Unix choices up, prices down

In today's federal market, the expanding presence of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows and Windows NT operating systems is hard to ignore. However, some federal organizations, particularly NASA and the Defense Department, have opted to use Unix systems for computing power and stability.

We are taking our annual look at Unix workstations with a focus on the wide variety of choices available to customers for about $15,000. Our comparison offers a look at four excellent machines from Compaq Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. Each of these vendors offers performance and functionality choices that were unimaginable for $50,000 just a few years ago.

In addition to the vendors' basic choices, two of the machines we tested offer operating system alternatives. Compaq's XP1000 runs Windows NT or the Tru64 Unix operating system. And for less than $500, Sun's new SunPCi card enables you to run a Windows PC system in a window on Sun's Ultra 60 desktop (see sidebar, Page 34).

Finally, for those who need Unix on the run, we looked at a portable (well, at least luggable) solution from Tadpole-RDI Inc. (see First Look, Page 38).

If we had unlimited space, we could write about even more choices: Windows NT running on 500-plus MHz Intel Corp. Pentium chips, a half dozen or so Unixes running on those same speedy Pentiums, or other flavors of Unix, such as Linux or NetBSD, running on some of the hardware we tested. With all these options, there has never been a better time to be in the high-performance computing business.

In setting up this comparison, we asked the major Unix hardware vendors for their best machine under $15,000. We specified 512M of RAM, 9G of hard disk space, a 20-inch monitor and fast 2-D graphics performance. Vendors were free to add whatever they wanted to the system. Unfortunately, two of the vendors - HP and IBM - sent us systems that exceeded the $15,000 limit we specified.

We received the following machines for the comparison: Compaq's XP1000 Professional Workstation, HP's Visualize C3000 Unix Workstation, Sun's Ultra 60 Model 1450 and IBM's RS/6000 43P Model 260.

We looked at several factors in determining a winner, including performance, administration, setup, features and price (see "How we tested Unix workstations," Page 38). Performance was the most heavily weighted factor.

This year's winner, the IBM, offered great performance, strong administrative tools and a good feature set. Of course, all this comes with IBM's premium price tag. All the systems have their strengths, giving buyers a lot to think about.

IBM RS/6000 43P Model 260

Last year, IBM offered a pricey workstation with performance that generously could be described as sluggish. This year, it sent a pricey workstation that's loaded for bear. The RS/6000 ended up in a virtual dead heat with the Sun product for top overall performance honors.

IBM's system shipped with dual 200 MHz Power3 processors. Although Sun's Ultra 60 also is dual-processor-capable, the RS/6000 was the only machine in the comparison to arrive with two processors installed. The machine also included IBM's new GXT2000P graphics accelerator, 512M of RAM and one 4.5G SCSI disk. The system featured a 21-inch monitor. The RS/6000 includes support for up to 4G of RAM, which should satisfy most users' memory needs.

Unlike desktop models of the RS/6000, the Model 260 comes in a large tower case. This configuration is much less cluttered inside than the more compact desktop models. Pluggable CPU and memory cards further simplify administration inside the case.

Setting up the RS/6000 is a snap using IBM's configuration tools. IBM's multi-media setup includes information about the system and demonstrations of the RS/6000's capabilities. The tool walks you through setting up networking and other basic system configuration tasks.

Once the system is up and running, administration is made much easier by its System Management Interface Tool (SMIT), IBM's time-tested administration tool for the RS/6000. The tool runs in text and graphical user interface (GUI) modes and includes features that novice and advanced administrators will like.

The Power3 processors demonstrate that raw clock speed alone does not make a winning CPU. The overall benchmark performance numbers of the RS/6000 tied with Sun's Ultra 60 for tops among the systems we tested.

Our only major gripe with the RS/6000 is its price. The pricing of memory is a good example. IBM offers the 512M upgrade for the RS/6000 for $3,079. However, you can buy 512M of Kingston Technology Co. RAM for the RS/6000 from Spectrum Trading Co. for $1,114. It is not clear to us that the IBM memory is worth the premium price. A good buying strategy therefore may be to buy as little of the machine as possible from IBM.

With its overall fast performance, the RS/6000 is a solid choice for a variety of workstation tasks. IBM did not maximize the graphics capability in the machine it sent us, but by adding higher-end graphics, users with extremely robust video needs can get even more performance from this box.

HP Visualize C3000 Unix Workstation

HP's new C3000 line of workstations features 400MHz precision architecture, reduced instruction-set computing (PA-RISC) processors. We tested a system with 1G of RAM, a 9.1G disk drive and HP's

Visualize-fx2 graphics subsystem. It also included a 21-inch monitor.

The C3000's case is roughly equivalent to that of a midtower PC. It is dark gray and light blue with an attractive but functional molded front, and it would have won an aesthetics category hands down.

We found it fairly easy to maneuver inside the case. There was room inside our test unit for one more disk, and two external SCSI buses provide a path for adding storage. The unit supports up to 4G of RAM, same as the RS/6000.

For a fee, HP will ship the system with the HP-UX operating system installed. As soon as the system boots for the first time, the root user receives an e-mail message explaining the steps to get the machine up and running. The system comes with several scripts that configure functions, such as networking, for the first time.

HP's GUI-based System Administration Manager is second only to IBM's SMIT in terms of completeness and ease of use. SAM provides a consistent interface across tools and helps any administrator easily handle the C3000. We were able to use it to mount a CD-ROM when we were not sure of the correct HP-UX syntax for the mount command.

The C3000 is a snappy machine. However, the unit we tested turned in slightly disappointing overall performance results. We attributed this to HP's Visualize-fx2 graphics subsystem, which provided fast 8-bit performance but lagged in the 24-bit mode. If you're doing anything graphics-intensive, you would want to run in 24-bit mode, especially if you need to get more than 256 colors for one application.

For our performance testing, less RAM and more graphics support would have put the C3000 at the top. However, this machine represents a big step in the right direction for HP.

The C3000 finished a strong second in this year's comparison. It turned in strong computing performance numbers but was hobbled slightly by its entry-level graphics. With a sharp design, strong administrative tools and 400MHz PA-RISC horsepower, the HP C3000 is a strong choice for technical computing.

Sun Ultra 60 Model 1450

From a hardware standpoint, the Ultra 60 is exactly what we asked for in this comparison. It demonstrates the value that competition has brought to the workstation market.

We remember when it was easy to spend $50,000 on Sun's SPARC 10. The Ultra 60 delivers capacity that the SPARC 10 couldn't touch - and at less than $15,000. The Ultra 60 is a multiprocessor-capable system that's expandable and upgradable, with easily swappable CPUs and plenty of storage options.

The unit we tested featured a single 450 MHz UltraSPARC CPU. It included 512M of RAM, a 9G hard drive and a 21-inch monitor.

The Ultra 60 tied for first place with the RS/6000 in performance. It offered a combination of processing brawn and graphical agility that made quick work of our benchmark.

The system offered top-notch performance and still had room to grow. For a price, you can add a second CPU to the system, and you can upgrade the graphics, providing even better system performance.

The architecture of the Ultra 60 provides for CPU upgrades, enabling users to add a faster UltraSPARC in the future. This is true of older UltraSPARC boxes as well, meaning that older Ultra 2 machines can be upgraded to the 450MHz processors available from Sun today.

So why didn't Sun win our comparison? In a word: administration. Without additional software, Sun doesn't offer a good administrative tool. That's not an issue for experienced administrators, but it does not help expand market share when products such as Linux are light years ahead in administrative ease. As this comparison was going to press, Sun released some World Wide Web-based administration tools. Although we were not able to evaluate them as part of this comparison, they may provide a solid foundation for Ultra 60 administration.

With Sun's new SunPCi card, you have even more choices for integrating Unix and Windows. For less than $500, you can have a 300MHz PC running inside a Sun workstation. You may be able to reduce significantly the hardware and administrative costs associated with running PCs and Unix in integrated environments (see sidebar, Page 34).

The Ultra 60 is another fine Unix workstation choice. It offers top-notch performance and expandability as well as interoperability with Windows. Clearly, administrative tools are less of an issue for some Unix consumers than others, but if Sun ever releases a solid set of them bundled with Solaris, the Sun platform would be hard to beat.

Compaq XP1000

Professional Workstation

Compaq's XP1000 checked in with the fastest CPU clock speed in the comparison: 500MHz. We were curious to see how the line of Alpha-based workstations had fared since Digital Equipment Corp. was acquired by Compaq.

The machine we tested featured the Alpha 21264 500MHz processor, 512M of RAM, 9G of hard disk space and Elsa Inc.'s Gloria Synergy graphics card with 8M of video memory. Like the Ultra 60, it expands to 2G of RAM.

The XP1000 was far and away the most compact unit in the comparison, featuring a small midtower PC configuration. Intelligent design inside the case allows a lot of goodies to be packed inside and still be conveniently accessed.

The XP1000 offers a choice in the operating systems. The Alpha platform supports Windows NT and Unix on the same hardware, which simplifies hardware administration for sites that need to run both.

We liked the XP1000's configuration checklist, which walked us through the initial setup with a visual tool that makes it easy to see where you are in the process. In addition, Tru64 Unix (the latest name for Digital's flavor of Unix) offers some graphical administration tools that, while lacking the functionality of SMIT or SAM, are definitely a step in the right direction.

We found that the XP1000 still is a lightning-fast platform. However, the model's graphics were slightly underpowered, which hurt its overall score.

Our benchmark test slowed the XP1000's graphics to a crawl. However, the XP1000 was strong in the processor-focused part of the benchmark, finishing this part in about half the time that the Sun and IBM machines took. With the XP1000 priced at $12,514, the graphics on the Alpha could have been upgraded significantly without the machine crossing the $15,000 line.

The XP1000's price indicates that Compaq has applied some of what it has learned about mass-producing PCs to lowering the cost of Unix hardware. With the XP1000, you can have a choice of operating systems and still receive top-notch performance. It's a solid contender, but if you're doing graphics-intensive work, you'll want to invest more money into upgrading the video on this workstation.

The Choice Is Yours

With each system having its own advantages, choosing one from our comparison may require some extensive thought. Do you go with the performance, expandability and administrative ease of IBM's RS/6000? What about the scalable architecture and interoperability of Sun's Ultra 60? How much should the reputation for excellence associated with HP's 400MHz PA-RISC processors factor in? Does the processing brawn and Windows NT interoperability of Compaq's XP1000 make it the best option?

With so many choices, now is a great time for buyers in the performance computing market. Our comparison found that the best choice this year is the IBM RS/6000. The question is, which one is right for you?

Hammond is a Denver-based free-lance writer. He can be reached at ehammond@earthlink.net.

*****

Products tested

Compaq Computer Corp.

XP1000 Professional Workstation

Available on the open market.

Score: 6.51

Hewlett-Packard Co.

Visualize C3000 Unix Workstation

Available on the open market.

Score: 7.13

IBM Corp.

RS/6000 43P Model 260

Available on the GSA schedule.

Score: 7.90

Sun Microsystems Inc.

Ultra 60 Model 1450

Available on NASA's SEWP II contract.

Score: 6.71

*****

Unix workstations

Pricing

Prices range from $12,514 to $17,587 on the GSA schedule and the open market.

What's Selling

Systems with lightning performance that couldn't be bought for $50,000 a few years ago can be bought for $10,000 to $20,000 today.

What to Specify

At least 512M of RAM, at least 9G of disk space and midrange video. Specifying a dual-processor-capable system gives you a future upgrade path.

*****

(Sidebar)

SunPCi card: Windows within Unix

The search for a seamless solution for Windows/Unix interoperability can seem like a quest for the Holy Grail. For some shops, the quest may end with the latest interoperability solution to hit the market: Sun Microsystems Inc.'s SunPCi card.

In many departments, PCs and Unix boxes sit side by side on users' desks: PCs for office tasks and Unix boxes for computing.

The SunPCi card can eliminate the PC and the total cost of ownership issues associated with it. Pricing of the the SunPCi card starts at less than $500. The card is a hardware co-processor (as opposed to a software emulator) that runs a complete Microsoft Corp. Windows system inside a window on the Unix desktop or in a separate monitor that is plugged in to the card.

In addition, because the SunPCi card is integrated with the Sun host in which it is installed, sharing data between the two systems is seamless. The SunPCi card also can leverage the security, system resources and data integrity provided by the Unix host.

We looked at the SunPCi card installed in a Sun Ultra 60 workstation. The first time we started the SunPCi card, the system prompted us to create a boot drive for the system. This drive is created as a file in the Solaris file system, and each user can have his own boot disk. Because it is a file in the Solaris system, the PC disk can be secured and backed up as part of the Unix system.

Additionally, files on the Unix system can be accessed by mapping Unix file systems or directory structures to drives on the PC. This makes data-sharing between the systems more seamless than network solutions on stand-alone PCs and Unix workstations.

After creation of the C drive, the system booted to a C prompt. The system initially boots using Caldera System Inc.'s DOS, not MS-DOS. Once it was up and running, we installed Windows 95 from a Microsoft CD.

Currently, the SunPCi card only supports Windows 95, but support for Windows NT is imminent. Sun includes drivers for the Sun-specific parts of the card. These provide networking, mouse and video support.

We configured NetBIOS and Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol networking on the system. The PC is given its own IP address separate from the Unix host, and because of the way the networking is implemented, the two systems cannot communicate directly with each other. But this can be overcome by creating a static route on a third host. We hope Sun will solve this problem a little more elegantly in the future.

After configuring TCP/IP networking, we had to reboot the Sun machine to bring up the network interface configured for both machines. Once the reboot was complete, the Windows machines could be seen in the network neighborhood, and TCP/IP was working correctly.

The compatibility issues associated with interoperability solutions, such as Insignia Solutions Inc.'s SoftWindows, disappear with the SunPCi card. Because it connects a fully functional PC, running Windows applications is no problem. You can view the PC either in a window on the Unix desktop or in a separate monitor.

If you manage Sun machines and PCs side by side, the SunPCi card could relieve many of the problems that give you grief on a daily basis. At less than $500, it's one of the most compelling Unix/PC interoperability solutions we've seen.

- Eric Hammond

*****

(Sidebar)

How we tested Unix workstations

We asked the major workstation vendors to provide their best workstation priced less than $15,000. Because pricing is scored relative to the least expensive unit, we allowed the vendors to offer a workstation that is priced more than $15,000 if they wanted to. All the major Unix hardware vendors chose to participate except Silicon Graphics Inc., which cited a lack of resources to support the comparison.

We evaluated the systems on performance, setup, administration, features, system design, support policies and technical support. Performance was the most heavily weighted category.

Performance

We tested system performance using the same Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. ArcView geographic information system benchmark that we used last year. [Government Best Buys, May 4, 1998]. The benchmark can be broken down into two parts. One measures the performance of the graphics adapter on the system, and the other measures the performance of the other components on the system: CPU, disk and system bus.

Rather than a formal benchmark to test a specific aspect of the system, such as floating point processing power, the benchmark is designed to measure overall system performance under real-world conditions. By breaking the benchmark down into graphics and system performance, a workstation will not be penalized as much for having a slow graphics adapter, which is something that can be upgraded on every system we tested.

The fastest graphics performer received 125 points. The others received points based on the ratio of their graphics performance to the fastest. The fastest compute performer received 125 points. The other machines received points based on the ratio of their compute performance to the fastest.

Setup

The setup category examines the ease with which a typical system administrator can make a system operational. We looked at whether the operating system is pre-installed and considered the tools provided to aid in system configuration. A word score is assigned to each system, and a percentage of the total possible points is awarded based on the word score.

Administration

Ease of administration is critical to organizations concerned about containing technology costs. The administration category looks at the administrative tools included with each system. We looked for a unified administrative interface that provides access to a broad spectrum of administrative tasks, including networking, storage and security settings. A word score is assigned to each system, and a percentage of the total possible points is awarded based on the word score.

Features

We asked for a configuration consisting of 512M of RAM, a 9G hard disk, 24-bit video and a 20-inch monitor. This is the minimum configuration, and vendors were free to add on as they saw fit. We scored the systems on the features included. Extra memory, disk space or expanded graphics added to the system's score. A word score is assigned to each system, and a percentage of the total possible points is awarded based on the word score.

System Design

The system design category is scored based on the system's ease of expansion and administration. We looked for a compact design with room for additional RAM as well as storage and expansion slots.

We favored systems that can be easily administered without removing tons of hardware to get at a component, such as memory. A word score is assigned to each system, and a percentage of the total possible points is awarded based on the word score.

Support Policies

We scored support policies based on several factors, including length of money-back guarantee, support options and toll-free support lines. A word score is assigned to each system, and a percentage of the total possible points is awarded based on the word score.

Technical Support

We scored technical support based on anonymous calls placed to each vendor's support lines. We scored the vendors based on response time as well as expertise, access to information resources and ability to escalate a call to the necessary level.

A word score is assigned to each system, and a percentage of the total possible points is awarded based on the word score.

-- Eric Hammond

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