I’ve been thinking of acquiring a board with the Intel 860 (Colusa) chipset. This chipset is historically interesting because it was Intel’s first chipset for NetBurst Xeons, and–at least according to Intel–the only chipset that supports the original Foster Xeon DP processors with the 180nm Willamette core.
The platform is interesting because it was Intel’s first dual-socket Pentium 4 implementation, and the i860 chipset was also the first with support for certain modern amenities like Message Signaled Interrupts (MSIs), enabled by the switch from a dedicated APIC bus to interrupt delivery via FSB messages.
The catch is that the i860 chipset was relatively short-lived, having been cursed with RDRAM. The i860 was introduced in May 2001, and in February 2002 it was already superseded by the DDR SDRAM-based E7500 (Plumas) chipset, which also coincided with the release of 130nm Prestonia Xeons based on the Northwood core.
The i860 was apparently so short-lived that Intel did not manage to release its own board based on the Colusa chipset. There were apparently only four board vendors who did: There was Supermicro P4DCE and P4DC6 (I am guessing that P4DC stands for Pentium 4 Dual Colusa); there was Tyan Thunder i860 (S2603); there was MSI 860D Pro; and there was an obscure Iwill DX400-SN.
The MSI and Iwill boards appear to be very hard to find. The Supermicro and Tyan boards are not, but there’s a catch.
There are currently several sellers offering Tyan i860 boards on eBay. The prices range from $650 to $1,025. The Supermicro P4DC6 is available at prices from $475 to $804. The Supermicro P4DCE is comparatively cheap, at “only” $337 to $382. And it’s not one seller, it’s several, in several different countries.
Now seriously, what is up with that? These boards are not only old but weird. They are almost 20 years old and not, in any typical sense of the word, useful. Who is crazy enough to pay $500 or $1,000 for such a board? It does not make sense.
But wait, it gets even weirder. Supermicro and Tyan weren’t the only companies selling i860-based boards in larger quantities. There was Dell (Precision 530), Compaq (W6000), and HP (x4000).
The HP x4000 workstations reportedly used Tyan Thunder i860 boards. There is currently one complete HP x4000 on eBay for $29, no doubt with a Tyan i860 inside. Compaq W6000 boards are available from $39, typically well under $100. And there’s one Dell Precision 530 board on offer with CPUs and RAM with a starting bid of $9.99. Now what is up with that? Those price levels are of course much more in line with expectations for this sort of gear.
But really, what’s going on with the prices of the i860 boards from Tyan or Supermicro? Is this some conspiracy, trying to squeeze desperate business buyers who need to replace old hardware and don’t know any better? Just random attempts at profiteering? I don’t know. But I’m quite sure the Supermicro and Tyan i860 boards are not made of pure gold, which might justify the prices.
As an aside, the the Rambus-based i860 boards had decent memory bandwidth, but they were severely limited in the amount of RAM they could support. The usual maximum was 2GB RAM, and only boards with a memory repeater hub (MRH) could support additional 2GB RAM for a total of 4GB. Pentium III based Xeon boards could already handle 6GB or more at the time, and Intel’s E7500 (released 9 months after the i860) supported up to 16GB DDR SDRAM.
At any rate, I’m planning to get a Compaq W6000 board with CPUs and RAM for a reasonable price (under $100 for the whole lot). Which again makes me wonder who would pay north of $500 for an i860 board…
Update: My Intel 860 (Colusa) chipset board has arrived, complete with two Foster Xeon 1.7 GHz processors. The 1.7 GHz variant was the fastest in the first batch of NetBurst Xeons released in May 2001. The board should be upgradable to Prestonia Xeons at 2.8 GHz; there’s a 3.0 GHz Prestonia model with 400 MHz FSB, but that wasn’t supported in the W6000, likely due to its higher power/thermal requirements. The board came with 1,280MB ECC RDRAM which I promptly upgraded to 2GB (the maximum the board supports).
I had to get a matching WTX power supply for the W6000 board. There’s a 24-pin and a 6-pin power connector, and they look a lot like ATX but aren’t. Then I had to guess how to turn the power on—there’s a poorly marked 11-pin header with a single row of pins (pin 2 is not populated), located right next to the IDE connectors, possibly labeled ‘*P5’. Shorting pins 6 and 7 does the trick and turns the system power on and off. I could not find the pinout documented anywhere, either because it simply wasn’t ever documented or because I didn’t locate the right manual.
Minor surprise: The W6000 has an onboard Ensoniq ES1373 chip, also known as Sound Blaster 128. It has no ISA slots and only 3 PCI slots, but it already has onboard Ethernet, IDE, and SCSI.
It took me a couple of tries to find a graphics card that the W6000 board likes. Since the W6000 was a workstation, not a server, it has on-board audio but no video; it has an AGP Pro slot, something that’s not at all common on server boards.
Fun fact: A “full boot” takes more than five minutes to test 2GB of memory during POST. If the boot logo is enabled, there is absolutely no progress indication and the system looks completely stuck, because the memory test is done before the keyboard is initialized.