Mittwoch, 29. Juni 2011

A Take on the Workstation Market Today

Maybe you all know the old joke about the definition of a workstation: A trainstation is where a train stops, a bus station is where a bus stops, so a workstation ... In this article I will try to define the workstation market, the current models, what they are used for and some thoughts about their future.
First the question, who is using a workstation and what is it used for:

Main areas of usage are CAD (Computer Aided Design), CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing), CAE (Computer Aided Engineering), EDA (Electronical Design Automatisation). Scientists are using worksations for visualizing big data sets or running simulations. Architects are using workstions for constructing new houses, bridges, tunnels and other buildings. Medicals are using workstations for vizualising data they recieve from computer tomograph. Geologists use them for carthography and research for oil and gas deposits explorations. Workstations were the first computers which were capable of processing 3D, which was not only interesting for technical purposes, but also fascinating for artists like Timothy Leary. Financal analysts need them for going through different market scenarios. Workstations are also used for multimedia creation, they are capable of processing high quality audio and video. Software developers are using workstations, if they write software for servers they will find the same environement, so their programs are garanted to run on server, like they do on the workstation. Of course there are lots of other areas where workstations are necessary for everydays work.

What is a workstation:

Till the beginning of the 90th, it was quite an easy task to define a workstation. The cheapest and most spreaded computers were "home computers" from Acorn, Amiga and Atari. IBM-compatible PCs were running MS-DOS, Windows or OS/2 and were used in the offices for text processing or cheat calculations. Apple was used for artist works (at that time multimedia was a spread term, but hardly anyone knew what this is) and DTP. The workstation was one level above. It was a desktop computer for a single user, which had an UNIX-OS and a RISC-CPU. They were expensive beasts (not seldom several ten thousands dollars), so only companies and universities could afford them. The situation changed in the next few years, first Microsoft introduced Windows NT on the market, which was advertised as a workstation OS and second Linux arised from nothere. These both OSes were mainly running on IBM-compatible PCs, which became cheaper but more powerful every year. So at the beginning of the 21th century the border blurred, every big computer maker has offeres workstations which are mostly IBM-compatible PCs with the most recent Windows for Professionals version or RedHat for Workstations, which are better equipped then the average PC customer can buy in computer shops round the corner. They are much more affordable then the workstations a decade ago.

Nevertheless nowadays there still are criterias which separate a workstation from the rest of the computer market. For doing the jobs described above, the computers must be 64-bit capable, OpenGL-capable, the ISVs must provide software for this platform. 64-bitness is necessary because the data volumes a workstation has to handle exceed 4 GB memory space and often 64 bit accuracy is required. OpenGL is still the standart for professional graphics, since DirectX is not available for UNIX-platforms. The third point is very important as well because the software which is used on the workstation is very complex and were developed by the companies for several years so it is not easy to port or rewrite such software for a new platform). The licenses for that kind of software costs usually several thousands dollars ANNUALLY because of quite narrow circle of users (compared to MS Office for example), required support because of its complexity, and demands on this software from the point of its stability (as few crashes as possible even during processing a large amount of data) and accuracy. If we look at the available computers regarding these points, only few platforms are still left:

1. POWER 4+ with AIX5L from IBM:

AIX5L is one of the traditional UNIX-OSes it was certified as UNIX-2003 compliant by the Open Group (in fact it is the only OS which received this brand yet). IBM promotes this platform for CAD, especially because of the Catia software but it is also used for EDA (Cadence or IBM-owned software). POWER is a RISC processor developed by IBM and used in p- and iSeries of their server lines. Currently there are two workstations available:

- IntelliStation POWER 275 This workstation is equipped with single 1.0-1.45 GHz POWER4+ processor, Since this processor is 2-way, the entry edition of this model has one core disabled, which is not always a disadvantage, because the remaining core has access to the whole 8MB 3rd level cache. This model has up to 12 GB of memory and two SCSI harddisks, the graphics adapter has up to 128 MB video RAM.

- p630 Model 6E4: This is mainly a server, which has a better graphics card plugged in, so it became a workstation. Different to the same server it is not certified for Linux usage because of the proprietary graphic card.

The future for this platform is not easy to foresee. On one side IBM is very active Linux supporter, but IBM also is known for supporting old platforms as long as the customer pay for them (like mainframes), so I think AIX will have a long life. More likely the entry server will spend a better graphic card (not necessary from IBM, but from NVidia or ATI or 3D Labs), so it will become Linux-compliant and maybe ISVs will be convinced to port their software to Linux on POWER. AIX is able to execute Linux software, but it still has to be compiled for POWER or at least for PowerPC.

2. Alpha with Tru64 UNIX from HP
Alpha has an interesting history, first it was designed by Digital, as a replacement for PDP series. This processor was quite succesfull, since WindowsNT was ported on it and with an emulator FX!32 it was possible to run Windows x86 binaries on it. Few will remember the advertisings in computer stores, of selling a 600 MHz workstation at the time when Pentiums just reached 100MHz wall. Alpha is a very clean architecture, even too clean, the first models did not even support a byte, because it seems to be unneeded in a 64 bit world (later the support was added though). The rest is history, Digital was bought by Compaq, Compaq was bought by HP and HP declared Alpha and Tru64 Unix as dead. There are still offerings for Alpha workstations on HP page, but I don't think that someone will start his business using Alpha, so they are mainly for business, which are still using Alpha and have not converted to another platform yet. Alphas were used mainly in finacial centers, and for number cranching, simulations.

- HP AlphaStation DS15
Single 1GHz prozessor, 2MB Cache, 4GB RAM, 2GB/s Memory peak, ATI Radeon Graphic card (up to 4 in one system)

- HP AlphaStation DS25
Up to two 1GHz processors, 16GB RAM, 8GB/s Memory peak

- HP AlphaStation ES47
Up to two 1GHz EV7 processors, 8 GB RAM, 12.8GB/s I/O bandwith, 1.75 on-chip cache/processor

Linux has been ported to Alphas but since it is not commercially supported it is, there is no commercial software available. Tru64 was famous for its clustering capabilities, once HP promised to port them to HP-UX, but now sold them to Veritas, which was bought by McAfee, so no one really knows, what will happen with the rest of this software and hardware.

3. PA-RISC with HP-UX from HP

The history here is quite similiar to Alpha. HP will abandon PA-RISC in favour of Itanium. But HP has stopped its Itanium workstation line, so the valid question is, how will I be able to use HP-UX on a workstation? HP-UX was widely used in all workstation-relevant areas, beside Solaris and AIX this was the third platform which ISVs could not ignore when they claimed their software is running on UNIX. PA-RISC was the champion in integrating caches on-chip. It was the first chip which had 8 MB on-chip cache and became a 100 Mio gates monster. These workstations are still available from HP:

- HP b2600
Single 500 MHz PA-8600 processor 4GB RAM, HP fx5 pro Graphic card

- HP c3700
Single 750 MHz PA-8700 processor with 2.25Mb on-chip cache, 8GB RAM, HP Fire GL-UX Graphic card

- HP c3750
Single 875 MHz PA-8700+ processor with 2.25Mb on-chip cache, 8GB RAM, HP Fire GL-UX Graphic card

-HP j6750
Up to two 875 MHz PA-8700+ processors with 2.25Mb on-chip cache, 16GB RAM, HP Fire GL-UX Graphic card

- HP c8000
Up to two 900-1000 MHz PA-8800 dual-core processors, ATI FireGL Graphic card, 32GB RAM, 8xAGP slot

4. MIPS with Irix from SGI

SGI is famous for its graphics workstation, like O2 and Octane. For lang time they were unbeaten when it came to vizualising of large data-sets, 3D-graphics and image processing. Irix was the most comfortable UNIX-system to use, far ahead CDE which is still standart at IBM and HP. SGIs were used by medicals, by film studios, by military and geologists. In recent time SGI decided to drop MIPS and continue with Itanium. They use an emulator which allows running IRIX software on Itanium Linux. There is still two workstations with MIPS-IRIX combination available:

- Silicon Graphics Fuel
Single MIPS R16000A 700-800 MHz processor with 4MB 2nd level cache, 4 GB RAM, V12 Graphic Card with 128 Video RAM (104 MB can be texture memory)

- Silicon Graphics Terzo
Up to 4 MIPS R16000A 800 MHz processors with 4MB 2nd level cache, 16GB RAM and two V12 Graphic Boards

There are rumors about an Itanium workstation, based on their technology used for the succesful Altrix server line, but we have to wait. With the emulation technolgy, they will be able to run all the software they used on MIPS, but we have to see how fast this emulation works

5. SPARC with Solaris from Sun
I think every student of computer sciences had experiences with Sun workstations (Ultra1-10). These workstations were very popular at universities until Linux came up, which was more affordable for small budgets of todays universities. Sun workstations are still very widely used in every area, they are famous for their stability and there is a famous joke which has a lot of truth in it: Sun workstation is slow, Sun workstation with ten users on it is still slow. In recent times Sun had tough competition from x86 market, so they had to introduce workstations with Opteron processors from AMD, which execute x86 code, but they also have 64-bit extension, so they can handle more then 4GB memery/process (all solutions with 32bit processors with extended memory could not provide that) and they can compute 64bit integers in one step. Solaris 10 will also be the first non-Open Source OS which supports these extensions. One very clever step is the Janus technology which allows to run Linux binaries with Solaris 10. So ISVs will not have to provide additional binaries for Solaris 10 x86. However the question remains if the ISVs will support with combination or just certify their software with RedHat Linux and maybe Novell as they are doing today. So here we have SPARC workstations:

- Sun Blade 150
Single 550-650 MHz UltraSPARC IIi, 512 KB 2nd level cache on-chip, 2 GB RAM

- Sun Blade 1500
Single 1 GHz UltraSPARC IIIi, 1 MB 2nd level cache on-chip, 4 GB RAM

- Sun Blade 2500
Up to two 1.28 GHz UltraSPARC IIIi each with 1 MB 2nd level cache on-chip, 8 GB RAM

here are the Opteron based ones:

- Sun Java Workstation W2100z
Two 200-series 1.8-2.4 GHz AMD Opteron, 16 GB RAM with 12.8GB/s bandwith

-Sun Java Workstation W1100z
Single 100-series 1.8-2.4 GHz AMD Opteron, 16 GB RAM with 12.8GB/s bandwith

It is interesting to see what happens with SPARC based workstations in the next future. My prediction is, that they will be upgraded with 2-way SPARCIV processor, but then all the processors on Sun roadmap like Niagara are server-oriented, so noone at Sun could tell me, what happens with workstations then, but probably they don't know it themselves. First they will see how the market accepts Opteron-based workstations and Solaris 10 for x86 and then further decissions will be taken, but with probably long transition time

6. PowerPC with MacOSX from Apple
Since the introduction of very UNIX-like OSX and 64-bit G5, Apple can be counted as a workstation manufacturer. However, none of classical ISVs has ported any software for CAD, CAM, EDA ... to MacOSX. Areas where MacOSX is strong are bioinformatics and multimedia. MacOSX is also becoming popular among scientists, so lot of mathematic, numerical software has been ported. Since this is the most viable platform beside Linux and most popular UNIX-like platform on the desktop it would be really great if ISVs, which write software for traditional workstation platform would consider to port their software to MacOSX as well. PowerPC processor has been developed by the Apple, Motorola and IBM alliance, G5 is mostly a single core POWER4 processor. Here are the workstations:

- PowerMac G5 Single 1.8 GHz
Single G5 1.8 GHz, 600MHz frontside bus, 512 KB 2nd level cache, 4 GB RAM, NVidia GeForce FX 5200 Ultra with 64MB video memory

- PowerMac G5 Dual 1.8 GHz
Dual G5 1.8 GHz, 900 MHz frontside bus, 512 KB 2nd level cache / processor, 4 GB RAM, NVidia GeForce FX 5200 Ultra with 64MB video memory

- PowerMac G5 Dual 2.0 GHz
Dual G5 2.0 GHz, 1 GHz frontside bus, 512 KB 2nd level cache / processor, 8 GB RAM, NVidia GeForce FX 5200 Ultra with 64MB video memory

- PowerMac G5 Dual 2.0 GHz
Dual G5 2.0 GHz, 1 GHz frontside bus, 512 KB 2nd level cache / processor, 8 GB RAM, NVidia GeForce FX 5200 Ultra with 64MB video memory

- PowerMac G5 Dual 2.5 GHz
Dual G5 2.5 GHz, 1.25 GHz frontside bus, 512 KB 2nd level cache / processor, 8 GB RAM, ATI Radeon 9600 XT with 128MB video memory

7. Itanium with Linux/Windows from various manufactors

Since HP was the largest producer of Itanium workstations, but stopped their further development and sales, the destiny of Itanium as a workstion processor is very uncertain. As a consequence Microsoft has stopped further development of Windows for Workstations for Itanium (Windows for Itanium servers is still available). Linux on Itanium is available from several distributors, but will be mainly used as a development workstation for HPC servers

8. Opteron/Athlon/Xeon64ET with Linux/Windows from various manufactors

This combinations is most viable in the current workstation market. But still very few ISV closed-source software is 64-bit ready for this platform. However, it will take 1-2 years till the most needed software will become available. Due to the mass production this platform is very cheap (compared with other platform with exception of MacOSX) and will have the most developers and users. All big and small computer manufactors are selling such systems. Several Linux distributions are available for these systems and Microsoft promised to release the so called x64 Windows version this year.


In this article we saw a bright variety of different systems, which were used for different areas in production. Some of these systems are still alive and kicking (Solaris, AIX, MacOSX), some will become discontinued in the near future (Tru64, HP-UX, Irix), someones future is uncertain (Itanium) and some are still not ready for production (x86 with 64-bit extensions). All the remaining systems are more or less capable of executing Linux software, so I expect that Linux executables format will become standart in the future and all other OSes will become LSB compliant. However, every combination of OS and processor is a great piece of technology, so everytime it is a pity seeing a technology dissapear.

About the Author:
I work in Munich for one of three biggest EDA ISVs my hobby are different hardware systems and cutting edge IT. My favourite combination is PowerPC with MacOSX, which I use at home and Solaris with SPARC, which I use at work.

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

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