Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 8 (August 2002)

Wildcat Workstations

By George Maestri

For a number of years, the Wildcat graphics card was considered the de facto standard for OpenGL accelerators. The Wildcat was originally designed by Intergraph, but 3Dlabs purchased the technology a while back and now manufactures the chips and cards. Subsequently, in May of 2002, 3Dlabs was acquired by Creative, maker of the consumer-level Soundblaster card. Sometimes it's hard to keep up on who owns what in this business, but regardless of who's currently producing them, the Wildcat cards are still at the cutting edge of OpenGL performance.

Unlike consumer cards, which are optimized for gaming and DirectX, Wildcats are built from the ground up with OpenGL in mind, and they fully support the OpenGL standard. Many consumer cards tend to skimp on OpenGL features, such as clipping planes. And while they'll work in most applications, there are places where the low-end cards fall short.

In addition, Wildcat cards are built for production work. The cards reviewed here have advanced features such as built-in stereo and genlock capabilities. Stereo allows you to use LCD glasses to view your projects in 3D, which can be a huge benefit for designers and artists. Genlock enables the cards to be used for real-time broadcast applications, such as motion capture.
The Intellistation M Pro represents the mid-range of IBM's graphics workstation line.

In addition, Wildcats provide high quality texture filtering not found on other boards. This significantly reduces antialiasing artifacts and moire patterns in rendered scenes, giving more lifelike results. The Wildcat 6000 series improves performance as well-these cards tend to be near the top of the heap when it comes to raw speed.

The Wildcat 6000 series is only available through systems vendors, such as IBM, HP, Dell, and a few others. I took a look at two of these systems, one from HP, one from IBM. Both workstations shipped with the latest 3Dlabs Wildcat III technology.

IBM Intellistation M Pro
The Intellistation M Pro is IBM's middle-of-the-line workstation and starts at about $1500. The top of the line now includes a machine running dual Intel Itanium processors. But, at a price of approximately $15,000, this ultra high-end machine will be a rare sight in most production facilities. The review machine shipped with dual Pentium IV Xeon processors running at 1.7Ghz.

The Intellistation is robustly built. The case is made of fairly thick gauge steel and the whole machine weighs in at about 60 pounds. IBM has some of the better industrial designers in the business, so the exterior of the case is simple and elegant. On the outside, the machine has a well designed grille with one big power button and a few LEDs to indicate that it's running. If you open a small door at the top of the box, you'll see two 5.25-inch bays, one of which contains a CD-ROM drive, and one 3.5-inch bay, which contains a floppy. I would have expected a few more external bays in a machine of this caliber.

Removing the side panel reveals the guts of the machine. Inside you'll find a couple of hefty fans and a beefy power supply. Internal expansion is ample, with six hard drive bays, one of which is taken up by a 36gb SCSI system drive. The large number of bays allows for enough disks to configure a RAID for those doing video or high data rate applications.

The motherboard is based on the Intel 860 chipset and contains a number of built-in peripherals, including parallel, serial, USB, ethernet and audio. The motherboard is nicely expandable, with three 32 bit and two 64-bit PCI slots. IBM claims a Quad pumped system bus running at 533mhz, which increases memory speed significantly. Memory is RDRAM, housed on a large circuit board that fits into a slot on the motherboard. Missing is a IEEE1394 firewire port, but this can be added with a PCI card.

As mentioned before, graphics for the M Pro were provided by a Wildcat 6210 card with a total of 256mb of texture RAM and a 128mb frame buffer (plus 32mb of DirectBurst memory for 416mb total memory). The card contains two DVI connectors for LCD screens, which can be used with an adapter to drive analog monitors. The card fits into a single AGP slot, but the neighboring PCI slot is taken up by the Wildcat's massive heatsink and an extra row of connectors, including a BNC connector used to genlock to external video sources.

HP Workstation x4000
The HP Workstation x4000 is HP's top-of-the-line machine. The review unit shipped with a single 2.53ghz Pentium IV processor, though the motherboard supports dual processors.

The box is slate gray with blue trim, a bit taller, and not quite as good looking as the IBM chassis. Still, the outside of the machine is a bit more functional than the IBM's, with a total of three 5.25- and two 3.5-inch exterior bays. As configured, these bays contain a CD-ROM, floppy drive, and an HP 200I DVD writer. This is a terrific little addition to the machine. Here at the studio, we've taken to shipping animation to clients using this drive. With a 4gb capacity, each disk can hold a few minutes of uncompressed video and up to several hours with compression.

The case opens by removing the side panel. Inside you'll find a couple of very big fans and a powerful 465-watt power supply. Internally, the machine is not nearly as expandable as the IBM with only two hard drive bays. For those doing disk-intensive tasks such as video, this could be a limitation. The lack of drive bays is because the case is fairly shallow, and the PCI slots on the motherboard get in the way of additional drives. If the case were only a few inches deeper, it could have easily held another four to six drives.
The HP Workstation x4000 is the company's high-end graphics machine. It features three 5.25- and two 3.5-inch exterior bays in the front, which contain a CD-ROM, floppy drive, and DVD writer.

The motherboard on the x4000 is based on the Intel 860 chipset and is almost identical to the IBM machine's, with built in serial, parallel, USB, ethernet, and audio. Similarly, the board contains three 32-bit PCI and two 64-bit PCI slots. Like the IBM, RDRAM memory is housed on a separate card that fits into the motherboard. This particular machine came fully loaded with 4gb of memory. It also came fully loaded with two SCSI hard drives, a 9gb drive for the system, and a 36gb data drive.

Graphics for the x4000 were provided by a Wildcat 6110. This card is virtually identical to the 6210 used in the IBM. The big difference between them is that the 6110 has only 128mb of texture RAM and a 64mb frame buffer-exactly half the memory of the 6210.

In terms of technology, both these ma chines are similar. They have motherboards that use the same Intel 860 chipset. They both can be configured with SCSI hard disks, up to 4gb of RAM and top-of-the-line processors. In fact, the HP came configured with a 2.53 Pentium IV Xeon, Intel's current speed leader, and 4gb of RAM. The IBM came with dual processors, but these were slower 1.7ghz chips, and the machine only had 1gb of RAM. Comparing a single 2.53ghz machine to a dual 1.7ghz machine is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Still, I learned something.

For CPU and memory tests, I used the Sandra benchmarks. This showed a CPU benchmark of 6414 MIPs for the IBM and 8816 MIPs for the HP. The FPU of the IBM clocked in at 4092 MFLOPS compared to the HP's 5758 MFLOPS. Memory performance provided some interesting results. The IBM came in at 1246mb/sec, while the HP only did 1153mb/Sec. Both these speeds are very fast, but it seems as though the IBM had the edge because of its 533mhz system bus.

As for graphics testing, both machines came in with almost identical Viewperf scores. This is because the only difference between the graphics cards was the onboard memory. The ADWavs test showed a score of 75.25 for the IBM and 75.26 for the HP. ProCDRS had a score of 59.92 for the IBM and 59.37 for the HP, again too close to call. The ADWavs and ProCDRS tests mimic the operations of 3D authoring and industrial design, respectively.

These numbers are good, but interestingly, they almost mirror the numbers I got during my recent test of the Nvidia Quadro4 900 XGL card. In that test, the Quadro4 ran an ADWavs score of 76.85, compared to the Wild cat's 75.2, and a ProCDRS of 64.62, compared to the Wildcat's 59.6 average. (Version 6.1.2 of the SPEC benchmarks was used for testing, as Version 7.0 was relatively new at press time.) I guess this means that the Wildcat is starting to see competition from other vendors in terms of speed. Still, the Wildcat remains in a league by itself in terms of image and hardware quality.

Overall, both these machines represent the high end of graphics workstations. In terms of technology, the IBM and the HP share a number of similar components. The big differences lie in the way the machines are built. The IBM has a bit more room on the inside for expansion, while the HP has more external slots. I liked the IBM's sleek black case, but that's really personal taste. Of course, both these machines are powered by Wildcat graphics cards. As has been the case for a long time, these cards certainly set a standard for speed and performance. Both systems would be excellent choices for anyone involved in serious 3D work.

George Maestri is an author and animator based in Los Angeles.

HP Workstation x4000
IBM Intellistation M Pro
Prices vary according to configuration
Wildcat III 6110 and 6210
Available on OEM basis

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