Originally Published: Monday, 20 November 2000 Author: Ross Sanders
Published to: enhance_articles_hardware/Hardware Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

A Different Approach (Part III of V): Alpha Systems

When we last left our bold adventurer, he was still trying to find his path to his perfect system. Armed with his specifications for his Linux dream machine, Ross Sanders has finally stumbled into the world of Alpha hardware.

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Let's briefly outline my requirements for the system I want. To make it into my shopping cart, it's gotta have at least 3 open PCI slots, AGP support, RS-232 support, a proven performance record, and good support under Linux. I demand a slot open for the CCD camera, RS-232 for the telescope stepping motors, and a decent 3D card for rendering images. Next, the computations this computer must handle will be floating point intensive (in some cases double precision). That's why I require a proven track record of speed and power in dealing with such calculations.

I have 3 systems currently in mind: PowerMAC G4, DEC Alpha (I still refuse to call them Compaq Alpha), and the Sparc systems. The main reason these three made the cut is simple. Outside of the usual x86 systems, the software and libraries I plan to use run on those platforms, I wouldn't have to port anything. (Naturally, that's a problem to get full use from the G4 since the vector processor in them is not supported by the software for which I may not have source code available.)

My last article dealt with the PowerMAC G4; this article examines the Alpha processor systems.

You can actually build your Alpha Systems computer from scratch, just like in the x86 world. Motherboard, CPU, firmware (essential part of Alpha computers), video, sound, ethernet, etc. are mix and match. That means you don't have to purchase a complete system from Compaq at an outrageously bloated price. Unlike most other RISC systems you have options dealing with peripherals and especially video! You aren't stuck with one brand of video card, as is the case with Apple or even Compaq.

Another plus with Alpha computers is that Alpha Linux was one of the first ports of Linux to another architecture outside of the original x86 version. The port is mature and supportive of Alpha's unique architecture. The firmware can even be upgraded to boot Linux directly instead of using a software boot loader such as LILO. That's a boon when you have no intention of running that anathema from Microsoft called Windows NT for Alpha, nor True64.

I confess that I have earlier administrated Alpha computers. The lab where I worked had three of the second generation systems with PCI motherboards instead of the slower proprietary TurboChannel boards in the systems' first generation. At the time they were the fastest choices for scientific analysis and ran Alpha OSF/1. For compatibility reasons, I had no choice then but to stay with the commercial Unix from DEC. They were also easily upgradeable. Alpha CPU has come a long way. Then Alpha motherboards were sold from third parties. Now they're widely available in barebones and/or motherboard/CPU combos.

So what are the Alpha systems like today? Besides being very fast on the floating point calculations, the CPU benchmarks are not only quite impressive, but very believable.

For the API UP2000 750 Mhz board from Alpha Processor Inc. running True64:

  • SPECint2000 = 456
  • SPECfp2000 = 533
  • The Alpha PC is actually slower in integer arithmetic than in floating point arithmetic because of a design philosophy difference. The Alpha has historically had weaker integer performance in order to boost the floating point performance. For example: running SETI@Home you would get better performance than you would participating in the Bovine project. The Alpha was designed to crunch numbers and serve multiple users quickly and efficiently unlike the x86 which was designed more for desktop applications in the beginning rather than performance.

    Here are some extra numbers I've pulled from SPEC (the Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation), just for comparison. The SPEC2000 marks are relatively new, so I'll give you some comparisons.

    Intel's PIII with an Intel SE440BX-2 chipset motherboard running 750Mhz Windows 2000 OS:

  • SPECint2000 = 330
  • SPECfp2000 = 230
  • For some reason I still can't find Apple's G4 systems for a comparison even in the SPEC database. I know this is pretty much comparing apples and oranges since Windows 2000 is a far cry from Unix-like systems in performance and philosophy, but it gives an idea of performance values with a reference point all should understand: the x86 that is in most of the computer homes in America.

    Alpha boards, at least the ones from Alpha Processor, Inc., have some of the peripheral parts such as sound and network built into the motherboard. Naturally, this frees valuable PCI slot real estate for your own hardware. Otherwise, with sound and ethernet, you would only have one slot free. (Something I wish the better name Intel-type motherboard manufacturers would do). It's good to have the AGP slot free for your own choice of video, and in this case sound and ethernet are secondary considerations as long as they are supported in Linux (Alpha Processor claims Linux compatibility for the UP1100, the board I'm contemplating, so that shouldn't be a problem).

    With the maturity of the product comes the "recycled" computer system market. For those of us with limited funds, this is a boon since you can pick up systems that once cost $15,000 (USD) for $500. While these are far from fresh (usually about 5 years out of date), they're great fixer-uppers and excellent for those times when performance isn't so much an issue as is compatability with current tech. Great for the small time developer without $50K for an Alpha or Sparc SMP server but who has $1500 for a similar system compatible with the newer ones.

    Downside of Alpha systems: they are expensive. An Alpha motherboard with CPU regularly sells for $2,000 (or more) by itself.

    Now for the recap: What do Alpha systems have to offer? Proven and reliable performance record (the old joke says you could drop DEC equipment from the roof and not hurt it), mature Linux port and software support, extremely good hardware expandability and support, including good legacy support. For the limited pocket there are recycled workstations available. Now for the major minus: new systems are very expensive!

    Next time I will be looking at Sun's SPARC systems. Come back next week and see! In 2 weeks, I will present my decision.

    NOTE: The benchmarks on the SPEC site have full configuration information on both hardware and software used during the benchmark tests; also, Alpha Processor's site has links to vendors that sell Alpha systems and peripherals.

    Ross Sanders is hardware-obsessed.

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