BIMBoy puts HP's Z600 workstation to the test

August 11, 2010

Self-checking power supplies, Intel’s nehalem microprocessor architecture, and the new generation of Xeon processors are among features of Hewlett-Packard’s Z series of workstation computers.

Hewlett-Packard engineers have spent the last two and a half years designing and developing the Z series of workstation computers, whose 20 or so innovations include self-checking power supplies, Intel's Nehalem microprocessor architecture, and its new generation of Xeon processors.

Even when the economic slump hit last summer, HP went ahead with the release of the Z series, in the belief that lean times would make upgrades and hardware efficiency even more valuable to architecture and engineering firms, not to mention such other customers as 3D animators and oil and gas explorers.

"Why start buying new systems in a downturn economy?" Jeff Wood, HP's worldwide marketing manager for workstations, said at the Z series launch event. "We believe there will be a return on innovation. This design means HP can provide the most from an Intel Nehalem-based system."

The Z-series comes in three new desktop designs: the Z800, with the most processing power for high-powered industries like 3D animation and oil and gas; the Z600, with maximum computing power in minimum space, making it the Z of choice for most design firms using CAD and BIM applications (it has the smallest design with dual Xeon processors); and the Z400, for those interested in basic CAD or video editing.

I tested a Z600 workstation for more than a month. BD+C's Z600 came with an NVIDIA Quadro FX1800 graphics card, dual Intel Xeon E5540 2.53 8MB processors, two HP SATA 7200 hard drives that totaled 750GB of space, and an HP FireWire IEEE 1394a 3-Port PCI Card. The Z600's 90% recyclable case measures 17.5 inches by 6.5 inches by 17.3 inches. My machine retails for $5,791, about a third more than the median $4,383 per employee firms spent on IT in 2008, according to the ZweigWhite Information Technology survey.

The interior of the Z line has a modular design, in which components slide neatly into place in a cableless environment for optimal serviceability. Drives are held in by plastic carriages so there's no need for tools to upgrade your computer. The power supply from manufacturer Delta was specially designed to fit the tight Z600 housing and can be removed and tested just as easily as the drive bays.

The dual processor Z machines have brushed-aluminum casings designed in conjunction with industrial design partner BMW Designworks USA. "It was a true partnership in that the archetypes and design concepts that became the Z series came from one unified, collaborative document," says Terry Pilsner, VP and manager of HP's workstation R&D unit.

Architects and engineers will no doubt appreciate the easy service and upgradeability that the new designs bring and the clean look of the workstations (the towers have ergonomically designed handles that are part of the actual workstation box), but the real power of the Z line is in its processing and computing capability.

I loaded heavy-duty design apps such as Autodesk Revit Architecture 2010, Luxology's Modo 302 (a 3D modeling and architectural visualization program), 3Ds MAX Design 2010, and Adobe Photoshop CS4. In all of BD+C's tests the Z600 never faltered or showed the slightest hint of slowing down while running apps simultaneously or working with large model files.

I also imported large Revit objects from SmartBIM Library in another stress test to see if it could handle compiling complex model information from several different sources into one Revit model. Again, no slowdown.

The ability to work this seamlessly comes from two Intel technologies coupled with NVIDIA's professional graphics card, Quickpath Architecture, and Intel Turbo Boost. The front side bus of my machine had been replaced with Intel's Quickpath Architecture (6.4 GT/s). On a single-processor motherboard, a single Quickpath Interconnect connects the processor to the I/O hub; with multiple processors, the separate Quickpath Interconnects bring together one or more processors and one or more I/O or routing hubs. This allows all components to access other components through a network.

The net result is improved performance and workload balancing. In other words, the processors boost or lighten their cores' loads depending on the applications you're using. On quad-core Z machines all of the cores also have two threads running to them, with the result that the computer has 16 processor threads available to it at all times. Utilizing them for the most efficient workload is called hyperthreading, and Quickpath does it automatically.

Intel Turbo Boost is a new workstate technology built into the Nehalem microprocessor architecture. Turbo Boost is activated when the operating system requests the highest processor performance state (P0). Any configuration you want to set can trigger Turbo Boost state, be it number of active cores, estimated current consumption, estimated power consumption, or processor temperature.

My test Z600 only went into Turbo Boost when using 3DS Max, Revit, and Modo 302 simultaneously. Whenever I would scale down use of any of the three programs (opening fewer files, doing less work for a few minutes), the Z600 would automatically scale down and perform within its limits, too. In Turbo Boost mode it performed with no slowdowns or crashes. Thanks to GPU acceleration through my NVIDIA graphics card, Photoshop CS4 never triggered Turbo Boost, as most of its processes were handled by the graphics card after setting up acceleration.

HP actually reduced power consumption from its previous generation of workstations with the Z series by wringing every efficient ounce of power out of the new design. HP offers 85% (80 PLUS Bronze) efficient power supplies on all new products. An 89% (80 PLUS Silver) efficient power supply is available as an option on the Z800. Energy Star v5-qualified configurations are available on all the new platforms. HP was the first to market EPEAT Gold registrations throughout its workstation line, and the Z series is no exception.

The kind of innovation represented by the Z series could be coming at the right time for newly lean architecture and engineering firms, as their BIM and CAD managers consider investing in new hardware and software to make the switch from 2D to 3D workflows. According to the ZweigWhite survey, most A/E firms (60%) said they expect to increase their IT spending by 10% (median) in 2009. Nearly half of surveyed firms (48%) plan to spend more on new software and software upgrades, and 46% expect to increase spending on PCs, laptops, and servers in 2009. The Z600 should certainly be considered in that upgrade.



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