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Dualie Workhorse: HP xw9300

HP’s new workstation with dual processors and dual graphics boardsmight be overkill for the average user, but for analysts and high-endMCAD users, it’s worth the hefty price tag.

With the introduction of the new HP xw9300, Hewlett-Packard (HP) has become the first major vendor to offer a workstation supporting dual PCI Express x16 graphics boards and dual AMD Opteron 200 series CPUs with AMD64 technology. This setup is also the first name-brand workstation to support scalable link interface (SLI) technology for NVIDIA Quadro dual PCI Express graphics.

HP designed this system around the AMD CPU due, in large part, to the need to support two PCI Express (PCIe) x16 graphics boards. The new workstation takes its place at the top of HP’s professional workstation line and is aimed at several specialized markets requiring the best graphics performance available. They include computer-aided engineering and analysis, 3D computer animation and nonlinear video editing, the high end of MCAD, and energy exploration.

Outside and In

The xw9300, housed in a silver and gray tower case, is nearly identical to the HP xw8200 workstation. In fact, at a glance you would hardly notice the difference. The front panel provides access to three 5 1/4-in. drive bays and five internal 3 1/2-in. bays. In our evaluation unit, the uppermost 5 1/4-in. bay contained a CD-RW/DVD combo drive. A second bay was filled with a 3 1/2–in. floppy drive. The system’s motherboard provides an integrated four-channel SATA II hard-drive controller with RAID 0, 1, and 0+1 capability, and a dual-channel Ultra320 SCSI controller with an optional external connector. SATA II offers 3Gbps, which is double the standard SATA bandwidth.



Click on image to enlarge.

In addition to the NVIDIA Quadro FX3400 graphics boards provided in our evaluation unit, HP also offers the Quadro NVS 280, the 3D entry-level Quadro FX 540, and the midrange Quadro FX 1400. The 1400 and 3400 support SLI, which allows custom high-performance graphics solutions, such as parallel rendering and composition, even with a single display.

Our evaluation unit, however, came with two regular serial ATA hard drives: a 80GB 7200rpm Seagate Barracuda and a 74GB 10,000rpm Western Digital Raptor drive. Other options include 250GB or 400GB serial ATA hard drives, 73GB and 300GB Ultra SCSI 10,000rpm hard drives, and 36GB, 73GB, or 146GB Ultra320 SCSI 15,000rpm hard drives.

Front-panel controls consist of a power switch with LEDs to indicate power and hard-drive activity. The front panel also provides two USB 2.0 ports, audio jacks for headphone and microphone, and an IEEE 1394 FireWire connection. The rear panel adds four more USB 2.0 connectors, one 9-pin serial port, another IEEE 1394 FireWire connector, PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports, an RJ-45 connector for the integrated gigabit LAN, and audio jacks for microphone, line-in, and line-out.

As on other HP workstations, a single quick-release lever on the side of the case provides access to the spacious interior and HP’s tool-less chassis. No tools are required to install or remove drives or expansion cards. The motherboard supports one or two Opteron CPUs, and HP sells models using 2.0GHz, 2.2GHz, 2.4GHz, and 2.6GHz versions of these processors. Our evaluation unit came with two 2.6GHz AMD processors with 1MB of L2 cache each. The motherboard provides eight memory sockets, divided into two banks, one for each CPU. The xw9300 uses DDR memory, which is slightly less expensive than the DDR2 memory used in other Intel-based HP workstations. A total of 2GB of 400MHz DDR memory was installed as four 512MB DIMMs; the system supports up to 16GB of RAM using 2MB DIMMs. AMD64 processors do not currently support DDR2 memory, but they achieve better performance than Intel CPUs because of lower latency that results from the memory controller being integrated into the processor. As DDR2 memory gets faster, however, AMD’s advantage in this area will diminish.

Scalable Link Interface and Expansion

Expansion slots consist of two PCI Express x16 graphics slots, three full-height PCI-X slots (one 133MHz and two 100MHz), and one full-length PCI slot. The two x16 graphics slots in our evaluation unit were filled with a pair of NVIDIA Quadro FX3400 graphics accelerators, each with 256MB of onboard memory. While these boards support SLI, there was no SLI connector included and NVIDIA had not yet released an SLI-enabled OpenGL driver. So for now, opting for dual graphics boards only allows you to drive four separate monitors. But once the new driver is released, users should see the additional performance promised by SLI.

Because of the additional power demands of a second high-end graphics board, the HP xw9300 comes with a 750W power supply. And since each of the NVIDIA Quadro FX3400 boards draw more power than can be supplied through the PCIe x16 slot, each requires a 6-pin 12V power cable. There are still plenty of additional power connectors available, however, and lots of room for expansion.

Advanced Technology

The HP xw9300 Workstation introduces a number of new technologies into the HP lineup. The AMD Opteron processors support both 32- and 64-bit computing. Users running Linux can already take advantage of the 64-bit version of this operating system. Windows users will have to wait, however, until Microsoft finally releases the 64-bit extended edition of Windows XP and software vendors release updates of their applications optimized for 64-bit operation.

The AMD 200 series Opteron processor and NVIDIA chipset with AMD-8131 HyperTransport PCI-X tunnel mark a significant departure for HP. Existing Intel chipsets don’t offer enough PCI Express lanes to support two PCIe graphics boards at their full bandwidth. For example, the Intel Tumwater chipsets used in HP’s xw6200 and xw8200 workstations support a total of 24 PCI Express lanes. In the HP xw8200, 16 of those lanes are dedicated to the graphics board, four to the hub that supports PCI-X, and four others are dedicated to expansion slots.

By comparison, the xw9300 uses the new NVIDIA nForce Professional media and communications processors (MCP), the first core-logic solution for AMD Opteron processor-based workstations. The 2200 MCP supports up to 20 lanes, as does each 2050 companion MCP. The xw9300 includes one of each, for a total of 40 PCIe lanes. All that extra bandwidth enables HP to support two full-performance x16 slots. In addition to the NVIDIA Quadro FX3400 graphics boards provided in our evaluation unit, HP will also offer the xw9300 with the NVIDIA Quadro NVS 280 (a professional 2D board), the 3D entry-level Quadro FX 540, and the midrange Quadro FX 1400. Both the 1400 and 3400 support SLI, which allows custom high-performance graphics solutions, such as parallel rendering and composition, even when a single display is used. SLI bands two NVIDIA PCI Express graphics cards together and allows them to work in parallel to provide higher levels of graphics performance than is possible with a single card.

The NVIDIA chipset also provides support for the Opteron processor’s Direct Connect Architecture, native gigabit Ethernet with TCP/IP hardware offload for up to 4Gbps bandwidth, and native support for up to 16 SATA II 3Gbps hard drives and the complete suite of RAID functionality.
Intel processors use a front-side bus architecture, in which the CPUs, chipset, memory, and I/O all use the same pathway, which can create bottlenecks. In AMD’s Direct Connect Architecture, dedicated HyperTransport buses provide direct links between the CPUs, between the CPU and memory, and between the CPU and graphics and I/O. Systems based on the 2.6GHz AMD CPU have a 1GHz HyperTransport bus; other CPUs in the Opteron 200 series have 800MHz HyperTransport buses.

Fast, Faster, Fastest

Benchmarking a system with dual CPUs always poses a bit of a quandary, since standard benchmarks often don’t clearly show the benefits of multiple processors. To evaluate the xw9300, we installed the usual complement of CAD applications and benchmarks, including SPECviewperf and SPECapc. Without the benefit of SLI, the raw graphic performance we measured was no better than that achieved with a single identical NVIDIA board in another system with a similar-speed single CPU.

But even running MCAD applications like Pro/Engineer, Solid Edge, and SolidWorks, which show only minimal improvements from hyperthreading, the xw9300 showed some modest improvement over similar systems with a single CPU. (See Table 1, below, for results published on the SPEC website:spec.org; or click here to see more comparative for workstations.) According to other sources who have also tested similarly equipped xw9300 systems, users running multithreaded applications such as Alias Maya and Discreet 3D Studio Max will see significant speed increases. And we expect performance to improve even more dramatically once the SLI driver becomes available, and again, once users transition to 64-bit computing.


Table 1: SPECapc MCAD Benchmarks.

Benefits Accompany Cost

HP rounds out the xw9300 with an excellent 104-key keyboard and a 2-button wheel mouse, with other input devices available. Both the mouse and keyboard match the silver and gray color scheme of the case.

Either Windows XP Professional or Red Hat Enterprise Linux Workstation (64-bit) come preinstalled, or buyers can choose the HP Installer Kit for Linux, which includes both 32- and 64-bit versions of the operating system.

For Windows-based systems, the HP Performance Tuning Framework, a system optimization application, also comes preinstalled. The entire system is backed by a three-year warranty that includes parts, labor, and on-site service as well as 24/7 telephone support.

Impressive and Maybe More So Over Time

The HP xw9300 is truly impressive—albeit at a price that matches its performance. Although systems start at $1,899, you get just a single 2.0GHz CPU, 1GB of memory, a 80GB hard
drive, a plain-vanilla CD-ROM drive, and the NVIDIA Quadro NVS 280—a 2D graphics board. More powerful 3D graphics boards will increase the price. Adding a second graphics board doubles that cost, and adding a second CPU and a second bank of memory raises the price even more.

Our well-equipped evaluation unit totaled $6,998—quite a premium but reasonable for those who need the ultimate in workstation performance. For an average CAD user, this system amounts to overkill, but for users of analysis applications and high-end MCAD creating and studying large assemblies, the HP xw9300 is the fastest system you can buy today. And unlike other computers that seem to get slower the longer you use them, the xw9300 will probably get faster in the months to come as new drivers, operating system extensions, and revised software become available.

Contributing Editor David Cohn is a computer consultant and technical writer who has been benchmarking PCs since 1984. He’s the Editor-in-Chief of Engineering Automation Report andCADCAMnet published by Cyon Research Corp. You can visit his website at dscohn.com or send an e-mail about this article to de-editors@helmers.com.

About David Cohn

David Cohn has been using AutoCAD for more than 25 years and is the author of more than a dozen books on the subject. He’s the technical publishing manager at 4D Technologies, a contributing editor to Digital Engineering, and also does consulting and technical writing from his home in Bellingham, WA. Watch for his latest CADLearning eBooks on AutoCAD 2015 on the Apple iBookstore, at Amazon, and on the CADLearning website. You can contact him via email at david@dscohn.com or visit his website at www.dscohn.com.