Sun Java Workstation W2100z

The Sun Java Workstation W2100Z is one of the fastest desktops ever. And it runs Linux better than Solaris 10 x86.

Sun and workstation. Back in the day, those two words really meant something, especially if you were a Unix geek. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the legendary SPARC 2, SPARC 10, and any number of other Unix-based desktop systems from Sun (and Silicon Graphics) represented the pinnacle of graphical, compute-intensive workstations. Back when I was a consultant on Wall Street and the Twin Towers still stood proudly over the Manhattan skyline, I remember floor upon floor of stock traders and investment bankers with SPARC machines on their desks in those buildings, running mission critical market data and trading applications and mastering all that they surveyed. The Sun machines never went down, ever — 100 percent uptime was not unusual for a Sun workstation-based trading floor.

But times have changed and the SPARC workstation that once was a fixture of the barons of The Street got displaced with less reliable but more cost effective Windows NT and Windows 2000 boxes running on Intel chips. Now, many of those very same organizations are evaluating or adopting Linux, seeking further cost savings and better reliability using open standards and open source. Seeing the writing on the wall, Sun Microsystems began a new x86- based initiative in a highly publicized alliance with AMD, and now hopes to re-establish its leadership in the high performance workstation market.

The Sun W2100z represents a significant change in Sun’s approach to workstation engineering, taking its cues from its two main competitors, IBM and HP, and eschewing the costly and proprietary UltraSPARC in favor of dual AMD Opteron 250 series processors, up to 16 GB of system RAM, an nVidia Quadro 3000 series graphics card, and Ultra320 SCSI storage. And it comes standard with Red Hat Enterprise Linux or Solaris x86.

Red Hot Sun

There’s not a single bad thing I can say about the hardware — it’s one of the fastest desktop systems I’ve ever used, and it runs Linux like a dream, especially if you eschew the standard Red Hat Enterprise Workstation 3 configuration and put on a 2.6 kernel-based Linux operating system for AMD64 processors, such as SuSE 9.2 and Fedora Core 3. I benchmarked the CPUs using a multithreaded, SMP-capable 64-bit client, and came up with a result of just over 19 million keys per second, which is an astounding number for a desktop PC. High resolution OpenGL applications using the nVidia optimized video drivers for Linux blazed across the screen. (If the machine didn’t cost over $8,000, I’d seriously consider it as a Unreal Tournament box.) Java applications, especially when running on the very latest Sun Java2 5.0 JVM that could take advantage of the 64-bit features, were also extremely snappy. Where was this machine when we needed it for Java development years ago?

I also used the W2100z to test out Solaris 10 x86, and I have to say, it’s a hell of a combination – the 64-bit Solaris 10 really flies on Opteron hardware, and in many cases, it actually outperformed Linux, particularly in network responsiveness and filesystem access.[ See the review of Solaris 10 on page XX.] However, unlike its Linux cousin, Solaris 10 drivers for nVidia cards are nowhere near as feature rich and mature. Poor font rendering, as well as slow OpenGL performance, prevented me from wanting to use Solaris on this box on a full-time basis, I also had problems getting the built-in CD recorder and the integrated Firewire adapter to work in Solaris 10 (although they worked just peachy in Linux).

Bottom Line: Must Buy

As it stands, and probably much to Sun’s chagrin, the W2100z is better overall as a Linux workstation than it is for running Solaris. If you want to run Solaris, one of Sun’s Opteron-based server machines, such as the V20z, would be a better choice.

However, I have no doubt that Sun will want to have parity with its Linux offering on this machine and its successors, and the time may come where Solaris may become a compelling choice for power users that would otherwise look towards the Penguin.