In the world of PC motherboards, there are cheap boards, midrange boards and the deluxe boards so favored by the gaming scene, and then there are things like the Tyan Thunder K8WE. The first thought that came to my mind when I saw this thing was 'Oh my Goddess, I pity the poor soul that had to do the PCB layout!'. It has just about the highest circuit and component density I've ever seen on something purporting to be a consumer part, despite its larger than average eATX form factor.

Specifications, Tyan Thunder K8WE eATX Workstation and Server Motherboard (S2895)

  • CPU sockets: 2x Socket 940 ZIF.
  • Supported CPUs: 2x AMD Opteron 200-series, single or dual core.
  • Memory: 8 sockets, 4 per CPU, 184-pin DDR SDRAM. Registered, ECC PC3200R DIMMs required, maximum capacity 32GB (4 4096MB modules per CPU)
  • Memory features: Error Correction Circuitry with chipkill, dual-channel, NUMA.
  • Chipset: nVidia nForce 2200 Pro with nForce 2050 secondary northbridge chip.
  • Expansion slots: 1x 64-bit/133MHz PCI-X (PCI-X bus A), 2x 64-bt/100MHz PCI-X (PCI-X bus B), 1x 32-bit/33MHz PCI (PCI bus 2), 2x x16 (x16 electrical) PCI Express slots, SLI-capable.
  • Serial ports: 1x rear-panel DB-9 for RS-232 serial; can be used as a console. 1x 9-pin internal pin header for a second serial port.
  • USB ports: 4x rear-panel USB 2.0, 4x internal pin headers.
  • Firewire: PCI Texas Instruments OHCI chip, providing one rear-panel powered Firewire 400 port, and one internal 8-pin header for another. This chip is on a dedicated PCI bus, bridged to one of the PCIe lanes from the nForce 2200 Pro chip.
  • PS/2: PS/2 connectors for mouse and keyboard.
  • Audio: 3x phono jacks for line out, line in and microphone. nVidia CK804 AC97 audio codec.
  • Ethernet interfaces: 2x RJ-45 Gigabit Ethernet ports, one provided by the nForce 2200 Pro, the other by the nForce 2050.
  • Floppy: 1x 34-pin floppy disk connector.
  • IDE: 2x 40-pin ATA133 connectors
  • SATA: 4x SATA-II 3Gb/sec ports, nVidia nVRAID support.
  • SCSI: LSI Logic Fusion MPT PCI Express Ultra320 SCSI controller, dual 68-pin channels. 28 devices supported. This is an optional feature, but the version that lacks it is difficult to find.
  • Requires an EPS12V power supply, recommended minimum 550 watts.

You might expect a board that laden with features to cost a bundle, and you'd be right - prices on the K8WE have hovered near the $450 USD range since release - but you get what you pay for. Not only does the board have all these whizzy features, but they're all usable, and the board is rock-solid stable in practice. This board also excels in I/O performance, an area where many consumer motherboards are sorely lacking. In fact, the K8WE is right up there with some of the higher-end UltraSPARC and POWER workstations for I/O capability. Why is this? Well, most of it has to do with the sheer amount of bandwidth this board provides. Of all the board's 6 expansion slots, only two, the two 64-bit/100MHz PCI-X slots, share bandwidth. All the others are dedicated. On top of this, the two CPUs each have their own dual-channel RAM bank, and communicate with each other via a 6.4 gigabyte per second HyperTransport connection. Each CPU's second HyperTransport link connects to one of the core motherboard chips - CPU0 to the nForce 2200 Pro, and CPU1 to the nForce 2050. Now, this does create a significant shortcoming: the board is hobbled badly when running with only one CPU, but why would anyone buy a dual-socket motherboard to use just one CPU?

One might wonder if all that bandwidth actually makes a difference in practice. A valid question, since much less expensive motherboards turn in rather impressive performance numbers, but the truth is that it helps. I can do simultaneous reads and writes to both my OS disks (on the LSI SCSI controller) and my data array (a hardware RAID5 setup, with the controller in the 64-bit/133MHz PCI-X slot), while copying files over the network, and also playing Second Life, all without noticeable slowdowns. I could even write a CD or 3 at the same time, if I wanted. On my previous machine, which was based on a high-end gaming motherboard, that kind of load would have brought it to its knees. Having two CPUs helps a lot, but the I/O bandwidth, and the fact that nearly all the devices have dedicated bandwidth, is at least equally important.

This is an excellent board for high-end gamers or 3D designers. The two PCI-e x16 slots provide a full x16, and can be used together for SLI, allowing two nVidia video cards to work together for super-fast, or super-high-quality, rendering. Alternately, all that bandwidth can be put to use for a server instead, allowing massive network and storage throughput. The PCI-e and PCI-X expansion slots are ideal for high-bandwidth devices like 10 gigabit Ethernet, Fibre Channel, multi-channel SCSI RAID, or for high-speed WAN interfaces like OC-48.

Some warts in what is otherwise a very nice design are the odd placement of the SCSI connectors and the fact that the IDE and floppy connectors are bunched together very closely. Also, the board is a plain green color, looking rather unremarkable on side of some of the gamer boards, but power users who value function over form are unlikely to care about that. All in all, the Tyan Thunder K8WE is some serious hardware for serious users.

Notice that I haven't mentioned what OSes work well with it: that's chiefly because I'd end up rambling on and on about various different kinds of Unix. Not that Windows doesn't work well with it - it does. It's just that running this board and its pair of Opteron CPUs in 32-bit mode feels kinda like a waste, especially with 8 RAM slots. With that many, equipping this board with 4GB is almost conservative, even though Windows XP, and 32-bit versions of Windows Vista, won't use that much. Now, 64-bit versions will, and so will Windows 2003 Server and Windows 2000 Advanced Server, but it takes some doing to get those two OSes to do what most high-end users want Windows for, namely either gaming or high-end video or 3D apps. And considering the rather sad state of affairs for Windows XP 64-bit, and the almost equally bad state of 64-bit Vista, that leaves some breed of Unix as a very strong choice indeed. Personally, I run Gentoo Linux on mine, but FreeBSD or Solaris 10 work spectacularly too. NetBSD and OpenBSD put in almost as strong a showing, but you have to be a bit more careful about graphics cards.

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