An education in speed

Working with the latest and greatest 3-D NT workstations isn't exactly what I'd call work, even if I do get paid for it. What I'd call it is an education--in speed. Using dual 333MHz Pentium II processors, no less than 128MB of RAM, 10,000rpm hard disks, highly integrated motherboards, and toolless accessibility, Intergraph, HP, and Compaq Computer are constructing workstations that other NT workstation vendors--and perhaps even UNIX workstation vendors--should take seriously.

The Compaq Professional Workstation 6000 introduces an integrated parallel processing architecture that neither the HP Kayak XW nor Intergraph TDZ 2000 can match. However, HP and Intergraph have created OpenGL graphics accelerators (video cards with onboard processors) that move 3-D NT animation systems to the forefront of 3-D CAD and CAM technology on any platform.

To better understand these workstations' performance in two areas--graphics capability and overall system performance--I employed two benchmark testing systems for this review. To measure graphics capability, I used the Viewperf benchmark from the OpenGL Performance Characterization (OPC) group. OpenGL is the preferred API for professional 3-D rendering and design calculations (for more information about the OpenGL API, see the sidebar, "The OpenGL API: What Is It, and Why Should You Care?" on page 96).

Out of five viewsets OPC designed to evaluate a system's 3-D performance, I chose three viewsets: the CDRS, Data Explorer (DX), and Light. The CDRS Viewset measures a video card's modeling and rendering capabilities for CAD and accounts for 50 percent of the total Viewperf score. The DX Viewset measures scientific data visualization capabilities. The Light Viewset tests light and shade capabilities. For more information about Viewperf, and to compare the test scores I achieved with these dual Pentium II systems with the results of the scores for other systems, visit the OPC Web site at http://www.specbench.org/gpc/opc.static.

To measure overall system performance, I employed two metrics from the AIM Technology Workstation Benchmark. The AIM WNT 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 AIM WNT Sustained Performance test incrementally increases the number of tasks a system must perform and measures the number of application jobs per minute the system can perform before the induced load unacceptably hinders system performance. Monitor resolution, bit depth, and a system's graphics card can significantly affect the AIM benchmark results, so I installed a 4MB 2-D Matrox Millennium II PCI video card in each Pentium II workstation and set monitor resolution to 800 * 600 * 16-bit resolution before I ran the AIM tests. For more information about AIM and to see the complete AIM benchmark test results for the dual Pentium II workstations I tested and other systems, go to the AIM Web site at http://www.aim.com. (You can read about the Viewperf and AIM testing I recently conducted on NT Alpha workstations in my April 1998 through June 1998 series of Lab Reports.)

TDZ 2000
The Intergraph TDZ 2000 with the VX113-GT graphics card is a champion among 3-D NT workstations. For rendering images with texture, shading, simulated fog, and other effects, this system is among the best for NT users. With two 333MHz Pentium II processors, each with 512KB of Level 2 cache, the Intergraph TDZ 2000 doesn't lack processing power. However, processing power alone doesn't make the TDZ 2000 a wonderful graphics machine. An additional 32MB of silicon placed on two sizable PCI cards (known as the RealiZm II VX113-GT 3-D graphics option) drives the TDZ 2000's impressive graphics capability. A ribbon cable connects the PCI cards, which work together to produce some of the highest Viewperf 3-D rendering benchmark scores on record.

TDZ 2000
Contact: Intergraph 800-763-0242
Web: http://www.intergraph.com
Price: $10,500
System Configuration: Dual 333MHz Pentium II processors, 256MB of SDRAM, 16MB of video memory and 16MB of texture memory, 24X CD-ROM drive, Three 4.5GB 10,000rpm Ultra Wide SCSI hard disks

Today's technology removes OpenGL rendering calculations from a system's CPU and transfers them to a graphics card. Animations or 3-D objects comprise millions of contiguous polygons (frequently triangles) that the rendering process must smooth (a mathematical process known as anti-aliasing), color, shade, and give texture to before they appear on screen. For animation, rendering takes place in each successive frame in a series. Because the plethora of polygons requires a staggering number of mathematical calculations, the VX113-GT graphics card features a hardware geometry accelerator to offload this burden from the CPU. The TDZ 2000 uses 16MB of onboard memory and an additional 16MB of texture memory for rendering calculations. To speed rendering, the Intergraph engineers have created a 3-D graphics pipeline with separate processors dedicated to the rendering and geometry stages of producing realistic 3-D images. Intergraph's VX113 geometry accelerator uses 14 digital signal processors (DSPs) and can perform as many as 1.68 billion floating-point calculations per second. The TDZ 2000 achieved a Viewperf CDRS Viewset score of 115.824 in my testing. Its DX Viewset score was 15.466, and the Light Viewset score was 1.178. When I received the Lab's test workstation, 115.824 was the industry CDRS score to beat.

The TDZ 2000's expandable deep purple case complements the VX113-GT graphics card's 3-D rendering capability. In addition to seven expansion bays, the Intergraph Ultra-tower configuration includes five PCI slots, one ISA slot, and one Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) slot. When you use the optional TowerMate, a base unit the Ultra-tower connects to, you can add four bays and four PCI slots. The TDZ 2000 I tested included integrated 10/100 megabits per second (Mbps) Ethernet, integrated sound with wavetable synthesis, and Desktop Management Interface (DMI) support. You can disable the integrated components if you choose.

Users will appreciate the TDZ 2000's accessibility. The unit's case separates into three pieces--a top and two sides. You can remove the top by pinching a plastic catch that's tucked under the rear of the lid, then sliding the top backward and lifting it straight up. You can remove either side piece by lifting it slightly and sliding it to the rear. After you've taken the case off the unit by loosening a thumbscrew on the system's rear panel and lifting two spring-loaded securing pins, the power supply swings to the side to expose four 64-bit 168-pin DIMMs and the two 333MHz processors.

To get an idea of how efficiently the TDZ 2000 performs the daily tasks of operating a networked computer in an office environment, I tested the unit using AIM's Workstation Benchmark. The TDZ 2000 achieved an AIM WNT Peak Performance score of 865.6 application jobs per minute, and an AIM WNT Sustained Performance score of 218.8 application jobs per minute. The peak performance metric indicates that dual Pentium II processors don't scale 100 percent (a 300MHz Pentium II processor achieved an AIM WNT Sustained Performance score in the low 500s, so the TDZ 2000 would need to score more than 1000 to scale fully). However, the additional processor in the dual Pentium II significantly improves system performance.

Intergraph's InterSite system tools give users fast access to the TDZ 2000's hardware and software system information. Among InterSite's tools and utilities are the Hardware Monitor, which tracks system fans, voltages, temperature, and the number of times a system is accessed internally (even when the power is off), and reports its findings to NT's event viewer. The DMI console, an Error-Correcting Code (ECC) monitoring utility, tracks and records corrected memory errors. In addition to these utilities, the TDZ 2000 has Wake-on-LAN capability, which lets administrators wake up a TDZ 2000 they've powered down for system maintenance or other administrative operations.

Kayak XW
HP's Kayak XW is an NT workstation with the makings of a computing legend. The Kayak XW doesn't sport racing stripes or supercooling freon systems, and there's no kick-starter on the power supply. But don't let its unassuming exterior fool you--the Kayak XW is one fast machine.

With space at a premium in the Kayak's case, users will appreciate that HP designed this system with accessibility in mind. To remove the unit's cover, you lift the two plastic locking levers on either side of the front fascia and pull forward. The unit's shell comes off in one piece to reveal a framework that's packed with components. The unit has sculpted air vents, variable-speed fans, temperature sensors, intrusion sensors, two of the biggest video cards I've ever seen, HP's FastRAID hardware SCSI accelerator (featuring a 16MB cache and combination Wide Ultra- and Narrow Ultra-SCSI controller), and the two 333MHz Pentium II processors, each with 512KB of Level 2 cache.

Kayak XW
Contact: HP 800-752-0900
Web: http://www.hp.com
Price: $11,291
System Configuration: Dual 333MHz Pentium II processors, 128MB of SDRAM
18MB of SGRAM video memory and 16MB of texture memory, 24X CD-ROM drive, Two 4.5GB 10,000rpm Ultra Wide SCSI hard disks

The test unit I received is geared for 3-D rendering on an accelerated level. The Kayak XW system has two video cards. One card installs in Intel's new proprietary AGP, technically known as the Intel 440LX AGP chipset. The AGP bus has 533MB per second (MBps) throughput, or four times the bandwidth of a typical 133MBps PCI bus. The second video card installs in a traditional PCI bus and bolts to the AGP card. Because the Kayak XW is the cream of HP's 3-D rendering NT workstations, it has a daughtercard, complete with 16MB of Synchronous DRAM (SDRAM) memory, to supplement texture-mapping operations. The two graphics cards together weigh 1 pound 12 ounces and are known as the HP Visualize-Fx4 graphics option--the same name and core technology HP uses for its 3-D rendering UNIX machines.

The HP Visualize-Fx4 graphics option supports screen resolutions from 640 * 480 VGA to 1600 * 1200 with 24-bit true color and stereographics imaging for virtual-reality styled 3-D work (you must use a pair of 3-D stereo vision goggles to take advantage of this capability). Two HP-Precision Architecture (PA) RISC-designed geometry accelerator chips, each with two onboard floating-point units that can process 2400 megaflops per second, power the video system. This processing power translates roughly into 3.4 million shaded triangles rendered per second.

I ran the three Viewperf viewsets on the Lab's test Kayak XW and achieved scores that are in line with the Kayak XW's record-breaking CDRS performance. In my testing, the Kayak XW broke both the published CDRS Viewset score for NT systems and the Lab's highest CDRS Viewset score with a value of 121.942. The Kayak XW's DX Viewset score was 14.484, and its Light Viewset score was 1.284.

To examine the Kayak XW's system-level performance, I ran the AIM suite of workstation benchmark tests. The Kayak XW scored 841.3 application jobs per minute on the AIM WNT Peak Performance metric. The Kayak's AIM WNT Sustained Performance value was 231.6 application jobs per minute. Both metrics are respectable scores and representative of dual 333MHz Pentium II systems.

The Lab's test unit included two Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports. For motherboard integration, the Kayak XW has 16-bit Multimedia PC MPC-3 compliant sound, in addition to onboard Adaptec SCSI support (Ultra Wide and Ultra). You can disable either SCSI component to implement other solutions.

The Kayak XW, for all its processing power, has a significant weakness: limited expandability. The Kayak XW has three external expansion bays--one 3.5" and two 5.25". If you add a network card, HP Fast RAID, and the Fx4 graphics system, you're left with one ISA and one shared PCI/ISA slot. Where is the integrated 10/100Mbps Ethernet? I can't imagine this workstation not residing on a network, and considering the limited number of expansion slots, integrated network connectivity seems to be a no-brainer.

Professional Workstation 6000
The engineers at Compaq had a different idea of what a high-end workstation ought to be when they built the Professional Workstation 6000. With a PCI/ISA combination bus backplane that sits horizontally on the top of the machine, the design of the PW6000 is unusual. Compaq made the PW6000 for easy, toolless access. Thumbscrews hold the three-piece cover and power supply in place, and plastic rocking clips hold circuit cards (Compaq recommends that you secure the cards with screws). The horizontal bus backplane simplifies accessing cards, especially because the whole backplane rests on runners and slides easily out of the back of the machine.

Professional Workstation 6000
Contact: Compaq Computer 281-370-0670 or 800-888-0220
Web: http://www.compaq.com
Price: $8899
System Configuration: Dual 333MHz Pentium II processors, 128MB of SDRAM, 15MB of video memory and 16MB of texture memory, 24X CD-ROM drive, Two 4.3GB 10,000rpm SCSI hard disks

In keeping with the PW6000's unconventional interior configuration, the outside of the box isn't standard, either. It reminds me of a 1950s muscle car with a front-end lift--the workstation tilts so far back that it looks as if it's ready to launch. You don't have to worry about it taking off, though, because this machine isn't going anywhere--it weighs a ton. To be precise, the PW6000 weighs 64 pounds. Mentioning the weight of a system in a review is unusual, but a workstation this heavy is unusual.

The PW6000's method of processing is also different. Compaq calls the PW6000's logic process the Compaq Highly Parallel System Architecture, which means Compaq engineers have increased subsystem bandwidth to take advantage of multiple processors. The system hardware includes a dual memory controller, which gives the PW6000 1.07GB per second of memory bandwidth, and dual-peer PCI buses, which provide twice the I/O bandwidth of single PCI bus architectures. In addition, the dual PCI bus design lets graphics and disk subsystems run on separate buses.

I ran the AIM Workstation Benchmark tests on the PW6000 to see how Compaq's vision of multiple processor performance works in the real world. The PW6000 scored 875.8 application jobs per minute on AIM's WNT Peak Performance test and 237.6 application jobs per minute on the AIM WNT Sustained Performance test. These results are a bit faster than the scores I've achieved with other dual-processor Pentium systems. With the addition of an optional PCI RAID array controller, the PW6000 achieved an AIM WNT Peak Performance value of 931.7.

The PW6000 doesn't perform 3-D graphics rendering well, which is a significant problem because Compaq promotes 3-D graphics rendering as the PW6000's core function. The problem isn't that the system's Diamond Fire GL 4000 video card is inferior but that other vendors' graphics solutions have pulled so far ahead of the Diamond Fire GL 4000 during the past year.

To see what kind of 3-D rendering capabilities the PW6000 is capable of with the Diamond Fire GL 4000, I ran the three Viewperf viewsets. On the CDRS Viewset, the PW6000 scored 58.720. On the DX Viewset it scored 7.88, and on the Light Viewset it scored 1.019. These scores would not have been bad a year ago; today they mean that the PW6000 with the Diamond Fire GL 4000 graphics card is not a high-end player anymore. To level the playing field a bit, I installed IBM's Intense 3D Pro 3400 video card (a card that's very similar to Intergraph's VX113 graphics card) in the PW6000--an option not currently offered by Compaq. When I reran the three Viewperf viewsets, the PW6000 achieved scores on par with the other dual 333MHz Pentium II systems I tested for this report.

Compaq equipped the PW6000 with impressive expansion capabilities. The system has 6 expansion slots (2 PCI slots and 4 combination PCI/ISA slots), 10 bays for hard disks and other peripherals, and 4 DIMM slots that can be expanded to 12 slots with an expansion card. With up to 12 DIMM slots available, users can purchase lower-density DIMMs at a much lower cost per megabyte. With Intel's Extended TAG RAM (ETR) giving users up to 3GB of RAM, those DIMM slots will come in handy. Also, this machine will hold up to eight internal hard disks. Wow.

The PW6000 houses integrated 10/100Mbps Ethernet, audio, and an onboard fast Ultra Wide SCSI controller with throughput of up to 40Mbps. You can disable these integrated components to increase system performance or to use other standardized solutions.

The PW6000 is the only Pentium II system I've worked with that includes a convenient front-loading 24X CD-ROM drive. However, you won't find Intel's proprietary AGP on the PW6000. Compaq believes it can establish award-winning performance with its Highly Parallel System Architecture and avoid being bound to proprietary technologies and high licensing fees. That's good for Compaq--and maybe for the rest of us, too.