10 vs. 10

we want to know is whether it's really a better choice, not just whether it's cheaper
Written by Paul Murphy, Contributor
I had an incautious moment last week in which I said that 10 Sun Rays attached to one V890 would outperform 10 AIX workstations on engineering applications.

Here's part of what Roger Ramjet had to say about that:

My 10 AIX workstations WITHOUT A SERVER would blow away your 890+SunRays - ON PRICE. Both from the savings of no server purchase PLUS the savings on a single administration group that knows how to handle ALL UNIX on the premises . .

umm, a challenge made is a debt unpaid, and all that... so:

ProductCost (list, USD)
IBM IntelliStation POWER 285 Express Model 9111-290W
Single 1.90GHz POWER5+ Dual core CPU,
2 x 73.4GB hard drives
L191p 19 inch TFT,
DVD-ROM drive
GXT4500P 128MB graphics accelerator.
IBM AIX 5L V5.3 license. $300
IBM Mandatory support option (90 days). $198
IBM Mandatory documentation option. $50
Total system cost $156,510

Gotta love those mandatory options.

ProductCost (list, USD)
1 Sun Fire V890 Server
8 1.5-GHz UltraSPARC IV+ Processors
2-MB L2 On-Chip Cache per Processor
32-MB L3 External Cache per Processor
32-GB Memory
4 146-GB 10000 RPM FC-AL Disk Drives
1 DVD-ROM Drive
1 Gigabit Ethernet Port
1 10/100BASE-T Ethernet Port
1 Serial Port
2 USB Ports
9 PCI Slots
3 (N+1) Power Supplies
1 System Controller Card
Solaris 10 03/05 HW1 Operating System Pre-Installed
3 Years Warranty, Next Business Day
Sun Ray 1g w/ 19-inch Monitor $1,049
Complete 10 user system $129,485

So that's it: the ten workstations cost $21,575 more than the Sun system - and, I don't know what IBM charges for hardware support on these, but Sun's three year "silver" combined hardware and software support package at about $13,320 is less than just IBM's software maintenance at $16,140, so considering three year costs is just going to make AIX look worse.

Now you also think you'll save money over the Sun alternative because your admins need only know AIX - and I'd agree, except that this can only be true if this 10 user system is the only Solaris set-up in an AIX world, and that's just not going to happen. Realistically, you need to ask whether my logic here wouldn't apply across the board: meaning that your biggest savings opportunity would come from getting rid of all the AIX stuff - a four core Opteron with 8GB of RAM, for example, lists at considerably less than half what those 285s do, and runs Solaris under the N1 grid administration tools.

From a cost perspective, therefore, this is a pretty clear win for the V890, Sun Ray combination; but I think that what makes the question interesting goes well beyond simple capital costs. Fundamentally what we want to know is whether it's really a better choice, not just whether it's cheaper.

First, however, I'm always happy to level the financial playing field to get technological advantage -so I'll blow my cost advantage on some upgrades. Now if I pay sun's exhorbitant asking prices on two more 146GB FC/AL drives, an 11th Sun Ray base and keyboard set, upgrade them all to 24 inch LCDs ( a net change of only $3,500 using Dell 24" LCD panels), and throw in a Dell 30" panel for the boardroom I'll still end up a bit more than $10,000 under your total cost - enough for a US3 card and a 2TB external JBOD from Apple for secondary storage.

In reality, however, nobody pays list for this stuff and Sun will discount the V890 more than IBM will its workstations, so I'd expect to see either a bigger cost gap, a bunch of free upgrades (like Sun labels on those screens) or some additional free stuff - like another 16GB of RAM.

The real difference, however, is going to come from the long term cost of use -i.e. from software. Although "Engineering" has disappeared as a category on IBM's "Solutions page" I know Autocad either does or used to run on AIX and, of course, there's Catia and all the plugins, upgrades, and service support IBM and Dassault Systemes can sell you.

Great, but all of that works on Solaris/SPARC too - along with over 300 other engineering and design application sets.

The numbers tell the story: IBM showcases 1,342 pSeries "solutions", while Sun lists 8,366 third party Solaris/SPARC application groups -basically there's just a lot less AIX software and what there is, generally costs more - particularly if you have to have IBM fly in people from France to help you get it working.

In that same vein AIX is a perfectly useable system if you don't mind a little smarminess, misplaced emphases on control and virtualization, and a volume manager that makes raw device I/O almost impossible to manage, but you wouldn't want to compare it to Solaris 10 - I mean, I liked NCR SVR4 too, but sixteen years have gone by and a point by point comparison on features, capabilities, reliability, or performance against Solaris 10 is really not something an AIX proponent wants to get into.

So what does that leave you to build to your case on? Usage efficiency: the power of ten, right?

IBM's model 285s workstations are fast and that 128MB graphics board really zooms - and it actually does do some things, like hidden line removal in 3D drawings, faster than the Sun Ray because I have to do more OpenGL functions in software than you do and, of course, I'm running a bigger screen at a higher pixel rate: 1920x1200 pixels across a 24 inch screen is most of typical Win2K screen bigger than your 1600x1200 on 19 inches.

But that 285 does have a dual core 1.9GHz Power5+ CPU, and that's got to count for something. Hit a long recompute and the workstation desktop advantage should appear, right? Well, no. All of the CPUs, IBM's and Sun's, are mostly idle, so when someone wants a computationally intensive job done most of them are available most of the time. For a 285 workstation that means about 3Ghz and 3GB on standby for these kinds of jobs, for the V890 it means about 22Ghz and 30GB -and the V890 has the data it needs on high speed local drives. In other words, the bigger the job, the bigger the V890's performance advantage.

Now I don't think AIX supports this, but imagine that openGRID software were running, and each machine could grab unused cycles from the other nine. At 50% efficiency and allowing 900Mhz per machine for OS and user operations, this gives that grid user a theoretical 15Ghz for computation - lots better than three, but still no where close to what the V890 delivers - and if the grid process had to get cost and availability data for a hundred thousand parts from mutually shared network disks, the 890's I/O and memory advantages would be so overwhelming that my guys could almost have the assembly in production before yours finished the recompute.

So if there's no performance benefit on design tasks, what about about project co-ordination? Lets call a group meeting ...

For something like a progress review the AIX users have to migrate data from their workstations to their laptops, get those started in the meeting room, get the projector working with somebody's laptop, type their own notes (meaning that the meeting itself only gets partial attention) and do it all in reverse when they get back.

My guys won't be doing any of that. OpenOffice runs fine on Solaris (sorry, don't think there's AIX support), so there's no copying or futzing, the presenter logs onto the Sun Ray in the boardroom and everything's there. Meeting notes entered once are immediately available to all -so people focus on the discussion, not note taking.

Now if you're starting to get the idea that the Sun Rays open new routes to enhanced productivity, let me tell you about Cinerama. One of the really neat things Sun Rays can do, and 285s can't, is let my guys move some of them (up to 16) together and then run a single image split across all of them. Want to watch your simulation in significant detail? Try running the thing in a 4 x 4 screen grid with a 7680 x 4800 pixel real time image - a bit better than 1600 x 1200 isn't it?

So how do the two setups: ten IBM 285 AIX workstations vs one V890 with 10 Sun Rays, ultimately compare? Lets see, the the Sun system is a bit cheaper, it's much faster, it has more, and cheaper, software, it's easier to administer, it's easier to use, and choosing it avoids the need for laptops and the windows hassles, applications, and user time that go with them.

Bottom line: it's the Sun Ray solution that offers the very model of modern engineering productivity at work.

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