HP speeds up Unix workstations

Hewlett-Packard on Monday will debut the systems, which feature an entirely new architecture and some faster chips to boot.

Stephen Shankland
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Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Hewlett-Packard will debut Unix workstations Monday that feature an entirely new architecture and some faster chips to boot.

The three new Visualize Unix workstation models--the B1000, C3000, and J5000 systems--will embody a new computer design with similarities to the N-class servers HP is promoting as the foundation for its Internet business. In addition, the new models will incorporate HP's top-end PA-RISC chip running at 400 MHz, said marketing manager Patty Azzarello. Previously, only the midrange C-class workstation contained the high-end chip.

"It's a very strong set of products," said Dataquest analyst Peter ffoulkes. The older C360 model, while it used the new chip, didn't have an internal system fast enough to keep the chip fed. "It's a good chip, but for any fast chip to excel, you need a system architecture that can shovel data around the system fast enough," ffoulkes explained.

Overall, HP is aiming for performance, ffoulkes said, where Unix workstation rival Sun Microsystems is emphasizing its lower-priced products. "We're looking at a market that's in transition. Nobody has the perfect formula," ffoulkes said.

The entire workstation industry continues to be roiled by workstations centered around Microsoft Windows and Intel processors, the hallmarks of systems sold with much narrower profit margins.

The new HP workstations can transfer data between the processor and memory at the rate of 1.9 gigabytes per second, twice as fast as the older architecture, said Susan Canney, manager of the Visualize line. In addition, the system can communicate with peripherals like disk systems, video cards, and network cards at the rate of 2 gigabytes per second, another doubling from previous designs.

Intel machines, by contrast, have memory data speeds of 800 megabytes per second, less than half of the HP's Unix workstation, ffoulkes said.

The memory controller chips were designed by HP and are also used in the new N-class servers, Canney said.

The systems all use HP's Visualize graphics cards, which are based on the PA-RISC 8500 chips. While the graphics system isn't new, the new system architecture will be able to milk more speed out of the cards, she said.

Basic models of the B1000, C3000, and J5000 systems cost an estimated $9,888, $13,763, and $22,636. The J5000 systems can accept up to two CPUs.

Another part of the new workstations is the move toward the mainstream PCI data pathway instead of the older EISA bus or HP's proprietary GSC bus, Canney said.

The PCI bus is one of several steps HP is taking to make its Unix machines pick up the attributes of the PC world. "We're being driven by a commodity-minded marketplace," ffoulkes said, so HP is adopting PC market attributes such as outsourcing manufacturing to other companies, building systems to order to reduce inventory, and adopting commodity components and standards such as PCI hardware.

"Using the same technology across servers and workstations...is absolutely the right thing to do," ffoulkes said.

Though Windows NT workstations are making inroads in the workstation space, Unix still has its place, Azzarello said, particularly with large companies designing mechanical products such as airplanes, cars or electronic products like chips.

Although HP has plans to make the transition eventually to the IA-64 chips under development right now at Intel and HP, the company is working to make sure the transition is smooth. Software written for the PA-RISC systems will run on the new IA-64 chips, but in order to get the fastest performance, the software will have to be recompiled, Azzarello said. The IA-64 chips are due midway through 2000.