IBM's IntelliStation A Pro
Price: $7,066 US
Fast as all get-out.
Loud as heck.
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 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.]
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
IBM Responds to the “Memory Hole”
The IBM IntelliStation A Pro uses an x86 industry-standard method to assign memory space for drivers of installed devices, which indicates that less memory is available to the operating system than the actual “physical” memory installed in the system. The memory reported by the operating system does not account for space reserved for the drivers that must reside in memory for devices such as the network controller, SCSI, IEEE 1394 and graphics cards.
The A Pro is packed with integrated technologies to provide our high-end customers with the scalability and functionality they demand. The industry-standard method implemented in the A Pro has an architectural limitation, because it is an x86-based system that must support both 32- and 64-bit operating systems. Therefore, the system BIOS must allocate memory for these device drivers within the first 4GB of memory in order to support the 32-bit operating systems.
As the first worldwide tier-one vendor to ship x86 64-bit capable workstations, IBM is leading the design of new solutions to take advantage of the full capabilities of the IntelliStation A Pro. We are in the process of working with our hardware and software vendors to design an open solution to eliminate the memory restriction in systems running a 64-bit operating system in future releases of the A Pro.
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.