Workstation vendors push envelopeof performance at RSNA meeting

January 31, 1996

Sun, HP and SGI duel with speedy new platformsThe medical imaging community is reaping the benefits of the technologicalarms race sweeping the computer workstation industry. Hardwarevendors striving to stay one step ahead of the competition

Sun, HP and SGI duel with speedy new platforms

The medical imaging community is reaping the benefits of the technologicalarms race sweeping the computer workstation industry. Hardwarevendors striving to stay one step ahead of the competition arereleasing new platforms that offer notable advances in speed andfunctionality, in some cases at prices lower than those of previousmodels. At last year's Radiological Society of North America meeting,three major workstation vendors -- Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packardand Silicon Graphics -- all displayed new platforms as well asnew applications for these machines.

The healthcare industry is a small, but quickly growing, partof the overall market for workstations. This increase is drivenby two developments: the growth of digital image management andthe increasing popularity of 3-D image viewing and manipulation.HP's medical imaging business in 1995 was up 30% to 35% from 1994,according to John Goble, program manager for HP's medical imagingprogram.

Sun's introduction of its new Ultra line of workstations wasarguably the most significant news in the workstation segmentat the RSNA conference. The Ultra series represents a major technologicalleap from the previous 32-bit SPARC-based series of machines,according to John Ryan, healthcare industry manager for the MountainView, CA, firm. In conceiving the workstations, Sun developednot only a new 64-bit RISC-based UltraSPARC CPU but also a newinput/output device interconnect architecture, graphics acceleratorand RAM technology.

Sun borrowed the design for the interconnect architecture,called Ultra Port Architecture, from the supercomputer segment,Ryan said. The design employs crossbar switch technology, whichrelies on switching rather than a bus configuration for connectingdifferent I/O devices on the motherboard. This allows for fasterdata transfer at rates of up to 1.3 gigabytes per second.

Other design improvements include the following:

  • New graphics accelerators, called Creator and Creator 3-D,that improve on Sun's previous accelerator technology and enhance3-D rendering applications;

  • A 3-D RAM technology Sun designed in cooperation with Mitsubishithat offers a 10-fold speed increase over traditional VRAM;

  • A Fast Ethernet controller built on the motherboard with100BaseT data transmission rates that at 100 megabits-per-secondhave 10 times more bandwidth than the current 10BaseT standard,potentially enhancing networking and telemedicine applications;and

  • Visual Instruction Set, a software component built intothe UltraSPARC chip that accelerates 2-D and 3-D graphics, videoand image processing.

"It's not just a fast box," Ryan said. "It'san infrastructure to build on for the future."

What does all this new technology mean for clinicians? Dramaticperformance increases for computational-intensive applications,according to Sun. The top of the line in the Ultra series, thetwo-processor Ultra 2, has a specification of 332 SPECint92 and505 SPECfp92, which Sun claims makes it the fastest workstationin the industry. The next tier, the single-processor Ultra 1,has ratings of 252 SPECint92 and 351 SPECfp92. Sun has not releasedratings based on the SPECint95 and SPECfp95 specifications.

The list prices of the workstations vary depending on configuration,but at the high end, Ultra 2 Creator3D Model 2200 with two 200-MHzmicroprocessors lists at $59,995, while the entry-level Ultra,Ultra 1 Model 140, has a single 143-MHz processor and costs $16,495.

The introduction of the Ultra systems comes at a critical timefor Sun. The company is the leader in the overall workstationbusiness from a sales perspective, but its technology has oftenbeen considered less advanced than that of its competitors. Atthe 1994 RSNA conference, HP executives said they were makinga run at Sun's market share leadership in medical imaging (SCAN2/1/95).

Ryan acknowledges that Sun's market share slipped last year,although he maintains that the losses were limited to a pointor two in the general workstation market. More important was thefact that some of Sun's OEM partners were contemplating a moveto the competition's technology as their platform of choice; thoseexploratory efforts stopped, however, with the introduction ofUltra.

"A couple of our major OEM partners were looking at othertechnologies (last summer), but we've really done a good job ofturning those things around," Ryan said.

Shifting alliances. Sun is not the only star in the workstationsky, however. Competitor Hewlett-Packard of Andover, MA, managedto steal some of Sun's limelight with a new class of workstationsas well as a triple alliance between HP, 3M and longtime Sun partnerCemax-Icon that was the talk of the exhibit floor.

HP's new HP 9000 C-class series of desktop workstations istargeted at high-end 3-D graphics applications, according to Goble.The workstations use a 64-bit PA-7200 microprocessor that deliversperformance of up to 167 SPECint92 and 269 SPECfp92. Prices startat less than $19,715.

For 2-D applications on the workstations, HP's Image VisualizationAccelerator (IVX) was developed for the medical imaging marketbased on feedback from radiologists and medical OEMs, accordingto Goble. Clinicians said they wanted accelerated performancein bread-and-butter functions like pan, zoom, rotate and window.

HP engineers put those medical-specific operations on a newchip located on the back of one of HP's standard 2-D graphicscards. As a result, IVX accelerates radiology-specific applicationsto 40 frames per second for a 1-megapixel image, enabling techniquessuch as real-time interactive zoom of 1024 x 1024 images. Theaccelerator also frees up the CPU to do computational-intensivefunctions such as image reconstruction, Goble said. HP claimsIVX can outrun the onboard graphics of Sun's Ultra workstations.

"By putting the common operations that radiologists useevery day into custom silicon, you can stick that in a very cost-effectiveplatform," Goble said. "You'd need a very powerful,very expensive $30,000-plus workstation to get that kind of performance."

HP officials also made the most of their new relationship withCemax-Icon and 3M. Goble said the deal makes HP the preferredvendor for 3M and Cemax-Icon customers. Cemax-Icon officials,perhaps wary of alienating Sun, say HP workstations will be usedprimarily for archiving functions. Both sides acknowledge thatCemax-Icon customers will have their choice of either the Sunor HP platforms.

Real-time volume rendering. Silicon Graphics was determinednot to be left out of the workstation horse race. The vendor hascarved out a profitable niche in 3-D image processing, and atthe RSNA meeting it displayed its new Indigo2 Impact workstation,which brings high-end performance to a lower price point. SGIemphasized the interactive nature of medical imaging applicationsusing its platforms, which comes from enabling 3-D volume renderingat real-time rates, according to John Flynn, medical markets managerfor the Mountain View, CA, vendor.

SGI upgraded its offerings again last week with the rolloutof a new line of 3-D workstations based on new 64-bit chips. Thoseplatforms range from the high-end supercomputer Onyx InfiniteRealityto the entry-level workstation Indigo RP 5000 (see story, page2).

SGI's recent activity indicates that one thing is constantin the workstation wars: the relentless pace of technologicalinnovation. That pace will continue to drive down costs and allowclinicians to perform applications that were once only possiblein research settings, according to Flynn.

"Three-D was limited to research topics until it was interactiveenough that a clinician could use it and get an interpretationquickly, and that is where we are now," he said. "Thevirtual endoscope is the best example of that. Once you can rendervery fast, it all makes sense."