Subject: Re: need help spec'ing out box for NetBSD/alpha
To: Christian Kuhtz <>
From: Thor Lancelot Simon <>
List: port-alpha
Date: 08/26/1998 18:40:32
On Tue, Aug 25, 1998 at 10:03:49PM -0400, Christian Kuhtz wrote:
> Hey gang:
> I got $20K or so for a workstation and I'd like to spend it on an Alpha.
> Catch is, I haven't dealt with DEC equipment since the (*duck*) days of the
> 11/750s.
> Can someone recommend a good highend platform?  What amounts of memory
> should I be looking for?  Caveats with regards to graphics boards?

Most people running NetBSD on Alphas would probably pick up the relevant
components and assemble the workstation themselves.  I know I would.  You
_can_ get approximately the same box from DEC presassmbled, but you'll pay
a premium for it, even a substantial premium over having a reseller like
Microway or Enorex assemble the box for you.  Microway and Enorex and several
other vendors buy motherboards and processors from Samsung or DEC and then
put the box together themselves, usually even using a chassis from the same
manufacturer as DEC with a different faceplate.

The appropriate DEC box is probably a Digital Personal Workstation 600au.
Order it with NT (AlphaBIOS or "ARC") firmware, then get the SRM firmware
from the DEC FTP site and flash it in.

Support for graphics cards under NetBSD is weak to say the least.  If this
workstation is for your desktop, you're going to wish you were running
Digital UNIX.  If it's for development or production work, where tons of
CPU counts and the graphics are a nice plus, you may do OK, but count on
buying another box as an X11 "head"; a cheap i386 works fine and you can
run the X applications on the Alpha.  If you hadn't guessed, NetBSD/alpha
has a big bias towards headless server applications because that's all
that A12 or NASA Ames, who fund most of the development, care about.

If you buy from Enorex or Microway, you will get the same machine as the
600au but you'll be able to afford more goodies.  Be *sure* to get a
machine with a real 21164 (or 21164A) processor, and not the 21164PC
processor which has a very different cache architecture and much less
performance.  Machines built around the AlphaPC164SX motherboard use
the 21164PC processor.

In this case, you're going to get a very PC-like box with a PCI bus Alpha
motherboard (same thing that's sitting inside the case of the DEC machine),
ECC SDRAM memory, and various PCI cards -- if you have to buy it all at
the same place, the various vendors will insert the cards for you and
charge you 2X the street price for them. :-)  For $20,000, here's what
I'd do:

AlphaPC164LX motherboard, 533MHz or higher 21164(-A) microprocessor, 1MB or
2MB cache.  Some vendors don't sell 2MB cache models, some do.

512MB ECC SDRAM.  Maybe more.  1GB of ECC SDRAM, at street price, is only
about $1600!  Even if you buy a machine from DEC, buying a little memory
and then adding more will save you a ton.

A SCSI adapter built around the Qlogic (Emulex) "ISP" chipset.  Unfortunately
these are almost all OEM-only models, many built by DEC.  Some vendors may
resell the DEC cards, so you may be OK there.  OR:

* A cheap Symbios 810 or 825 or 875 based adapter (several manufacturers,
  I can give you a few card names if you're going to do this from parts
  yourself) to boot from (SRM firmware can boot *only* the ISP and 53c8xxx
  cards) and an Adaptec 2940UW for your other disks.

* Three 3.2GB 5400RPM 3.5" SCSI disks.  I personally am very fond of
  Quantum Fireball ST drives.  If you can't find 3.2GB drives, you can
  always go larger.  7200RPM drives suck power and run hot and therefore
  fail often, less, slower drives is always a better answer.

* An Intel EtherExpress 100baseT card.

* Some PCI VGA card; the ATI or Number Nine cards are generally OK.  You
  won't get a whole lot of use out of this until someone convinces the
  XFree86 guys that the world isn't an AT architecture PC, so don't
  worry about it.

* A cheap PC as, essentially, an X terminal.  Just needs a Pentium
  processor of some kind, a small IDE disk, a network card, and a good
  PCI VGA card.  32MB of memory should do nicely.  This should, of course,
  run NetBSD too.

I'm pretty sure you can get all that for under $20,000.  I note you're at
an RBOC, so you may have to buy from DEC... sigh.  Well, the Miata is a
nice machine no matter what you pay for it, I guess.

Isn't it astounding what $20,000 buys these days?