US BASED COMPUTER HARDWARE MAKER Supermicro isn’t just an OEM design house helping the Tier 1 US brands design and build their servers and workstations. These days, it focuses quite a bit on its branded mainboard and systems business too, including fully assembled bare-bones servers. And Crucial, Micron’s branded memory outfit, has been delivering some of the highest-density fast ECC registered server memory modules around. here we have a look at the ultimate combination – Supermicro’s X8DA6 and X8DAi workstation mainboards with Intel X5680 Xeon processors, along with Crucial’s two kinds of top end server memory – one based on 8GB 1.5V DIMMs and the other based on 4GB 1.35V low power DIMMs, both ECC registered variants.
Based on the i5520 Tylersburg-36 chipset, the dual-CPU variant of the X58, both mainboards provide 36 PCIe v2 lanes and 4 PCIe v1 lanes out of the chipset. the difference between the boards is how the lanes are used.
The DA6 board has one PCIe X16 slot plus three PCIe X8 slots (one is actually electrically X4) as well as three old 64-bit 133MHz PCI-X slots using a separate PCI-X bridge chip – remember them?. well, many SCSI, Fibre Channel, Firewire 800 and such controllers are in that form factor, and after all some PCI cards such as the Sound Blaster X-Fi may run at 66MHz PCI in such slots, too.
The DAi board, on the other hand, has two X16 PCIe slots, nicely separated by two PCI 33MHz slots, so that a, say, Crossfire AMD Radeon HD5970 quad GPU setup can run without tight airflow or hot spots. however, its sole PCIe X8 slot is actually an electrically X4 but slower v1 PCIe from the South Bridge ICH, not the v2 one. the reason for this is that the extra 4 PCIe v2 lanes from the Tylersburg chipset IOH go instead to the optional on-board SAS chip that, well, isn’t there on the DAi – you need the otherwise identical DA3 board for that. My suggestion would be to reroute those x4 high speed signals to an extra slot, rather than waste them.
So, the DA6 board would be more suitable for a single graphics card but lots of I/O situation, while the DAi would do well for intensive multi-GPU 3D graphics with standard I/O. Actually it could handle intensive I/O or powerful PCIe SSD too, if that x4 slot was in v2 speed.
Both boards also have the usual Firewire, Realtek 7.1 HD Audio, as well as dual Ethernet. the DA6 uses dual Intel 82574L Gigabit Ethernet controllers, while the DAi has an Intel 82573V/L Dual-port Gigabit Ethernet controller. I’d personally prefer the more powerful Intel 82576 dual Gigabit chip with more TCP/IP protocol offload, and all on just one PCIe link. Importantly, the proper standard PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports are there to – I really dislike having to rely on USB for this on some mainboards.
Generally, Supermicro’s boards don’t have the fanciest capacitors or PCB features, but they are well laid out and sturdy reference designs, which Intel also seems to favour for benchmarking workstation platforms. I could easily fit a variety of cooling solutions to both boards, whether standard LGA1366 screw-in heat sinks, or the trusty dual CPU Asetek LCLC sealed liquid cooling kit, the recommended solution for silent operation at full speed. Also, both boards are the standard workstation EATX size, easy to fit in many large cases.
We tested the two boards with the top notch memory, the highest capacity available. Crucial’s 8GB DDR3-1333 registered ECC DIMMs, in a set of six pieces, provided 48GB of RAM at just half the DIMM slots, compared to the twelve 4GB DIMMs from Samsung that we used in our previous reference tests. This will prove important in the power usage measurement. Also, Crucial provides on-DIMM temperature sensor capability that can be reported back to the system, a critical benefit for designing optimum airflow to cool huge banks of hot DIMMs. since both Supermicro boards also support 1.35V memory, I also tried six Crucial 4GB 1.35V DDR3-1333 ECC registered modules, which worked flawlessly.
We ran the whole thing, including an AMD Radeon HD5970 card, in a Coolermaster HAF932 case with a Coolermaster 1,000W PSU. we used the Intel X5680 Xeon processors, as well as the X5670 pair, to see the difference in power consumption beyond just the official TDP rating of 130W versus 95W per CPU chip.
Benchmark wise, with the same settings, both boards perform pretty much identically. here are the relevant Sandra 2010 scores for the CPU and memory:
Now, the 2.93GHz plus Turbo X5670 shouldn’t be much slower. the real benchmark difference was only 10 per cent in CPU tests, and about 1 per cent less in memory tests. But, how was the power consumption difference? the wall plug check showed, with the DA6 board and Intel X25-M SSD, 479W with the X5680, and 453W with the X5670. Not that much difference when running Sandra CPU. now, this was with six Crucial DIMM 48GB solution. Using the 12 Samsung 48GB alternative with 4GB DIMMs, the power went up to 526W with the X5680 pair. So, the memory choice can sometimes impact the total power draw more than even the CPU speed. even if the higher density DIMMs cost a bit more upfront, the added power saving, heat reduction and overall stability benefit should be worth the difference, especially now that the memory prices are falling.
In summary, the standard dual CPU workstation boards from Supermicro offer a decent choice between graphics and I/O expandability, although you can’t expect overclocking or performance tuning from them – the EVGA SR2 is for that. the UEFI BIOS can be a headache, but then it seems it is the future. as for the memory, as the Crucial versus Samsung case proves, stick with the higher density modules as long the price difference isn’t too much. µ