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  Iwill ZMAXdp, twice the power in half the space? 
  Mar 02, 2005, 07:30am EST 
 

Dual processor power


By: James Morris

Dual processor PCs are normally bigger than standard systems, but Iwill clearly hasn’t read the rulebook. This may look like a standard small form factor barebones from the outside, but lurking within is support for twin AMD Opteron workstation processors. In fact, Iwill has tested the ZMAXdp all the way up to Opteron 250s running at 2.4GHz – that’s equivalent to two Athlon 64 FX-53s in one PC. There are one or two external signs that this is no ordinary SFF, though. In particular, the PSU sticks out at the back like the rear of a Renault Megane. But this is an understandable concession to the processing power within. It’s a 350W model, offering enough juice to keep workstation-level components running smoothly. This is also the location of the system’s only fans – two 60mm, which are called upon to cool everything in the system.

ZMAXdp front

The front of the ZMAXdp, featuring four USB connectors and the power switch.

Iwill’s secret weapon with the ZMAXdp is a complex network of heatpipes, which draw the thermals away from the two processor sockets to radiators at the back, right next to the PSU. This contraption is quite an involved install, as although it comes in two separate pieces, they must be installed as one unit, because they overlap and share a pair of screws in the middle. But at least the disk cage lifts out easily to give full access. The latter has room for two hard disks, as well as a 5.25-inch optical and 3.5-inch floppy or memory card reader. Iwill has tested graphics cards up to the 6800GT, and the one we used ran without a hitch. Our Corsair Registered PC3200 memory wasn’t on the compatibility list, but that ran just fine too. We’d be sceptical about installing more power-hungry graphics than a 6800GT, but a Quadro FX 3000 has similar requirements, so would be a good workstation OpenGL option. As the ZMAXdp uses Nvidia’s Nforce 3 Professional MCP rather than the recently released Nforce 4 Professional, only an AGP slot is available.

ZMAXdp power supply

The power supply of the ZMAXdp sticks out from the back, creating room inside.

When we first built the ZMAXdp with a couple of Opteron 246s, however, we were dismayed by the noise it made. The sample we’d been shipped had an early BIOS with no temperature-based fan management, instead leaving the fans set permanently to maximum. But after we’d flashed the latest BIOS release from Iwill’s website, the temperature control for the fans was enabled and things quietened down considerably. However, we had to flash the BIOS twice to get the temperature sensors calibrated correctly – the first time we tried, they were reading too low to kick the fans in at all, even when overheating was causing system instability. This wasn’t helped by the general incompetence of Iwill’s own Hardware Doctor utility, which continued to misreport processor temperatures 30C higher than they actually were, even when fan control was working correctly. We only discovered this when we installed the excellent SpeedFan utility (http://www.almico.com/speedfan.php), which showed everything was running just fine.

ZMAXdp 350-watt power supply

The power supply has a 350-watt rating, enough to power two 246 Opterons.

But that was our only negative experience with the ZMAXdp. Once we’d overcome these teething problems, the system ran without a hitch. Even when we pummelled the processors at 100 per cent for days on end, the fans were only operating at 4000-5000rpm, which was distinctly audible but not irritatingly so. When the system was idle, this dropped to 2000-3000rpm, which was more than acceptable. One area of concern for professional workstation customers is the ZMAXdp’s memory architecture. Unlike most dual Opteron boards, it offers a single memory bank instead of one for each CPU, for obvious space constraint reasons. So the memory controller on just one of the Opteron processors is used, with the other accessing it via HyperTransport. In theory, this will make the ZMAXdp slower than a full workstation, although for most everyday purposes you won’t notice it. In practice, the limitation of having just two DIMM slots will be more constraining, as this means you can only have 2GB of RAM, although that’s still adequate for most workstation activities.

ZMAXdp interior

A look inside, clearly visible are the AGP/PCI slot and the DIMM sockets.

With the ZMAXdp, Iwill has created something unique. It’s no surprise that this SFF won an Innovations award at CES 2005 recently. It’s a pity that we weren’t shipped a fully featured BIOS, and that Iwill’s own hardware monitoring utility is effectively useless. But the ZMAXdp is still an engineering tour-de-force. Anyone looking for a dual CPU workstation should seriously consider this box – it proves a power multi-processor system doesn’t need be housed in a chassis the size of a power station.

James Morris.



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