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Sun Also Rises: Opteron Workstations Review

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films: Backseat Bingo by Liz Blazer, Fowl Play! by Christopher De Santis, Save Virgil by Brad Ableson, A Work in Progress by Wes Ball and Tricks for a Treat by Jeff Mednikow. Includes QuickTime movie clips!

Sun Microsystems has entered the DCC market with the Sun Java Workstation W2100z, a dual-processor system based on off-the-shelf AMD Opteron CPUs and NVIDIA graphics cards.

Sun Microsystems, a widely-accepted player in network servers and engineering workstations, but a stranger in the world of digital content creation for the masses, has quietly entered the DCC market with a new pair of workstations. These machines, dubbed the Sun Java Workstation W1100z and W2100z, are single-and dual-processor systems, respectively. They are the first desktop workstations from Sun based not on its own SPARC processors and Solaris operating system, but on off-the-shelf AMD Opteron CPUs and NVIDIA graphics cards.

Sun has chosen to leave the choice of OS to the consumer (Solaris is included with the systems, but theres nothing stopping you from installing Linux or Windows on your own.) Whats more, Sun has coupled these new systems with a unique sales strategy: It is offering its single-processor machines not only through normal sales channels, but at auction on eBay, effectively letting the market set the price.

As the CG industry has increasingly standardized on Windows and Linux operating systems running on general-purpose computing hardware and off-the-shelf graphics cards, the companies with proprietary workstations and workstation operating systems, such as SGI, Apple and Sun, have lost their competitive edge in the high-end 3D animation marketplace. Practically speaking, the old moniker of workstation has lost its meaning, anyway; the term comes from the days of expensive software running on equally expensive hardware: These astronomically priced systems were typically operated 24-7 by a revolving queue of artists who would sit down at a companys single workstation for an eight-hour shift before handing over the keys to the next artist. Hardware and software, to a large degree, have become cheap enough for everyone to have their own, and what distinguishes a workstation from a desktop is merely one or more fast CPUs coupled with a high-end 3D graphics card. But nowadays, fast CPUs are a dime-a-dozen, and even the loftiest of 3D graphics cards available from NVIDIA, ATI and 3DLabs has a street price of under $1,500.

While some may question the need for even more PC clones, Suns entry makes perfect sense from the corporate point of view. While low-cost clone makers can put together a fast 3D-graphics workstation for barely more than the price of the chips, drives and graphics cards it contains, strip-mall vendors generally offer bare-bones service to match their plain-vanilla enclosures. That leaves only a handful of large vendors offering high-performance 3D workstations and corporate-class support systems: IBM, Dell, HP/Compaq and big boutique vendors BOXX and Alienware, to name the conspicuous competitors. For studios that prefer to buy all their hardware from a single source (including artist workstations, render-farm boxes and file servers) and that want a single phone number to call when one of the machines goes south, these big-name vendors are the only reliable choice. Suns new workstations are its attempt to round out its lineup of hardware offerings (which also include Intel Xeon-based servers) enabling it to join this elite group of vendors in the creative marketplace.

Although Suns new PCs are dubbed Sun Java Workstations, the naming may serve to confuse likely buyers. No one should be fooled into believing these are intended for Java programming or some kind of open-source Web development: Theres no rational need for a top-of-the-line 3D graphics card in a programming or Web development box, and Java is not an integral part of the 3D artists toolkit. Nor should anyone imagine that these systems are built on black-box hardware like other Sun machines. While Suns enclosure, with brushed aluminum over dark-gray paint, looks great and is elegantly utilitarian with its spring clips and uncluttered internal component layout, theres not as much as a transistor under the hood that you couldnt pick up at your favorite computer-geek superstore.

Wide Ranging Compatibility

As for compatibility with industry standards, I tested the dual-processor model, the W2100z, configured with dual 2.4GHz model 250 Opterons, and NVIDIAs Quadro FX3000 grahpics card. The machine comes without an OS on the hard drive, so I installed a multi-boot system with the beta of Microsofts 64-bit version of Windows XP, as well as the standard 32-bit version, and then, I also set up a boot partition with the 64-bit version of Red Hats Linux Enterprise 64-bit edition. Although the machine ships with Suns Solaris, none of the applications in my animation toolkit include Solaris versions, so I skipped installing it.

By far, the most difficult part of the configuration process was installing a driver for the Adaptec Ultra320 SCSI raid card. This card comes as a high-performance option (Serial ATA or SATA, which supports slightly slower, but cheaper higher-capacity drives, is also available). There is no compatible Ultra320 driver shipping for 64-bit Windows, and I had to obtain a beta from Adaptec, then build up a custom installation CD to get it working, since this machine ships without a floppy drive. This is a situation that will quickly be resolved once Adaptec gets its drivers finished and onto Microsofts latest 64-bit Windows release.

Suns release of the 2100w Java Workstation makes sense from a corporate point of view.

For testing application performance, I ran Alias Maya, Discreet 3ds max, SideFX Houdini, Luxology modo and Adobes Creative Suite (including Photoshop CS).

As for the rest of my configuration, it included two monitors connected to the dual-head NVIDIA card: a 23-inch Apple Cinema Display, running at 1900 by 1600 pixels, and a 21-inch CRT, set at 1600 by 1200 pixels. Thats a whole lot of pixels, and allowed me to run applications like Maya with a suite of panels and palettes spread out around me, as well leaving plenty of room for perspective windows, render windows and texture painting workspace.

In all cases, and in all three operating system environments, the hardware performed without flaw, and I didnt have a single crash or software problem that I could trace to the hardware. All of the applications exhibited breathtakingly fast performance.

How fast? Thats a complicated question, given the wide variety of operating systems and applications I used for testing. The 2.4GHz Opteron is the fastest chip in AMDs lineup (as of this week) and, depending on how you benchmark it, it is either nearly as fast, just as fast or significantly faster than the current high-end standard 3.2GHz Pentium 4 Xeon from Intel.

Thats a lot of equivocating, which reflects the complexity of todays computing choices. The 3.2GHz Xeon, and earlier versions, have a very fast L1 cache interface and applications that fit into the 1GB or smaller L1 cache are clearly faster on the Xeon than on the Opteron. Thats why so many benchmark tests show that the Xeon is faster. But few real-world applications (such as Maya, Houdini, 3ds max and Photoshop, for example) actually fit into a 1GB footprint. Heres where the Xeons performance begins to break down and the Opteron takes over. It has a clear advantage when it comes to working with system memory, which is where most graphics applications live.

There is no dramatic speed difference between 32-bit and 64-bit operation until you exceed the application memory limit of the cpu. For 32-bit operation, this limit is usually 2GB (and sometimes as high as 4GB). 64-bit operation is actually slightly slower than 32-bit performance, on average, because of the increased size of instruction sets. However, when you hit the memory ceiling in 32-bit mode, the CPU is forced into disk-swapping mode, or may crash altogether, which is in either case dramatically slower than working within physical RAM.

The Opteron, running in 64-bit mode, meanwhile, has a memory limit of at least 16GB, which is a limit that few applications will approach, even when solving the most radically complex 3D renderings.

Hedging and technical underpinnings aside, this system was by far the fastest PC I have had the opportunity to work on, and the workstation easily outperformed the Dual 2.8GHz Xeons in last-years Dell workstation for everything from 3D modeling to ray-traced rendering. Moreover, the NVIDIA Quadro FX3000 graphics card is a very fast, high-quality 3D card, that made effortless work of modeling, lighting and texture manipulation. While the Opterons really show their stuff during rendering, Im usually asleep when this part of the project is happening. As an artist, my day-to-day work is much more impacted by a state-of-the-art graphics card that lets me manipulate my scenes, textures, lights and animation with little or no waiting. Also, the Quadro FX cards are the only ones blessed to run NVIDIAs new hardware-based film rendering engine, Gelato, making this a a great machine to use as a network render server for hardware rendering. On the other hand the FX3000 is an expensive card and may be overkill for the average game artist.

64-bit Trials

AMDs Opterons run 32-bit applications natively. This offers an easy transition to 64-bit mode, since users can upgrade to 64-bits over time, without sacrificing compatibility or performance with current applications. Intels 64-bit Itanium can also run 32-bit application, but doing so imposes a substantial (up to 30%) performance hit.

64-bit Windows is not all sunshine and roses, however. It forces you to give up many day-to-day user-friendliness features (such as CD and DVD burning) since Microsoft is a long way from rewriting all of the bells and whistles of XP to run in 64-bits. Linux, in general, has better support for such niceties, and 64-bit versions of Linux (Suse and Red Hat both offer versions) is a more mature, complete OS than 64-bit Windows XP, and drivers are more readily available. If youre lucky enough to be running applications that work in Linux (such as Maya and Houdini), by all means consider using Linux as your OS.

Hardware Notes

I have a few quibbles with some of Suns component choices. Apparently the keyboards layout is normal to long-time Sun users but under my fingers it caused a complete muscle-memory meltdown and left me groping painfully for control and function keys. At least a keyboard is cheap to replace. Sun opted to use small, industrial-looking heat sinks and fans to cool the machines dual Opterons, but on warm summer days when my office temperatures rose into the high seventies, these fans, along with the case fan and fan on the NVIDIA graphics card, would rev to full speed and roar at astonishingly high noise levels. Of course, the heat generated by the system only made things worse in the room. On cool days, or with the air conditioning humming along steadily, the machine was comfortably quiet. Still, Sun should at least look into bigger, quieter heat sinks and fans, to prep this machine for life in climate-challenged environments.

Buy it on eBay

Selling workstations on eBay may seem odd for a company that bases at least part of its reputation on corporate sales and service, but the advantage in terms of marketing directly to users is obvious. After several weeks of watching the systems sell on eBay, the best deal Ive seen was the W2100z with dual 246 (2.0GHz) Opterons, 2GB of RAM, a 73GB Ultra SCSI hard drive and a 2D graphics card, that sold for $2,125. (The average final eBay price for this system is closer to $2,500.) By contrast, this same system sells for $4,695 on Suns Web site, which is closer to what similar machines sell for on its competitors online retail stores. (The NVIDIA FX3000 card alone goes for anywhere from $450 to $900 on eBay auctions, so a full 3D-ready system could be put together for well under $3,000.)

However, I was disappointed to find that Suns eBay auctions dont include the W2100z, with its 2.4GHz Opterons, standard 4GB of RAM, or the Quadro FX3000 card, that my test system came with. On Suns retail site, this system dubbed the Large sells for $8,695 more than three times the average price of the Small base configuration available on eBay. But Sun said it would consider listing the large system online given sufficient consumer demand.

Overall, Im very impressed with Suns new machines. They represent a great upwardly mobile alternative to high-performance 32-bit workstations, and I appreciate the ability to buy the hardware and OS separately, since in practice, nearly every studio will require a customized OS installation. Suns foray into eBay auction selling is nearly daring and may yield some spectacular bargains for shoppers, although buyers needing top-end performance will have to make some noise if they want the see the top-of-the-line machines on the auction block. Still, these systems are a compelling alternative to other offerings and Suns workstations have a bright future.

Sean Wagstaff (www.wagstaff.info) is a technical director and visual effects artist who recently completed work on Hellboy, The Day After Tomorow and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. He is now the technical artist for Double Fine Prods., spinning vfx for the asylum-adventure game, Psychonauts.

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