The simplest way to detail the Sun w2100z is to just open it up and look at what Sun put under the hood. Our side panel on the workstation actually provides us with detailed knowledge of how the system works. You can see the side panel reference below.

Click to enlarge.

The core of the Sun w2100z is its K85AE motherboard. The K85AE is wildly different from anything to which we are accustomed, even when looking at server motherboards. Sun's modular approach to component design makes it a lot easier to upgrade (providing you use Sun components) and in turn, gives Sun customers a uniform base of components to pick and choose. Our particular w2100z came with all of the options, so we can detail them here.

 Sun K85AE Specifications
CPU Type (2) AMD Socket 940*
Memory Banks (4) 1GB PC-3200 ECC DDR*
HyperTransport Tunnel AMD 8111
AGP Tunnel None
PCI Tunnel AMD 8131
SATA Silicon Image Sil3512
PCI Slots (1) 133MHz PCI-X
(1) 100MHz PCI-X
SATA Ports (2) U150
PATA (2) ATA100
Audio Realtek ALC655 AC'97
Network Broadcom BCM5703 Gigabit Ethernet
Firewire Ports (2)
USB 2.0 Ports (2)

You'll notice the star next to the CPU type and Memory banks. The K85AE is a single CPU motherboard with a "CPU mezzanine" - two risers (one for power, one for IO) rise up through the center of the motherboard to provide four additional DDR banks and one additional CPU slot. Sun only needs to produce a single motherboard design and significant space inside the motherboard is saved. The idea of a CPU mezzanine is not new - particularly for Sun - but seeing such technology up close is always exciting. Below, you can see the CPU mezzanine removed from the system (a high resolution reverse side image can be found here.

Click to enlarge.

There isn't anything too interesting about the mezzanine itself. Sun somewhat exploits the design of Opteron by placing the memory on the mezzanine with the CPU. Remember, all Athlon 64 and Opteron processors have their own memory controllers - each processor has its own memory bank. Technically, the primary Opteron on the motherboard can utilize the memory on the mezzanine via the HTCN bridge, although there is a performance hit by doing so.

The CPU mezzanine sits directly on top of the AMD 8111 HyperTransport hub and the first AMD 8131 PCI-X tunnel. Removing the mezzanine also reveals the Broadcom gigabit Ethernet controller, BIOS and SATA controller. You can read more about the SI controller here, and more about the Broadcom controller here. Both devices have fairly strong Linux support as we will see later in our analysis. The fact that our SATA controller only supports two drives is not of huge significance, since the chassis can only hold two drives anyway. Below is an image of both controllers once the CPU mezzanine is removed. The AMD 8131 is covered by an aluminum heatsink.

Click to enlarge.

The entire board layout without the extender card can be seen below (those interested in a high resolution reverse side image can get that here:

Click to enlarge.

The K85AE mainboard is far from legacy free. When we first unpackaged the workstation, we were surprised to not see any PS/2 interfaces (the included keyboard and mouse are USB). Under closer inspection, we noticed that PS/2 connectors did in fact exist, but they were covered by the EMI shield from the case. The motherboard houses two serial connectors and one parallel connector as well.

Also note the 133MHz PCI-X connector (black). The majority of peripheral components on the mainboard are very basic including the Realtek AC'97 audio controller. Sun seems very shy on USB, including only five devices (two of which must be used for the keyboard and mouse unless the PS/2 ports are revealed).

Index Motherboard (continued)
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  • mlittl3 - Wednesday, October 27, 2004 - link


    Yeah, the list I am quoting is a year old because it has the last data for the Virginia tech cluster. There are others now in the top 10 that you mentioned. Even better that some of these are Power chips which the G5 is based on. This news story from Cnet

    talks about the new Mac cluster at Virginia tech with the custom 2.3 Ghz G5 processors. They added 50 more nodes and were able to obtain 2 more teraflops. It will be included in the list to come out in a week or so.

    And, Reflex, can you comprehend this:

    These products aren't intended for my mom to check email on. Plus the enterprise (business) apple store (oh my God did I say enterprise and Apple in the same post), sells rack enclosures for 1U systems and a Applecare service parts kit for xserve G5 and xserve raid products. Yes, Apple is a little new to this type of industry, however, Apple has had a server solution ever since the beige Powermac days ( go to for more info). The more they get into it, the better they could get.

    I don't know how to respond to your Sun out of business desire. They help AMD and they help competition, both which are good for you and me.
  • KristopherKubicki - Wednesday, October 27, 2004 - link

    mlittl3: Don't forget about the SGI NASA computer now ranked #1 and Blue/Gene L from IBM now #2 or 3. The SGI computer uses Itaniums, the IBM one uses Power chips.

  • Reflex - Wednesday, October 27, 2004 - link

    First off, once again, you are misunderstanding what you are looking at. Total number of CPU's is only part of the equation. There are *many* factors that go into the 'most powerful supercomputer' equation. How much memory and what type/speed? How are they linking the individual nodes? What kind of software optimizations have been done, and what software is being used to benchmark it? These rankings are more marketing than reality, and they do NOT answer the question of what the most powerful 2 cpu desktop workstation would be. In other words: Its irrelevant to the discussion at hand. My only point is that you can make a supercomputer out of anything with the right software engineering and equipment, just depends on how much money you wish to throw at the problem.

    Secondly, I do not know of Sun competing in this market, and I doubt they would care. They sell the Sun name in service, support, and hardware quality, as well as the benefits of their own OS. I am NOT a Sun fan, in fact I honestly have wanted them to die off and let the true innovators take their place. But, the point of this review, and the price on their workstation is that its about more than the hardware at this level, and that is what I am trying to get across to you when you go compare price tags. A difference of a few grand means nothing in a large corporate environment, its the service they are paying for and they know it.

    Apple has NO corporate service infrastructure at all, they will not have a replacement server or workstation to a business in a few hours after a failure, they do not have specialists who can assist in integrating their hardware into a server cluster, and they do not offer those types of services for free as part of your purchase. This is why they are NOT in competition with this product, no matter how well they perform.

    Can you comprehend this?
  • mlittl3 - Wednesday, October 27, 2004 - link

    Okay, Relfex, you really haven't done your homework. The November 2003 Top 500 supercomputer list was the last time the Viginia Tech cluster was listed (they have been upgrading since then and will be in the 2004 November list). This cluster was made up of consumer level desktop computers at the time the list was compiled. Here is a duplication of the top 10.

    Earth Simulater - 5120 processors
    ASCI Q - 8192 processors
    X (Virginia Tech) - 2200 processors (2 GHz G5)
    Tungsten - 2500 processors
    Mpp2 - 1936 processors
    Lightning - 2816 processors (2 GHz opteron)
    MCR - 2304 processors
    ASCI White - 8192 processors
    Seaborg - 6656 processors
    xSeries - 1920 processors

    First off, none of the top ten are Sun systems. Second, according to your example, the cluster with the least amount of processors should be the best, highest performance processor used for high end computing needs that servers would handle. Let's see. The two least number of processor clusters were an itanium cluster (Mpp2) and a Xeon cluster (xSeries) neither of which performed better than the G5 with just 250 more processors (which was the third smallest). And if I remember correctly, the G5 cluster cost less than the rest of the top 10 (~$10 mill).

    What I really want to point out is that the 2200 G5's at 2GHz beat the 2816 Opteron's at 2 GHz. Do I need to do the math for you or can you handle it? What is even more insult to injury is that the Opteron Lightning cluster was made from high performance server/workstation computers and the G5 cluster was made from "desktop" computers as you put it.
  • phaxmohdem - Wednesday, October 27, 2004 - link

    Apples Suck.

    (I'd much rather eat grapefruit)
  • Reflex - Wednesday, October 27, 2004 - link

    "Well, I guess all you apple-haters' comments that x86 computers are cheaper than apple computers can eat your words."

    That is why I made a statement about Zealots, and then set out to demonstrate why you were comparing apples to oranges.

    Secondly, if you toss enough processors into an array, you can make it a top supercomputer. With enough 8088's you could even make that perform(I'd hate to see the size of that array however). Once again, the Power970 is a *nice* CPU, but that does not mean there aren't more powerful options out there, nor does it mean that it is a good option in all situations. There is an Opteron supercomputer being built that should be tops in the world, for example, but its not really an example of how powerful the Opteron is, its an example of scientists with a large budget and projects that warrant it throwing a lot of CPU's at a problem.

    And actually, my point is made with the geForce6800's. That is a consumer level card, and a video engineer will likely remove it in favor of a Quadro or something from 3DLabs or SGI. Just because something can push a lot of polys does not make it a professional level card. Go look up the card in the Sun workstation, it is NOT a consumer level card.
  • mlittl3 - Wednesday, October 27, 2004 - link

    #19, if you don't want to start a Mac/PC flame war then don't write stupid statements like

    "The problem with the recent Mac article appears to be that it has attracted the zealots to this site in force."

    If a site reviews a particular piece of hardware whether it is a Mac or Apple, then anyone interested in the hardware has a right to read it and comment on the article. If a Mac review site did a review on an x86 piece of hardware, I wouldn't bash an x86 enthusiast for reading it and commenting on it.

    It seems hardware enthusiasts are like segrecationists from the deap south back in the 50's and 60's. Statements like, "I don't like those Mac hippies hanging around our holy x86 hardware review sites and spoiling the purity of our x86 world" sounds like what you are saying, Reflex.

    Anyway, you have not commented on the fact that the Virginia Tech supercomputer cluster of G5's won the third spot on the Top 100 supercomputer lists last November or the fact that Apple G5's are sold with Geforce 6800 DDL video cards to provide enough power to light up two 30" LCD panels for high end workstation applications. Pretty high tech for just "audio/video editing".
  • Reflex - Wednesday, October 27, 2004 - link

    #17: Confused is right. You seem to think that all that goes into a name brand workstation is the hardware. You buy a Sun, you are buying the name, and in Sun's case that means a LOT in the corporate market. Apple's name means nothing there and is not worth a premium over a white box IN THAT MARKET. In the home market, the digital audio/video market, and to some degree desktop publishing market the opposite is true. Its all about what a platform's strengths are.

    As for that HP vs Apple consumer system you mentioned, you forgot the part where that 2.4Ghz A64 would significantly spank the Mac you compare it to. A 1.8Ghz Mac does not compare with a 2.4Ghz A64 in performance. Granted we can't see how bad the comparison would be due to lack of optimized apps for both platforms, but I'd be shocked if it could do more than a few Photoshop renders faster on the Mac. Compare the price to a 1.8Ghz A64 and you shave a few hundred dollars off that price.

    I am not trying to start a Mac/PC flame war here, both have thier strengths and weaknesses. However comparing a *consumer* Mac(despite whether or not you can use it as a workstation) with a corporate targeted workstation is a rediculous comparison, and only demonstrates the lack of experience in the industry of those who would do such a comparison.
  • Reflex - Wednesday, October 27, 2004 - link

    #15: I am very familiar with the PPC970, and I am a regular on Ars. I am NOT bashing it at all. My point is only that its difficult to get a real feel for Apple performance due to Apple's lack of cooperation with tech review sites. We don't really know what is better than what and in which situations.

    #14: You can say something 'feels' however you want. That does not change anything for a corporate IT buyer. The G5 is NOT marketed to them, the support provided is NOT what they would consider acceptable, and the Apple brand is not taken any more seriously than Packard Bell when it comes to corporate workstations and servers in that market. That is the market the Sun is designed to serve, and its competition are workstations from SGI, HP, and Dell, NOT Apple. Apple's G5 certainly can be considered a workstation if a person wishes to use it as such, however outside of the Audio/Video editing field it is likely not. I have yet to see a company with a legion of Mac's on their desktops that is not either in publishing or art. You can consider *anything* a workstation if thats how you decide to use it, even an iMac.

    Sun, however, specifically gears their hardware, software and support to this market. That is why you pay a premium for systems such as this, your paying for more than just the hardware, your paying for the guarantee that Sun offers. So comparing this to a consumer focused G5(just compare those video card choices again if you want to know what is geared to what market), with the support systems, OS options(where is Linux on the G5? How about Win2k3 Server? Yes I know it wont' run, but its an option on the Sun), and ultimatly a OS on the level of Solaris for stability and security. Its just not there.

    Macs are good for what they are. But they are not comparable to workstations in this class despite pricing themselves there. In fact, this is more an indictment of Apple than it is of Sun, after all they are selling a consumer product for the price of a corporate workstation...
  • mlittl3 - Wednesday, October 27, 2004 - link

    Reflex, I can turn this "workstatin/server" as you put it into a regular desktop computer if you would like by simply taking away or substituting parts. Let's take out 3 GB of memory, subtract one of the processors and replace the remaining with a 2.4 Ghz Athlon 64, substitute a mainstream video card. This gives us a single processor, 1GB system or "desktop" as you like. I will use an HP system as an example

    HP a750e: $1500
    Apple single 1.8 GHz G5: $1645

    Wow!!! Almost the same price. Of course, Reflex, you will counter with HP sucks, buy a generic $20 case and power supply, CAS333 generic memory, the 1.8 GHz is slower than 2.4 GHz etc. etc. But as long as a pre-built x86 system (from HP, IBM, whatever) costs about the same as a Apple's computers with similar specs, then you can't complain about price.

    Anyway, the Apple dual G5 is not only for the general desktop consumer. Get another clue. Why would a desktop consumer buy a Geforce 6800 Ultra DDL that supports two 30" LCD panels to check email? The only use is for highend workstation graphics for movies, game development, etc. Plus, the desktop versions of the G5 were used in Virginia Techs supercomputer cluster before they were replaced with Xserves. What is the difference between a 1U Xserve and a desktop G5 technlogy wise? In addition, ANY computer can be a workstation or server but you would get crappy performance rendering on a celeron, 256MB computer but you could still do it (some computer companies sell regular Pentium 4 systems and call them workstations).

    Stop getting hung up on words. If you know the technology, then you know a dual 2.5 GHz G5 can be a desktop, server, workstation, etc. (Apple even gives you the option to buy OS X server with the desktop version) just like a $8000 Alienware gaming pc can be used as a server if you wanted to.

    And thank you for calling me a zealot when all I said was highend Apple computers cost the same as highend x86 desktops/workstations/servers what the f**k ever. Actually, I showed the whitebox x86 as the cheapest. I didn't say Apple is always less money or apple has better performance, etc. Please define zealot for me. I'm confused.

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