By George Maestri
Boxx Technologies has been building workstations and rendering servers for the graphics and entertainment community for a number of years. The company's RenderBoxx is its dedicated solution for rendering.
A decent size production facility can have dozens of machines dedicated to rendering. When you consider space, administration, and power requirements, that renderfarm can cost more than most people expect. One solution is ART's dedicated rendering appliance, the RenderDrive, (see review on pg. 66 of the March 2001 issue). Another is a PC-like RenderBoxx, which is very compact, powerful, and easy to administer.
RenderBoxx is approximately 19 inches square and fills only one unit of rack space, which means it's slightly less than 2 inches high. This makes it just about the smallest dual-processor machine on the market today. The front of the case has a single floppy drive, two switches, and a few LEDs. The rest of the front is perforated with holes to improve airflow.
|Though it is a complete PC, the RenderBoxx measures less than two inches tall.|
The case opens simply: You remove one screw, which lets you pop the top. Inside, you can see how Boxx has cleverly packed a powerful computer into a tiny space. The motherboard is a Tyan Thunder LE, which runs the Serverworks Serverset III LE chipset.
The review unit shipped with two 933mhz Pentium III CPUs (1ghz CPUs are also available) 1gb of RAM, an IBM 10,000-rpm Ultra160 SCSI drive, and the floppy drive. The basic system has dual 800mhz CPUs, 128mb of RAM, and a 10gb IDE drive.
Ports include one serial, two USB, two 100BaseT Ethernet, and keyboard. A single PCI slot is mounted on a riser parallel to the motherboard to save space, and the back of the case also has an open spot where you could install an external SCSI connector simply by running a cable from the back of the machine to the SCSI connector on the motherboard. It would have been nice if Boxx Technologies had included this cable.
As expected, the small size of the enclosure entails a few tradeoffs. There is simply no room for a CD-ROM drive, which must be connected via the network or externally through either the USB or SCSI port. Another significant omission is the parallel port. A number of rendering packages on the market require a parallel port dongle. The only way to resolve this would be to install a parallel port card in the spare PCI slot.
The biggest problem with the small enclosure concerns cooling. A top-of-the-line Pentium III chip normally ships with a substantial heatsink that stands at least 3 inches tall. Since the RenderBoxx is not even 2 inches tall, it uses low-height heatsinks that are not as efficient. The addition of four extra fans near the CPUs helps a bit, but the temperature of the processors in the review unit hovered at around 58 degrees centigrade. While this temperature is still within Intel's specifications, it is significantly higher than normal. (As a comparison, my personal dual 800mhz machine with standard heatsinks runs at 38 degrees.) I would worry if a number of these machines were stacked closely together in an unventilated rack.
Administration is straightforward. The unit can be treated as a typical PC and administered by connecting a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. This might be fine for those studios with only a few machines. Those with a rackful, however, will appreciate Boxx Technology's included custom software that allows dozens of RenderBoxxes to be easily managed over the network from a single workstation. Also promised in the near future is the ability to manage the entire renderfarm remotely through intranets and the Internet.
The bottom line, of course, is performance. I used SiSoft's Sandra 2001 system analyzer software as a benchmarking tool, and the RenderBoxx did quite well. The fast processors give it a definite CPU with a speed of 5063 Mips and 2491 Mflops. Rendering requires tons of memory, and the 1gb of PC133 SDRAM helps considerably. While PC133 is not quite as fast as RAMBUS or the brand new DDR memories, memory bandwidth clocked in at a respectable 381mb/sec.
For high-end rendering, disk performance is also a big factor, as textures need to be pulled from local drives. At 10,000 rpm, the drive is certainly fast, with a seek time of 4.9ms and an average transfer rate of 28mb/sec. Rendering times were also good. I tested the machine using Discreet's 3D Studio Max 3.1, which is multi-threaded and a good test of a dual-processor machine, and it performed quite well.
Overall, I liked the RenderBoxx. It's solid, and the size is convenient and cutting edge. Performance is right in line with similarly configured machines. I do wish it ran cooler, but all in all, it should make a good rendering server, particularly in large renderfarms where space is an issue.
George Maestri is a writer and animator based in Los Angeles.
Price as reviewed: $5573 system as reviewed: Two 933MHz Pentium III CPUs; 1GB of RAM; 10,000-rpm Ultra160 SCSI drive