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THE SGI FUEL: More powerful than Octane2 for a third less the price.

Faster [And] Faster Go the Workstations

Workstations are faster, cheaper. This is new? No, except that we really mean faster and cheaper.

There are three major trends affecting workstations these days, declares Peter Kastner, executive vice president for market researcher Aberdeen Group, Inc. (Boston, MA):

  • Mobile computing
  • High-end 32-bit computing
  • Intel 64-bit Itanium architecture.

Mobile computing hasn’t hit automotive engineering and design, despite the appeal of taking CAD/CAM and simulations on the road. The second trend is noteworthy because, says Kastner, “For a fixed number of dollars you can support more engineers with new, faster equipment.” Today, high-performance 32-bit Intel chips (Xeon and the Pentium 4) hold their own against RISC/Unix workstations. That became even

more true in April, when Intel introduced its 875P chipset (codename: “Canterwood”). This chipset cranks front-side bus speed up from 533 MHz to 800 MHz. Add a new dual-channel 400-MHz DDR memory interface, “hyper-threading technology” (this lets the processor do more work during each processor clock cycle), plus some other performance tweaks–“all the good things you might like in a top-end workstation,” says Kastner–and the result is cinemagraphic 3D and spectacular 2D.

As for the third item on the list: Skip the initial Itanium chip. Instead, focus on the Itanium 2 processor—for both servers and workstations.

That said, there are other factors to take into account: Faster performance and plunging pricing for RISC-based workstations continues unperturbed.

Here’s a rundown of what’s new in workstations:

Fueling Silicon graphics
The new line of 64-bit workstations from Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI; Mountain View, CA), Silicon Graphics Fuel, runs about twice as fast as SGI’s latest Octane2 workstation—for a third less the price. For $11,500, SGI’s Fuel comes with a 700-MHz MIPS R16000 processor (or the 600-MHz MIPS R14000A processor), with 4 MB secondary cache plus up to 4 GB system memory. The front-side bus, at 200 MHz, is about 60% faster than the current Octane2. For graphics, you can have the VPro V10 with 32 MB graphics memory, including up to 8 MB texture memory, or you can purchase the high-end VPro V12 with 128 MB graphics memory, including up to 104 MB texture memory.

The current Octane2 comes with either a single or dual MIPS R14000A 600 MHz or 550 MHz processor, both with 2 MB secondary cache. You have a choice of four VPro graphics, including the V10 and V12. System memory can go as high as 8 GB of SDRAM.

Sun still rises
About two years ago, the Sun Blade 1000 workstation from Sun Microsystems (Santa Clara, CA) cost about $7,000, ran with a 750-MHz UltraSPARC III processor, and could support up to 8 MB of memory. Today, the SunBlade 2000 features an UltraSparc III copper-based processor running at 1.2 GHz. Compared to a year ago, the SunBlade 2000’s floating point performance increased a little over 50%; integer performance increased 30% to 35%. And the workstation still costs about $7,000. A dual-processor 1.2-GHz configuration, with 2 GB of memory, sells for under $14,000 list. “Compared to HP and IBM equivalents, we’re practically 50% lower in price,” claims Phil Dunn, Product Line Marketing & OEM Manager, Workstations & SunPCi, for Sun. (The 1.5-GHz dual processor SunBlade 2000 workstation sells for $20,000.) Still too rich for your budget? For about a grand, the 64-bit SunBlade 150 comes with a 550- or 650-MHz UltraSPARC III processor and up to 2 GB of RAM.

Sun has also upgraded its co-processor card, the Sun PCI III. This is essentially an entire PC on a daughterboard: an AMD Athlon XP 1600+ processor, 256 MB RAM (expandable to 1 GB), and the latest I/O ports, including USB 2.0 and Firewire. You can even plug in AGP 8.x-equivalent graphics. These co-processor cards are 100% personal computer. They’re even certified by Microsoft for running Windows! (Microsoft just views them as another Windows operating system license revenue source.) Applications running on the card appear in a window on the Solaris desktop, just like a DOS window runs within Windows. Incidentally, when Windows crashes, it doesn’t take down the entire Sun workstation; it just closes that window running the Windows app. Ford Motor Company orders all of its SunBlade workstations with the co-processor card, thereby eliminating the need for an extra workstation at each desk for office productivity applications.

A different sort of 64-bitness
Hewlett-Packard (HP; Fort Collins, CO) is covering all bases by providing workstations running on 32-bit Intel Xeon and Pentium 4 processors, 64-bit Intel Itanium 2, and HP’s own 64-bit PA-RISC processors. For the time being, explains Jeff Wood, HP’s Product Marketing Director for Personal Workstations, automotive designers haven’t run up against the 32-bit wall imposed by the 32-bit processors, memory, and operating systems. That will change as more users work on integrated or full-assembly designs. Then, Itanium will start making sense.

In the meantime, Intel’s new 875P chipset helps in the migration from 64-bit RISC-based workstations to supercharged 32-bit workstations. “Anything you can do to get data from memory to the main architecture quickly will benefit CAD,” explains Wood. In fact, he continues, Intel uniprocessor workstations compete directly with HP’s big dual-processor workstations. For example, HP’s xw4100, starting at under $800, has a Pentium 4 2.4-MHz processor, 128 MB system memory, a 40-GB IDE hard drive, an Nvidia-based 2D graphics controller, and other workstation niceties. This is an entry level configuration, so “most of the mainstream guys,” says Wood, will add a gigabyte of memory, upgrade to an 80-GB hard drive (most of their data is off line), and beef up the graphics. They also might swap the processor for one that runs at 3.0 GHz.

For the heavy number crunchers, HP has two 64-bit Itanium-based workstations. The zx2000 features a 900-MHz processor, supports up to 8 GB of system memory, and can be yours for $3,711. The HP zx6000 workstations can be configured with one or two 1-GHz Itanium processors and supports up to 24 GB. The entry-level configuration costs $6,000, though that price can easily go high up in the teens. (Note: Current 32-bit processors top out at 4 GB memory. Microsoft Windows on 64-bit Itanium 2 supports up to 16 GB.)

At the heart of these workstations is the HP chipset zx1. While HP and Intel co-developed the Itanium, HP developed its own chipset. This is the only chipset that enables Itanium-based workstations to support Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP). (Intel’s current Itanium-based chipset does not support graphics.)

Assuming the same applications on both platforms, users won’t notice much difference when migrating from HP-UX on HP PA-RISC to HP-UX on Intel Itanium 2, says Dan Nordhues, HP’s Director of Product Marketing for PA-RISC and Itanium Workstations. The applications “look and feel the same.” The Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler apparently agrees. The group announced in May that it had migrated part of its High Performance Computing center to an HP Workstation zx6000 cluster powered by almost 200 Itanium 2 processors in a rack configuration running MSC.Software’s Virtual Product Development applications. Chrysler says this move should help improve simulation time for vehicle noise, vibration, and harshness testing by up to 50%.

Some points to ponder
First point: IBM Corp. (Armonk, NY) sells a variety of workstations running on various processors (and operating systems). It’s IntelliStation Pro and Power workstations, Intel Pentium and IBM Power3-II or Power4 processors respectively, range in price from as low as $1,000 to the low teens for dual-processor 3D CAD/CAM, visualization, and high-end analysis workstations. Also, IBM still sells its RS-6000 RISC-based workstations.

Second point: Not everything about Itanium is rosy. Server sales figures from market research firm IDC show a 31% drop in units shipped when compared to the fourth quarter of 2002. Slows sales can be attributed to customers waiting for the next version of Itanium 2 (codename: “Madison”), which is soon to be released. Also, a bug was found in the Itanium 2 chip.

Workstation sales might be just as slow. SGI’s Shawn Underwood, Director of Product Marketing and Management for Visualization, points out two reasons for this. First, Intel’s lack of AGP support is fine for server applications, but does diddly for graphics-intensive workstation applications. Second, there’s a dearth of major MCAD software running on Linux, let alone versions that run on 64-bit Windows.

Now to point #3. Ironically, continues Underwood, “the difficulty is not in porting an application to a new operating system, whether it’s Linux or [Sun] Solaris or [SGI] Irix. The difficulty is in adding yet one more operating system to your entire ecosystem for support. In today’s recessionary economy, why add additional burden to your IS department with a new operating system, a new architecture, or a new vendor?” Adds Sun’s Dunn, “[Software vendors] have to recompile and in many cases rewrite their applications to support Itanium.” That assumes the compilers for Itanium are mature (read: “bug free”). By the way, Sun and SGI have been tenacious about maintaining binary compatibility between generations of CPUs, as well as between generations of their operating systems, thus alleviating a lot of the transition pains in migrating to higher performance workstations.

But these software issues are hardly new. Just ask Digital Equipment Corp., which had the same problem when it introduced its 64-bit Alpha AXP in 1992. HP’s Nordhues is optimistic. “You have the challenge of bringing all the [software] to 64 bit to run on the new processors. That’s an ecosystem that takes time to develop.”

AMD Weighs in With 64-bit Computing

Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD; Sunnyvale, CA) formally introduced in April 
its 64-bit processor family: the Opteron (codename: "Hammer"). The processors are based on AMD's Athlon XP CPUs. The fastest Athlon, the XP 3000+, operates at 2.16 GHz; the fastest Opteron, the Opteron 244, runs at 1.8 GHz. Tweaks in chip fabrication, as well as memory addressing and I/O bandwidth, make the speed difference moot. There are three types of Opteron processors, depending on your compute configuration (one-processor workstations to 8-processor servers). The processor supports up to 1 terabyte (TB) of physical memory and 256 TB of virtual memory.

AMD is betting that the migration from 32-bitness to 64-bitness will be evolutionary, 
mostly contingent on when 64-bit applications become available. Hence, unlike 
Intel's Itanium, Opteron can run 32- and 64-bit applications simultaneously. This is because Opteron is an extension of the 32-bit x86 architecture. However, Opteron is not a "pure" 64-bit compute architecture; it incorporates a 48-bit virtual address space and a 40-bit physical address space, versus Itanium 's 64-bit virtual addressing and 50-bit physical address space. You can run 32-bit applications workstations in Itanium's 32-bit compatibility mode, but that slows performance. Alternatively, you can maintain a mix of both 32-bit and 64-bit workstations.

To date, two hardware companies have indicated support for Opteron: IBM and 
Fujitsu Siemens Computers. The scuttlebutt is that their support is only for 
Opteron-based servers.