Some Graphic Remarks: VGA for the Ultimate Linux Box

ATI's new Fire GL X1 workstation card isn't cheap, but the performance may be well worth the cost.

For a long time, in the Linux scheme of things, NVIDIA dominated the graphics world with their GeForce line of cards. These monster-sized cards often were a pain to work with, and you had to install the custom, kernel-specific driver to get any sort of performance from them. Which meant a hacker had to recompile the driver every time he wanted to upgrade the kernel. Fortunately, late in 2002, I began to notice a sea change. Someone ordered an ATI RADEON 9700 for his new dual-Athlon workstation, and as I was testing this monster, I noticed RADEON loaded GNOME faster than the NVIDIA did--a lot faster.

So when I heard ATI had come out with the RADEON 9800, I decided it might be interesting to have one in the Ultimate Linux Box. Poking around, I found something even better. What we're trying to build here isn't a game box; it's a workstation. And ATI has workstation cards, something optimized for multiple windows with dual monitor connectors.

The kind folks at Monarch Computer Systems included an ATI Fire GL X1, ATI's flagship workstation card, in the dual-Athlon testbed we're using for the ULB. The Fire GL X1 has 128MB of RAM, and the RADEON VPU (it can be run with the standard RADEON XFree86 driver) is optimized for workstation performance. Dual DVI-I digital/analog outputs are included, each with its own little metal DVI-to-VGA adapter, so one can hook up a standard monitor instead of a digital one. All this power comes in a small package, too; the card barely extends beyond the end of the AGP slot when installed. A single, small, plain black fan/heatsink assembly is over the GPU--a welcome improvement over some of the gaudy, weighty assemblies I've seen on NVIDIA-based products. Although a couple of pounds of heatsink are no big deal when the computer is sitting there, it does become an issue when you try to ship a turn-key system you know is going to get thrown around a few times.

The basics of the testbed system are an AMD 760MP-based motherboard driving dual Athlon 2800+s and 2GB of Corsair PC2100 DDR. Red Hat 9 was installed. I used the XFree86 4.3-standard RADEON driver for testing, as ATI's custom drivers supported only XFree86 4.2 and, unfortunately, are closed-source. This has the added implication that if I wanted to take the card to a new platform, say, something 64-bit, I can't take the driver with me. The drivers are available for XFree86 4.1 and 4.2, glibc 2.2 only. And, interestingly, the drivers are available only as an RPM. I will be inquiring about the availability of debs, 4.3 support and so forth before the ULB configuration is finalized.

The card was easy to set up with Red Hat's redhat-config-xfree86 command. It autoprobed the card and the monitor, and all I had to do was set the desired resolution and depth of color. ATI's web site a configuration script is available for setting up X when proprietary drivers are being used. But give Red Hat some credit; it can't possibly be any easier than this. If you get stuck, simply move the XF86config file somewhere else; the configurator generates a brand new one, using the fallback VESA driver until the real driver is determined.

Running with 24-bit color at 1024 x 768, the Fire GL X1 scored 2820fps on the Evas (Enlightenment canvas) 3D-accelerated frame test, 72fps on the old (unaccelerated) test and 146.4 on the XMark test. This seems to be about double what a GeForce 2 can do--in 16-bit mode. For some reason, however, the 3-D games I tested didn't find the DRI module, even though the XFree86 logfile indicating it was loaded. Thus, the games were slow and choppy. I suspect this has something to do with either XFree86 4.3 or the RADEON driver. Obviously, it is something we want to resolve before finalizing the ULB's configuration.

I mentioned the Fire GL X1 supports twin monitors. Interestingly enough, Xinerama (XFree86 dual-head mode) does not support DRI. Normally this isn't an issue; you usually game on a single monitor. But for a workstation, where you might have a picture on one monitor and the controls on another, this is a serious issue. You could add a second USB mouse and keyboard, then set up an entirely separate display for such things, but this quickly becomes painful. Obviously, this isn't so much a hardware issue as it is an X issue, but it's something to think about as you roll your own machine.

With prices ranging from $550 to nearly $700 (thanks, Froogle), the ATI Fire GL X1 is far from cheap. In fact, it likely will be the single most expensive component of this year's Ultimate Linux Box. But premium video doesn't come cheap, and modulo some driver issues hopefully to be resolved soon, this is one place where you get what you pay for. For what it's worth, Dell offers the AT Fire GL X1 in its premium dual Xeon workstation, with custom driver RPMs. Having had my hands on one of these Dell systems recently, I can say, without benefit of hard numbers, it is quite fast.

What's Next: The much-awaited soundproofing test, some premium sound and a motherboard for this monster.



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kernel hackers do have more serious problems

Anonymous's picture

if a kernel hacker does get a new kernel build ready
then he most often has to compile his DRI modules
separately in order to get hardware accelleration
up and running again for his box.

thats because DRI does evolve by itselves, idependently
from the kernel. having a recent kernel with a recent
DRI implementation often means that it is already out
of date with the respective drivers in the XFree86 environment.

to all that i have seen so far, the closed source drivers
do nicely cope with the majority of stable tree kernels.
even if those third party kernel modules do need rebuild
which in the end is nothing more than two commands
on the console.

for kernel hacking i would really refraign from a machine
that i am running a costly graphics board with a quite
more costly CAD or digital content creation software
and a bigger amount of business critical data on the harddrive.

again *me*

selling such a costly box and getting drivers wrong?

Anonymous's picture

i cant imagine what i am reading there.
the author of this article has possibly missed
the major resources for information:
newsgroups, forums and mailing lists.

Else he would have known that there are drivers
out there for that board and X4.3.0, i think
that always
has some nice recent "beta" snapshots on their servers.

The task of an system reseller is consisting of
bringing the maximum momentum to his cusotmer.
If he says he must install open source drivers
on an x86 based machine because of ia64 machines,
then he is possibly loosing the focus of his current target
and missing several big features, not only the performance.

If the author wanted to review the open source drivers
then he has possibly done it at some acceptable degree.
But i somewhat doubt that.

Despite that all i can confirm those board is running
out of the box with RedHat 9.0 and alikes.


Re: Some Graphic Remarks: VGA for the Ultimate Linux Box

Brian_Bilbrey's picture

One distro you might look at for a ULB is Gentoo. Not only is a source-compiled distro going to wring every last erg of oomph outta that dual athlon box (I'm happy with mine, on a dual MP-1900 setup).

In addition, Gentoo's got the ATI driver working fine for gaming and DRI with XFree86 4.3 on my Radeon Pro 9700. The ATI test program, fgl_glxgears, yields 235 FPS fullscreen 1600x1200 at 24bpp. Standard glxgears, in it's normal little window (but still at 24bpp) results in ~5930FPS. Both of those results are with XMMS, KDE, and VMware running (with a compile going in VMware).

Have fun!

Re: Some Graphic Remarks: VGA for the Ultimate Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Hmmmm Nice I didnt know that there was graphics driver availeble for this radeon card ,thanks for the information
But what about the software that follows with the graphics card ?? They are making some software dvd players and some videocapture software does this work with linux too???
I have been searching for a video card with S-vhs input/output
so i actually think i would choose the radeon 9700 all-in-wonder series

Re: Some Graphic Remarks: VGA for the Ultimate Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

>The basics of the testbed system are an AMD 760MP-based motherboard
> driving dual Athlon 2800+s and 2GB of Corsair PC2100 DDR

PC2100 DDR.... My XP1900 MB requires PC2700DDR ram.
Doesn't this mobo require higher RAM?

Re: Some Graphic Remarks: VGA for the Ultimate Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

No. These are MPs. Totally different latency and cache patterns. Very hard to crank the speed with two channels.