Sun workstation takes Intel quad-core to the races

The Sun Ultra 24 packs CPU punch and graphics power into a mean little machine at a lean price

The workstation market isn’t what it used to be. Back in the day, the term “workstation” denoted a very (and I mean very) high-powered desktop system with a very high-powered video card. In most circles, if it had an Intel processor it was a “desktop,” and if it had a Sparc processor it was a “workstation,” and never the twain shall meet. Well, the twain have met, and it’s a happy union.

Since Sun’s announcement that it would begin using Intel chips in its product line, an Intel-powered Sun workstation has been a foregone conclusion. The only questions pertained to which chipset and what options would be available. Those questions have been answered -- at least for now -- with the introduction of the Sun Ultra 24 Workstation. Sun’s workstation line now contains entries from every major CPU food group: Intel, Sparc, and the AMD Opteron. The latter two categories include two systems each: a single-socket and a dual-socket model. The Intel class includes only the single-socket Ultra 24 for now, but it’s highly likely that a dual-socket system will be introduced at a later date.

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Under the hood

I’ve had the pleasure of working with the Ultra 24 for the past week or so, and I’ve found it to be a very capable, high-end workstation, even with the midrange nVidia FX1700 graphics card. The mainboard is based on Intel’s Garlow uniprocessor platform, and can handle dual- and quad-core Core 2 chips and as much as 8GB of UDDR2-667 RAM. Plus, it’s outfitted with two x16 PCIe 2.0 slots, one x4 PCIe 1.1 slot, one x1 PCIe slot, and two 33MHz standard PCI slots. Rather than skimping on the slots to allow space for embedded graphics and dual NICs, Sun has opted to go the other way, offering more expansion. Losing the embedded graphics is a good thing, but the system could definitely benefit from a pair of gigabit NICs.

On the I/O side, the embedded SATA controller can handle as many as four internal hot-swap SATA drives, or the same cage can be used with an optional SAS RAID controller to handle the faster SAS drives. When I tried some hot swaps, I did find the cage a little sticky. A nice feature is the full 5.25-inch drive bay at the top of the case. The Ultra 24’s counterpart on the AMD side is the Ultra 20 M2, which shares the same form factor and sports a single AMD Opteron CPU. The open bay design of both workstations makes it far simpler to replace the optical drive. Higher-end workstations from Sun use enclosed front-loading optical drives that are sleek, but can be problematic to replace. That said, the SATA dual-layer DVD/CD writer included in the Ultra 24 is no slouch.

My evaluation unit came with an Intel Core 2 Extreme Q6850 3.0GHz quad-core CPU, 8GB of RAM, four 250GB SATA drives, and the nVidia FX1700 graphics card -- essentially the top-end CPU and midrange options package for this system. To push it further, the high-end nVidia graphics cards are supported, such as the FX4600 and FX5600.

There are enough external power connections not only to support these cards, but potentially even two cards, though adding two full-length cards isn’t possible due to space restrictions. On the low end, nVidia’s NVS 290 2D card is supported.

Of course, the system shipped with Solaris 10 x86, and I proceeded to try a bevy of supported and unsupported operating systems. I had a few issues with most of them, generally revolving around the NIC drivers. For every OS except for Ubuntu 7.10, you’ll need to pull down specific NIC drivers, even though the adapter is in the e1000 family. Once all of the drivers were installed, Vista Ultimate ran like a champ in full Aero with all the bells and whistles, as did Ubuntu 7.10, Fedora 7, and RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux), though RHEL 4 U5 seemed to take exception to the SATA hardware and initially acted sluggish at times. Kernel updates handled these problems, however.

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On the display side, the nVidia FX1700 proved surprisingly responsive, and when matched with Sun’s stellar 24-inch LCD display, breathtaking with any OS.

The speed zone

I ran several benchmarks on the Ultra 24 and compared them to a similarly configured dual-CPU dual-core Opteron 2218 system. This wasn’t exactly an apples-to-apples test since inherent design differences between uniprocessor and multiprocessor systems can cause variations in results, but at least it was four cores against four cores. The 2218s aren’t the current generation, and they are clocked at 2.6GHz, but still, the performance difference on common workstation tasks was significant. Using sound processing as a focus, I worked with an 838MB uncompressed WAV file, using the LAME MP3 encoding engine to work it into a 320Kbps MP3. The Opteron box took 5 minutes 17 seconds and the Ultra 24 completed the task in 3 minutes 46 seconds, more than a full minute faster. I then compressed the WAV file with bzip2, timing the results. Again, the Ultra 24’s Core 2 Extreme CPU took the lead, churning through the file in 2 minutes 24 seconds, versus the Opteron’s 4 minutes 7 seconds. On the reverse side, it took the Ultra 24 just 1 minute 4 seconds to uncompress the same file; the Opteron again took second place at 2 minutes 58 seconds, almost two minutes slower. It’s a safe bet that even with a single CPU in the Ultra 24, this system holds its own. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any AMD Barcelona-based systems in the lab to compare, but it would definitely be an interesting test to run.

At first blush, I figured the Ultra 24 to be just another small, workstation-class system that would be good for those who need a little extra horsepower from time to time, but aren’t running high-end apps that need a full-blown workstation. After putting it through its paces, I’m thinking that it just might fit both bills. Don’t let the size and single-CPU nature of the Ultra 24 fool you -- there’s a lot of power in that little box.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Serviceability (20.0%)
Performance (35.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Management (15.0%)
Expandability (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Sun Ultra 24 Workstation 9.0 9.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 8.8