IBM's IntelliStation A Pro

IBM has created a capable Red Hat Linux ES-based workstation featuring dual AMD Opteron processors with gobs of room for expansion.
The Software

The A Pro appears to be aimed solidly at a graphic workstation market. As such, I tested it using some GIS exploration software I have experience with, so I could get a feel for how well IBM has succeeded at providing a machine for that market.

The machine ships with a pretty standard Red Hat Enterprise Server load. As mentioned above, there were a few hiccups during load, mostly connected to video configuration and port selection. Past that, it doesn't look like IBM did much at all to the distribution, short of loading the NVIDIA driver as noted above. Although I'd like to see more “welcome to your A Pro Super Machine, here's what you've got”, a stock distribution is less likely to be overwritten immediately, so IBM's decision is understandable.

Partitioning was done competently in my opinion, with /var suitably reined in. When you are in the Linux hardware business you quickly realize there is no one true partitioning scheme. I imagine you would want to tell IBM your preferred layout if you were to buy in quantity, though. Like many Linux users, I have a set of things I do to any base load—change Mozilla's search to Google, set up the monitor to reflect my ideas about color depth and resolution—and the system didn't gag on anything I did to it in that vein.

Application Support

The A Pro comes with the regular array of apps, including Mozilla, OpenOffice.org and everything else that ships with Red Hat ES. IBM chose to load all the apps, which is a valid decision for a desktop machine. Again, when buying, you might want to specify the parameters of your load.

Java is the only major language not supported out of the box, unless you consider Pascal major. This struck me as odd considering IBM's dedication to the language.

Tux Racer

Games are a good way to test the OpenGL subsystem, and they also are fun. Tux Racer ran fine—no graphic glitching. The sound was not turned on out of the box, though, so I set that up using the standard Red Hat sound card setup program to good result. It struck me as odd that IBM hadn't done this as part of the load.

TerraVision Test

Because I wanted a program that could test the graphics, processors and memory handling of this machine, I chose the geographical exploration application TerraVision, which allows you to do 3-D flythroughs of GIS height map data with textures created from satellite data. I loaded four data sets into the system—the Palo Alto resolution set, global set, Lawrence Livermore and San Francisco—all at various resolutions, spanning 1km to 3 meters. This represents a total of about 4GBs of data, and although the program is good with swapping the data into the program's memory, it is quite consumptive. The A Pro performed quite well—no real glitching of the data set and the flythrough was smooth. You can download TerraVision and a number of data sets off the SRI Web site (www.ai.sri.com/TerraVision).

Price and Conclusion

When comparing the A Pro against two white box vendors, the IBM machine seems to run about $1,800 US more. Is it worth it? Perhaps, as IBM's casework and layout generally is excellent, but I have to admit I wasn't overwhelmed with the machine to the tune of $1,800, mostly due to the noise profile. I have to say, from a sound perspective, it was a relief to shut off the A Pro, which is never a good thing. The Opteron is a cool-running 64-bit chip, so it shouldn't take this many decibels to cool it.

The case is designed to hold and power a vast number of drives, so it has cooling to spare, but there is no clear way to turn down the fans and make them less intrusive. The scope of the machine should be taken into account as the valid excuse for the noise level, however. If you need the beefiest, most solid workstation on the market, then the IBM A Pro is what you'll be buying, and I think you'd be both happy and well served by it.

Chris DiBona is the cofounder of Damage Studios and works on the new massively multiplayer on-line role-playing game Rekonstruction. Chris is an internationally known open-source advocate. He writes for the LJ Web site and the book he co-edited, Open Sources, won the Linux Journal book-of-the-year award in 1999. A sequel currently is in the works. His personal Web site can be found at dibona.com.

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