhcp/dhcpd.conf. At the bare minimum it should contain something like this:
    subnet netmask {
    host ipx {
      hardware ethernet 08:00:20:C0:FF:EE;
      option root-path "/data/netbsd";
  12. Start dhcpd:
    $ sudo rc-service dhcpd start
  13. Create the directory that will serve as the netbooted kernel's root directory:
    $ mkdir /data/netbsd
  14. Copy netbsd-GENERIC.gz (the NetBSD kernel) to that directory:
    $ cp /mnt/sparc/binary/kernel/netbsd-GENERIC.gz /data/netbsd/
  15. Inside the root directory, copy netbsd-GENERIC.gz to netbsd so that the network bootloader will pick up the kernel:
    $ cp -iv /data/netbsd/netbsd-GENERIC.gz /data/netbsd/netbsd
  16. Extract the root filesystem (the --numeric-owner switch is important!):
    $ tar -C /data/netbsd --numeric-owner -xvzpSf /mnt/sparc/installation/netboot/rootfs.tgz
  17. Make the install sets available underneath the root directory:
    $ cp -aiv /mnt/sparc/binary/sets /data/netbsd/
  18. Export the root directory with NFS. Add to /etc/exports:
  19. Make sure NFS version 2 and UDP transport are enabled in /etc/nfs.conf:
  20. Optionally, make nfsd log to syslog by extending the variable OPTS_RPC_NFSD in /etc/conf.d/nfs:
    OPTS_RPC_NFSD="-s -u 8"
  21. Start NFS:
    $ sudo rc-service nfs start
  22. Extract the second stage bootloader from NetBSD 3.1.1:
    $ tar -C /tmp -xzf /path/to/base.tgz ./usr/mdec/boot.388000
  23. Connect a keyboard and a monitor to your Sparc box, or use a serial connection
  24. After powering on, press Stop+A (Ctrl+A+F in minicom) to escape to the OBP prompt
  25. At the prompt, type boot net. For very old OBPs, you might have to switch to the (N)ew command mode
  26. When the kernel and sysinst have been loaded after several minutes (might take up to 30 minutes on very old machines), you can install NetBSD to disk
  27. During the installation, choose Local directory as source media to install from. As base directory enter /, whereas the set directory should be /sets
  28. After the installation, you have to install the second stage loader from NetBSD 3.1.1 if your OBP is on an old version. Thus, before rebooting the machine, select Utility menu, and then Run /bin/sh
  29. Alternatively, reboot your Sun, let it try to load NetBSD, and if it fails with a Data Access Exception, your OBP is too old. In such case, you should be presented the OBP prompt again. If not, once again press Stop+A or Ctrl+A+F to enter the OBP. Then, type boot net to boot the installation system once again, but don't select (I)nstall/Upgrade. Instead, start a (S)hell
  30. Mount the root disk you just installed NetBSD to, and chroot into it:
    # mount /dev/sd0a /targetroot
    # chroot /targetroot
  31. Rename the current second stage loader (/usr/mdec/boot is hardlinked to /usr/mdec/boot.388000):
    # cd /usr/mdec
    # mv boot boot.80
    # mv boot.388000 boot.388000.80
  32. Grap the second stage loader from NetBSD 3.1.1 you extracted on your bootserver:
    # scp user@bootserver:/tmp/usr/mdec/boot.388000 /usr/mdec/
    # ln /usr/mdec/boot.388000 /usr/mdec/boot
  33. Reinstall the bootloader chain:
    # cp -v /usr/mdec/boot /
    # installboot -v /dev/rsd0c /usr/mdec/bootxx /boot
  34. Leave the chroot environment, unmount the local disk, and reboot NetBSD 8.0 from disk:
    # exit
    # umount /targetroot
    # reboot

Generating the SSH host keys during first boot might take a long time (up to 2 hours) on such old machines, though.