Some Graphic Remarks: VGA for the Ultimate Linux Box

by Glenn Stone

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.



Monarch Computer Systems:

Evas, the Enlightenment Canvas:

Glenn Stone is a Red Hat Certified Engineer, sysadmin, technical writer, cover model and general Linux flunkie. He has been hand-building computers for fun and profit since 1999, and he is a happy denizen of the Pacific Northwest.


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