HP's New Z Line: Breakthrough Workstation Technology

29 Mar, 2009

At a launch event in L.A., company shows off landmark leaps in system design and performance and gives a sneak peek at SkyRoom web conferencing.

Last week, HP held a joint press event with Intel to announce the new series of HP Z workstations, which are based on Intel’s new Xeon 5500 (formerly code-named Nehalem) architecture. A lot of buzz surrounded this new processor architecture but details were scarce, so I was curious to see what we’d be shown by HP and Intel executives.

The event was held in the Los Angeles area at the headquarters of BMW Group’s DesignworksUSA. The venue choice showcased the role of the BMW team in the design of the sleek new HP workstations – the studio’s projects extend far beyond vehicles – and it facilitated travel for press representatives who attended from around the world. I spoke with journalists from Asia, Europe, Australia, and South America. As you can see, the event was well attended.

Intel’s Kirk Skaugen briefs event attendees at the BMW DesignworksUSA studio in Los Angeles.

New Z Workstation Family
The first order of business was announcing the new line of workstations, dubbed the Z family. Composed of the Z400 on the low end, the Z600 in the midrange, and the Z800 on the uncompromising high end, the new line offers a performance/price point for anyone who needs serious computing power. HP claims it has “reinvented the workstation,” and indeed, this new line introduces breakthroughs in system design and engineering, aesthetics, sustainability, and more.

HP’s Z600 (center) and Z800 (right) workstations have a sleek brushed aluminum and vertically piped front, while the Z400 (left) maintains the look of traditional HP models. All boxes have rack mount-compliant cases for easy integration into vertically mounted data centers.

The Z600 and Z800 workstations support the Intel 5520/5500 chip sets, allowing for up to two Xeon processors, with the Z800 addressing up to 192 GB of RAM at full bandwidth and the Z600 topping out at 24 GB. (I’ll delve into the jaw-dropping Z800 specs here shortly.) The Z400 is based on the X58/3500 series chip sets, topping out at 16 GB of RAM. All processors are offered at up to 3.2 GHz clock speed. The Xeon 5500 series was four years in development, according to Kirk Skaugen, vice-president of Intel’s Digital Enterprise Group and general manager of the Server Platforms Group. “This is one of the most significant developments in our history,” he said, noting that the new processors offer nearly twice the input/output (I/O) capability as their Xeon 5000 series predecessors.

Base prices for HP’s new Z line are roughly $1,000 for the Z400 up to $1,800 for the Z800. Those price points are an illusion, however, given that the expansive memory and graphics options that these workstations support will add up quickly.

The new models are up to 95% recyclable, according to HP, and consume 35% less power than similarly configured systems today. They offer an idle mode (62 W power consumption), a sleep mode (5 W) and a hibernate mode (0.8 to 1.1 W) as well. New acoustics engineering has reduced noise by 2 decibels.

It was obvious during all the technical talk at the press event that HP understands that 15% improvements in workstation performance simply aren’t going to motivate anyone to buy new machines in a tough economy. Intel and HP executives spoke of the need to offer big increases in performance and memory to make these machines pay for themselves. I have to concur that CAD workstations have only been making modest gains in performance over the last couple of years, resulting in a lackluster market – until now.

Z800: Killer Specs
I’ve been using workstations in mechanical CAD environments for 23 years and consider myself fairly jaded with respect to computer hardware. I normally don’t lust after computers because computers are always being updated and are thus always faster and flashier than they were last year. Having said this, I found myself wondering if anyone would notice if I wedged a Z800 into my roll-away suitcase and made off with it. The level of performance really is that compelling.

Here are the technical specs the Z800 workstation brings to the table: An Intel 5520 chip set hosting Dual Quad Core Xeon 5500 series processors clocking up to 3.20 GHz yielding eight CPU cores. These processors are supported by 12 DIMM six-channel DDR RAM sockets running at 1,333 MHz front side bus speed. Put another way, the Z800 gives you the maximum compliment of cores with the maximum amount of high-speed memory running over enough memory channels to fully exploit the CPU power available. Think about multithreaded applications spreading out over all those cores and all that memory, and you’ll begin to realize how much raw power is at your fingertips.

The drive subsystem is based on 3 GB/sec SATA hard disk controllers hosting as many as five devices from hard disks (at up to 15,000 rpm spindle speeds) to the new 64-GB solid state disks (SSDs) for maximum disk I/O rates.

Look, Ma -- No Tools!
All this horsepower is deployed in a tool-free case design with plenty of room and power (up to 1,100 watts at 89% efficiency) to host two dual-slot graphics processors, five internal drives, and front-mounted optical drives comfortably. The unit I inspected held dual NVIDIA Quadro FX 5800s sporting 4 GB of RAM each for truly jaw-dropping 3D performance.

You really can dismantle a Z800 without any tools. All connectors are board mounted, power jumpers for graphics cards are neatly stored at the case bottom, card rack clamps utilize a cam-based design so no screws are needed, and all metals edges are smoothed and deburred. Even the power supply pops out easily.

Z800 in Action
Specifications are one thing, but I wanted to see the Z800 do some heavy lifting with actual software applications, which led me to speak with Schlumberger’s Russ Sagert and Stephen Warner. Both these gentlemen work in the oil and gas exploration industries, where analyzing huge subterranean geological areas commonly yields models topping 10 GB in size that must be graphically rendered to show various rock densities and hydrocarbon deposits.

Warner loaded up a geographical model of a trench (approximately the size of the Grand Canyon and lying beneath the North Sea) from a solid state disk, then proceeded to slice through the Earth’s crust in all three directions at 30 frames per second, as shown below. He contrasted this performance with a several seconds-per-frame refresh rate they were experiencing on previous-generation HP hardware, noting 50-60 times improvement in graphical rendering speed for their application.

I even got to grab the mouse and drive for a few minutes, and I can report no disk access, no pauses, no buffering -- just constant 30 frames-per-second output no matter how the model was sliced and diced.

Schlumberger’s Stephen Warner manipulated huge databases of subterranean points in a potential oil deposit at a real-time rate of 30 frames-per-second.

The Schlumberger demonstration really drives home the point that processing power is one thing, but having a big pool of high-speed memory working in conjunction with powerful graphics processing cards can speed performance more than the processor alone. It was in this type of large model, high-I/O environment where the Z800 workstation really flexed its muscle. All I know is that I want to load up some of my large mechanical CAD assemblies on this machine and see how it performs.

(Cadalyst Labs put a prerelease model of the midrange Z600 through its battery of tests and the system passed with flying colors, earning a rare A+ grade from reviewer Ron LaFon. See the details in our First Look Review of the HP Z600.)

At the Los Angeles event, HP also debuted its SkyRoom technology, due to launch later this year. Think of SkyRoom as Webex or GoToMeeting on a massive dose of multithreaded steroids. In a live demo, SkyRoom delivered essentially perfect video conferencing for up to four users via standard TCP/IP networking.

I snapped this SkyRoom photo using my mobile phone while communicating across the conference room with other users who were dynamically rotating a 3D model at 30 frames per second. Even when one of the users waved at the camera, all video and audio was smooth and glitch free.

SkyRoom appears to be a hybrid of the highly compressed workstation graphics technology HP has been using for its BladeStation terminals, optimized to take advantage of the new multithreaded capabilities of the Z workstations. Although HP did not reveal specific SkyRoom launch dates or costs, the technology is clearly mature and nearing release.

Wrapping Up
After having an up-close look at the new Intel Xeon 5500 series chip sets and the HP Z workstations that use them, I can’t help but conclude that we’re witnessing a truly game-changing level of workstation performance. This is not your typical upgrade. I have to concur with Jim Zafarana, HP vice-president and general manager, Workstations, who stated, “These systems rock!”

If you run 3D CAD or rendering applications that have you sitting idly by, listening to the constant whirring sound of hard drives and enduring sluggish graphics performance, you won’t believe the performance of these machines. Because time is money, you might be able to justify an upgrade by showing your boss the productivity you stand to gain with a new Z workstation from HP.