Power Up!

A Review of the YDL PowerStation.

On June 6, 2005, hell froze over, and Apple announced it was abandoning the PowerPC architecture it had helped develop in favor of processors from Intel, a company Apple had actively mocked for years. By August 2006, the transition was complete, and the largest maker of computers based on the PowerPC (or Power) architecture had become an Intel-only shop.

This transition affected one company more than almost anyone else. Terra Soft Solutions of Loveland, Colorado, has been working with Linux on PowerPC hardware longer than just about anyone. Its flagship product is Yellow Dog Linux (YDL), and for years, Terra Soft's major business was selling Apple PowerPC hardware with YDL pre-installed on it. Terra Soft actually had the distinction of being the only Apple reseller authorized to sell Macintosh hardware with something other than Mac OS installed on it. With Apple now out of the picture, Terra Soft's primary business had to change.

For the past couple years, Terra Soft has focused a lot of its attention on server products from IBM and on the PlayStation 3 from Sony. Now, with the PowerStation, Terra Soft is taking a step into the hardware business Apple vacated. Its Web site says it all in a single sentence: “The Power workstation is back.”

Figure 1. The internals of the PowerStation are easy to get to, and the box has numerous expansion opportunities.

Chips based on the Power architecture are found in many devices and products—from cars to mainframes to robots. Customers who relied on Apple for PPC-based workstation hardware were left in the lurch with Apple's Intel switch. For those that need it, being able to run PPC code without emulation on their local workstation is a big plus. The PowerStation was created to provide these developers with a high-quality open-source-friendly workstation. Not only is it more powerful than any PPC-based Power Mac from Apple, it also is more open and expandable.

The Hardware

The PowerStation comes with two dual-core 2.5GHz IBM 970MP processors, with 1MB of L2 cache per core. For memory, there are eight 667MHz DDR2 DIMM slots that allow the box to accommodate up to 32GB of RAM. Local storage is handled by a four-port SAS RAID controller and a single IDE controller. My test box was configured with a single 70GB SAS drive, 2GB of RAM and a DVD/CD-RW drive—nothing earth shattering, but decent enough.

Networking for the PowerStation is handled by dual Broadcom HT2000/BCM5780 Gigabit Ethernet ports. For serial I/O, there are two USB ports on the back and a couple more on the front of the case, two RS-232 serial ports and a single RJ45 VTY console port to round things out.

Figure 2. The Back of the PowerStation

For expansion, the motherboard has a single PCIe x16 connector (that comes filled with a 512MB ATI X1650 Pro graphics card), two PCIe x8 connectors and a single PCI-X connector.

Figure 3. The graphics card in the PowerStation was switched at the last minute to this ATI X1650 Pro.

Finally, power for the box is supplied by an 815-Watt power supply.

Accessing the box's internals is easy. The entire side of the case pops off at the press of a latch. The four SAS hard drive bays can be reached from behind a front panel that pops off just as easily as the side panel.

Figure 4. The PowerStation opens with the touch of a button.

The firmware for the box is the Slimline Open Firmware (SLOF)—a BSD-licensed version of Open Firmware (IEEE-1275), which is what Apple used on its PowerPC-based Mac computers.

There is no sound card built in to the PowerStation. I asked the fine folks at Terra Soft about it, and they replied that they were exploring options with regard to sound output and that they would be releasing a solution soon (hopefully, it will be in place by the time you read this article). They said it likely would be in the form of a USB sound card dongle instead of an internal PCIe card (in order to save precious PCIe slots for more important duties).

Figure 5. The PowerStation motherboard is dominated by the two IBM 970MP processors.

One final note on the hardware is that the PowerStation fans make a lot of noise. It's not as loud as a rackmount server, but it's louder than my scratch-built home server (and I think that it's too noisy at times). On top of the normal noise, the fans on the PowerStation cycle up and down as needed to keep the system at the optimal temperature, which causes the noise level to fluctuate from loud to very loud almost at random. The noise level is not too bad for a normal office environment, but it would be far too loud in a quieter space (such as a recording studio).



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FredR's picture

I think the details of a PPC port of Linux KVM are a bit sketchy, but can you imagine buying one of these as a VM host? That would be interesting. I know historically PPC processors are better at math and floating point operations.

-- FLR or flrichar is a superfan of Linux Journal, and goofs around in the LJ IRC Channel