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Sunshine and Apple juice

By SoupIsGood Food, (soup@macedition.com), July 16, 2002

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The Mac is a mighty fine personal computer, but how does it stack up as a Unix workstation? Now that the Mac ships with Mac OS X standard, it certainly qualifies as a workstation in the traditional RISC/Unix mold.

Since its debut in 1982, Sun has been the very definition of the Unix workstation. Its latest offerings, the Sun Blade 2000 and the Sun Blade 100, are the some of the best desktop workstations the company has ever produced, each one targeting very different markets.

The Sun Blade 2000 is designed as the epitome of high-speed performance, and its dual gigahertz “UltraSPARC III Cu” processors, 8MB cache and high-speed memory bus capable of handling 8GB of RAM definitely dwarf the Power Mac’s dual G4s, 2MB L3 cache and 1.5GB of PC 133 memory. But…

A fully equipped Sun Blade 2000, the “20th Anniversary Edition,” costs more than $25,000. A Power Mac G4 with all the options you can spec from the Apple Store comes in at just over $7000. This configuration gives you Gigabit Ethernet standard…while Sun only saw fit to give the ’Blade 2K onboard 10/100 Ethernet.

That Power Mac also comes equipped with UltraSCSI/160 and three 72GB, 10,000RPM disks you can put in a RAID-5 configuration. The older Sun Blade 1000 broke ground by being the first desktop system to have Fibre Channel disks as standard equipment. The Sun Blade 2000 kept the Fibre Channel storage interface…but kept the same one! It’s an old gigabit FC-AL interface that only offers 100MB/sec throughput, and Sun will only give you two 72GB drives. Sun also gives you a 4mm tape drive, where Apple gives you a SuperDrive that will burn 9GB of data onto a DVD-R – the tape will hold more (though nowhere near the full capacity of the disks), but the SuperDrive is faster and easier to manage.

You can, of course, buy additional hard disks, a 2GB FC-AL card and a Gigabit Ethernet card…but you’ve already dumped $25,000 into a system that’s not as well equipped as a $7,000 Mac. If your workstation application requires lots of disk and network operations, the Mac’s a better choice. If you need blistering speed and epic amounts of RAM, the Sun’s your best bet.

Sun’s other current offering is the Sun Blade 100, which is aimed squarely at the Unix workstation customers who don't need a lot of horsepower, but reasonable performance at an attractive price. It’s got a 500MHz UltraSPARC IIe processor. Not a speed demon, but it still has the SPARC’s legendary low latency and speedy memory system; it’s also a 64-bit processor, capable of handling up to 2GB of RAM.

The eMac comes with a 700MHz G4 that is more than a match for the UltraSPARC IIe. It only supports 1GB of RAM, but it comes with twice the disk capacity – a 40GB ATA/66 drive as opposed to 20GB in the ’Blade 100. Both systems have a 10/100 Ethernet port, but the eMac also comes with AirPort for wireless networking. The Sun Blade 100 has 3 PCI slots for expansion, but in all honesty, the average ’Blade 100 customer will never use them. Apple’s Nvidia GeForce2 MX GPU is head and shoulders above the Sun Blade 100’s onboard video. They both weigh in around $1000, but Apple comes with a nice wide-aspect, flat-screen CRT built into the box. In terms of performance and features, Apple’s the clear winner.

But which is better overall on the desktop for the typical Unix workstation user? Apple has more productivity and educational software, and Apple also gives away its top-notch developer’s tools, while Sun charges you through the nose for the same. So, in an academic environment like computer science programs, the eMac has a clear advantage. It also shines where you need to create customized science and engineering programs, such as lightweight simulations and the like.

On the other hand, there are a ton of engineering and CAD tools for Sun that just aren’t available on the Mac. For instance, many electronics engineers use software that lets you set up a hypothetical electronic device in software on a lightweight local workstation, and simulate it in action on a powerful server the entire workgroup can share. In this environment, a Sun Blade 100 on every desktop with a monster Ultra enterprise server in the back room is a clear winner.

Even though it may be outrun at the high end, Apple can clearly cut the mustard in the Unix workstation racket, especially where the price/performance ratio is a factor.

Got a problem with this informal comparo? Sound off below.

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