Ultra, indeed.

A few weeks ago, Alan Zeichick took a look at Sun's new Ultra 20. The Ultra 40 didn't ship in time to meet his deadline, although I received an eval unit last week and decided to follow up. Buying a new server is like buying a car. You hem and haw about power, upgrades, reliability, and so on, then buy one and put it in a rack. After moving the applications or services to it, it sits there and runs, and hopefull

A few weeks ago, Alan Zeichick took a look at Sun's new Ultra 20. The Ultra 40 didn't ship in time to meet his deadline, although I received an eval unit last week and decided to follow up.

Buying a new server is like buying a car. You hem and haw about power, upgrades, reliability, and so on, then buy one and put it in a rack. After moving the applications or services to it, it sits there and runs, and hopefully you need to do very little to it in the future.

A workstation is like buying a house. You hem and haw about similar things, but once the decision is made, it takes significant time to feel at home, not to mention the whole moving process.

For me, the workstation transition takes place every year or so, as I upgrade my main workstation to whatever's current. My previous

workstations include a Compaq w6000 with dual 1.7Ghz XEON CPUs that was unfortunately hamstrung by RAMBUS, an few HP Kayaks and a couple homebuilt systems. My current workstation is a dual-Opteron 248 2.2Ghz with 2GB of RAM and an nVidia GEForce FX 5600XT, with a 3Ware 8000 SATA RAID controller. This box runs Fedora Core 3 for x86_64 and is as stable and reliable as Old Faithful.

So the bar was set fairly high as I unpacked the Ultra 40. The case immediately brings to mind an Apple G5 workstation with the mesh grill up front and only a single 5.25" external drive, although there are audio, USB2, and FireWire ports available right up front. The specs of my eval unit included:

  • Dual dual-core Opteron 280 CPUs

  • Dual-layer 8x DVD-RW/CD-RW drive

  • Single 250GB SATA drive

  • 8GB DDR400 ECC RAM

  • nVidia QUadro FX 3450 GPU

  • 8 USB2 ports

  • 2 FireWire ports

  • 7.1 surround sound AC'97 chipset

  • S/PDIF input AND output

  • 2 gigabit Ethernet ports

  • 1kW power supply

    So it's fair to say that this workstation includes just about every top-end component you could expect.

    The Ultra 40 came pre-loaded with Solaris 10 and all the associated bells and whistles such as Java Studio Creator, Studio Enterprise, Studio 10, NetBeans, and Sun N1 Grid Engine if you wanted to let the box play nice with others. My workstation OS tastes don't really match well with Solaris, so the first order of business was to install a few different OSes. A Fedora Core 4 installation failed within seconds, locking the box up tight, but CentOS 4.2, RedHat WS 3 (U6) And WS 4 (U2) worked fine, as did Windows XP x64.

    After spending a few days with the Ultra 40, I can tell you that it's simply the fastest workstation system I've even laid a hand on. Sun touts their perf records, such as SPECfp2000 world record, Pro/E OCUS XP world record, and more. I find absolutely no reason to doubt them. This is one seriously powerful system. Not only did it excel in raw horsepower for somewhat mundane tasks like compilations and GL tests, but as a LAN party system, it simply blew all other competitors out of the water in several high-intensity games.

    Almost all components are built onto the board in the Ultra 40, from the sound to the NIC, which leaves the PCI-Express slots nearly barren, so there's definitely room for expansion. Up to four SATA drives can be housed within the case, which equals 2TB of raw storage with 500GB drives, and the 16GB RAM limit (which may be 32GB in the very near future) provides plenty of headroom there. Combined with the built-in 7.1 audio and S/PDIF inputs and outputs, and you have an instant heavy-duty A/V workhorse. My only issue here is the lack of an addition 5.25" external drive bay, which limits you to the single internal DVD-RW.

    The major quibble I have with the Ultra 40 is the use of the nVidia SATA RAID chipset. Though I'm no fan of the LSI controllers found in many Sun servers, the nVidia chipset doesn't even have Solaris RAID drivers. In fact, the only OS that does is Windows. Why Sun would put this controller on their flagship workstation when it's not supported on three out of four platforms is beyond me. In fact, I don't quite understand why nVidia has such stellar Linux video driver support but nothing for this product. It just doesn't compute.

    Otherwise, this is the workstation that others will covet, except maybe those with brand-spanking new quad G5s. Unfortunately, I don't have a quad G5 to run against the Ultra 40, but if Apple wants to send one my way, I'd be willing to give it a shot. Until then, I find that I'm quite happy in my new home, and don't plan to move any time soon.

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