I have had my Intel S5520SC Workstation Board for two years now and I thought I would remenisce about the experience.
I hope some Intel system board designers read this - there are some lessons to be learned.
In 2006 I decided I was going to build my own computer. I started by making it a hobby to learn everything I could about building a computer. After about a year I had decided on the AMD dual processor workstation boards because they had a superior architecture with HyperTransport and NUMA, but I was waiting for AMD's next generation of processor the K10, such as the Phenom FX. However, once it came out the reviews revealed disappointing performance, significantly less that AMD had been implying in development.
I had heard that Intel was working on something similar to HyperTransport, but the details were elusive. Eventually Intel announced QuickPath so I became interested in what they might come up with. When Nehalem was announced it was so similar to the K10 that it was easy for me understand the technology, so I waited for a dual processor motherboards to emerge on the market.
There were a lot of Xeon 5500 based motherboards appearing in 2009, but most of them were server boards, and few were workstation boards like I wanted. Of the workstation boards available, some of implementations just looked silly, but most just did not fit my goals, they were always missing one small detail or another. Eventually I stumbled across the Intel S5520SC which was a very close match to my goals. The main drawback was that it was not an enthusiast class board with overclocking capabilities, but all the similar boards with overclocking were missing too many critical features.
Finally I purchaced an S5520SC and built my system. It was relatively straightforward to get it working, albeit my first time assembling a system from scratch. After a few weeks the boad just stopped working and I sent it back to Intel for a replacement. For the person who decided to implement that stupid RAID 5 key - there is no good way to remove it - you make my life a personal hell for about a day.
Once I got my replacement board back and running, then it kept powering down after running for an hour or so. Eventually after some telephone support from Intel I found in the System Event Log (SEL) that the IOH was overheating and causing the system to shutdown. It turns out the first S5520SC I bought had older firmware that did not sense the IOH overheating so it burned out. The second S5520SC had newer firmware that was able to detect the problem and shut down the system before any serious damage was done.
I have a custom SilverStone Temjin TJ07 chassis that was modified by CoolIT in Calgary Canada for their peltier cooling system. I had an extra hole cut in the pexliglass window and installed a 120 mm fan right above the IOH. That seemed to solve the problem as the SEL reveals the IOH temperature is running at nominal levels, and I have had no similar problems since.
Basically the IOH needs a better heat sink, but because it sits right under the slots where the graphics boards go, cooling it is problematic. A better design would be to use a heat pipe like most of the enthusiast boards and dissipate the heat somewhere more convenient.
The next big problem I had was trying to get the RAID 5 working. I was use to working with the Intel Matrix Storage Technology that is found in conventional desktop computers - it is simple to set up and flexible. However the S5520SC uses the Intel Embedded Server RAID Technology that is a software application in the BMC. This is increadibly clumsy to set up from either the BIOS or the Deployment Toolkit CD. It was also very frustrating to find out that the ESRT cannot support RAID 0 on one virtual disk and RAID 5 on another virtual disk the way the MST can. Since the S5520SC has an ICH10 which implements hardware RAID and uses Matrix Storage Technology, I still cannot fathom why Intel chose to use ESRT, an no-one has been able to explain any particular advantage it has over using the hardware RAID in the ICH10.
Another frustration is that the S5520SC only has 6 SATA ports, while most server/workstation chassis have room for six 3.5" disks. This mean that I have to give up one SATA port for my optical drive, and cannot build a RAID system with 6 drives. Many boards from other vendors (who also use the ICH10) add one or more SATA ports for optical and other drives. One extra internal SATA and one extra external SATA is a very popular configuration.
The next big frustration was EFI support. It turns out that if you are using ESRT, you cannot enable EFI optimized boot, so you cannot boot an operating system in native EFI mode. This forced me to create two virtual disks because I had 8 TB of RAID 5, and non-EFI Windows cannot boot from a GPT formatted disk. Consequently I had to create a smaller virtual disk with MBR, and the other virtual disk with GPT.
At this point I was beginning to feel like the S5520SC was an experiment or prototype that was never finished proprerly and sent to market prematurely - there were just too many good intentions with incomplete implementations. This is still my feeling today.
My more recent problem has been that the S5520SC cannot support graphics cards that require more than 300 watts. This is not a physical limitation of the motherboard, it is a design constraint implemented in firmware by the design team - most likely for chassis cooling considerations and not power utilization considerations. It is expecially frustrating that it is not possible to remedy this problem with a firmeware update.
Given all the problems I have encountered I would like to remind people that in most other aspects the S5520SC is a very competent piece of engineering which is why I choose it over about a dozen other similar system boards.
Now what I really want...
Given two years of experience with the S5520SC here is a list of some of the things I really want in a workstation board:
Thanks for the feedback Eric.
I will see that the design teams gets a chance to see it.
I personally have little impact and no knowledge on what is in planning cycle so I am just speculating also.
1) I don't see Thunderbolt replacing SATA in the next generation. It is just too new. I suspect we will see both on a board before SATA fades away.
2) Yea, from what I have read on ThunderBolt has the potential to sweep the I/O market place, but do you know how long it taken to get legacy I/O and PS2 off the boards? I expect to see ThunderBolt ramp up in popularly and in number of devices over the next couple years, but until then Thunderbotl will likely be one of several choices for I/O on the system.
3) Forwarded to designer
4) Anything in particular your looking for here? Intel developed EFI so the available specification are out there (if somewhat hard to find at times) System specifications are also available. The product TPS lists a lot of the basic information, but if more is needed, your Intel Field team can go much deeper.
5) I need to look into this one. My understanding was the 300W limit is a system / power supply supply / thermal limit also. The limitation does not show up in the mother board TPS , just the system TPS. I don't know of anything in the code that would prevent a higher power card from functioning. As I recall the PCIe configuration space power draw is for power from the MB connector and is only 7 bits for wattage (127W max) that it is capable of reporting. I need to check this one as I agree, List the specification and if the customer want to exceed them, let them do so at their own risk.
6) Currently a processor limitation. XEON's don't support over clocking since they are designed as server processors where reliability is foremost, but the overclocking community have been pushing on the Intel Processor guys for a while now and OC has really taken off in the desktop world. It would not suprise me to see a unlocked Xeon in the pipeline.
On on one last note. My first comment on all issue is "Update the code stack". Bug fixes & feature adds roll out every quater.
I also found some of the EFI utilities frustrating in that they assume they are the only utility on your thumbdrive, and you have to over write them in the root directory (or their supporting files) when you want to use another utility. It should be possible to just creat a directory like /s5520sc/utils/ and run everything out of there (which was the first thing I tried), but you cannot do that because the utilities were not thought out well as a collection.
The last utilitiy I used was the Platform Confidence Test, which has a rudimentary GUI. This seems promising and it would be nice if more utilities could go this route. In particular, it would be nice if there could be a comprehsive application that you could just launch from the EFI shell, and run all the Intel (or other) utilties.
When you are troubleshooting and diagnosing problems it is stressful enough, but having to read through complicated and inconsistent documentaiton and readme files, search the web for other utilities, etc. makes things all the more stressful.
If I had an SDK on writing EFI applications, and enough specs on the S5520SC I might be tempted to write some of my own applications or utilities. I would certainly pay someone for higher quality diagnostic tools as money is a good trade-off for stress. On the other hand, the open-source approach might work equally well.
All in all, it is really awesome to be able to run diagnosic software on a system with no O/S. In the future I hope someone develops a little EFI Operating System with a GUI that is independent of Windows, Linux or any other O/S and is portable to all systems running UEFI. If someone could port the Java runtime to the UEFI environment I would be tempted to start such a project myself. Since all UEFI systems run the same byte-codes, this would not depend on whether the main processor was x64, Itanium, Power, SPARC, or any other architecture. For example, it would better to run the Intel Server Deployment Toolkit as an EFI application from a USB or ThunderBolt thumbdrive, rather than a native application from a CD. In the future there really will be no need for optical drives any more as anyone can download anything to a thumbdrive.
By "update the code stack" do you mean the firmware? I try to keep my firmware up-to-date, and I always update it when I am in a troubleshooting situation as I don't want to report problems against out-of-date firmware.
Thanks for the response - I'm glad there is interest in such things at Intel.