By David Cohn
Last year, HP surprised many with the release of its first AMD-based workstation, the HP xw9300, and for nearly a year, it ruled supreme as the fastest workstation we ever tested . Then came the xw8400, the company’s dual Intel Xeon “Woodcrest”-equipped system. Now, HP rolls out the successor to last year’s powerhouse, the new HP xw9400. Like the xw9300 before it, the xw9400 is based on the latest AMD Opteron processors, in this case the new 2200 series dual-core CPUs with AMD’s 1GHz HyperTransport Technology bus and 1MB of level 2 cache per core.
The Complete Product
The new AMD processors were introduced in August and will provide a seamless upgrade path for the future quad-core versions of the Opteron when they are released next year. The new CPU is AMD’s answer to Intel’s Core-Duo, and marks the first Opteron to use DDR2 memory. Last year’s xw9300 used slower DDR1 memory, but AMD was able to achieve better performance thanks to the lower latency afforded by its CPU architecture. Unlike Intel systems, in which the memory controller is part of a separate chipset, AMD integrates the memory controller inside the Opteron CPU.
The new HP xw9400 is housed in a rack-mountable silver and gray tower case almost indistinguishable from the company’s other high-end workstations. The front panel provides access to three 5.25- inch drive bays, two of which were filled with a 48X CD-RW/DVD-ROM and 3.5-inch floppy drive. A panel below the front drive bays provides two USB 2.0 connectors, headphone and microphone jacks, and an IEEE 1394 FireWire connector. The rear panel adds six more USB connectors and a second FireWire connector as well as one 9-pin serial port, PS/2 keyboard and mouse connectors, and audio-in, audio-out, and microphone jacks. There are also two RJ-45 connectors for the integrated Gigabit LAN. The additional port provides fault-tolerance for mission-critical connections, and enables teaming, where network traffic is balanced across two connections for nearly double the performance.
The HP xw9400 Workstation
Raising the quick-release lever and removing the heavy side panel of the beautiful tool-less case reveals the spacious interior and typically excellent HP workmanship. There’s two AMD Opteron 2220 SE 2.8GHz processors, each hidden below its own large heatsink with 3-in. cooling fans. There’s also another fan directing air over the eight memory slots. HP equipped our test unit with 4GB of memory, installed using 1GB DIMMs. The xw9400 will be able to accommodate up to 64GB of memory once 8GB DIMMs become available sometime next year.
A large 4.5-in. fan on the rear of the case and yet another 3-in. fan just behind the front panel provides even more cooling, and of course there’s also a fan in the 800-watt power supply plus fans on the graphics boards. Yet HP engineers have managed to make the xw9400 incredibly quiet, perhaps the most silent-running HP workstation we’ve ever tested.
The NVIDIA nForce Professional chipset provides support for two native PCI Express x16 graphics slots, two PCIe x8 slots (x16 mechanically but x8 electrically), two PCI-X 100 MHz slots, and a full-length PCI slot. The motherboard also provides an integrated 6-channel SATA 3Gbps controller with RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10 support as well as an 8-channel serial attached SCSI (SAS) controller with RAID 0, 1, and 10 capability.
Our evaluation unit came equipped with an 80GB 7200 rpm Western Digital SATA drive. Other options include SATA drives of up to 750GB and SAS drives ranging from 73GB to 300GB. The case provides internal bays for up to four hard drives, but—as with the xw8400— additional drives can be accommodated outside the case by purchasing an optional kit that lets you route the SAS cables to the rear panel. There are also two additional USB connections on the motherboard so you can install USB-based devices, such as dongles, inside the case where they can’t be tampered with.
The xw9400 we received also took advantage of two PCI Express graphics slots, coming preconfigured with a pair of NVIDIA Quadro FX 3500 graphics cards. HP offers six different NVIDIA graphics options, ranging from the Quadro NVS 285 for professional 2D, all the way up to the ultra high-end FX 4500 and FX 5500 3D graphics accelerators. With two graphics boards installed, you can power up to four monitors; and the FX 3500, FX 4500, and FX 5500 support NVIDIA’s Scalable Link Interface (SLI), which links the two cards together to compound video performance. You must have two CPUs installed to use two video cards, however, and the two boards must be the same model.
To evaluate performance, I installed a host of MCAD applications as well as the SPEC Viewperf and SolidWorks benchmarks. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get meaningful benchmark results when testing systems with multiple dual-core processors. Standard benchmarks are only designed to test single processes.
The HP xw9400 was definitely faster than its predecessor, outperforming the xw9300 by an average of more than 35 percent on the standard graphics tests. On several of the CAD-specific datasets, the xw9400 was more than 50 percent faster. But the Intel-based xw8400 beat the AMD-powered xw9400 on all but one of the tests.
These results don’t tell the entire story, however. In more informal tests involving 3D rendering and video encoding, the AMD-equipped system outperformed its similarly equipped Intel sibling. According to HP, performance is even more striking when running CAE analyses. Unfortunately, there are no standardized benchmarks available to quantify these types of results.
HP supplies the xw9400 with either a USB or PS/2 keyboard and a choice of mice. Our evaluation unit came with a PS/2 keyboard and a 2-button USB scroll mouse. Windows XP Professional, Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, or the 64-bit version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux can be preinstalled on the system, and users can also choose the HP installer kit for either the 32- or 64-bit version of Linux. For Windows-based systems, the HP Performance Tuning Framework is also preinstalled as part of HP’s Cool Tools. The entire system is backed by a basic three-year warranty that includes next-business-day parts and labor as well as telephone support available during business hours.
The HPxw9400 is certainly fast, although for some applications, the Intel-based xw8400 may be faster. With systems starting at $1,999, the xw9400 has an affordable entry point, but that’s for a system with a single 1.8GHz Opteron CPU, 1GB of RAM, and a modest graphics board. Once you move up to a pair of faster AMD processors, double the memory, and add a second graphics card, the cost nearly quadruples. Our evaluation unit priced out at $7,587 with the dual NVIDIA Quadro FX 3500 graphics cards. Eliminating one of those cards would reduce the price to $6,553. Who needs all that power?
The HP xw9400 is certainly not the system of choice for mid-range CAD—none of the current software programs can take true advantage of what the system has to offer. And those doing bitmap rendering and video compositing would be better served by systems powered by Intel CPUs. But for floating-point math-intensive applications (such as FEA and CFD analysis), projects involving very large datasets (where the AMD architecture provides a faster connection to memory), and fields like oil and gas exploration (where multiple GPUs can be harnessed to add processing power), the HP xw9400 will likely outperform anything else out there.
David Cohn is a computer consultant and technical writer based in Bellingham, WA, and has been benchmarking PCs since 1984. He’s a contributing editor to Desktop Engineering, an applications engineer with The PPI Group, the former editor-in-chief of Engineering Automation Report and CADCAMNet published by Cyon Research Corp., and the author of more than a dozen books. You can contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.dscohn.com. Or send your comments about this article through e-mail by clicking here. Please reference "HP xw9400 Review, November 2006" in your message.
HP xw9400 AT A Glance
> Price: $7,587 as tested ($1,999 base price)
> Size and Weight: 8.3 in. x 20.7 in. x 17.9 in. (W x D x H) tower; 42 pounds
> CPU: dual AMD Opteron Model 2220SE 2.8GHz
> Memory: 4GB (64GB max)
> Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro FX 3500
> Hard Disk: Western Digital 80GB 7,200 rpm SATA
> Floppy: 3.5-inch floppy
> Optical: 48X CD-RW/DVD-ROM
> Audio: integrated high-definition audio w/microphone, line-in, headphone, line-out jacks
> Network: integrated dual NVIDIA Gigabit LAN
> Modem: none
> Other: one 9-pin serial, eight external and two internal USB 2.0, two IEEE1394 FireWire, PS/2 keyboard, PS/2 mouse
> Keyboard: 104-key HP keyboard
> Pointing device: two-button HP optical scroll mouse