Sun workstation takes Intel quad-core to the races

The workstation market isn’t what it used to be. Back in the day, the term “workstation” denoted a very (and I mean very) high-powered desktop system with a very high-powered video card. In most circles, if it had an Intel processor it was a “desktop,” and if it had a Sparc processor it was a “workstation,” and never the twain shall meet. Well, the twain have met, and it’s a happy union.

Since Sun’s announcement that it would begin using Intel chips in its product line, an Intel-powered Sun workstation has been a foregone conclusion. The only questions pertained to which chipset and what options would be available. Those questions have been answered — at least for now — with the introduction of the Sun Ultra 24 Workstation. Sun’s workstation line now contains entries from every major CPU food group: Intel, Sparc, and the AMD Opteron. The latter two categories include two systems each: a single-socket and a dual-socket model. The Intel class includes only the single-socket Ultra 24 for now, but it’s highly likely that a dual-socket system will be introduced at a later date.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with the Ultra 24 for the past week or so, and I’ve found it to be a very capable, high-end workstation, even with the midrange nVidia FX1700 graphics card. The mainboard is based on Intel’s Garlow uniprocessor platform, and can handle dual- and quad-core Core 2 chips and as much as 8GB of UDDR2-667 RAM. Plus, it’s outfitted with two x16 PCIe 2.0 slots, one x4 PCIe 1.1 slot, one x1 PCIe slot, and two 33MHz standard PCI slots. Rather than skimping on the slots to allow space for embedded graphics and dual NICs, Sun has opted to go the other way, offering more expansion. Losing the embedded graphics is a good thing, but the system could definitely benefit from a pair of gigabit NICs.

On the I/O side, the embedded SATA controller can handle as many as four internal hot-swap SATA drives, or the same cage can be used with an optional SAS RAID controller to handle the faster SAS drives. When I tried some hot swaps, I did find the cage a little sticky. A nice feature is the full 5.25-inch drive bay at the top of the case. The Ultra 24’s counterpart on the AMD side is the Ultra 20 M2, which shares the same form factor and sports a single AMD Opteron CPU. The open bay design of both workstations makes it far simpler to replace the optical drive. Higher-end workstations from Sun use enclosed front-loading optical drives that are sleek, but can be problematic to replace. That said, the SATA dual-layer DVD/CD writer included in the Ultra 24 is no slouch.

My evaluation unit came with an Intel Core 2 Extreme Q6850 3.0GHz quad-core CPU, 8GB of RAM, four 250GB SATA drives, and the nVidia FX1700 graphics card — essentially the top-end CPU and midrange options package for this system. To push it further, the high-end nVidia graphics cards are supported, such as the FX4600 and FX5600.

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