Reader to Reader - August 1997

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Every office larger than a shoe box typically asks, "Are we using the right computer system? Do we need to standardize on one type?" In my case, the office is the US government's NOAA-NESDIS-National Geophysical Data Center. We develop and provide access to earth science databases via the Web, CD-ROM, printed materials, and other media.

Our worldwide commercial and government users have all types of data processing needs. One user might need a PC floppy, the next might want a large data set on 8mm UNIX helical-scan tape, and another might need two dozen printed posters. To meet these requirements, we run a mix of PC systems (Intel or clone running Windows 3.1, Windows 95, or Windows NT), Macintosh systems (PowerPC and 680x0) and UNIX systems (Sun and SGI) to massage data, set up access, and create graphics (which is how I spend most of my time). Efficient output is a must, and I usually turn to a Mac for the graphics and publishing tasks.

Much of my graphics work requires 3D renderings from geophysical data such as topography and ocean depths; the images I produce range from small icons for Web pages to 3' * 4' posters, animations simulating ocean-floor flyovers and rotating globes, and a 45' mosaic at Denver International Airport. Many projects call for number-crunching, so I need a hot computer. My main machine is a Power Macintosh 9500 with a 132MHz PowerPC 604, 144MB of RAM, Mac OS 7.6.1, a 4GB disk, and a Radius Thunder 30/1600 video card. Rendering one shaded relief globe (ray-traced, texture-mapped on a sphere) in NewTek LightWave3D takes about 37 minutes at a final image size of 2048 * 2048 pixels from source data images of size 3072 * 1536 pixels. Multiply that time by the number of frames for, say, a high-resolution film loop of a rotating globe, and you see that the total time for a project can run into days. Because I have only one computer with the rendering software and frequently more than one high-priority task, devoting 100 percent of my computing resource to one project delays everything else.

Because multitasking wouldn't enhance my overall productivity (all my high-priority jobs are processor-intensive), I decided to check out faster systems to increase productivity. The fastest (single-processor) number-cruncher in the moderate-cost PC market is Digital Equipment's Alpha. I tested an Enorex Ultra PC 500 (500MHz DEC Alpha 21164, 128MB of RAM, NT 4.0, a 4GB disk, and a Matrox Millennium video card) against my Power Macintosh 9500/132. I used the Alpha and PowerPC native builds of LightWave3D in the comparison.

I ran LightWave3D's Textures scene rendering on the Enorex in about 21 seconds; the same test took about 1 minute 32 seconds on my Mac. The large globe rendering that took 37 minutes to run on my Mac ran in 11 minutes 16 seconds on the Enorex.

How much more bang for the buck does the Alpha system with NT provide relative to the Mac? You can spend about the same amount of money for comparable Mac and Alpha systems, but you get a strong performance edge with the Alpha system.

Can the Alpha system take over all the tasks I delegate to the Mac? I run business, graphics, publishing, and communications applications. In general, when native versions of applications exist for both systems, the Alpha outperforms the Mac. Too often, however, applications run as Intel emulations on the Alpha (or don't exist for the Alpha), and the Mac wins out. For example, graphics favorites such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator, Macromedia FreeHand, and MetaTools Bryce are not available natively for the Alpha. Their Intel-emulated performance lags behind the Mac.

So what is the best computer choice? The blazing 3D-rendering speed of the Alpha is offset by limited software compatibility. The Intel emulation that Digital's FX!32 package provides covers most common business tasks, but you can expect significant performance loss in non-native graphics operations. We still live in an age where no one solution covers all the bases; insistence on migrating to one standard from a heterogeneous operating environment can adversely affect productivity.

Disclaimer of Endorsement: Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process, or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not constitute or imply its endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the US government. The views and opinions of the author expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the US government and shall not be used for advertising or product endorsement purposes.

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