February 16, 2005

LINUXWORLD EXPO, BOSTON: The hardware side

Author: Jem Matzan

When you think of the LinuxWorld Conference and Exposition (LWCE), which is going on this week in Boston, you usually think of GNU/Linux distributions and related software products. While software certainly dominates the convention, hardware has its place -- Intel and AMD both had large areas dedicated to promoting their brand names. Sun and IBM were the hardest chargers of the bunch, lugging in their biggest, baddest machines to demonstrate. Here's a selection of what we saw.

Hewlett-Packard and Sun both had dual Opteron workstations and servers on display, with few differences between the two brands in terms of capabilities. Both support two dual-core Opteron processors, up to 16GB of DDR400 RAM, and are equipped with dual-port SCSI-320 disk controllers.

The HP xw9300 was the more powerful of the two in that it used a Tyan motherboard (see below) that supports two x16 PCI Express slots for two video cards. There are other motherboards that can support two PCI Express cards, but in them the second slot has reduced throughput; this is not the case with the motherboard in the xw9300. The video card in the configuration we saw was based on the Nvidia Quadro FX3400, but other, higher-end cards were available with the system. The physical design of the HP machine was also a bit more technician-friendly than its Sun competitor in that it did not require any tools for disassembly or maintenance.

The Sun Java Workstation W2100z uses an 8X AGP slot for video, which does not have the performance and scalability for high-end 3D rendering that PCI Express does. A Sun representative told us that the company is working to develop a Java Workstation with PCI Express and SPARC processor support. The video card in this unit was based on the Nvidia Quadro FX3000.

Both machines support GNU/Linux and Windows XP, and the Java Workstation works with both the 32- and 64-bit editions of Solaris 10.


There were lots of storage devices on display at LWCE. Sun had its StorEdge 3000 hard drive enclosure on display. It's a 12-disk 2U unit with an integrated RAID/JBOD controller, can support SATA, SCSI, or Fibre Channel drives, and comes with storage management software that runs on GNU/Linux and Solaris. The StorEdge 3000 is stackable; it can be combined with up to seven more identical units to increase storage.

IBM had a larger device named the ESS800 Enterprise Storage Server. It holds up to 32TB of data, can be partitioned into two discrete environments for different purposes, and works just as well with GNU/Linux as it does with proprietary Unixes, Windows, and IBM's own z/OS. The company says the ESS800 is about to be replaced by the DS8000, which is more powerful by a factor of six.

Big iron

As for the big iron, IBM is the first name that comes to mind. According to an IBM representative, 90% of the world's business data is stored on IBM mainframes. Despite the rise of clusters and distributed computing, mainframes still have their place in the world.

An IBM engineer handed us a demo model of the heart of the company's z890 mainframe: a multi-chip module with eight processor-unit chips, four large storage data chips with a total of 32MB L2 cache (no, the 32MB is not a typo), one storage cache controller chip, two main memory storage controller chips, and one clock chip. It was four times larger than any CPU we'd ever seen. Each processor unit chip had 512KB L1 cache, 122 million transistors, and two cores. The CPU can change its processing model dynamically according to load and the microcode fed to it.

The z890 itself is not designed for high-end computing; rather it is meant to perform as a business application server. It deals well with I/O and memory intensive applications, but it isn't really a number-cruncher (a la Cray). You'd use a mainframe to consolidate distributed servers to increase performance and security while reducing costs. With that in mind, it's possible to partition the z890 into several separate servers with dedicated resources (not shared resources -- this is not virtualization) for various uses.

Cray had the most impressive computer at LWCE: the XD1. It was a 3U behemoth that howled with cooling fans and sucked air in so hard that it snatched a business card right out of our hand. The heart of the Cray XD1 was modularized into six nodes of dual Opterons, providing a decent amount of processing power. The XD1 does not have video output and is not meant for 3D rendering (modeling and visualization); instead it was designed and is used for complex supercomputing and scientific calculation. While it may not do the actual 3D rendering of a simulated nuclear explosion, it will calculate and export the data necessary for other machines to render the graphics.

On the "low end," Unisys had a 32-way Xeon-based system named the ES7000 500 series. It has an identical 64-bit system based on the Itanium 2 processor (the 400 series), but it was not at the show. This computer was the first in the world to achieve full certification for Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4, although Unisys is also certified for Novell's Linux products. The layout of the discrete computing "cells" (each of which contained eight CPUs) that were stacked in the enclosure allowed for the memory to be situated equidistant from the processors, eliminating latency-related performance problems. Just from this one simple physical design decision, the scalability and performance are vastly increased without having to drastically re-engineer the electrical components. Like most of the other high-end computers we saw at LWCE, the ES7000 can form separate server partitions with dedicated resources. Unisys hopes to attract businesses that currently have older RISC-based Unix systems in place.

The rest of the gang

Tyan was the only motherboard manufacturer at LWCE (if you don't count Intel), and had some demos of its new Opteron and socket 939 Athlon 64 motherboards. As mentioned above, the HP xw9300 uses Tyan's Thunder K8WE (model s2895) as its backbone. It's a 1U motherboard with four DIMM sockets per CPU, one 133MHz PCI-X slot and two 100MHz slots, and one standard 32-bit PCI slot in addition to the aforementioned dual x16 PCI Express slots.

SBE and Ncomm teamed up in a small, out-of-the-way booth to showcase their combined TCP/IP offload board. The iSCSI control card has two network interface ports for redundancy and port aggregation, and the software forces compliance with certain connection standards that ensure quality of service. The demonstration involved playing a movie on a Red Hat-based machine, streaming it in over a network connection. One network cable was unplugged without fanfare -- the other connection kept on streaming. The truly impressive part is when the second network cable was disconnected, leaving the movie playing for several seconds before the cache ran out and the frame rate slowed and stopped. Then the cables were plugged back in and the movie started up right where it left off with no stuttering. The drivers for the iSCSI card are open source, but the control software is proprietary.

The device we wanted most to take home (other than the HP xw9300) was a working prototype of the Aries Media Essential Media Center. It's basically a set-top PC that looks like a slimline VCR, but actually houses an Nvidia nForce3-based microATX motherboard with a 64-bit AMD Sempron processor, an integrated 128MB Nvidia video card, 1GB RAM, a 200GB hard drive, and a slot-loaded CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive. It had front-panel connectors for four USB devices and one FireWire device, and in the back it had another FireWire port in addition to S-Video and RCA outputs. The Aries Media Center ran on Fedora Core 3 and used MythTV to perform a variety of tasks. A TV tuner was built in, and a Hauppauge remote control was included in the package. You can use this device as an MP3 player, digital video recorder, media storage device, and DVD player (a hardware MPEG-2 decoder is built in, so software decoders are not necessary). There's even a neat feature that the manufacturer added to MythTV to allow viewers to see actor and show information for each TV show via the Internet Movie Database. There is no published release date for this device, but the prototype was impressive.

What wasn't there

The big disappointment of the day was the dearth of new and innovative products being demonstrated at LWCE. While Sun and IBM both had their full arsenals of big iron and high-end workstations out on display, they did not have any new technology to announce.

While several vendors were using (and prominently displaying) SGI computers to demonstrate their own products, SGI did not have a booth or representative at LWCE.

Intel had two areas; one was arranged like a carnival game, with a central barker encouraging people to play Unreal Tournament 2004 on the demo machines that surrounded him. While they were playing, he told everyone about Intel's desktop technologies. We asked to speak with someone who could give us a more in-depth talk and demonstration, and were directed to the other Intel area. Upon arrival at the second Intel area, we were met by a team of young, attractive, female booth personnel who told us that there were no Intel representatives that could tell us anything about newly released technologies and products.

The AMD section was filled with knowledgeable professionals, none of whom appeared to work for AMD. There were people from Cray, HP, and various other partners, but when we asked to speak with someone about AMD's new hardware products and technologies, we were given some phone numbers of people who were not present at the conference. None of the half dozen people with AMD badges that we spoke with could even tell us which of their products had won the LinuxWorld Most Innovative Hardware Solution award that was prominently displayed on their information counter.

LinuxWorld runs through Thursday, with more press conferences and keynotes to suffer through, and more pens, badges, and stickers to collect. In the next article we'll bring you the highlights from the new software products and technologies presented at LWCE, and later talk about GNU/Linux services and service providers showing off their magic at the show.

NewsForge will be carrying many other LWCE reports from other sources in our NewsVac section. Be sure to check them out as well as our own reports.

Click Here!