A Look Inside Seneca Data's Nexlink 7100 Workstation


You're looking at the state of the art in digital image processing. When building high-end workstations for the power user, custom systems builder Seneca Data selects the fastest and most powerful components for the intended users and their applications. The Syracuse, N.Y.-based company sent the CRN Test Center a pair of its Nexlink 7100 workstations for evaluation. Naturally, our instinct was to take them apart and see what they were made of.

But not before we ran a few tests. For finished systems and servers, the Test Center's standard benchmark is Geekbench from Primate Labs. After running the 64-bit version of Geekbench 2.1.5 several times, the 7100 delivered a high score of 8,566, the highest Geekbench score of any production workstation we've tested. But we weren't done there. Seneca says the machine is targeted at video surveillance stream processing and editing. So we fired up Iometer, the open source benchmark utility developed by Intel. We selected an access specification that would generate 100 percent sequential writes of 4K-byte blocks, similar to the way video streams might be recorded. Results were impressive, and are detailed in the hard drive section.

With its dual GeForce 460GTX display adapters operating through Nvidia's SLI as a single graphics processor engine, the system is obviously ready for some massive pixel pumping. Gamers will appreciate average frame rates during game play of 138 fps. More on graphics performance later.

Right now it's on to the piece-by-piece breakdown. Whether you're choosing components for your own custom systems or looking for a solution provider to build them, knowing what's inside can make or break your customers' satisfaction. We think customers looking for maximum frame rates would be content with the Nexlink 7100 Workstation. And here's why.

NEXT: Cooler Master CM 690 Midtower Cabinet

Cooler Master CM 690 Midtower Cabinet

This large, roomy Cooler Master CM 690 tower is built to house an ATX motherboard and to keep it cool and well fed. Features include a pop-off front bezel that reveals its four exposed 5-inch drive bays. The metal mesh filler pops off without tools, one of which made room for a 22X LG SATA DVD-RW. Another two bays are occupied by a pair of 3-inch terabyte hard drives from Hitachi (with mounting brackets). More on those later. Below the external bays on the front panel is a large fan that draws air across the six internal 3-inch drive bays, which could be used for a separate RAID array for server applications, as extra storage to be added to the system’s default RAID 1 array, or as just a bunch of disks.

As with most towers, external drives are affixed with screws. But the internal drive bays are equipped with slide-out frames that make installation and servicing a breeze. Drives attach to the frames with pins suspended in rubber. This is as nice a drive-mounting system as we've seen; no tools required. Both cabinet panels are removable with thumbscrews, providing total access to all drives front and rear, expansion cards, processor, memory, fans and power cords. This roomy cabinet also is well-ventilated, with gratings on all sides, top and bottom (including beneath the power supply) and on both side panels, both of which also can sport optional fans.

It's not called the Cooler Master for nothing. In case nine fans aren't enough to keep your dream system cool, the cabinet provides grommets and a spot for mounting a liquid cooling system. The CM 690 is considered a midtower, yet its interior is quite roomy when installing drives and memory, and when routing cables. Like the cabinet panels, expansion cards also are affixed with thumbscrews, which further eases installations and service. There's room for seven single-width expansion cards (Nvidia's are double-wides). There's a large rear rectangular opening for motherboard-integrated ports, and a top control panel with two USB, 1 eSATA, headphone, microphone, and power and reset buttons. Large rubber feet keep the cabinet in place when standing upright on a smooth surface or workbench, and handles top and bottom make for sure-footed transportation. The Cooler Master CM 690 is a sturdy, well-built cabinet from top to bottom.

NEXT: Hitachi Ultrastar A7K2000 1TB SATA-II Hard Drive

Hitachi Ultrastar A7K2000 1TB SATA-II Hard Drive

We're not sure how often the hard drives in a desktop computer need to be protected from excessive vibration, but having such a safeguard doesn't hurt. That's the Rotational Vibration Safeguard, and it's built into the Nexlink 7100's two Hitachi Ultrastar A7K2000 hard drives. According to Hitachi, RVS "anticipates disturbances and counteracts them -- maximizing performance in the most arduous conditions," improving performance by as much as 300 percent. So perhaps users might put the 7100 on the floor and kick it when they need a performance boost.

On a more serious note, the 7100 came with a pair of 7,200-rpm SATA-II (3 GB/s) hard drives configured as RAID 1 by Intel's Rapid Storage Technology software accessing a Marvell RAID controller on the motherboard. Testers configured Iometer with two simulated workers writing data to the two-drive array. The benchmark reported about 64,000 input-output operations per second (IO/s) and a 31.7 MB/s transfer rate. For comparison, a high-end system without the benefits of a RAID array might perform about 3,500 IO/s and deliver a transfer rate of 13.5 MB/s. With a single worker, the 7100 delivered 58,000 IO/s and a rate of 29 MB/s. The system continued to perform well with up to eight workers, turning out 148,000 IO/s at a transfer rate of 71 MB/s.

Hitachi's drives also include a 32-MB buffer for performance-boosting operations such as read-aheads, but testers measured no significant difference with this feature on or off. These Hitachi drives are covered by a three-year warranty.

NEXT: Nvidia GeForce 460GTX

Nvidia GeForce 460GTX

This modern graphics processor is an amazingly powerful and complex subsystem, more powerful, in fact, than some of the machines it's installed in. For example, the Nvidia GeForce 460GTX alone has 336 CUDA cores, 56 texture units and 40 raster operation units. And the Nexlink 7100 has two, which can operate as a single card thanks to Nvidia's Scalable Link Interface, or SLI. The 460GTX is equipped with 768 MB of dedicated video memory and can display a maximum digital resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 (2,048 x 1,536 for analog).

CUDA (Compute Unified Device Architecture) processors can be accessed by solution providers using a variety of standard languages, including C. Developers can build their programs to off-load certain general computing tasks to the card's graphical processing unit (GPU). This can be useful for off-loading scientific research calculations and video graphics processing, but most still use it for doing the physics calculations for video games.

From a physical perspective, the 460 is bigger and hotter than your average video card. And because of its heat sync and dedicated cooling fan, it occupies not only the PCI Express 2.0 x16 slot, but the adjacent space as well. Each board also takes up two rear-panel openings, one for its video output ports and another for exhaust. The board sports a mini-HDMI port (with HDMI adapter) and two dual-link DVI ports. Either DVI port can be converted to analog VGA with included adapters.

While the 460 is several models behind Nvidia's current high-end 480, the 460 clearly held its own, performancewise. It delivered an average frame rate during game play of 138 fps, with sustained peaks in the low 200s and momentary peaks of around double that. And when testers measured raw frame rates using the Real Time HDR IBL benchmark, they observed 556 fps at 320 x 240; 416 fps at 640 x 480; 350 fps at 720 x 480; and 157 fps at 1,280 x 942. Not too shabby. The board did not perform as well on SPEC viewperf11, proving that it's designed for handling small triangles, not large ones. In other words, if you're building a machine for CAD or any kind of electronic design, Nvidia's Quadro series would be a better choice.

NEXT: Sea Sonic SS-750KM PDU

Sea Sonic SS-750KM PDU

As long as it supplies enough wattage, does the maker of a system's power supply really matter? Of course it does. And even if the quality of power supplied to the system was consistent from one product to another (which it clearly isn't), having the right power supply also can ease the setup and maintenance. In the 7100 Workstation, Seneca Data installed a Sea Sonic Electric Co.'s SS-750KM power distribution unit, one from the company's new X-Series Gold high-end PC power supplies. Headquartered in Taipei, Sea Sonic holds design patents and has been building power supplies for Apple IIs and IBM PCs since 1980.

Testers liked the Sea Sonic's connector-module design, for which it earned one of its patents. Unlike most of the power supplies we've tested, Sea Sonic's cables detach at both ends. This allows the cable itself to be replaced rather than the entire power unit, in the unlikely event of a cable failure. Cable connectors are clearly diagrammed on the power supply, helping to eliminate guesswork or trips to the manual. Also patented is its method of reducing noise. Changes in ambient temperature cause the fan to change to fanless, silent and cooling modes. Testers never heard a thing.

What's also nice is that the Sea Sonic is responsible for keeping only itself cool. It draws air in from the bottom of the unit and exhausts it out the rear. In this way, the power supply itself exercises a macro-level version of the hot-air isolation employed in many of the world’s data centers. The unit also is designated 80 Plus Gold, indicating that it's at least 87 percent efficient at 20, 50 and 100 percent load, and its voltage regulators are rated at +/- 3 percent. The Energy Stat 5.0-compliant unit also works with the host system’s standby, sleep and idle modes to save more energy. Sea Sonic covers its product with a five-year warranty.

NEXT: Intel DX58SO Extreme Series Motherboard

Intel DX58SO Extreme Series Motherboard

Sometimes still referred to by its "smackover" code-name, Intel's DX58SO has become somewhat of an industry standard in ATX-size motherboards. Built around the LGA 1366 socket, the DX58 is part of Intel's Extreme Series of boards for the company's 900-series Core i7 standard and Extreme Edition 4- and 6-core processors.

The 7100 was outfitted with 6 GB of DDR3 1,333-MHz memory in a matched set of three 2-GB DIMMs. Core i7 processors support three separate memory channels, adding multichannel modes of interleaved memory access to the traditional single-channel asynchronous mode. Tri-channel and dual-channel modes access memory sequentially by spreading data across multiple memory channels. The result is reduced latency and improved performance, particularly for memory-intensive applications. Three of its four 240-pin memory slots are colored to indicate where to place DIMMs to take advantage of the spec. The board supports a maximum of 16 GB of memory.

This versatile motherboard supports as many as six internal SATA 3.0 (6GB/s) drives plus another two through a pair of eSATA ports, accessible from the rear (the front-mounted eSata port actually taps one of the internals). Drives can be configured in RAID arrays thanks to a Marvell RAID controller on the motherboard and Intel's Rapid Storage Technology software. The DX58SO boasts a total of 12 USB 2.0 ports, that's if you add its two internal headers to the eight rear and two front outlets. The rear panel also is home to FireWire (1394a) and Gigabit Ethernet ports, one each.

Gamers and sound producers alike appreciate Intel's 10-channel High-Definition Audio Dolby Home Theater (7.1) subsystem, accessible through five analog audio outputs plus two S/PIDF digital outputs (one each of the coaxial and optical variety). For expansion, the board has two PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots (primary and secondary) with electrical x16 bus add-in connectors, one PCI Express 1.0 x16 with x4 bus add-in card connector, and one PCI conventional bus add-in card connector.

An often overlooked feature of any motherboard is its supporting chipset, and Intel's X58 Express chipset contains some fairly advanced features. For example, X58 connects the processor to peripherals through Intel's QuickPath Interconnect (QPI), the relatively new interconnect specification that establishes an 80-bit network between one or more processors and one or more I/O hubs, granting all components access to all system resources with a potential theoretical bandwidth of 25.6 GB/s. This also paves the way for nonuniform memory access (NUMA), which is said to be the logical progression for scaling from symmetric multiprocessing architectures.

NEXT: Intel Core i7 930 Processor

Intel Core i7 930 Processor

Launched in the first quarter of this year, Intel's Core i7 930 is a 64-bit processor with four cores running at 2.8GHz. In TurboBoost mode, Intel increases the processing speed to 3.06GHz, the fastest speed officially supported. When using QPI, the 930 is rated at 4.8 gigatransfers (or operations) per second, commonly noted as GT/s. The processor is capable of addressing as much as 24 GB of memory, though the DX58SO motherboard supports just 16 GB. And while the motherboard can handle memory speeds up to 1,333MHz, this chip has a limit of 1,066MHz.

The i7 930 supports Intel's Virtualization Technology (VT-x), making it suitable as a server for VMware or another virtualization platform. Through Intel's HyperThreading, the 930 also can process up to eight threads in parallel, assuming the operating system supports it (which Windows 7 does).

Nexlink 7100 Workstation

Benchmarks aside, this machine is a screamer. With the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Professional installed, applications launch instantly and are as responsive as can be imagined. Highly complex and graphical games respond in realtime and never freeze or skip. Sound is rich, full-bodied and as natural as the real thing. And when it's time to perform an upgrade, repair or maintenance task, the cabinet can be opened in a moment without tools or sharp edges.

It was only a matter of minutes to take this machine apart, and in a few moments more it was back together and screaming once again. Figuratively, of course. In reality, the Nexlink 7100 with its Sea Sonic power supply and large quiet fans produces barely a whisper, and would be a pleasure to have under anyone's desk.