Workstations: The Future is 64 Bits Wide

“Nobody is going to design a new car on a four-year-old computer. Designers and engineers will go on strike first,” jokes Barry Crume, Product Line Business Manager, Itanium Systems, for Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP; Fort Collins, CO).

Welcome to the world of technical computing, where the applications are for mission-critical work, not just for productivity enhancement. In this world, an extra few seconds in high-performance design and analysis constitute an unreasonable response time. Technical computing, continues Crume, “isn’t where you save money by not giving your people up-to-date computers.”

Till now, these computers were typically 64-bit Unix systems. The problem with the competition—Wintel: the Microsoft Windows operating system (OS) running on microprocessors from Intel (and Advanced Micro Devices, Inc., AMD)—was, well, the Windows OS. Muses Crume, “When you start noticing you’ve got an operating system, it’s probably not going to be a good day.”

The Microsoft Windows 2000 OS changed that perspective. Technical computing users are saying Windows is now good enough as a workstation OS. Now the hardware, mostly 32-bit Intel microprocessors, has to catch up to the 64-bit Unix performance on reduced instruction set computing (RISC) microprocessors.

And that is where the latest buzz is in workstations. Intel’s new microprocessor, the Itanium, mixes two worlds, says Pia Rieppo, Principal Analyst for Gartner Dataquest (San Jose, CA). Itanium mixes the high-end applications typically found in the RISC/Unix world with the commodity pricing typically found in Intel Pentium- and Xeon-based hardware platforms.

Commodity 64-bitness
Co-developed by Intel and HP, the Itanium is the newest 64-bit microprocessor in town. The others are RISC chips: SPARC from Sun Microsystems, Inc. (Palo Alto, CA), MIPS from Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI; Mountain View, CA), PA-RISC from HP, and PowerPC and RS64 from IBM Corp. All RISC chips run the chip vendor’s version of Unix; not one of these chips runs Microsoft Windows of any kind.

Itanium, says Rieppo, “is effectively a commodity item.” It doesn’t matter whether you buy Itanium from Dell or HP or IBM or the computer tinkerer downtown, the resulting workstations are all going to be basically the same hardware and they’re all going to be running Windows or Intel-compatible Unix.

More important, Itanium ushers in stunningly fast 64-bit processing speeds. Two main architectural features fuel that speed: one is a design feature of Itanium; the other is inherent in all 64-bit chips. Itanium’s Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing (EPIC) design can execute up to 20 operations per clock cycle.

The real kicker is that, as with all 64-bit chips, Itanium can address huge amounts of memory: currently 16 terabytes of flat virtual address space—about 4,000 times more random-access memory (RAM) than in existing Intel x86 chips. (Theoretically, the Itanium can address 18 exabytes of memory, or 18 billion gigabytes.) This benefit becomes patently obvious when processing very large problems that don’t fit in the 4-GB limitation that 32 bits puts on system memory. Instead of accessing the local Ethernet and sucking down portions of a design file, as engineers tend to do now, they can pick up the entire design file, park it in memory, and work with it. No more download lag times or waiting for the computer to swap relatively small chunks of data from the hard drive to RAM and back again.

Where would this come in handy? Finite element analysis (FEA), computational fluid dynamics (CFD), digital mockups, visualizations, interference checking among large numbers of components, viewing tolerance stack ups, and business intelligence. “That’s all tricky stuff,” says Les Silvern, Manager, Workstation Business Development, for NEC Computers, Inc. (Boxborough, MA).

Another advantage of Itanium is that it is expected to support multiple OSs: Windows XP, Linux, HP-UX, IBM AIX, Compaq Unix, and future 64-bit OSs. Such OS flexibility is a “great way,” notes Rieppo, for users who want their Unix preference and the volume pricing that comes with commodity platforms.

Other 64-bitness
Itanium’s ability to run multiple OSs has another benefit, according to Rieppo. It makes Itanium-based workstations “open, non-proprietary solutions.” To see how this plays out, look at HP, IBM, and SGI. These vendors can now say they “have it all”—from high-performance RISC workstations to high-performance, commodity-priced Itanium workstations, using the OS of your choice.

Take SGI for example. It’ll offer Itanium-based workstations, but, says Dixie Fisher, SGI’s Product Marketing Manager, Desktop Products, “we plan to stay with our ‘differentiated’ architectures, and keep them binary compatible with our high-end systems.” SGI is doing this because its customers demand high-performance, high-bandwidth architectures on the desktop.

So, for $17,495, you can buy an SGI Octane2 V6 workstation that has a 360-MHz MIPS 12000A microprocessor, 256 MB of system memory, 32 MB of graphics memory, a 9-GB UltraSCSI hard drive, a 21-inch color monitor, and the IRIX OS. SGI’s high-end workstation, the Octane2 V12 for $28,495, has a faster microprocessor and more graphics memory. Both workstations are dual-processor capable, they can address up to 8 GB of RAM, and their pixel fill rates, according to SGI, “exceed the published performance results of other Unix desktop vendors—up to two times the geometry performance of competing systems.”

Both also support 12 bits per RGBA component (versus 8 bits found in other workstations), thereby capable of displaying 68 billion colors (versus the typical workstation, which can display 16 million colors). “For CAD styling applications, the 12-bit pixel depth translates into a more accurate understanding of surface contours and shorter development times,” says Fisher. In FEA applications, the 68 billion colors result in higher quality images of data variations, which are displayed by varying degrees of color.

Sun’s Approach
Now contrast this approach with Sun. According to Rieppo, from top to bottom, from the least expensive thin client to the most expensive enterprise server, Sun pushes “one platform, one vendor, one solution”—RISC-based UltraSPARC chips running Sun’s Unix-based Solaris OS.

True, but unlike Itanium, Sun’s products and the applications running on Solaris are mature products. Moreover, backward compatibility with earlier versions of the UltraSPARC architecture is not an issue. Plus, we’re talking almost about petty cash here. The Sun Blade 100, starting at under $1,000, uses a 500-MHz UltraSPARC IIE microprocessor and an ATI-based graphics card with 8 MB SDRAM. It works just fine for 2D work. For $2,495, you can buy a Sun Blade 100 outfitted with an Expert3D-Lite graphics card suitable for 3D work. By the way, the Solaris 8 OS is free for up to eight microprocessors. For $6,495, you can go upscale: the Sun Blade 1000, the company’s first UltraSPARC III-based platform, runs at 750 MHz, includes an 8 MB level-two cache, and can support up to 8 GB of memory. (By now, Sun should be shipping a 900-MHz version. A 1-GHz-plus UltraSPARC III is in the works.)

Insofar as technical computing applications go, George Iwaki, Sun’s Marketing Product Manager, Technical Computing, point outs, Sun is “becoming the sole alternative to Wintel”—it is not planning to offer an Itanium-based machine. But that doesn’t mean Sun is excluding Windows. By slapping in a SunPCi II coprocessor card—basically an Intel Celeron chip on a PCI card—you can design a heavy-duty, memory intensive part, say, in PTC Pro/Engineer and paste its design attributes into a Microsoft Word document—all from one screen.

“Industry pundits tend to misguide you,” continues Iwaki, “by mischaracterizing the Wintel solution as ‘open’ and the Sun solution as ‘proprietary.'” Methinks he has a point. Microsoft charges a licensing fee for Windows. You can’t change the OS in an Intel-based workstation. (Yes, there’s Linux, but I don’t know of any high-performance solid modelers running on Linux—yet). Plus, starting in October with the introduction of Windows XP and its Windows Product Application (WPA) process, you have to be careful about changing hardware components in workstations running that OS.

Now the caveats
While Itanium competes directly with RISC, Mark Twain’s crack applies: “The reports of [RISC’s] death are greatly exaggerated.” Itanium workstations, which debuted early this past summer, are still pricey (as with all bleeding-edge technologies). The real excitement will come with Intel’s second-generation 64-bit chip, code-named McKinley, due next summer. By that time, a lot of commercial applications will have been ported over to 64-bit “Intel Inside.”

Second, a 64-bit Windows XP is still in beta, and the scuttlebutt is that it’s a poor beta at that. (Keep in mind: XP is a very complex OS with a gazillion lines of code.)

Third, porting existing 64-bit versions of Unix to Itanium is not a trivial exercise. As of yet, no 64-bit CAD, CAM, CAE, FEA, or CFD software is available for the Itanium. There are, though, plenty of promises to migrate existing software to Itanium. The fact is, to fully experience Itanium in all its glory, you really need 64-bit applications. (If you’re running 32-bit applications, you probably want to stay on 32-bit machines.)

Last, RISC/Unix workstations represent a solid, mature technology, both in hardware and software. Technically, RISC-based microprocessors still have a floating-point performance advantage over the Itanium systems, but Wintel platforms are far more ubiquitous, even in design and analysis shops.

We live in interesting times. Let’s re-evaluate workstation technology a year from now—at least.