Microway “Screamer 533”
Manufacturer: Microway, Inc.
Price: $2,995 US 500MHz and 433MHz available at lower prices.
Reviewer: Bradley Willson
This story is proof positive that one has to be careful what they wish for, because the wish might come true. It all started when I joked with Marjorie Richardson of Linux Journal about reviewing a “Screamer 500”. The next item in my e-mail was a response stating that Carlie Fairchild had contacted Microway and had convinced them to send me a machine for review. My response was, “You're kidding, right?” Naturally, I was very pleased to find out it was true. The icing on the cake came when I called Ann Fried (pronounced “freed”) at Microway. She decided it would be better to have me review the new 533MHz machine instead of the 500MHz model. The idea of having that much “horsepower” behind the keyboard brought back memories of my 1970 Mustang and the feeling of being pressed into the seat back under acceleration. The only things missing were the roar of the engine and the smell of burnt rubber.
It is not the intent of this article to compare the Microway Screamer to other DEC Alpha-based computers. This article is about the profound differences between Intel 32bit Linux and Alpha 64bit Linux. I chose the Screamer because of Microway's advertisement in Linux Journal. Their ad provided the most information about the Alpha. Mainly this article is about having more fun with a computer than should be legal, while getting a glimpse of the future of computing.
As a teenager, I thoroughly enjoyed racing against anyone that would pull alongside (State Highway Patrol was excluded, of course). Computers were not of interest to me then. Years passed, the hot rod was replaced by an econo-box commuter, and I discovered a new way to race. My first 286 was constantly tweaked to gain performance, then it was upgraded to a 386 and so on. Now the old 286 case sports an AMD 5x86 133. The green flag drops, the race between the AMD 133 and the Screamer 533 begins. My hot-rod Mustang was never a match for a Top-Fuel dragster, and the same is true for my computer pitted against a 533MHz DEC Alpha, but the fun part was getting to drive the dragster.
Vrrrmmm, Vvvrrrrmmm, sputter, sputter, my office box fires up in DOS. Type linux at the C:\ prompt and Linux boots. I read 66.56 BogoMIPS from the scrolling screen. After I log in and enter startx I'm ready to go to work. Next I turn on the Screamer, wait about 4 minutes for the boot sequence to complete, read 1063.26 BogoMIPS from the startup messages. Immediately I can see the difference in speed. Parts of the boot messages are not readable because they scroll by so fast. I log into the Screamer and enter startx. The XFree86 configuration messages flash by so fast that they appear as a blur. Literally everything runs profoundly faster on the Screamer. Emacs appears within two seconds after menu selection. xfig is ready to use by the time I move my finger off the mouse button. Both of these applications take a few seconds to launch on my machine.
I needed an application that would level the playing field and could be timed using “time” on both machines, so I wrote a bash script to append several instances of the phrase “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog's back” to a file (see Listing 1). The task was repeated 100,000 times, creating a 5.2MB file on each machine. My 133 churned for 5 minutes and 12.98 seconds before completing the task (see Listing 2). The Screamer completed the execution in a mere 18.89 seconds (see Listing 3). I used the 4.9 minutes I got back from the Alpha to run a few more tests on it.
Even though it is a crude benchmark test, it exercised the CPU and the storage hardware of both machines. Several factors like IDE vs SCSI, memory and running daemons have an effect on the outcome, so your results will likely vary from these, but you will be able to gauge your machine's performance to the Screamer's.
Microway builds an industrial-grade computer, starting with the case. The all-steel construction shows thoughtful engineering. Even the drive bay face-plates are made of steel. The side access panel makes working on the internals easy. Once inside, there is plenty of room to move around. Adding and removing storage devices is quick and easy thanks to the rail mount system. There is ample room between the drives and the motherboard and installed cards so you won't need a shoe-horn to install or remove a drive. The only problem I could foresee was that using the lowest two drive bays requires removal of the rivets that connect the card support rack to the drive support rack. Once done, it is left up to the user to provide the means to reconnect the racks. There are five fans to help the Screamer keep its cool while it crunches data. However, even with all those blades spinning, the Screamer is a quiet performer.
Like many other computers sold today, you can specify the options you want to buy with the base package, but the “basic” Screamer will likely keep any home user flying through code for years. The Screamer comes in two colors: black and beige. This particular box was built for the review and a series of trade-shows with these components: a 4.3GB Seagate Barracuda UW-SCSI hard-drive, a 1.44MB floppy drive, a 8x IDE Mitsumi CD-ROM, a Matrox Millennium card with 2MB, an Adaptec 2940 Ultra-Wide SCSI controller and 128MB of RAM. Of course, it also came with 2MB 9ns SRAM Cache installed. The motherboard sports 4 PCI slots (2x32bit and 2x64bit) and 2 ISA slots.
Microway generously sent a Iiyama 17'' Vision Master model MF-8617E monitor along with the Screamer. Using this monitor couldn't be easier. There are four buttons on the front panel and one of them is the power switch. You activate the on-screen menu with a single button and make menu selections with either the + or - buttons. I was impressed with its compact design. I've seen other monitors of the same display size taking up far more footprint on the desktop. This model has a maximum resolution of 1600 x 1200 non-interlaced, both 5-BNC and D-Sub mini 15 pin connections and a maximum of 19 user-definable signal settings. It is also power management and plug & play (VESA DDC1/2B) aware. At $679.00, it is a great value.
Do not expect to find the same robust selection of applications and utilities for the Screamer as you would for Intel. The number is small in comparison to Intel-based availability. There are however, approximately 380 Alpha applications and utilities to be found at ftp://ftp.digital.com/pub/linux/redhat/redhat-4.2 and ftp://sunsite.unc.edu/pub/linux/ALPHA/alpha. Even with the relatively low number of available programs, there were several familiar applications installed on this machine, e.g., xfig, Emacs, mc, minicum and xfm. Every Alpha program performed faster than the equivalent Intel program on my machine. The Screamer came with Red Hat 4.2 (Biltmore release) installed. I tried installing a number of the Alpha applications from my InfoMagic Developer's Resource set, circa September 1996. A few failed but the majority of them worked.
All is not lost when it comes to running Intel-based applications on the Alpha platform. Em86 (a non-supported product of DEC) will run numerous Intel-based applications. Em86 can be run standalone, in a script or as part of the kernel. It is best to apply the em86 patch and recompile the kernel, so that it can recognize the need to emulate when an Intel application is launched. Otherwise, you have to enter em86 before every Intel application you wish to run. Furthermore, if the application spawns a child process, it will fail because em86 (standalone) won't spawn a process to perform emulation for the child process. With some planning and work, Intel ports can be used on the Alpha, but not without a performance penalty. Even so, using an emulator will go a long way toward maintaining operations while the Alpha ports are in development.
From the package truck to the office in 15 minutes—no speed limits were broken in the process. The precious cargo was handled carefully, as the phrase “you break it, you buy it” repeated in my head. The setup was like any other computer installation. I plugged in the keyboard, mouse, monitor and power cords. I flipped the switches and watched as the fun began. The only problem I had was making space for the full-size tower under my desk. The extra monitor on the desktop made for cramped quarters for a few weeks, but I certainly felt it was worth it.
Microway offers telephone tech support at (508) 746-7341 and e-mail tech support at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. The sure-fire way to get answers is to call. I would like Microway to add an auto-responder to send back a response that tells the sender that their message got through and is in the works.
Microway has been producing advanced mathematical and scientific computing software products and hardware since 1982. Today they produce numerous NDP compilers in a variety of languages, i.e., C/C++, Fortran and Pascal, custom software and hardware. Their hardware product line reads like a who's who in industrial computing starting with Intel Pentium Workstations, i860 boards and, of course, the Screamer series of DEC Alpha-based custom-built file servers and workstations. Companies like Ford Motor Company, General Motors Corporation, Rolls Royce and Fidelity Investments pepper Microway's customer database. Microway machines are installed at hundreds of universities worldwide.
Ann Fried was my sales contact. Mike Brown is the National Sales Manager. Nina Nitroy was very helpful by making a copy of ldconfig available on the ftp server. I had accidently overwritten the file with the em86 ldconfig. I couldn't shut down the machine without it. They all can be reached at 508-746-7341.
Microway will have released a new LX motherboard by the time this reaches the newsstands. It features six PCI slots (2x64bit and 4x32bit), two ISA slots and a 4MB cache. Microway LX motherboards are unique in the fact that they are backward compatible with slower but more affordable processors such as the 500MHz and 433MHz. Mike Brown of Microway pointed out that there is a five percent performance difference between the 500MHz and the 533MHz chips. Also look for their new NDP FORTRAN for Linux released back in October.
Bradley J. Willson currently designs and troubleshoots tooling for the Boeing 777 program and fills the chair of chief cook and bottle washer for Willson Consulting Services. His friends understand and forgive his addiction to computer technology, while others wonder how he can stand the countless hours he spends staring at screens. According to Bradley, the secret is attitude—and maybe a mild case of radiation sickness. He can reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and http://www.ifixcomputers.com/.