HP Z1 Workstation – A content creation professional All-in-One
July 2013 - While the majority of the computing space is focused on content consumption in the form of video, image and audio playback, HP and several other workstation providers are still making optimized systems for the content creation community. Like the scientific & financial communities, this is a specialized field and application that relies on a predictable 24/7 operation. One of the workstations in the newest form factor the “All In One” or AIO, is the Z1 workstation from HP. Sporting a complete system in the frame of a 27" monitor with a wireless keyboard and mouse.
Unlike a standard business class AIO computer, the workstation is differentiated by its components. The Z1 features a Xeon class processor, ECC RAM, Quadro Graphics board with GPU, Dual HDDs, and multiple fans to insure constant air flow running Windows 7 Professional 64. The form factor for the workstation is targeted as easy use and setup as it is a fully cable free design with the exception of the power cord and the 1GE network connection. Like most workstations, the Z1 uses a standardized modular design that allows for quick and easy replacement of components should they fail or need to be upgraded. These modular components include the power supply.
The workstation products are different from regular computers by their operating reliability. The Xeon class processors have advanced thermal management to make sure the parts do not overheat even when all the cores are running for extended periods of time. Similarly the Quadro graphics card (as opposed to a Gforce class card) is optimized for graphics compute and rendering which are long operation cycle functions, and have a different thermal management system. Both the CPU and GPU use Error Correcting RAM to insure that all the calculations are performed and saved correctly on the hard disks. Standard systems have a BER on the order of 1014. These workstation systems have a BER that is on the order of 1017 which means that 96-128 hr render, compute, and batch mode color correction runs are still an order of magnitude smaller than the BER (calculation based on 3Ghz processor, and 8 cores) and can be completed without errors.
The workstation was tested on a number of standard tools the content creation community uses. We started with a standard benchmark - Cinebench from Maxon. Our mid-performance configuration it performed as expected with the improved result of 0 calculation errors/faults and 0 visible pixel errors. The main tools we tested the system with were Sony Vegas; Adobe Creative Suite; Smith Micro’s Manga Studio, Poser, Anime Studio and Motion Artist; Autodesk 360, Unity Developer, and Matlab in addition to the standard workstation tools of Open Office, Skype, Chrome, Firefox, and Adobe Reader. In addition to these content creation tools, we also tested several “standard playback” tools such as the VLC media player, on-line MMOs from Nexon and the PC disk game Bioshock Infinite.
The majority of this software was under the new distribution model of download. To test the system, we used a standard 3-5Mbps download DSL service. These programs were an avg of 3GB-4GB in size. On the DSL service, this is a multi-hour download. When the attempts were made to download these programs on either AMD A-X series processors or Intel Core iX series processors, the downloads typically failed 1-2 times prior to halting and allowing the downloads to be restarted and continued. On the Z1 Workstation, all the programs downloaded the first time without error, and were installable without incident or error. This task alone, saved a cumulative 27hrs over the task on a 3rd generation Intel i7 series machine running at the same speed on the one time setup.
Several of the products, Sony Vegas, Bioshock Infinte, and Adobe Creative Suite were installed from the DVD drive. Multi-disk installs on high speed machines are a challenge due to the performance difference between RAM based code, the internal hard disk to the system and the mSec level latency of optical drives. This typically results, in parity faults on the installation due to idle state memory errors that take place during extended optical drive reads or waiting for user input. Once again, unlike the iX series and A-X series processors, which encountered installation faults, the Z1 workstation installed all the code in a single pass with no errors. Like in the downloaded software situation this installation experience was over 20hrs shorter than that of a same speed 3rd generation Intel i7 series machine.
As the system is designed for content creation, and also a minimized desktop footprint, software control of the configuration is key. There are several setup applications available to set the display colors, frame rates, resolutions, rendering options and detailed options in the CUDA fabric for the device (Quadro card). The HP display module sets most of the modes, including presets,be adjusted from an application with a modes and easy to use GUI.
One of the areas that needed adjust was the Quadro card. As it is a fully configured system, it is supposed to be “plug and play” right from the box. The first thing the system did when it was connected, was check for both BIO and OS updates, and bring them current. The system did not however, attempt to update the video card. When some initial performance specs were not behaving right, it lead us to update and reload the drivers. The video card has several modes, and one of the controls was frame sync control. For rendering, this is typically enabled to make sure the render does not result in visual streaking of the pixels in motion, and for playback to sync the video image across multiple large format displays.
However some games - such as those rendered with the Unreal Engine 3, are smart and try to preserve the game integrity, at the cost of high frame rate. If a task does not complete in time, it reduces the frame rate, so the system can now run without a shift in the performance. This means that on high and ultimate resolutions for the graphics (as seen in Bioshock Infinite), drop the frame rate to ridiculously low values in the 8-10fps range. This is a consequence of the video card, the memory and the user interface (mouse/keyboard). The game can proceed at normal 40fps if the graphic level is set to Low which eliminates, shadows, dynamic lighting and many of the character and background details from the render task.
After many weeks of experimentation on the game playout optimization, that took place concurrently with the cent creation testing, we were able to get a hold of a technologist at Nvidia working on the Quadro products. He indicated, in these high end games, the playout is not targeted towards, nor account for the use off ECC memory in the system for either the video card or the system memory. As a result, the correction cycle time, caused the render engine to “miss” the frame timing for a standard “locked” frame rate on the high resolution modes. By turning off the frame lock, the game now improved in playout performance as it had more timing margin before a large drop in frame rate is called for. This is similar in the VLC video engine for high frame rate (60fps+), which now runs without stuttering due to the corrections being performed by the ECC.
One of the issues, that was still in the system on playout only, was a jittery mouse / delay from the keyboard. To maximize usability and a minimum platform, the Z1 workstation has an internal USB2.0 socket to hold the receiver for the wireless mouse and keyboard. This is located inside the front bezel of the workstation. For normal content creation these interfaces are fine, however for high frame rate video playback and for high resolution gaming playback, they produce “jumpy results’. This has to do with the RF interface and the interrupt cycle of the USB port, along with the ECC based system. We found this issue to remain with 3 different brands of wireless mice/keyboard combinations, so it was not limited to the ones provided by HP.
The solution to the problem was actually one that fell out of the environment from a standard use model. For content creation and video editing, we have been using a Wacom Intuos tablet, that uses a wired USB interface. We have also been using a “new keycap” wired keyboard that has the controls and commands identified for Adobe CS and Sony Vegas. These wired devices, did not exhibit any delay or performance issues on the system and completely eliminated both the keyboard delay and the input device delay. With these in place, the system could now be used in high resolution mode for playback.
In summary, the HP Z1 workstation performs as it should, with exemplary performance where it matters. With all of our tests, we did not have “redo” any work efforts do to a crash or loss of data/entry as is typical of Intel Core iX and AMD A-X systems. The All-In-One (AIO) design, allows for maximized space on the desk, and its wireless interface allows for the highest level of flexibility of the use layout. The convenience of the single integrated platform is optimal for on-location and remote areas where shipping and setup/tear down is a key portion of the day. The performance and reliability of the Xeon & Quadro processors with the ECC RAM, gives the system not only an expected use of “getting the data and content right the first time”, but a realization of that idea.
The setup of the system, including unpacking is under 5min to having an operating booted system. The tear down is on the same order and may actually be shorter, as Windows shutdown is faster than boot, the mechanical teardown is under 1 min. The alternative for similar use is to take a large format 23"+ monitor, and connect it with cables & additional power connectors to an iX series or A-X series processor laptop, and then a wired mouse and keyboard, which is a much longer setup/tear down and cannot provide the same error free performance.
For those in the on-location video editing and review business, those that have to do final graphics modification at the customer site or need to populate a “temporary / at location” office this is the ideal platform. For fixed location use, the workstation is highest performance, minimum setup configuration for a dual screen setup the AIO screen + one additional that uses wireless or wired input devices. This configuration will provide error free, high performance computing in a form factor of a standard consumer or business grade computer. The new versions of the workstation line will be supporting Xeon E5 processors as well as higher performance Quadro graphics cards. The key to the designs is the air flow and fans to keep the AIO form factor intact for 24/7 @ 365day operation and not blowing hot air at the user when being used as an interactive workstation.