Workstation showdown: Xeon vs. Opteron

Intel's Xeon-based workstations are much faster than workstations based on AMD's Opteron when it comes to heavy multitasking

In business, dual-processor workstations are the trucks of desktop computing. Pickups aren't very glamorous, but when you need to move lots of stuff from one point to another efficiently, glamour isn't the point. You need a truck.

Sure, you can get computers that are snazzier, have faster clock rates, and sport cool accessories, but as fast as they may go, they can only do one thing well at a time. These dual-processor workstations are designed to perform many processes at the same time and to work quickly and efficiently.

For this reason, we were intrigued when IBM offered up its new dual-Opteron IntelliStation A Pro workstation for a test. The hype on the street had been singing the Opteron's praises for some time. According to its proponents, the Opteron was the greatest thing since night baseball; curmudgeons that we are (though we do like night baseball), we weren't so sure.

So we decided to pit the Opteron against its primary rival, Intel's tried and true Xeon. We asked MPC to send over the workstation version of its NetFrame 600. This platform, designed initially as a server, can be ordered in a workstation version with a high-end video card and an attractive beige case.

The NF 600 sports two 3.2GHz Xeons, a gig of memory, and some very fast SATA hard disks. This matched nicely with IBM's SATA drives, although the IBM A Pro had 4GB of memory.

Then, just to push the truck comparison one step further, we purchased a refurbished Hewlett-Packard xw8000 workstation with a pair of 3.06GHz Xeon processors, an ATA drive, and a gig of memory. After all, sometimes your best deal is to pick a used truck at the dealer if you need the capability and want to save a ton of money.

Load 'Em Up

Once we had the workstations in-house, we ran a series of tests simulating a real-world work environment and then testing the machines for their absolute best multitasking performance.

In the first series, we loaded up each machine with the full suite of commercial applications you'd expect to see used in the financial services or the content-production industries. This test included the full install of Microsoft Office 2003, Adobe Photoshop, and Premier Pro 1.5. We also installed Symantec's Norton AntiVirus 2004. We used the workstations to move through a defined set of tasks in manipulating still images and then in producing a movie starting with an original digital video. We timed processing wherever possible (these machines are so fast that Photoshop works with no discernable delay).

In the second test, we loaded CSA Research's OfficeBench test tool. Someone actually using these workstations would never have a completely clean environment, so we ran a test series with everything installed and Norton AntiVirus running. (We also ran OfficeBench on the clean systems.)

Next, we loaded up another CSA Research tool, Clarity Studio. With Clarity Studio, we simulated multiple, concurrent workloads running in parallel -- the kind of complex, data-intensive multitasking that's becoming commonplace in emerging workstation markets (see "How we put the workstations under pressure").

What we found was eye-opening. The Opteron machine outperformed the Xeons when lightly loaded with minimal multitasking, but once the real work started, the Opteron stopped. It was effectively shut down by the same multitasking load that the two Xeons performed with ease. In the clean environment, it still performed at less than half the speed of the older and allegedly less-capable Xeons.

Initially we suspected that part of the reason for the A Pro's surprising performance under heavy loads might have been due to the fact that the unit we reviewed was a late preproduction model. We brought in and tested a new production A Pro from IBM, which did come through with improved performance numbers.

However, to be fair, we updated the BIOS in the NF 600 and installed the latest drivers. It also showed an improvement in speed that almost exactly equaled the IBM's improvement, so there was no difference in the relative performance of these two computers.

IBM A Pro

With its 4GB of memory and Nvidia 1100 graphics card, the IBM A Pro should have been the ultimate workstation in this review. The vast memory resources make it a natural for the classic workstation environment where lots of applications need to run together in real time.

The A Pro has the usual IBM workstation case that opens easily to reveal a well-designed, accessible interior with a selection of PCI-X slots for easy expansion. As has become the norm in high-end desktops and workstations, the A Pro includes USB, IEEE 1394, and sound card connectors on the front panel and on the rear of the box. Video capabilities include support for dual monitors using DVI-I connectors.

Although larger (mostly in depth) than usual for a desktop computer, the A Pro would still fit on most desktops. It also slides nicely alongside a desk, with the optical drives and the I/O ports conveniently at hand. Clearly, a great deal of thought has gone into the ergonomic design of the A Pro.

Initial testing kept our hopes up that the A Pro would fulfill its initial promise. We used Adobe Premier Pro to create a movie from an original digital source, and the encoding process was very fast indeed. Operations using Photoshop showed no discernable delay, regardless of the filter applied or the operations attempted. We also ran Futuremark's PCMark04 benchmark, which is mostly single-tasking, and the A Pro ran slightly faster than either of the Xeon machines.

When we moved on to the multitasking tests using OfficeBench and Clarity Studio, however, the Opteron showed its limitations. By the time we got to the tests that used heavy multitasking, the A Pro was running a lot slower. In its best case, the Opteron ran about two-thirds as fast as the least capable Xeon, the HP xw8000. Though it handles single-task processing very well, if multitasking is in your future, the A Pro is not the right choice.

MPC NetFrame 600

The NF 600 workstation is really MPC's dual-Xeon server with better video and a nice case. It uses an Intel server motherboard and retains all of the reliability features you'd expect in a departmental server. This includes hot-swap power supplies and fans, as well as front-accessible disk drives. It also means, however, that some workstation features (notably the IEEE 1394 port) are missing.

The NF 600's case also reminds you that it was born a server -- the cover slides off to the rear, just like its rack-mount siblings. Inside, the hot-swap, redundant, fan array, foam-mounted for sound isolation, reinforces the NF 600's server platform roots.

The PCI-X expansion slots are protected by clear plastic air baffles, and everything is easily accessible for quick, convenient replacement, even while rack-mounted. The redundancy and reliability features, as well as the heavy-duty construction, make this workstation much larger and heavier than the others in this test. You wouldn't want the NF 600 on your desktop.

However, the server-based MPC showed its mettle in our tests. The NF 600 was nearly as fast as the IBM A Pro even in single tasking, and it blew the IBM away in multi-tasking, despite the IBM A Pro having four times the memory.

In our real-world testing with multiple applications and tasks, the MPC was many times faster than the Opteron-based IBM. Even in our clean multitasking tests, the MPC was 30 percent faster than the IBM. It simply wasn't a contest. As a result, the NF 600 turned out to be the fastest workstation that InfoWorld has tested to date.

HP Workstation xw8000

We kind of threw in a ringer here. To get an idea of what a business could buy that provided both excellent performance and reasonable cost, we called Sabrina Bozant, who sells HP's refurbished workstations, and asked for a 3.06GHz Xeon workstation. She sold us one for $1,395 and added an additional processor for $549.

Installing the second processor was a simple task because these earlier generation Xeons had a smaller 512KB cache. Like the MPC, it has 1GB of memory and an Nvidia video card, if a lower-end one.

By choosing a refurbished high-end workstation, we paid about one third of the cost of the MPC and a quarter of the price of the IBM (a new HP xw8000 would have cost about twice as much as our refurbished model).

The xw8000 is beautifully designed for its intended use as an office workstation. It's small enough that you could use it on the desktop, but it will work just fine alongside a desk. The top-mounted optical drives are easy to reach, and the midmounted power button is also convenient. Unfortunately, USB, FireWire, and sound connectors are inconveniently located at the bottom of the front panel (there's also a full set on the rear).

The case opens easily with a simple latch to reveal a very clean design with minimal cable intrusion. You will need to remove a holder for the video card -- but not the card itself -- to install the second processor and perform other work inside the case, but this is a minor inconvenience.

For the most part, the xw8000 performed like the MPC NF 600, other than being slightly slower, which we expected from the slightly slower processor. Single-tasking tests showed that the xw8000 was slightly slower than the Opteron.

But also like the MPC, the xw8000 was much faster than the Opteron when multitasking demands grew heavier, and the xw8000 breezed through the most demanding tests that brought the IBM to its knees. A current model of the xw8000 with a larger cache would likely do even better, as would HP's just-released Workstation xw8200, which we'll review in the near future.

Xeon 1, Opteron 0

After all our tests, we found that the most demanding jobs ran best on the dual-Xeon processor with its ability to run hyperthreading. The dual-Opteron, although faster in less demanding environments, simply wasn't a match when the going got tough.

That doesn't mean it doesn't have a place in the enterprise, though; an Opteron-based system would be a good choice for tasks such as CAD, which is basically a single-task, high-performance-requiring process.

Xeon's speed is good news for financial services companies such as Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and Credit Suisse First Boston, which have long used workstations to deliver the massive computing power required to drive their trading operations (a single active trader can easily bury a top-of-the-line PC). In an environment where time literally is money, the improvements coming down the pike for the Xeon platform should be welcome news for those firms with heavy investments in Intel-based workstations. It also means that AMD will have to do some serious tuning before Opteron poses a significant threat to Intel in the high-end workstation market.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Value (10.0%)
Manageability (20.0%)
Ease of use (15.0%)
Scalability (25.0%)
Performance (30.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
HP Workstation xw8000 8.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 8.9
IBM IntelliStation A Pro with AMD Opteron Processor 7.0 9.0 9.0 8.0 6.0 7.7
MPC NetFrame 600 (Workstation version) 7.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 8.5
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