Seen on the Net PC vs Unix Round 1 (September 1996)

A debate has been raging on the sci.geo.petroleum newsgroup about whether or not the PC can replace the Unix workstation on the E&P desktop.

John Rogers (Texaco) asks

"Can anyone point me to a vendor that can give me a cheap replacement for our $60,000 workstations (25 fully loaded Indigo2 High Impact workstations from Silicon Graphics). The PCs that replace these workstations need to have:

An OS equivalent or better than the 64 bit UNIX OS from SGI (IRIX 6.2)

A high speed graphics card giving me the same 3D capability as the High Impact

A fast ethernet card (100BaseT for 100mps speeds)

Dual 20" CRTs

A "PC" kind of price... around $5,000 I suppose; anyway a whole lot cheaper than my $60,000 workstation

A file address space of at least the terrabyte that I get from HFX on my Indigo2 workstations

And the whole mess has to be tightly integrated and highly reliable like our Indigo2 workstation... don't want one vendor's PC card conflicting with another's as seems to happen so frequently with our "plug and play" Win95 PCs

And this PC must be able to run PVM over the fast ethernet so we can do pre-stack depth migration on our seismic data in the evenings and on the weekends when our interpreters don't need them... that is the OS must be multi-user as well as multi-processing.

I work at Texaco and know that Texaco would gleefully embrace any vendor that can replace our expensive workstations with such PCs with capabilities as above. There are some big bucks weighing in the balance. Dream vendor where are you??"

Now this seems a bit of a wind up if you ask us, it sounds rather as though JR is saying that his needs will always be a Gig or so beyond those of a mere PC. Hugh Winkler took up the challenge to point out that "The only feature .. that an NT machine doesn't meet is the 64 bit OS", and James Huang took up the torch with the following comment "IMHO, I do not see what magnitude of difference there would be between 32-bit and 64-bit in, for example, workstation seismic interpretation. But then I am a naive non-interpreter. <g>". Hugh also states that "I have yet to see a system set up with more than 1GB swap." And that while "a USD7/MB might be true for PC SIMM chips, proprietary RAM for *nix systems come at a higher price. In these cases it is cheaper to get more storage and create big swap systems. The case of loading the whole data-set into memory so that things get speeded up by a few minutes real time is, IMHO, a waste of resources."

On the subject of applications migrating from Unix to Windows Winkler suggested that companies who ported their X Windows software would lose out to those who wrote them from the ground up in native MS-Windows code, citing the Geographix SeisVision application as an example of what could be achieved on a PC.

how friendly?

On the topic of user friendliness, Martin Crick (Texaco) believes that one of the issues that will push more companies to use NT apps is that "all the other non-technical stuff, like spreadsheets and word processors, are MUCH better and cheaper on the Intel platform, because the market is much larger. If you don't want to put two systems on a desk, NT seems to offer many advantages". And James Huang adds that "with the large offering of X-servers for the PC market running under all the OSs it is no problem connecting the different worlds"

PDM comment

The PC/Unix debate has been raging since 1981, when IBM first introduced it's (8bit) PC. Then, one argument used in favor of Unix was that it was 32 bits. But this had more to do with the Intel architecture of PC, which put a variety of 64k (i.e. 16 bit, if you're still with me) barriers in the way of the programmer. Since then, word length is used as a marketing tool. It has nothing to do with precision, since a double float will take up 8 bytes in whatever system. It may be processed more efficiently if the system is 64 bit. But on the other hand, it is conceivable that integer operations would actually be slowed down by a longer word length. Boolean operators, taking one bit, may suffer even more. This supposes that all other things are equal, which of course they never are. What made the Unix boxes better than PC's was the power and intrinsic inter-operability of Unix in those early days (but see the editorial in this issue on this topic), and also the flat memory model. This simply meant that it was possible to create and manipulate very large arrays in memory without having to go through the 64k hoops. Nowadays Windows 95, and Windows NT both promise 32 bit operating systems. The facility of use, robustness and security of the latter particularly are touted as being superior to many Unix systems, time will tell. The flat memory model exists in Windows NT, while Windows 95 still has a lot of the DOS limitations lurking below the surface. But it should not be up to the programmers to debate these issues. Who cares how many bits, or how flat your memory when your application does what you want it too, doesn't cost too much and most importantly is intuitive and easy to learn? We believe that Unix has had a macho image associated with it. Why have a graphic shell when a real system administrator can edit the /etc/passwd file in vi to add a user? To date the PC has scored hands down over Unix in terms of ease of end-use. With Windows NT, this ease of use is being brought to the system administrator. Bad news for those who like doing it the hard

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