Electronic Design

Best Computer Of The Year

Most systems created this year are based on Intel’s quad-core Xeon, and Intel’s S5000XVN motherboard is one of the popular target platforms (Fig. 1). This ATX motherboard can handle a pair of 3.0-GHz, 65-nm X5365 Xeon processors. It also will be able to handle the newer 45-nm X5482 when it becomes available. The latest Xeon processors, including the higher-end 7000 series for servers, will likely dominate in 2008. But for now, we’ll concentrate on the best of 2007.

The four main items in this year’s system include the Intel S5000XVN motherboard, AMD’s FireGL video card, Seagate’s 1-Tbyte Barracuda SATA hard-disk drive, and Lite-On’s Blue-ray drive. In addition, we use Viewsonic’s 37-in. N3752w (see “A Digital Sign Of The Times,” ED Online 16004). Originally, we used this display in a digital signage project. Yet its large size also makes it great for working on high-end graphics. It’s especially good for handling video editing targeted at HDTV platforms.

Build It
The S5000XVN starts out bare, so installing the processors comes first. Spring clips hold down the chips in the ZIF sockets. The next step is to install the heatsinks, which screw into a bracket that mounts on the underside of the motherboard. Make sure everything is even and tight when screwing in the heatsink (Fig. 2).

The next step is to add the fully buffered dual-inline memory modules (FBDIMMs). The motherboard can handle up to 32 Gbytes of FBDIMMs. The eight slots need to be populated in the proper order, so check out the documentation when adding memory. We have populated the slots (Fig. 3).

There’s nothing special to mounting the motherboard in a case, though you should make sure all the mounting holes are used so the motherboard has sufficient support. Things get a little more interesting when plugging in the power supply. We used an 850-W unit that is probably the smallest you want to use with our peripheral complement. Larger units are available (see “Enermax Galaxy 1000W Power Supply,” ED Online 14200).

In addition to the normal power-supply cable, this motherboard requires a pair of additional cables to provide power (Fig. 4). Most new, high-end power supplies will have these cables and connectors already, though it is possible to use adapters.

The next piece to the puzzle is AMD’s FireGL V8650. This PCI Express-based platform targets workstations like ours, while AMD’s other graphics lines are designed for standard PCs and gaming PCs. The requirements and solutions are different. Installation, on the other hand, is the same. The V8650 plugs into the x16 PCI Express slot. The board can drive two displays, but our HDTV was more than enough.

I tested the system at this point to make sure everything was running properly before adding the hard drives and optical storage. The BIOS provides sufficient feedback to verify that both processors are operating as well as the video adapter. The S5000XVN has built-in audio but it does not have built-in video, so this is the minimal combination for testing purposes.

Next, we added the Seagate hard drives. We had four Seagate 1-Tbyte 7200RPM Barracuda drives with SATA-II interfaces. The drives match nicely with the four SATA interfaces found on the motherboard. Plugging a key into the motherboard enables its optional RAID-5 support. The RAID support can handle SATA or SAS drives.

The SAS or SATA drives can be mounted in hot-swap drive bays. For this system, we stayed with internal mounting of the hard drives. Hot-swap drives tend to be more common on servers than workstations. Still, the RAID redundancy is invaluable when dealing with larges amounts of data. With a RAID configuration, we still had a 3-Tbyte capacity.

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Two additional SATA interfaces are on the motherboard. One was used for the Lite-On Blu-ray drive, which can handle Blu-ray media in addition to DVD and CD media. We were more interested in the drive for its storage capacity because movie playback requires video support for High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP). Our HDTV could handle its part, but the FireGL board is not designed for this kind of application.

Hooking up the Lite-On Blu-ray drive via SATA cabling was easier than the conventional IDE interface to a DVD drive since there are no jumpers and the cable is smaller. High-def and high-capacity drives like this likely will be the turning point for SATA interfaces on optical drives. There are a few DVD drives, but most remain IDE devices.

The drives were mounted in internal drive bays instead of external drive bays, which tend to be more useful in a file server (see "Building A SAS RAID File Server," ED Online 12386). After a boot test, the hardware was ready for some software.

Program It
Dual booting and virtual-machine support are ideal for a system of this magnitude. Likewise, programmers and developers likely will use some heavy-hitting software. Our system boots Microsoft Vista Ultimate and Ubuntu 7.10. Both support virtual-machine managers and can run each other, though it is best not to run the boot images. Instead, just install another copy on a virtual disk.

The other two pieces of software we looked at this year include Intel's Thread Building Blocks (see "Threads Make The Move To Open Source," ED Online 16538) and National Instruments' LabView (see "Multicore LabView," ED Online 16615). Both target multiple-core platforms like this. Also, both require some programming input, and they tend to address different applications and programmers. Thread Building Blocks works well for number crunching, while LabView's command and control are extremely useful, especially when soft GUI interfaces are required.

Multicore systems are going to raise the bar for memory and hard-disk space. They likely will push network throughput as they become the norm, given the size of data sets and video files. This was especially apparent as I used these tools on this Xeon powerhouse.

Related Links

AMD
www.amd.com

Intel
www.intel.com

Lite-On
www.liteon.com

National Instruments
www.ni.com

Seagate
www.seagate.com

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