HP, IBM heat up 3-D arena

Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp. last week introduced two high-end graphics solutions that, although radically different in focus, attempt to take the worlds of modeling, simulation and scientific data visualization to the next level of performance.

HP's new Visualize Center and Visualize Workgroup solutions are based on the company's advanced HP Visualize J2240 line of Unix workstations. Powering the J2240 is HP's next-generation microprocessor, the PA-8500. That processor, which will be shipping in January 1999, is a 64-bit reduced instruction-set computing (RISC) processor and is expected to run between 340 MHz and 380 MHz, according to company officials.

According to Barry Crume, product marketing manager for HP's Workstations Systems Division, the PA-8500, with its 1.5M of on-board cache memory, is 10 times faster than processors that use standard 128K cache memory, and it pushes the processor to "the top of line" among processors on the market.

HP also intends to have the PA-8500 compete with 64-bit processors that HP is building with Intel Corp. based on Intel's IA-64 architecture. IA-64 is designed to address the performance limitations of RISC and of complex instruction-set computing processor technologies..

"It is our intention to have our RISC architecture be competitive with [the upcoming IA-64 architecture] for [several] years after IA-64 is announced," Crume said. He added that HP customers view the PA-8500 as a "flip-the-switch performance boost."

HP's Visualize Center is driven by three Visualize J2240 workstations and relies on three HP fx6 graphics subsystems to pump out 3-D realism to a 28-foot theater-size screen. "This enables a level of virtual prototyping that can't be done on the desktop today," Crume said. "In many cases we're four to five times faster than anything users have ever seen before."

HP's Visualize Workgroup solution is powered by a single J2240 workstation configured with three HP fx4 graphics cards. It is intended for deployment on desktops throughout the engineering community, where users can take advantage of three 20-inch monitors, according to Crume.

In the past, "our customers have been using [systems from Silicon Graphics Inc.] to do this" level of visualization, Crume said. HP's solution is a response to the demand from customers to bring this capability down "to the volume marketplace," he said.

However, according to David Witzel, a research analyst at D.H. Brown Associates Inc. specializing in workstations, HP's solution "is not nearly as scalable as [SGI's] Infinite Reality" system. "This is a great entry-level system," he said. Although these solutions are good for most of HP's customers, Witzel said, "you still have to look to SGI for enormous processing power and scalability."

IBM's New RS/6000

IBM also took aim at the high-end visualization market with the announcement of a new line of its RS/6000 Unix workstation.

The RS/6000 43P Model 260 Unix workstation features IBM's new Power3 microprocessor, which is a 64-bit RISC-based processor developed specifically for IBM's Unix workstations and servers.

One of the unique features of the Power3 is the processor's use of copper wiring. Although the company does not plan to introduce this feature until next year, the use of copper is expected to significantly boost performance and will assist in laying down a road map for future technology advancements.

IBM's new workstation announcements provide users with systems that are "faster than anything you can buy from SGI, HP or Sun [Microsystems Inc.] at any price," said John Holz, vice president of workstations marketing and product management for IBM. "This re-establishes our credibility in the Unix workstation market...at a time when everybody else is abandoning RISC processor technology."

According to Witzel, IBM's announcement is one of the most significant improvements in IBM's graphics performance in a long time.

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