Product Review: SunPCi puts Wintel in your workstation

SunPCi puts Wintel in your workstation

-- Kevin Railsback

Productivity is key in today's business market, and also important is having the right people and tools for the job. However, for many companies, the various necessary tools run on disparate platforms. Although most business productivity applications, for example, run on Windows-based machines, many engineering and design tools run in the Unix environmentSun Microsystems' SunPCi card, a complete PC on a PCI add-on card, could be the perfect solution for Unix shops that want to offer some or all of their users access to common Windows business applications.

For companies that need to offer tools to their users from both worlds, the de facto solution has been to buy two systems for each user. I have two main systems I use at work: a Windows 95 machine for Lotus Notes and Microsoft Office, and a Red Hat Linux 5.2 machine for everything else.

By installing the SunPCi card, companies can avoid spending the typical cost of $2000 or more for a basic Wintel desktop computer. Because the Sun card costs just $1050, you can save over $1500 on initial hardware expenses, and you may also save on support costs because there is less hardware to maintain.

Competing products software which lets users run Windows applications on Unix or Macintosh have distinct drawbacks. Because your machine's CPU does the work for both operating environments, the performance for all applications will suffer.

Overall, I found the performance of the SunPCi system acceptable for running common business applications such as Microsoft Office 97 and Outlook. Although the SunPCi card did not perform as fast as an equivalent desktop system, its price is tough to beat.

I received my Sun Ultra 5 test machine with the SunPCi card already installed and configured, with Microsoft Windows 95 and Office 97 also set up. Note that when purchasing a SunPCi card, whether in a new system or as an add-on to an existing Ultra workstation, you'll need to buy separate licences for Windows 95 and your Windows applications. A licence for only OpenDOS is included with SunPCi, and the Sun drivers currently support Windows 95 only as a client operating system. Sun promises to have Windows 98 and Windows NT support for the SunPCi card in the near future.

Of course, the first thing I did when I got the Ultra 5 set up on my desk was to open the case to get a better look at the SunPCi. It's a full-length PCI card with an AMD K6-2 300MHz processor, 64MB of RAM (expandable to 256MB), SiS SVGA video, Sound Blaster compatible sound, and most other items a standard desktop machine has on board. The SunPCi's video memory is shared from the main RAM pool, and can be configured in the SunPCi BIOS from 512KB to 4MB. The only things missing from the SunPCi card are the floppy drive, CD-ROM drive, and hard drives, which are shared with the Ultra host machine.

After I replaced the machine's cover, I booted Solaris. Once I logged in, I typed sunpci in a terminal window and the SunPCi board started. This brought up Windows 95 running inside a window on my Solaris desktop. Typing sunpci -vga launched SunPCi on a separate monitor using the built-in video adapter.

When Windows 95 was running, I launched Word 97, and then loaded Excel and PowerPoint. At first it seemed that the SunPCi card delivered similar performance to a normal business desktop machine.

However, looks can be deceiving. I found that the SunPCi card took nearly twice as long to run through the test suite when running in a window on my Solaris desktop than a Gateway Pentium II 300MHz machine.

When I ran the same tests on a separate monitor using the built-in VGA adapter, performance improved significantly (it was 34 per cent faster than in a window), but speed was still well below the baseline system (44 per cent slower than the Gateway machine).

I discovered that the SunPCi card is set up to use the MS-DOS compatibility-mode file system for hard disk access, which explains much of the poor performance. A Sun representative confirmed that the company has a 32-bit driver, but it was not sufficiently stress tested to ship as the default. Future software revisions will include this faster and more robust driver.

If you need the full power of a beefy business desktop machine with high-speed video and PCI slots for expandability, the SunPCi card does not fit the bill. But for Unix shops that need to add Windows business application support for some users and that want to save both desk real estate and hardware costs, the SunPCi card is a good choice.

THE BOTTOM LINE: GOOD

SunPCi

This PCI card offers a wide range of Windows-based business applications to Unix users without sacrificing the speed and stability of the Solaris environment. The competitively priced SunPCi should be an easy choice for Unix workstation managers who need to offer basic business applications to their users.

Pros: Dedicated CPU, RAM, etc, for Windows; runs most Windows software.

Cons: Slow performance of MS-DOS disk drivers; Windows licence not included; DirectDraw support available only while using built-in VGA adapter.

Price: $A1050 list price

Platform: Sun Ultra workstations with PCI.

Understanding CD-R and CD-RW

-- Carla Catalano

You may remember when CD-ROM really meant "read only". Today's writable compact disc technology allows end users to read and write reports, photos and presentations.

There are two types of writable CDs: CD-Recordable (CD-R) and CD-Rewritable (CD-RW).

Both allow CD-ROM-compatible discs to be created on the desktop.

These CDs are individually produced with an optical drive connected to the computer and require pregrooved CDs. Once recorded, the discs are like other CDs.

CD-R uses media that can be written to once at any location on the disc. You can add information to the disc, but you have to put it in a different place.

According to Ricoh Australia --which has its own CD-R/RW offering -- you should think of CD-R as writing with a ballpoint pen. You can't erase or write over where you've already written.

Archives, music and more

Mainly used for archival and distribution purposes, CD-R is for "folks who need to distribute information or back up from their hard drive", Katzive says. And because of its write-once, nonerasable format, CD-R safeguards against deleting or overwriting files.

A popular use for CD-R is making custom music CDs. Users also use CD-R to download files, such as screen savers and search results, from the Internet to prevent hard drives from corruption.

In contrast, CD-RW allows you to rewrite to the disc up to 1000 times. Stored data on this type of disc isn't permanent because it can be erased and written over. CD-RW is like "writing with paper and pencil", Katzive says.

CD-RW allows you to reuse the media, so instead of having a large number of discs on hand, you can use the same disc again and again. CD-RW also is the "media of choice" -- it costs less than CD-R over time because you buy fewer discs. But more CD-R is sold because each disc is less expensive, according to Katzive.

There are some drawbacks to CD-R and CD-RW technology. Both are used to record audio, video and data, but "formatting is long and cumbersome", says Wolfgang Schlichting, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Massachusetts. The media is blank when you buy it, and it can take up to an hour to format a disc.

A major difference between the media is compatibility. CD-R is read-compatible with CD-ROM drives, which adds to its popularity; however, CD-RW can be read only in multiread CD-ROM drives.

For example, if you record an audio CD and want to play it back on your CD player, you would use CD-R because the audio player can't read CD-RW.

If you want to play it back on your PC and the PC CD-ROM drive is multiread, then you would use CD-RW media.

Definition: CD-R and CD-RW are types of compact discs that you can copy files onto. CD-R is a write-once format, meaning you can store information on a disc once. You can add data to a new location, but you can't erase or write over existing data. With CD-RW, however, you can write, rewrite, rename and erase information up to 1000 times.

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