A powerful solution for CPU-intensive applications

For users who want more processing power than Intel's newest Pentium III CPU can deliver, Compaq Computer introduced its Professional Workstation XP1000, based on a 500MHz Alpha 21264 processor, Windows NT 4.0, and Compaq's FX!32 x86 emulation and Alpha translation software. Compaq targets the XP1000 at users of high-end applications in the mechanical CAD, computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), computer-aided engineering (CAE), high-performance technical computing, geographic information systems (GIS), electronic design automation (EDA), and digital-content creation (DCC) markets. The company has been working with major independent software vendors (ISVs) in these markets to provide XP1000 support for a variety of applications. When I searched Compaq's Alpha application database (http://www.partner.digital.com/www-catalog/alphapowered), I found a good collection of native applications in most of these markets. Compaq's database lists more than 3300 packages that offer support for a wide field of disciplines, such as accounting, e-commerce, and manufacturing, just to name a few. However, support for important products, such as AutoCAD 2000 and Adobe's product line, were noticeably absent from Compaq's database.

I reviewed Compaq's midrange XP1000 that comes with 512MB of 83MHz Error-Correcting Code (ECC) Synchronous DRAM (SDRAM), three 9.1GB Seagate Cheetah 2 10,000rpm Ultra 2 SCSI hard disks, a 32X CD-ROM drive, and Compaq's PowerStorm 300 graphics controller, which features an Evans & Sutherland REALimage 2100 chipset, a 15MB frame buffer, and 16MB of texture memory. Compaq's estimated street price for this configuration is $12,234. The least expensive version of the XP1000 costs $7119 and comes with a 4MB L2 cache running at 166MHz, 128MB of ECC SDRAM, a 4.3GB WideUltra 2 SCSI hard disk, and an ELSA GLoria Synergy PCI graphics controller based on 3Dlabs' Permedia-2 technology. You can add a 17" monitor to either configuration for $329. I added a 19" monitor, which costs $497.

The XP1000's Compaq 21272 core logic chipset provides two independent 64-bit PCI buses and support for as much as 2GB of ECC SDRAM. The motherboard features two 64-bit PCI slots, two 32-bit PCI slots, and a shared 32-bit PCI/ISA slot. Compaq mounted the PowerStorm 300 graphics card in a PCI slot and integrated 100Mbps Ethernet, SCSI, and sound capability into the motherboard, so you have plenty of room for additional add-in cards. In addition, Compaq mounted the CPU, core logic chipset, L2 cache, and RAM on a daughtercard that snaps into the motherboard, so upgrading the processor is easy. At press time, Compaq introduced a 667MHz Alpha processor module, which raises the XP1000's price by $2379.

A key consideration with any Alpha-based workstation is the availability of native applications. To minimize this concern, the XP1000 includes FX!32, a program that lets most 32-bit x86 software run on the NT/Alpha platform. The first time you load an x86 application, it runs in FX!32's x86 emulation mode. While the application runs, FX!32 profiles the application's behavior and an optimizer creates native Alpha code that mirrors the x86 application's behavior. On subsequent runs of the application, FX!32 runs the Alpha code. One problem with this approach is that FX!32 profiles and translates the x86 code only on the initial run of the application. This setup means that FX!32 performs new operations in subsequent runs in emulation mode and translates the new operations to Alpha instructions. Compaq maintains a list of tested x86 applications at http://www.digital.com/amt/ fx32/fx-testapps.html. However, Compaq supports FX!32 only with the US version of NT 4.0. Also, I noticed that the FX!32 README file lists several installation and operational glitches with certain x86 applications, so check the list of tested applications to ensure that your x86 applications will install and run properly on the XP1000.

When I attempted to install an x86 version of Adobe PhotoShop 4.0, which isn't available in a native Alpha version, the installation repeatedly failed. Compaq attributes the problem to a bug in the Alpha version of NT 4.0 Service Pack 4 (SP4), and the company claims that Microsoft rectified the problem in Windows 2000 (Win2K) for Alpha. Fortunately, I installed PhotoShop 5.0 with no problems. When I first applied Gaussian blur and Unsharp Mask filters to a 9.8MB tif file, performance in FX!32's emulation mode was extremely slow. Execution took 7 minutes 33 seconds and 6 minutes 43 seconds, respectively. After FX!32 translated the x86 operations to native Alpha code, the filters took 7.4 seconds and 6.3 seconds, respectively, to run. When I performed the same steps on a 500MHz Pentium III-equipped Silicon Graphics (SGI) 320, the execution times were virtually the same.

To measure the XP1000's performance with a processor-intensive native Alpha application, I installed a native version of NewTek's LightWave 5.5 on the XP1000 and the SGI 320 testbeds and anti-aliased individual frames from three LightWave animations. The XP1000's power advantage was evident in all three tests. The XP1000 took only 16 seconds to anti-alias one test frame, whereas the SGI 320 needed 43 seconds to complete the same test. On another test frame, the XP1000 bested the SGI 320 55 seconds to 128 seconds.

Next, I tested the XP1000 on AIM Technology's Workstation benchmark for Windows NT, a test that simulates the workload of mainstream 2-D business applications. When running a native-Alpha version of the test in True-Color mode, the XP1000's peak performance score of 571.3 was approximately 14 percent faster than the SGI 320's score. Compaq optimized the PowerStorm 300 graphics subsystem included in the XP1000 configuration that I tested for 3-D rather than 2-D applications. I believe performance in the PhotoShop and AIM workstation tests would have been better if Compaq had configured the XP1000 with the GLoria Synergy card, which Compaq includes in the less-expensive XP1000 version and is better suited for 2-D applications.

I expected a lot from the XP1000 in my 3-D OpenGL tests, but my results using a native-Alpha version of Viewperf 6.1 were disappointing. The XP1000's scores on most of Viewperf's viewsets were much lower than the scores of the SGI 320 and somewhat lower than the scores of a Gateway E5250 Intel-based workstation. The graphics subsystems in these two competitors handle most 3-D geometry and lighting calculations internally, whereas the XP1000's REALimage 2100-based graphics subsystem offloads these calculations to the CPU, which can't perform the calculations as efficiently. Unfortunately, Compaq offers high-end graphics hardware only on its Intel-based workstations. In addition, the XP1000's graphics subsystem uses a 32-bit 33MHz PCI bus connection to move graphics data, and most Intel-based workstations employ higher bandwidth connections for their graphics subsystems.

Compaq ships the XP1000 with an installation and setup guide and a system reference and maintenance CD-ROM. These resources are detailed and well organized. Compaq also provides FX!32 documentation as online Help and in a README file. The online Help was organized and detailed, but I expected a printed FX!32 manual, considering this system's price.

Compaq backs the XP1000 with a 3-year warranty on parts and labor. During the first year, Compaq provides service onsite and handles problems in years two and three on a carry-in or mail-in basis. For an additional $199, you can extend the onsite service to years two and three with next-day response. For $699, Compaq provides 24 * 7 support with a 4-hour response time. Compaq provides 24 * 7 toll-free telephone support. However, when I called on a Sunday afternoon with an FX!32 problem, the support staff informed me that hardware support is free, but Compaq charges for software support. The company offers a variety of software support plans.

The XP1000's graphics subsystem is weak for users who need strong OpenGL graphics performance, and compared with competing NT-based workstations, its price is high. For buyers who require a broad range of applications and absolute compatibility, the XP1000 isn't the best solution. However, if you spend most of your time working with large, CPU-intensive applications that are available in native-Alpha versions, you can't beat the XP1000, especially if you opt for the 667MHz Alpha processor.

Compaq Professional Workstation XP1000
Contact: Compaq Computer * 800-345-1518
Web: http://www.compaq.com
Price: $12,731 (includes 19" display)
System Configuration: 500MHz Alpha 21264 processor, Windows NT 4.0, 512MB of Error-Correcting Code Synchronous DRAM, Three 9.1GB Seagate Cheetah 2 Ultra 2 SCSI hard disks, Compaq PowerStorm 300 graphics subsystem, Creative Technology Sound Blaster Pro-compatible audio, 32X CD-ROM drive, Integrated 10/100Mbps Ethernet adapter, WideUltra SCSI controller