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Workstation Envy

Look at the latest crop of workstations. They're fast, inexpensive, quiet, and built for expansion.

Here's the lineup. Advanced Micro Devices (AMD; Sunnyvale, CA; www.amd.com) has both single- and dual-core Opteron processors that run both 32- and 64-bit applications. The 64-bit dual-core Xeon processors from Intel Corporation (Santa Clara, CA; www.intel.com) have been on the market for months now. Now available is the Intel Core 2 Duo (formerly called "Conroe"), a two-processor 64-bit chip. AMD will soon respond with a new line of processors to match or supersede (for the time being) Intel's latest.
All of these chips are stunningly fast, especially for multithreaded applications and multitasking. For instance, according to Hewlett-Packard (HP; Fort Collins, CO; www.hp.com/go/workstations), Intel's multicore Xeon Processor 5100 will provide better performance "relative to today's Intel-based workstations. Single-threaded applications will experience a 20% to 40% performance boost while multithreaded or multitasking applications could see a 50% to 100% increase."

These chips also consume less power per compute cycle. This is money in the user's bank. The less electricity consumed, the smaller the power supplies and the less heat rising from the computer box to then air condition.

The latest 64-bit chips from AMD and Intel complete analysis, simulation, visualization, and similar demanding (i.e., compute-intensive) tasks fast and efficiently—from inside boxes costing as little as $1,000, but realistically more like a few thousand dollars. HP, IBM Corp. (Armonk, NY; www-03.ibm.com/ servers/intellistation/pro/), and Sun Microsystems Inc. (Santa Clara, CA; www.sun.com/desktop/workstation/) are some of the major vendors offering high-performance workstations.

Realize that these vendors and others not mentioned in this article are all building boxes based on the same "x86" AMD and Intel chips. (Some of these vendors also offer boxes based on their proprietary processor chips). Thus Brian Huynh, Sun Microsystems' senior product manager for x64 workstations, is correct in pointing out that competing in the 64-bit workstation market "is a game of inches."

Here are some of the measurements involved.

 

HEWLETT-PACKARD

HP announced this summer two dual-socket workstations based on the Intel Xeon processors. The high-end of the two, the xw8400, unlike the xw6400, can support up to two Xeon 5000 processor (from 3.0 GHz to 3.73 GHz, 2-MB on-chip [L2] cache per processor core) or up to two Xeon 5100 processors (from 1.60 GHz to 3.00 GHz, 4 MB shared L2 cache per processor). The latter setup effectively puts four processors to the computing task before them. RAM in the xw8400 tops out at 32 GB, but the workstation can support the maximum memory supported by the Intel 5000X chipset, which is a whopping 64 GB. Both workstations can come preinstalled with the 32- or 64-bit versions of Microsoft WindowsXP Professional or Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Just as this article was being written, HP announced the xw4400 workstation. Featuring Intel's latest, the Core 2 Duo processor, the base xw4400, for about $1,040, comes with a 1.86 GHz processor, 2-MB L2 cache per core, 512 RAM, and 80 GB SATA. For about $2,600, the xw4400 comes with a faster processor (2.67 GHz), double the L2 cache, quadruple the RAM, and double the hard drive space.

HP uses Nvidea and ATI graphics cards, though the demand is generally for Nvidea. The Nvidea cards include the new G70-series graphics cards—the Quadro FX4500 (512 MB), the Quadro FX3500 (256 MB), and the Quadro FX1500 (256 MB, up to two cards). These graphics cards do well in applications with lots of texture and environment mapping in the images. "Visualize an entire car with specular highlighting," says Jeff Wood, HP's director of product marketing, Personal Workstation Business. "Even see a car against cobblestones."

Overall performance in the HP workstations are aided by the fast disk accesses from 3-GB/sec SATA drives. The high-end HP workstation also feature integrated SAS controllers. Serial ATA (SATA) drives were introduced last year; now there's serial attached SCSI (SAS). SAS and SATA have fast disk accesses. Another benefit is that they do away with the wide ribbon cables of yesteryear (as in about two years ago), which are so difficult to snake around inside the computer chassis. Instead, SAS and SATA cables are very small, very compact. However, SAS and SATA connectors are different. To get around that hassle, HP has invented a connector that snaps into the hard drives so that one type of cable can be used for both types of drives.

This invention is an offshoot of HP's "tool-less chassis." Users can open the side of the computer box by flipping a lever. Hard drivers, mounted transversally, also come out with a simple flip of a lever. Swapping cards, drives, and other peripherals, plus associated cabling, can be done without screwdrivers—and without scraped knuckles. HP whisper-quiet fan technology helps keep noise levels down.

 

IBM

IBM's latest workstation, a new generation of dual-socket IntelliStation Z Pro, is also based on the dual-core Intel Xeon processors. Up to two of these processors up to 3.00 GHz, with 4-MB L2 cache, can go into these workstations. As for RAM, John Nelson, IBM's solutions manager for System X, posits that talking about how much memory in a 64-bit workstation might "sound a little mundane." (The latest Z Pros easily provide 32 GB.) "The 4-GB limit seemed to go by pretty quickly," he says laughing. This is especially true as MCAD/MCAE users push into applications with digital mockups, ever bigger assemblies, and near real-time simulations that don't fit into the 32-bit memory space.

As with other workstation vendors, IBM principally offers Nvidea graphics cards, including the Quadro FX 4500 X2, which is essentially a dual graphics card that fits into one slot. (IBM also offers 3Dlabs Wildcat Realizm 800.) The performance of graphics cards, says Nelson, "has simply been amazing. Everybody gets all caught up about how much faster processors are, but really, graphics has exploded over the last five years."

Up to eight hot-swappable SAS or SATA hard drives fit into the Z Pro workstations for up to 2 TB of storage. The price of these workstations ranges from $1,590 to $6,825.

IBM also offers the IntelliStation A Pro series. These use dual-core AMD Opteron processors ranging from 2.2 GHz to 2.6 GHz (one A Pro model uses the 3.0-GHz single-core Opteron). The L2 cache is only 1 MB per processor core, and maximum RAM is only 16 GB. Hard drives are either SATA or dual-channel 64-bit Ultra320 SCSI. Prices range from $2,350 to about $9,110.

Keep in mind that IBM still provides Unix workstations that run IBM's AIX operating system. The Unix workstation business is not ‘gee whiz' at the moment; it's more a maintenance business," says Par Hettinga-Ayakannu, deep computing engineer for IBM. "A lot of this market has moved on to Intel/AMD [x86]. But there is a considerable installed base that will continue to use Unix workstations."

IBM announced two such AIX workstations—last February, the IntelliStation Power 185 Express workstation; last November, the Power 285 Express. The Power 285 is a one- or two-processor machine using IBM Power5+ processors, which have clock speeds up to 2.1 GHz. The Power 285 comes with 1 GB of RAM (expandable to 32 GB) and 73 GB internal storage (expandable to 1.2 TB). The Power 285 lists for $8,099, which, admits Hettinga-Ayakannu, "is quite expensive compared to an Intel or AMD system." The Power 185 is a smaller machine. Starting at $5,999, this series of workstations uses one- or two-core 64-bit IBM PowerPC 970 processors that run at 2.5 GHz with 1 MB of L2 cache per processor. The standard workstation comes with 512 MB memory (maximum is 8 GB) and 73 GB of internal storage (maximum 0.9 TB).

 

SUN MICROSYSTEMS

For a long time, Sun Microsystems was Sparc-chip only, says Brian Healy, Sun's group marketing manager, "but over the last few years, we've added x64 processors to our line to complement what we're doing with Sparc." First, the Sparc product line. Sun recently announced the Sun Ultra 25 workstation with one UltraSparc IIIi 1.34 GHz processor, starting at $2,900, and the Sun Ultra 45 workstation with two UltraSparc IIIi 1.6 GHz processors, starting at $3,700. "We look at these systems as incremental improvements," continues Healy, for Sun's traditional RISC/Unix/Solaris MCAD/MCAE customers.

The Ultra 45 handles up 16 GB of RAM, accommodates up to four 250-GB SATA drives or four 146-GB SAS drives, supports two types of graphics cards from 3D Labs (both cards support multiple display outputs), comes preinstalled with the Solaris 10 operating system, and includes a grid software license for tying multiple workstations together for distributed computing. The workstation's mini-tower case also has room for three PCI Express and two PCI-X slots, six USB 2.0 ports, and two built-in Gigabit Ethernet ports. As with most workstations today, the Sun Ultra 45 has a ventilation system that minimizes noise and vibration.

Sun's high-end workstation is the Ultra 40, costing from about $2,300 to $7,000. Explains Huynh, "Think of this workstation as two Ultra 20s." The Ultra 40 can come with up to two Opteron single- or dual-core processors. It supports up to 32 GB of memory. It has a slot loading CD/DVD ROM (instead of tray loading). And it has four drive bays for handling up to 2 TB of internal storage. The computer also has room for four PCI Express slots, two legacy PCI slots, and a wealth of ports to handle USB, FireWire, and Ethernet devices. A custom motherboard helps keep internal components cool and overall noise levels down. For its Opteron-based workstations, Sun is "top to bottom" Nvidea graphics cards. These workstations include a grid software license, and can be preloaded with Solaris 10, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, SuSE Linux Enterprise Server, or Microsoft Windows XP Pro.

Such is the game of inches. On your mark. Get set. Contain your envy.