Lenovo P900: Straddling the Worlds of Desktop and High-Performance Computing

Lenovo P900: Straddling the Worlds of Desktop and High-Performance Computing

By Francis Sebastian, March 11, 2015
Figure 1: The Lenovo P900 workstation with cover removed. Source:http://lenovo.com.

When asked if I could handle the Lenovo P900, I thought my editor was referring to a behemoth I would have to wrestle into my apartment. Little did I realize that I would be dealing with a smaller twin of what would easily be considered a super computeri a few years ago — not in size mind you, but performance. Having researched a few systems for suitability for use with BIM applications, I began to put the P900 through a series of benchmark tests. I realized very quickly that this was not the run-of-the-mill box containing an aggregation of standardized high-performance components, but a system built on a philosophy of giving exactly what the customer needs. The actual specifications of the system as tested pale in comparison to the value created by this philosophy, but here is the configuration anyway:

Component Specification
Processor 2x Intel Xeon E5-2687W v3ii processor (10 cores / 20 threads, 3.10GHz, 25MB cache)
Operating System Windows 7 Pro 64-bit
Graphics NVIDIA Quadro K5200 (8GB) (Up to 3x NVIDIA K6000)
Hard Drive 4 internal bays, 512Gb SSD
Memory 16×8 GB, 128 GB, 16 DIMMiii sockets total RDIMM DDR4 at 2133MHz
Network 2x Gigabit Ethernet (Intel i217LM)
Slots 16DIMMs, 8 PCI/PCIe slots, 2 FLEX connectors

The price of the system as reviewed is approximately $13,800iv.


I find benchmarks tricky. Given that most PC makers source components from a select group of vendors, a benchmark can only be a measure of the ability and compatibility of the aggregated components to meet their published specifications when working as a team. The secret sauce (if you will) is usually in the motherboard, the cooling system and any tuning software that the PC maker may provide. Lenovo provides all of these three ingredients and more. One overlooked factor, however, is the user’s diligence in choosing a system configuration that matches the capabilities of a targeted software application.

The original premise of this review was to test the suitability of the P900 for CAD and visualization applications. Consequently, I ran benchmarks for Autodesk Revit 2015 and 3D Studio Max 2015. The benchmarks prompted me to look a little deeper into the potential of this hardware framework and the philosophy that drives it. The results were as follows:

Revit Forum Benchmarkv
Figure 2: Comparative performance of the P900 (on the right) on the RFOBenchmark relative to a reference machine. Results illustrated by author’s custom analysis application RFO analyzer. Numbers indicate time in seconds (smaller is better).

The Revit Forum Benchmark (RFOBenchmark) is a comparative indicator of a workstation’s performance with BIM software such as Autodesk Revit. Being a comparative indicator, I used a reference machine that was purpose-configured to run Revit. The main differences between the P900 and the reference machine were in the CPU (2.9GHz-3.9GHz Intel i7 vs P900’s 3.10 – 3.5GHz Dual Intel Xeon), the RAM (32GB vs P900’s 128GB) and the bus speed (1600MHz vs P900’s 2133MHz). While there was a seemingly significant advantage to the P900 in terms of specifications, this advantage did not translate into performance proportionally except perhaps in the case of rendering. One can attribute this to the fact that Autodesk Revit is not a fully multi-threaded application and cannot take full advantage of P900’s available total of 20 CPU cores in two CPUs and the associated bandwidth and cache.

SPECapc for 3ds Max 2015

In keeping with the approach of running actual applications to benchmark the P900, I ran the SPECapc benchmark for 3D Studio Max 2015 from the Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation (SPEC).

Figure 3: *Highest-Scoring Competitor benchmark values from SPECapc report summary (by vendor) using revision 20140804.http://www.spec.org/gwpg/apc.data/specapc_3dsm2015_summary.html#1920.
Test Lenovo P900 Highest-Scoring Competitor*
Score Score CPU RAM Test Date
CPU 6.49 5.23 Intel(R) Xeon(R) CPU E5-2697v2@2.70GHz 17.1 GigaBytes (1600 MHz) 08/04/14
GPU 4.10 3.68 Intel(R) Xeon(R) CPU E5-1660v2@3.70GHz 17.1 GigaBytes (1866 MHz) 07/29/14
Model 3.70 3.76 Intel(R) Xeon(R) CPU E5-1660v2@3.70GHz 17.1 GigaBytes (1866 MHz) 07/29/14

As expected, the P900 fared relatively well given the middle-of-the-road specification of the review machine. The P900 with a slower CPU but faster system bus was able to beat the competition with faster CPUs on the CPU composite tests. This probably illustrates the impact of the system bus speed along with the quantity of RAM on performance. However, the true value of the P900 lies elsewhere.

Designed for Re-Configuration

When considering that better-performing components make a better-performing workstation, it makes sense for anyone at the cutting edge of scientific discovery or visualization to have a workstation built to the best available specification. After all, the cost per hour of an animator, designer or researcher far outweighs the few thousands expended on the best performing workstations. The antithesis of this logic is the fact that there is an improved version of any given component available on a yearly basis if not on a half-yearly basis along with the software being updated just as frequently. Theoretically, it would still make financial sense to acquire a new workstation at this interval, but the sheer person-hours expended in installing a brand new workstation with its appurtenant software makes this approach nonviable (all the while ignoring the environmental impact of such an upgrade protocol).

The designers at Lenovo have tackled the traditional inertia in replacing individual workstation components with a pragmatic design wherein the motherboard and the surrounding enclosure blend to create a framework of tool-less modular bays housing all the system’s components. Additionally a number of accessories similar to the Flex Adapter module shown below are available for a variety of components suited for specialized applications.

Figure 4: Flex Adapter module for M.2 SSD chips. Others for PCIe-based SSDs along with connectors for SAS drives are also available. Courtesy: Lenovo.com.

The literature that accompanied the workstation listed the following items as replaceable without tools:

  • Air baffle
  • Four hard drive bays
  • Two PCIe slot access doors
  • Two multi-functional brackets
  • Front bay cage (containing four optical drive bays accessible on the front of the workstation)
  • Three fans
  • Power supply
  • Optical drive
  • Motherboard

To quote the literature accompanying the system: “In fact, only the CPU heat sinks would require a screwdriver. Even the motherboard can be accessed without tools.”

Figure 5: Flex bay for connecting the SSD to the motherboard without cables. The flex bay goes into the slot on the top left of the image. Note the dimple and red stripes indicating locations for pressing the hinged cover of the modular bay that also doubles as the pull handle when pushed open.
Figure 6: Even the power supply unit is removable without tools. It comes with its own fans. The airflow pattern is integrated into the overall airflow of the case with the aid of a removable fan at the end (not shown). Another removable fan (lower right corner, shown as removed) is located in line with the add-on PCI/PCIe cards.
High-Performance Computing (HPC)

For the average desktop consumer, the term high-performance computing (HPC) is relatively foreign. However, in the rarefied communes of scientific and medical research, oil and gas exploration and financial modeling, the term could refer to operations involving systems ranging from room-sized super-computers to giant desktops. One of the hallmarks of systems capable of HPC is the ability to perform massively parallel computations. In the P900, in addition to the dual multi-core Xeon processors, parallel processing is enabled by the option to include an Intel Xeon Phi co-processor; a 1.10 GHz unit with 57 available x86 cores, each with a 512-bit vector unit delivering approximately 0.5 Teraflops (assuming 8 SIMDsvi per core). Although NVIDIA and AMD GPUs deliver similar or better performance depending on the configuration, Intel holds an advantage in this arena in that the same development tools used for multi-core Xeon architectures can be used to optimize the code to take advantage of the co-processor. According to Intel’s marketing materialvii, one can simply port over existing programs that work on regular Xeon processors and have it working before beginning to optimize the code for the parallel processing power that the co-processor affords.

SPECwpc (Workstation Performance Characterization) Benchmark

In order to benchmark the P900 for a broader spectrum of applications such as those used in the medical imaging and financial modeling fields, I decided to benchmark the workstation using the SPECwpc benchmark. According to SPEC, the SPECwpc benchmark is the first benchmark to measure all key aspects of workstation performance based on diverse professional applications. The benchmark consists of more than 30 tests for CPU, graphics, I/O and memory bandwidth. This benchmark also allows one to test a workstation’s performance for less accessible software typically used in various specialized vertical market segments such as media and entertainment, product development, financial services, energy and life sciences without having to install the actual application. The results (Figure 7) confirmed the earlier thesis that the aggregate performance of a workstation is largely dependent on the choice of components. Ignoring the effect of any tuning done to the operating system and choice of hardware drivers to optimize for performance, the results hint at configurations necessary to maximize performance — all of which and more are available for the P900.

Figure 7: Ranking of the P900 vs the highest scoring competitor as available from the SPECwpc results. These are composite scores and larger is better. Scores for Lenovo P900 are unofficial results and not suitable for attribution. Competitor scores were obtained from SPEC:https://www.spec.org/gwpg/wpc.data/specwpc10_summary.html. Test run using version 1.04 and competitor results use revision 20141121 (32 results) of the published results.
Figure 8: Graphing of data from the previous table. Impact of DDR rating of RAM, hard-drive type and software tuning are not quantified but may have a significant impact on the scores.

One of the conclusions that can be drawn from the SPECwpc benchmark is that the system component choices may be optimized for the primary application for which the system is purposed. For example, some applications can take advantage of greater cache memory and faster drives such as SCSI or PCIe-based SSDs, and these choices play a large role in improving the performance of any given system regardless of the buzzword specifications touted on the sticker.


The Lenovo P900 is a well-conceived workstation in terms of its design and nearly flawless in its execution. Every little detail of the workstation from the enclosure latch and intrusion monitoring system, to the red stripes and subtle dimples on the modular handles speak of the careful consideration given to the end user of this workstation. If the workstation of the future is a dark beautiful box of good proportions with swappable components within to adapt to changing technology, then that future is here. The optical drives on the front along with options for various card readers ensure accessibility where they are required. The unit can be placed either vertically or horizontally. The three fans that cool the machine are removable without tools for cleaning and except for the surge during start-up, the unit is quieter than most units I have worked with. The quietness is attributed to the efficient tri-channel cooling system made possible with a removable baffle over the CPUs — a unique feature described in almost every piece of literature found regarding this workstation. Understated touches such as the plastic backing to the metal enclosure protruding beyond the actual case, the handles and the texture of the case all add to the richness of the experience of working with this machine.

At the end of the day, the Lenovo P900 is a performance machine for individuals and organizations at the bleeding edge of research, engineering and imaging. Lenovo has provided a number of ISV driversviii for most of the popular applications in the design, graphics, engineering and research arenas. As the benchmark studies indicate, the possible combinations of available components allow this machine to be optimized to be a leading performer with most applications in the targeted fields.

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Additional Information

i The term super computer is somewhat obsolete these days. It is usually replaced by high-performance computing (HPC) to refer to systems that feature multi-core processors and distributed computing capabilities, both of which the Lenovo P900 is capable of (albeit at a smaller scale when compared to room-sized computers).
ii For more information, see: http://ark.intel.com/products/81909/Intel-Xeon-Processor-E5-2687W-v3-25M-Cache-3_10-GHz.
iii Dual In-line Memory Module. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DIMM.
iv As obtained from: http://lenovo.com/us/en/.
v See: http://www.revitforum.org/hardware-infrastructure/1063-rfobenchmark.html.
vi Single Instruction Multiple Data. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SIMD
vii See criteria for optimizing code for parallel processing:http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/processors/xeon-phi/xeon-phi-coprocessor-features-and-benefits-video.html.
viii Independent Software Vendor (ISV) drivers can be found here:http://support.lenovo.com/us/en/downloads/ds101548.

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About Francis

I'm an Architect by training. I teach, support and provide implementation services for the Architecture, Engineering and Construction industry in the Tri-state area. I am always looking for ways to pull together the disparate technical resources that surround us to make our lives more efficient so that we have time to for the things that really matter - or at least figure out what they are.

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