Mittwoch, 29. Juni 2011

A Take on the Workstation Market one Year After

There is a saying that one year in IT industries is equal to 8 years in traditional industries. One year ago I wrote an article about the workstation market, if I compare this article to the situation today, quite everything has changed in this pretty short period of time. So now it's time for an update.

Last year I refused to call computers with x86 processor a workstation. 64 bitness for x86 processors was quite a new thing, the operating systems which were supporting this feature were not ready for production, the software packages from ISVs were not supporting 64 bit on these processors. This changed completely.

Today the definition of workstations might be as following: It's a mini-computer for a single user, with a processor, which can also be used for servers, with several gigabytes of memory, big storage, OpenGL-capable graphics system and UNIX or UNIX-like OS. I do not include Windows OS in this definition, because although there is a Windows XP Professional x64 Edition which supports x86 processors with 64 bit extension, there aren't lot of compatible drivers and the usage model of the OS is very different from all the other workstation OSes. This may change with the release of Windows Vista, because there will be a 64-bit version from the beginning with lot of drivers included and through the inclusion of Windows Services for UNIX (called SUA), which should make Windows OS a bit more UNIX like, so the user of traditional unices should become familiar with this OS.

So let see what platforms are still available today:

1. PowerPC 970 and POWER5+ with AIX5L and Linux from IBM

IBM defines its workstations as small server, which can also be used as a workstation. The main area of these workstations is Mechanical Computer Aided Design (MCAD) and Electronic Design Automation (EDA) software. One of the most used software packages is CATIA, which is an engineering software package for mechanical engineers. IBM advertises explicitly the ability of running Linux and AIX5L on these workstations. There are several Linux distributions which support POWER processor and IBM is actively supporting porting of software for this platform. However there isn't lot of commercial software packages yet, which means that this kind of workstation might be used as development machine for the successful embedded PowerPC applications. IBM also does not recommend to use Linux on these workstations for 3D graphics, which underlines its status as development machine

Currently there are two workstation models available:

- IntelliStation POWER 185 Express
This workstation is equipped with 1-2 PowerPC 970 processors, the same processors as G5 for Apple's PowerMac. Each processor can have 2 cores, which are clocked with 2.5 GHz. The maximum memory expansion is 8 GB. Each processor has 1 MB second level cache memory, but no 3rd level cache memory. The graphics subsystem is proprietary IBM, it has 4 PCI-X and one PCI slot. This workstation is the cheapest workstation ever produced by IBM.

- IntelliStation POWER 285 Express
The processor in this workstation is POWER5+, which is the most recent processor also used in p- and iSeries of IBM servers. It can be chosen between 1 or 2 processors, each of them has 2 cores, which are clocked 1.9 or 2.1 GHz. Each processor has 1.9MB L2 and 36 MB of 3rd level cache. The total amount of memory can be up to 32 GB. It has 6 PCI-X slots and a proprietary graphics system.

It is not very certain, if there are plans for a successor of the PowerPC970. While the main customer of these processors Apple has abolished it, IBM is using PowerPC970 in its blades and in the IntelliStation. There are other customers who have plans to build computer systems based on this processor (most famous one is Genesi, who are building PowerPC based computers with Linux), but whether the demand is big enough for funding development of the next generation is more than uncertain. On the other side the success of PowerPC as embedded processor also creates a need for development platform. Wild speculations are rising around the Cell processor, which usage is discussed for multimedia workstations. Workstations which have 1-2 POWER processors remain in IBM products portfolio as long as AIX is alive.

2. Alpha with True64 UNIX/OpenVMS from HP

This platform is still offered for customers as a development solution for their servers with Alpha processors. The last orders for these servers at HP is October 27th, then this platform is officially dead (support offerings will continue for some years of course). No new workstation models are offered since the last article.

3. PA-RISC with HP-UX from HP

There is only one workstation available with this combination of processor and OS: the c8000, which also hasn't changed since last year. PA-RISC systems are still sold, although Itanium processor was meant as a replacement for them. But since Itanium is quite unpopular, HP's PA-RISC systems still remain in their product line. HP is one of the heaviest Linux promoters and certifies and offers x86 systems with latest Linux distributions pre-installed.

4. MIPS with Irix from SGI

SGI's MIPS workstation have not been updated since last year, and this is quite certain that no follow-up models will appear. The software, which has been running on these workstations can be used on SGI PRIZM series without further modification or recompilation.

5. Itanium with Linux from SGI

One of the main surprises this year is the appearance of a family of workstations called PRIZM from SGI, which are powered by combination of Itanium and Linux and are meant as a solution for virtualization of large data sets like in medical research, industries with demand for virtual reality, climate research and so on. PRIZM can be used as a workstation, but also can be connected into a cluster with single, system-wide shared memory, so several processors and graphic pipelines can be combined for virtualizing even larger data-sets. The workstation consists of 1-2 Itanium 2 processors, 1-2 graphic pipes (ATI FireGL cards), the main memory is expandable to 24 GB and it includes 6 PCI/PCI-X slots.

This is one of the technically most interesting solutions currently available. Itanium 2 processors are very fast on optimized software and their EPIC design fits exactly for the tasks, the PRIZM is used for, that means for high speed computation of large data-sets. The possibility of combination of several PRIZMs into one cluster with unified memory, where processor and graphic resources are simply recombined for larger tasks is something which makes it very unique in the world of IT. Unfortunately SGI is currently in financial troubles, so it is hard to say, if PRIZM will be further available in recent future.

6. SPARC with Solaris 10 from Sun

For the last few years the direction Sun is taking was pretty hard to explain. Sun tried out several options of changing its business and expand it in other areas. Currently the business model became more clear, but surprises still have to be expected. However Solaris workstations still remain in the product line, beside x86 based computers they are the most widespread "traditional" workstations. Their main usage is for CAD, CAE, CAM, EDA, JAVA development. The current line-up consists of three models:

- Sun Ultra 25
This workstation includes one UltraSPARC IIIi processor with 1.34 GHz and 1 MB of 2nd level cache. Maximum memory is 8 GB. This workstation offers 3 PCI-Express and two PCI-X slots, one of the PCI-Express slots is occupied by a XVR-2500 3-D graphics accelerator. The operating system is Solaris 10.

-Sun Ultra 45
Ultra 45 includes 1-2 UltraSPARC IIIi processors with 1.6 GHz. Maximum memory is 16 GB, other data equal with Ultra 25.

- Sun Ultra 3 Mobile
This is the only mobile workstation beside the top line of x86 laptops, which are very hard to find with Linux pre-installed or even supported. Mobile is a bit misleading, it can be transported, but it's not meant for work in the train on one's lap. It consists of 550-650 MHz UltraSPARC IIi or 1.2 GHz UltraSPACR IIIi processor, can have up to 2 GB memory and 80 GB of IDE internal disk storage. It has wireless LAN and 15-17-inch display. The main usage of this workstation is presenting something to the customer in a predefined environment or developing some server applications without having a server around. Although the performance of this workstation is very comparable with a desk-side workstation, it lacks a proper 3-D graphics accelerator, which makes all CA* packages unusable on it.

I think SPARC based workstation still have long life, as long, as Sun is producing SPARC-based servers, which is still bread-and-butter business for them. Interesting question arises which SPARC processor will they use for the next workstation. Niagara is certainly not optimized for desktop usage, it is quite hard to keep all the 8 cores busy with desktop applications. The floating point unit is also too weak for computation-intensive tasks. This might change with Niagara II, but still it is very unlikely that Sun will produce Niagara workstations. On the other side the processors Sun will develop with Fujitsu are very expensive server processors, which will rise the prize for the workstations equipped with them. I still speculate for SPARC IV+ based workstation in the next future.

7. Opteron with Solaris 10 from Sun
One attempt of expanding into other business areas for Sun was the introduction of Opteron based workstation which support Windows, Linux and Solaris 10. x86 based Solaris version has been always a kind of training OS where the system administrators could get some skills for working with real fat iron, which was SPARC based. This changed completely with introduction of Solaris10. Now several servers and workstations with Opteron processor are offered by Sun and they cover more and more areas which were exclusively reserved for SPARCs. Here is a workstation overview:

- Sun Ultra 20
One dual core Opteron processor with up to 2.4GHz, single core versions up to 2.8 GHz and 1 MB of 2nd level cache. 4 GB of RAM is maximum memory, 3 PCI-Express and 4 PCI slots. There is a wide variety of graphic controllers to be chosen from, beginning from ATI Rage XL PCI Controller with 8 MB of memory, ending with NVIDIA Quadro FX 3450 PCI Express with 128 MB of graphics RAM and support for two displays. The pre-installed OS is Solaris 10, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server and Microsoft Windows are officially supported by Sun.

- Sun Ultra 40

Two dual or single core Opterons, up to 32 GB of RAM, 2 PCI Express x16 slots, 2 PCI Express x4 slots and 2 legacy PCI slots. This allows to use the NVIDIA SLI technology where 2 graphic cards nearly double the graphical performance of the system.

With the opening of Solaris source code, it was required that Solaris can run on common hardware, so interested developers could download and install it easily on their hardware without the need of buying an expensive SPARC box. This attempt was very successful for Sun, Solaris is one of the well recognized OSes and the download numbers are impressive. However the ISVs of the workstation relevant software are very slow in adopting a new platform, even if Sun suggests, that supporting Solaris10 x86 requires only a recompilation of SPARC Solaris based program. More than one year after appearance of x86 Solaris 10 systems there is still no commercial software for workstations. Linux is considered as good enough solution, Solaris for x86 does not provide advantages which would justify the support of an extra platform. The situation might be different for servers, but currently though lot of open source software has been ported to Solaris x86, it is not a workstation platform with the bright variety of software. It might change in the future, but I'm personally quite skeptical about it. What I don't understand is why Sun is not providing an emulation layer for SPARC software on Opteron, like SGI and Apple are doing, just that the transition might become easier, and users of performance critical software can demand the portage of it. I think this would help a lot for the acceptance of Solaris/Opteron among workstation users.

8. PowerPC/Intel with MacOSX from Apple
Last year was very surprising for users of Macs. Steve Jobs announced a change of processor architecture for all Apple computers. New Inter-based PowerMacs (some rumor sites call them Mac Pro) will be probably announced at Apple Developer Conference in August. Though there is already a number of software packages available as universal binaries (which is a package consisting of two binaries, one for PowerPC, one for Intel x86), there is no professional software ported to the new architecture (expect software, which is developed by Apple itself). Adobe, which is the most important ISV for Mac, hasn't ported its software yet, it also remains unclear if the new Creative Suite version which includes the most important programs like Photoshop will support both architectures, or only the Intel one. There is also no ISV for the technical software, who considers porting its applications to MacOSX. So it has to be seen, whether Intel-based Mac platform will become a success among the professional users. It is also interesting to see, how Apple will support remaining PowerPC users who are not able to migrate because the application they're using is not available as x86 binary and emulation is too slow. Current policy of Apple is quite radical one, when an Intel model of Mac is available, the equivalent PowerPC system gets discontinued. Maybe this is OK for home users, but certainly not for professionals, who cannot migrate overnight and still need PowerPC based systems as a replacement for broken ones. If Apple cannot provide them, I suppose this can destroy lot of trust in Apple as professional users friendly company.

9. Opteron/Athlon/Xeon64ET with Linux from various manufacturers
This combination is still the most viable in the current workstation market. In the meantime lot of software, which was available on traditional UNIX 64-bit RISC platforms is ported to 64-bit Linux. One year ago 64-bit Linux was quite experimental, this changed completely, as RedHat and Novell are supporting it with their enterprise distributions. Lot of criticism regarding fast changes of Linux kernel and incompatible distributions are resolved by certifying only these two distributions. Recently Ubuntu also tries to become a distribution which is supported by the ISVs, but I think this will take lot of time and though Ubuntu is well received among home Linux users, it does not have such reputation across professionals. One major advantage which Linux has compared to the other UNIX OSes, is it's user friendly Desktop Environment (KDE or GNOME). It is really a shame, that all traditional UNIces (with the exception of Sun) still have the completely outdated CDE as default DE. One might argue that KDE and GNOME are also available for AIX or HP-UX, but they're not supported by the vendors and a normal user cannot install them, usually only system administrator is able to do this. So a normal user still has a working environment from the beginning on the 90th, which is outdated by any definition. This user friendliness and massive cost advantage will further spread Linux and nag on the user base of other solutions.

10. Thin terminals with server with grid software
This is certainly not what one would call a workstation, but recently more and more workstation users are getting rid of their computers and get thin terminal box on their desk. This box is connected with terminal server and the user can send computing intensive jobs to compute servers. Installed grid software automatically chooses a computing server with required specifications and smallest load. What are the advantages of this solution:

- Better utilization of expensive processors and large memory sets
- Only server have to be upgraded, the user notices the increase of speed/capability without exchange of his hardware
- More place on user's desk and silent offices
- Terminal is OS-independent, that means it is possible to switch between several servers with different OSes, so no extra computer is required for Windows software and the issue of sending jobs for Linux or Solaris server is only a matter of a different parameter to the job sending command
- Terminal has no moving parts, it is quite stable and robust
- Data storage and backups can be better managed on server side
- Some terminals like Sun Ray allow the user to save his session token on a smart card, that means, that if he puts his smart card in every available terminal, the session is restored

Of course not every workstation user can use such solution. 3-D intensive tasks or multimedia programs require great graphic performance and small latency, which a server cannot provide due to limited bandwidth and latency of the network, but e.g. EDA software is perfectly suitable for such scenario.


Lot of development has happened since the last article. The most noticeable point is certainly the incredible development of Linux, so that nowadays x86 64 bit workstations are probably the most common platform for technics-oriented user. The future of workstations which are using processors from server lines, which are still in production is considered to be safe, they're still needed as a development platform, but the combination of grid-software and thin terminal is very viable alternative to a desk-side system. The future of MacOSX as a system of professionals is quite uncertain, it depends on the support from Apple side during the transition period and their advertising of the advantages of MacOSX compared to Linux and Windows. This might be a hard task, since the OSes are now directly comparable with each other because they are running on the same hardware. Solaris 10 is while very technically advanced system, still the ISV's must be convinced that supporting of this platform is not a waste of resources, because Linux is already there. For me the most interesting approach is still the PRIZM platform, which is certainly usable for a small amount of workstation users, but the concept behind it is ahead of time. But as we know from the history, not always the best concept is accepted by the most buyers.

Disclaimer: All informations about the technical data of workstations have been taken from the product description pages of the manufacturers of these workstations

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