[nSLUG] Wither workstations

George N. White III aa056 at chebucto.ns.ca
Sat Feb 12 21:26:38 AST 2005

NASA has announced a new version of the mission critical software we use 
at work.  We currently run it on SGI dual processor MIPS workstations and 
one SGI 3000 MIPS 4 processor NUMA box.  About half the users have
workstations and the other half works on Win XP PC's with Hummingbird
Exceed X-servers, which is perfectly adequate since we generally work
with static images.

The new version will support RHEL (e.g., Scientific Linux) Fedora, and 
Apple's OS-X.  We are adding a new mission critical app based on Java, 
which is a weak point for SGI.  So, it is time to replace the SGI 
workstations with modern technology (several of the oldest SGI machines 
have died recently).  The Apple G5 is probably the most "office friendly" 
option, since the G5's draw 1/2 the power of Intel processors, but many 
people find the heat and noise is too much for office environments.  My 
experience has been that systems in controlled environments have fewer 
hardware failures, all of which leads me to think about ways to move the 
CPU's into a machine room with a controlled environment.

One approach would be to replace 64-bit graphics workstations with 
rackmount dual CPU "compute servers" and put commodity PC's (which would 
have to run Win XP in our environment) on the desktop. Our apps are disk 
I/O bound and the rackmount approach opens possibilities for sharing a 
SATA raid to get better disk I/O and maybe less downtime due to single 
disks failing (in practice each machine probably still uses a local disk 
for booting, swap, and temporary files, but if all the machines see the 
same user files, users could easily switch to a different processor).

I'm not sure how this idea will go across with users -- people like the 
idea of being able to reach out and touch their machines even if they only 
do it a few times a year to replace dead disks or install a new kernel.

1. Have any of you shared an office (not air-conditioned) with a recent
    dual-processor G5 or Xeon or AMD workstation?  I suppose it could be
    quite cozy in winter.

2. there is lots of info about using rackmount systems to build clusters
    or for server farms, but not much about using them to replace
    workstations.  Some cluster technology would be useful (central
    management of updates, etc.).  I recall reading about some sites (e.g.,
    stock exchanges) with very high density of workers that use rackmount
    systems with graphics cards and special cabling to connect keyboards
    and monitors.  In our case it will be hard enough getting enough
    ports on the switch to accomodate doubling the number of
    interfaces, so special cabling is not an option.


George N. White III  <aa056 at chebucto.ns.ca>


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