The Lab shifts into overdrive to look at three NT Alpha workstations

Last month I began a new series of reviews highlighting several NT Alpha-based workstations. The combination of a 64-bit 533MHz 21164PC Alpha processor and an Alpha PC 164SX motherboard produces a workstation with the kind of speed and performance that was only a dream a few years ago. When a 64-bit architecture becomes the industry standard, supplanting the 32-bit architecture that reigns today, it will bring about the same seismic shift in technology that Pentium processors produced when they entered the market.

To give you a context for understanding overall NT Alpha system performance, I've coordinated my testing for this series with AIM Technology, which has been providing benchmark services for the NT environment since 1996. AIM's mission is to provide third-party performance and price-performance information to industry and government.

I selected two of AIM's Workstation Benchmark metrics, WNT Peak Performance and WNT Sustained Performance, to test each Alpha system in this series. The peak performance test increases CPU, RAM, and disk caching to determine the maximum number of application jobs a system can process in 1 minute. The sustained performance test pushes a system by incrementally increasing tasks it must perform and measuring the number of application jobs per minute the system performs at the brink of failure. (For more information about AIM and to see complete AIM benchmark test results for the Alpha systems I test, as well as for other Alpha systems, check out the AIM Web site at http://www.aim.com.)

Because monitor resolution, bit depth, and a system's graphics card can significantly affect the AIM benchmark results, I test each Alpha system at 800 * 600 * 16-bit resolution with a Matrox Millennium II 4MB 2-D video card. (Two-dimensional graphics cards give better AIM results than 3-D cards give.) To test the higher-end 3-D graphics cards, I run three viewsets from the Viewperf benchmark tests on systems that support OpenGL 3-D graphics. The OpenGL Performance Characterization (OPC) project endorses the five viewsets that constitute the Viewperf performance benchmark. To get a better understanding of the Viewperf tests and to see the results I achieved with the LX Series UltraWide and the PowerStation LXS4 in context with the Viewperf scores for other Alpha systems, visit the OPC Web Site (http://www.specbench.org).

Every month in this series, you can quickly find the test results for the systems I review by referring to each product's "Benchmarks" box. This box lists results of the two AIM Workstation Benchmark parameters--WNT Peak Performance and WNT Sustained Performance--and the three Viewperf viewsets results.

Last month I looked at two workstations: Aspen Systems' Montrose, an entry-level NT Alpha system, and MaxVision's Symbion AXP164SX, an NT Alpha system with high-end 3-D capabilities. This month I look at three systems that vary in price and performance.

Targeting the price-conscious, performance-minded user, Microway's Scream'n Demon Personal Alpha-SX Special workstation is an entry-level system. DCG Computers' LX Series UltraWide System workstation incorporates the Samsung and Digital Semiconductor Alpha motherboard design and 2MB of Level 3 cache to push the performance envelope. Finally, taking a big step up in performance and price is the Computer PowerStation LXS4 from Tri-Star Computer, which facilitates 3-D graphics rendering and CAD applications.

Scream'n Demon Personal Alpha-SX Special
The engineers at Microway have done what seemed impossible not long ago: They've brought an Alpha-based workstation to market at a price you'd expect to pay for a typical Intel-based consumer machine. The Scream'n Demon workstation is built around the Digital Semiconductor- designed 533MHz 21164-PC processor and Alpha PC 164SX motherboard and brings 64-bit RISC processing power to the NT platform for less than $2000.

Software compatibility is the biggest hurdle facing NT Alpha-based workstations. Because it's based on 64-bit architecture, an Alpha system can run only software designed for the NT Alpha processor or Intel-native software that the freely distributed interpretive program FX!32 recompiles. However, not all Intel-native NT software successfully ports to the NT Alpha platform with FX!32. Therefore, many NT Alpha vendors aim their systems toward high-end 3-D graphics rendering, to take advantage of the high-speed Alpha processor. This strategy is not the case with the Microway system, however: Microway designed the Scream'n Demon as a general workstation. The system's standard graphics card, the Matrox Millenium II, is not an OpenGL 3-D card. The Scream'n Demon workstation I tested scored 302.9 application jobs per minute in WNT Peak Performance and 157.3 application jobs per minute in WNT Sustained Performance on the AIM benchmark tests.

The Scream'n Demon's features include 1MB of off-chip Level 2 cache; four PCI slots (two 32-bit and two 64-bit); two ISA slots; and room for four 128-bit, 168-pin unbuffered Synchronous DRAM (SDRAM) Dual Inline Memory Modules (DIMMs). The Lab's test system came with 64MB of SDRAM, a 24X IDE CD-ROM drive, a black midtower case, a matching black keyboard, a 4GB Seagate IDE hard disk, 3.5" disk drive, and a three-button Logitech mouse. The Matrox Millennium II video card is a great choice for this configuration.

One thing I don't like about this system is its lack of SCSI-device support. The majority of the Alpha systems I have tested have SCSI hard disks, which might account for the Scream'n Demon's relatively lackluster AIM benchmark values. This system doesn't include a network interface card, which should be part of the system configuration for a machine with the Scream'n Demon's feature set. But finding serious fault with this workstation is difficult: After all, the Scream'n Demon's price tag is roughly half that of most other Alpha systems.

The Scream'n Demon is not a 3-D graphics workstation, but its 533MHz processor is probably overkill for typical office tasks requiring word processing, spreadsheets, and email. However, graphic artists, publishers, designers, and developers who are not doing intensive 3-D graphics work will find that the Scream'n Demon more than meets their needs.

Scream'n Demon Personal Alpha-SX Special
Contact: Microway * 508-746-7341
Web: http://www.microway.com
Price: $1995
System Configuration: 533MHz Alpha 21164PC processor, 64MB of SDRAM, 4MB of video memory, 24X IDE CD-ROM drive, 4.1GB IDE hard disk
BENCHMARKS
AIM WNT Peak Performance: 302.9 application jobs per minute
AIM WNT Sustained Performance: 157.3 application jobs per minute

LX Series UltraWide System
When I first glanced at it, the LX Series UltraWide System from DCG Computers looked a lot like the other NT Alpha systems I've been testing. It comes encased in a very accessible Axxion shell, like a number of other NT Alpha workstations; it has the same 533MHz 21164PC microprocessor as the other systems I've tested; and it has the usual ports, outlets, and connectors you'd expect to find on any workstation. But this system is different from the others: It's based on a new Samsung and Digital Semiconductor designed motherboard, the LX Series. What sets the LX motherboard apart from its predecessor, the SX motherboard, is cache. Cache is a repository next to the processor that organizes and stores data from the system memory.

Samsung and Digital Semiconductor designed both the SX and the LX motherboards for the 21164PC processor, and both motherboards are essentially the same. For instance, each has four PCI slots, (two 64-bit and two 32-bit), two dedicated ISA slots with a 1MB flash ROM, two 128-bit memory banks for 168-pin unbuffered SDRAM DIMMS, and both use a Digital Semiconductor 21174 core logic chip to interface between the PCI bus and the system memory. Because the 21164PC processor has no significant on-chip cache, cache for this processor is on the motherboard. For the SX series motherboard, the cache is 1MB of Level 2 cache. But for the LX series motherboard, the cache is 96KB of Level 2 cache and 2MB of Level 3 cache.

When I ran AIM's load/mix modeling benchmark tests on the LX Series UltraWide, I saw the effect this system's Level 3 cache has on overall system performance. The LX Series UltraWide tested about 20 percent faster at peak performance than did the three SX-motherboard systems I have tested so far. The LX Series UltraWide scored 409.2 application jobs per minute on AIM's WNT Peak Performance benchmark--the highest WNT Peak Performance score for any Alpha I have tested so far. The LX Series UltraWide scored 178 application jobs per minute on the WNT Sustained Performance benchmark. This value is better than most of the sustained performance values I achieved with the SX-motherboard Alphas I've tested.

The test LX Series UltraWide workstation I received from DCG Computers included an ITI-3140 Ultra Wide SCSI PCI controller, a 10,000rpm Seagate Cheetah 4GB Ultra Wide SCSI-3 hard disk, a 24X Toshiba CD-ROM drive, a 10/100Mbps PCI network card, and 128MB of RAM. Also included in the system configuration was a Diamond Fire GL Pro 1000 video card with 8MB of VRAM. This video card makes the LX Series UltraWide capable of handling OpenGL 3-D graphics, which is necessary for performing complex 3-D renderings for animation and for running CAD programs such as Pro/ENGINEER and AutoCAD.

To test the performance of the LX Series UltraWide's 3-D rendering capabilities, I ran three Viewperf benchmark viewsets on the LX Series UltraWide: CDRS, which measures the modeling and rendering abilities used for CAD applications; Data Explorer (DX), which measures scientific data visualization capabilities; and Lightscape, which tests radiosity visualization, or a system's ability to realistically reproduce light waves. I averaged three CDRS runs on the LX Series UltraWide to come up with a CDRS Viewset score of 23.541. The three-run average DX Viewset score is 6.604, and the average Lightscape Viewset score is 1.0.

The LX Series UltraWide workstation is a reasonably priced, entry-level 3-D graphics system that is capable of performing any rendering, ray-tracing, or complex texture-mapping routine you ask of it. I call the system entry-level because there are systems available that are better at 3-D graphics generation and animation than the LX Series UltraWide workstation. Although you can design a new race car on the LX Series UltraWide, you wouldn't render the next Jurassic Park using this system.

LX Series UltraWide System
Contact: DCG Computers * 603-421-1800
Web: http://www.dcginc.com
Price: $3395
System Configuration: 533 MHz Alpha 21164PC processor, 128MB of SDRAM, 8MB of video memory, 4.3GB Ultra Wide SCSI 10,000rpm hard disk, 24X IDE CD-ROM drive, 10/100Mbps PCI Ethernet
BENCHMARKS
AIM WNT Peak Performance: 409.2 application jobs per minute
AIM WNT Sustained Performance: 178.0 application jobs per minute
Viewperf CDRS Viewset: 23.541
Viewperf Data Explorer Viewset: 6.604
Viewperf Lightscape Viewset: 1.0

PowerStation LXS4
Developers working with 3-D renderings and intricate CAD or computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) designs might want to take a look at the PowerStation LXS4 system from Tri-Star Computer. Encased in a Chenbro full-tower shell, this 533MHz 64-bit Alpha system is tuned for engineering graphics performance.

The PowerStation LXS4 uses a Samsung and Digital Semiconductor LX series Alpha motherboard and features 2MB of Level 3 cache. On the LX series motherboard, you'll find two dedicated ISA slots with 1MB of flash ROM, four PCI slots (two 32-bit and two 64-bit), and memory banks capable of holding from 32MB to 1GB of 128-bit memory in 168-pin unbuffered SDRAM DIMMs. This LX series motherboard uses a Digital Semiconductor 21174 core logic chip to interface system memory and the PCI bus, and an Intel 82378ZB PCI-to-ISA bridge chip.

The PowerStation LXS4 system that the Lab tested came with 256MB of SDRAM, a Seagate Cheetah 4.55GB SCSI hard disk, a 32MB Accel Graphics Eclipse 2 video card, a 32X Plextor SCSI CD-ROM drive, an Adaptec 2940UW PCI SCSI controller, a 10/100Mbps network interface card, and an Iomega internal SCSI 1GB Jaz drive with one disk. The PowerStation LXS4 the Lab tested has a 21" ViewSonic display with 0.25 DOT with a resolution of 1600 * 1200 at 76MHz, to give users an optimal view of the graphics this system can produce.

This processor and graphics-rendering power combine to give some impressive test results in 3-D modeling. I ran the CDRS, DX, and Lightscape viewsets in the Viewperf OpenGL benchmark on the PowerStation LXS4, and the values this system achieved are representative of a high-performance 3-D workstation. As I did for the DCG LX Series UltraWide workstation, I took an average score of three test runs of each viewset for the PowerStation LXS4. The PowerStation LXS4 achieved a CDRS value of 29.060, a DX score of 6.712, and a Lightscape score of 0.864.

Of paramount importance in determining a system's 3-D OpenGL performance is the graphics card, and I wasn't surprised to find that the PowerStation LXS4's Accel Graphics Eclipse 2 video card is nothing short of nuclear. The 32MB Eclipse 2 has an onboard fan for the processor, a sizable daughter card, and an exchangeable memory module.

There's even a software side to the Eclipse 2. The PowerStation LXS4's display Control Panel applet has a tab for the AccelPanel. Selecting this tab presents you with a screen that offers two choices.

In the first choice, you can adjust system display settings, such as frame rate and frame buffer. The second choice lets you select from a list of engineering applications, including Pro/ENGINEER, SolidWorks, SolidDesigner, MicroStation, and AutoCAD. Selecting one of these engineering applications typically reconfigures the system display parameters to optimize performance for that application. You must reboot the system after you choose an application.

Engineering and structural design is what the PowerStation LSX4 is all about. You wouldn't normally use this system for 2-D graphic arts work or desktop publishing. As a general rule, you should use systems with OpenGL 3-D graphics cards for 3-D work; otherwise, the added technology layer of the video card's built-in processor will work against you when you perform 2-D graphics tasks that are common to most desktop users.

In the AIM benchmark tests, which target system performance from a 2-D perspective, it is not uncommon for a 2-D video card to outperform its 3-D cousin by a ratio of 2 to 1. After I installed a 2-D Matrox Millennium II video card in the PowerStation LXS4, the system achieved a WNT Peak Performance value of 388.8 application jobs per minute. The WNT Sustained Performance value for the PowerStation LXS4 was 172.0 application jobs per minute.

My overall impression of the PowerStation LXS4 is positive. Its Viewperf results are the best yet for a 3-D Alpha system I've tested in the Lab, and its AIM metrics are on par with other LX-motherboard Alphas I've tested. As long as there are Alpha machines as stable as the PowerStation, there will be a high-powered alternative to Intel dominance.

PowerStation LXS4
Contact: Tri-Star Computer * 602-707-6450 or 800-844-1929
Web: http://www.tristar.com
Price: $7099 (without monitor)
System Configuration: 533MHz Alpha 21164PC processor, 256MB of SDRAM, AccelEclipse 2 with 32MB of RAM, 4.55GB Ultra Wide SCSI-3 10,033rpm hard disk, 32X SCSI CD-ROM drive, 1GB Iomega Jaz drive, 10/100Mbps PCI Ethernet
BENCHMARKS
AIM WNT Peak Performance: 388.8 application jobs per minute
AIM WNT Sustained Performance: 172.0 jobs per minute
Viewperf CDRS Viewset: 29.060
Viewperf Data Explorer Viewset: 6.712
Viewperf Lightscape Viewset: 0.864