A Tale of Two Workstations

When it rains, it pours. I've been absolutely slammed with work lately, between the Asterisk piece that printed a few weeks ago, going in-depth with Sun's x4500 Thumper storage server and ZFS, a large-scale NAS filer test that is just about to get sewn up, and coding the ASAP tool (nee FindMe) that I'll profile in this space very soon. All that on top of building two brand-new datacenters in two states simultan

When it rains, it pours. I've been absolutely slammed with work lately, between the Asterisk piece that printed a few weeks ago, going in-depth with Sun's x4500 Thumper storage server and ZFS, a large-scale NAS filer test that is just about to get sewn up, and coding the ASAP tool (nee FindMe) that I'll profile in this space very soon. All that on top of building two brand-new datacenters in two states simultaneously. Suffice it to say, there's little time for anything else at the moment.

During all of this, I took receipt of a Sun Ultra 40 M2 workstation loaded with 16GB of RAM, an nVidia Quadro 5500 graphics adapter, and dual dual-core Opteron 2218s. At around the same time, IBM sent me a zPro workstation with two dual-core 3.0Ghz Xeon 5160 CPUs, 8GB of RAM, and an nVidia Quadro 3500. They're both extremely high-powered workstations, but in two different classes.

The Sun Ultra 40 M2 is the next generation of the original Ultra 40, which I took a look at last year. The M2 is the refresh, and offers eight 3.5" hot-swap SAS or SATA drive bays, the new Quadro 5500 graphics adapter, and a few other tweaks. If you've never seen a Quadro 5500, it's a monster -- it's two slot-widths wide and uses all of a PCI-Express x16 slot. Of course, the Ultra 40 is nVidia SLI-ready.

Essentially, the Ultra 40 M2 is the most powerful x86_64 workstation you can buy today. The graphics performance is phenomenal, with quick testing of GLXGears showing around 15k frames per second at 1280x1024. The built-in 7.1 sound as well as S/PDIF input and output is great for DAW applications, and with a current max of 32GB RAM and 6TB storage with 750GB SATA drives, it can scale far beyond most servers, never mind workstations. The built-in RAID is of the nVidia flavor, which is relatively poorly supported on anything but Windows, but I tossed in a 3ware 9650SE PCI-E SATA RAID6 controller, which married quite nicely to the multilane drive backplane, and voila, 110MB/s writes to a RAID5 array of six 250GB SATA drives. I'll be posting something specifically about the 9650SE soon, as well. What a wonderful time to be alive.

Vista is well supported on the Ultra 40 M2, and an install of Vista Ultimate easily cleared every performance hurdle during install. All the semi-neato eye candy in Vista is at your fingertips. Red Hat Workstation 4 runs just fine, as does Fedora Core 5,6, and the nascent 7. Windows XP x64 is also supported.

The pricing starts at around $11,000 for the configuration I have here, but if it's the fists of God you're looking for, you'd better be willing to pay a holy price.

The IBM zPro isn't at the same level as the Ultra 40 M2, but then, it's not in the same price class as the Ultra 40 M2. It doesn't have the same aesthetic appeal of the Ultra 40, and it really looks like a small AS/400, but in a way, that's not a bad thing. It certainly looks powerful. And in reality, it is. The two dual-core Xeons aren't Opteron 2218s, but they're no slouch, and the same goes for the Quadro 3500. Internal storage is provided by up to four SATA or SAS drives with an optional RAID controller. The audio is pedestrian but functional, and the overall package is nicely appointed for the price, around $8k in my tested configuration. Like the Ultra 40, Vista Ultimate has no problem on this system, nor does FC5, 6, 7, and RHWS 4. With twin 21" LCD panels fired up and an installation of FC7, it's ready for anything.

Unless you're trying to find the last digit of pi, either of these workstations will knock your socks off and leave you wondering how you ever used a computer before. As I gaze at my dual 1Ghz PIII workstation from several years ago (which was the bee's knees then), the march of technology snaps into clear focus. The PIII is a doorstop now, not even really fit for server duty. These two workstations, however, have a long way to go before being relegated to inevitable obsolescence.

As I continue to work with these systems, I'll continue to post tidbits about them. If you're wondering, the forcedeth issue I noted awhile ago was from an install on the Ultra 40. Such is life.

From CIO: 8 Free Online Courses to Grow Your Tech Skills
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies