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.

Although the shipping now of a high-end Linux workstation from a major computer manufacturer is not the news it was in the late 1990s, the arrival of the A Pro workstation is nonetheless important and not only for its pedigree. With it, IBM has created a capable Red Hat Linux ES-based workstation featuring dual AMD Opteron processors with gobs of room for expansion.

The A Pro provided for review has the following features:

  • Two AMD Opteron 248 series processors running at 2.2GHz each.

  • 4GB, um, 3GB of memory out of a possible 16GBs (more on memory below)

  • One 36GB SCSI hard drive.

  • An NVIDIA Quadro FX 1100 GPU.

  • Mouse/keyboard and other miscellaneous bits.

As shipped, the A Pro costs $7,066, according to the IBM store on May 25th, 2004. Options are available.

When I worked for Linux hardware company VA Research, we always were amazed at—no matter how much integration work we'd put into customizing a distribution—how many of our customers would reload the machine with their favorite flavor of Linux as soon as it hit their loading docks. I'm not certain this situation has changed, but I've chosen to review the machine as delivered.

The review machine did not ship with recovery media, but the contact from IBM has assured me that the machine does ship with recovery CD-ROMs, so that's good.

The Hardware

The first thing you notice after slapping the Power button is the sound. Is it quiet? Well, for a dual Opteron, the noise level is what one would expect. IBM has done some nice work to cut down on the noise, such as adding rubber grommets on the fan mounts and providing some solid thick steel in the construction of the workstation's case. It is not whisper-quiet by any means, and I think that will limit the A Pro's use to the professional who needs this much capability. As I noted before, volume is a relative thing, and I think this system probably is quieter than it should be, considering the expansion capabilities presented by the A Pro. Also, this thing weighs a ton.

One nit about the hardware: it should be noted that it didn't recognize my monitor without tweaking. Not recognizing my monitor, an NEC Multisync FP1350x, was pretty odd, but no worries, redhat-config-xfree86 worked well enough to get X up and running.

I did not have an opportunity to span the screen to two monitors; as shipped, the NVIDIA driver does support such a configuration. The NVIDIA driver is proprietary software but commonly is used because it is considered to be faster than the open-source driver and supports more of the card's features.

An odd thing was some obnoxious noise (tick tick), over the audio subsystem (spurt tick), and it occurred whether you (tick) had your phones plugged in the front or back jacks. It really was annoying, and considering the system noise this thing puts out, the additional noise might qualify as a quality-of-life issue.

IBM engineers thoughtfully provide extra screws attached to the strut spanning the card cage in front of the motherboard, but inexplicably, they don't tie down or otherwise tuck away any of the internal cables, which can impede airflow and otherwise disrupt the machine's thermal performance. You could write this off to the pre-production nature of review machines, but it also can indicate a less than careful hand at manufacturing. Another nit is the quality of the mouse and keyboard. The keyboard is your standard generic keyboard, but the mouse is awful and made me want to smash it with a hammer.

The machine they sent came with 4GB of memory. The BIOS, however, has a hole of 1GB, making the fourth gigabyte disappear. So, effectively, if you buy a machine with more than 3GB of memory—something 64-bit computer users want, mind you—you are paying a tax of one gigabyte.

I wouldn't recommend buying an A Pro until IBM fixes this memory loss situation. This is doubly vexing because at the time of this writing, IBM was offering machines with up to 16GB on its Web site, with no note that you would be losing out expensively. [IBM has since updated its Web site with information on the memory hole issue. See sidebar. —Ed.]