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Iwill DK8N Motherboard review

Part 1 of 3


DK8N BIOS & boot devices

We recommend minimum fiddling with the DK8N BIOS - for three reasons; one positive, one neutral, and . . . 

First, the 'optimised defaults' are for once quite optimal; second, the BIOS offers few go-faster things to tweak . . .

 .. . and the BIOS reacts sulkily to any setting it doesn't like. 

Minor setup errors or conflicts - in our case setting the CPU<>chipset HT link to 1000, or attachment of misconfigured PATA devices - will result in failure to reboot. A cold boot will usually allow the user to reset things. A serious setup error such as manually setting memory timings too aggressively will require switching the thing off at the mains & clearing the CMOS.

At first glance, we were most impressed by the way this BIOS handles boot-devices & boot-order - we list the order option ROMs are loaded on page 1 of this review: in principle, you can boot in any order off any bootable device attached to any PATA, SATA, or USB port, or to any bootable PCI card. 

USB mice & keyboards are supported by default, & we were equally impressed at first glance by the way attached USB devices are swiftly polled at POST & identified by type: mouse, keyboard, hub, storage-device, & etc.  

There are detailed settings for USB storage devices: emulation can be set to floppy, hard disk, or CDROM, with quite sophisticated nuances of emulation for high-density removable devices like Zip or (we assume, not having one to hand to test) pen-drives. Our first impression was that USB is handled the way things should have been lo these many years ago.

Sadly, in practice we couldn't boot off any USB attached optical device or hard drive (we tried three makes of hard drive), despite trying all emulation alternatives: properly formatted hard drives with an active primary partition would be correctly recognised by name string & as a bootable device, & could be set to #1 in boot-order; but could not be read from. 

USB attached optical devices containing bootable media are not even listed among bootable devices - in contrast to the way any of our four SCSI optical devices were recognised & could be configured. This is a BIOS emulation issue - all USB attached devices we tried worked fine in Windows. 

We also had issues with the NFORCE3 PATA implementation: we attached our only two IDE hard drives to one channel, properly jumpered as master/slave, to find only one recognised.

We swapped channels, tried jumpering either as master/slave or as cable select; but still had hassles: some of these caused the DK8N to refuse to boot.

A common factor in all this was of course that one of the hard drives was made by Western Digital - notoriously iffy in jumpered master/slave configurations. Finally we managed to get the WD drive recognised; but only if attached as the sole device & jumpered cable select.

BIOS & boot conclusions

If left alone, the DK8N BIOS will work well for most users, with very flexible handling of bootable PATA, SATA, or PCI-attached devices. One setting needs to be changed from 'Optimal Defaults' if NUMA operation is required & if you have the appropriate physical memory configuration (see our NUMA section below); this otherwise configured our system performance near-optimally

We successfully attached PCI hosts which some users have found problematic (SmartArray hosts). We successfully attached a set of three bootable hosts to all three PCI buses.

The DK8N BIOS, with ACPI v 2.x enabled, Node interleave disabled, & the correct physical memory configuration, will construct a SRAT (Static Resource Affinity Table) for NUMA-aware operating systems.

The BIOS has a sophisticated scheme for handling USB attached devices; but appears to have a flawed implementation for USB bootable-device emulation.

Iwill informed us they were forced to change from a true AMI BIOS to a NVIDIA hybrid due to conflicts with MAC settings. This means the valuable failsafe AMI bootblock rescue technique does not work with the DK8N & you cannot recover from a bad flash. We found this worrying in a new platform likely to require several BIOS updates to fix bugs & enable full functionality. We know Iwill's support to be first-rate; but no sane admin wants to rely upon getting a new EEPROM from Taiwan. It would help NVIDIA's credibility if this rescue bootblock was re-enabled in their BIOS'

We identified the EEPROM part used in the DK8N as the SST 49LF004B - a 3.3v 4Mbit LPC - this should (we have not yet tested this) permit use of an IOSS 'BIOS-Saviour' hardware backup device; model # PMC4

 . . . PS: The DK8N was originally designed & intended to support some overclocking features: none are at present implemented. Iwill have informed us they are working to enable CPU frequency 'clocking - tho' this would infer also enabling manual control over the ratio between CPUs & memory.

NVIDIA's 'System Utility' is used in uniprocessor NVIDIA-based motherboards to monitor voltages, temperatures, & etc; & also to allow in-OS overclocking. In our DK8N, this utility was useless; tho' for the terminally brave it did offer these tweaks:

Installing Windows 32-bit, NUMA, & SATA 'RAID'

We installed several builds of Windows XP Pro 32-bit, plus 32-bit Server 2003, Enterprise. We also installed several builds of 64-bit operating systems - detailed in a future part of this review.

Since the NFORCE3 integrates USB2, we would not recommend trying to install any XP Pro 32-bit version prior to SP1: if your install CD is pre-SP1 we would recommend you slipstreamed this or a later service pack into the installation files, then burned yourself a bootable slipstreamed SP1 or SP2 XP Pro CD. 

To get to the fun 'n games right now . . . .  yes, you can enable NUMA operation in the DK8N using 32-bit Windows & therefore be able to measure & use any real world performance advantage in your usual applications.

You used to need an evaluation copy or be rich enough to own a license for the Enterprise or Data Centre Editions of Server 2003; but now anyone with a DK8N & Windows XP Pro SP2 can have a look into this interesting technology: please note that the 32-bit versions of XP Pro SP2 & Server 2003 Enterprise or Data Centre editions still have profoundly different kernels - as our later benchmarks show.

NUMA: what? why? how?

NUMA (non uniform memory access) is where memory is logically arranged in nodes; a rough 'n ready description of a node is a region of memory in which every byte has the same distance from each CPU.
The DK8N's BIOS, with the extensions in ACPI version 2.x enabled & node interleaving disabled, constructs a SRAT (Static Resource Affinity Table) describing the NUMA topology of the system, & communicates this to a NUMA-aware operating system. This in turn: " . . . uses this table to apply NUMA awareness to application processes, thread default affinity settings, thread scheduling, and memory management features. Additionally, the topology information is made available to applications using a set of NUMA application programming interfaces." - quote from a Microsoft blurb for Server 2003 Enterprise

In practical terms, when we use a NUMA-aware version of Windows on the DK8N,  memory is arranged into two nodes. Each in theory is equally fast of access to both CPUs.

A multithreaded application properly made to exploit NUMA topology would keep two copies of its data - one to each node; that data will then be accessed as required by the CPU which can get at it fastest: a really NUMA-optimised application would have different areas of memory accessed simultaneously.

All this is obviously extravagant in memory-use; but; then, what are all those eight memory-slots on the DK8N for? It also begs the point as to which, if any, 32-bit Windows applications we commonly use might take advantage of this . . . . 

The real world speed advantage NUMA is likely to give a SMP system is simply when running two or more single-threaded processes at the same time under a multitasking operating system.

Enabling NUMA displays at least one difference: XP Pro SP1 32-bit

                                                . . . . and Server 2003, Enterprise 32-bit

 . . .  both these 'scores' are from SiSoftSandra Pro SP2 2004.8.9.131; memory timings are at default; XP Pro has Node & Bank Interleaving set to 'Auto' - Server 2003 has Node Interleaving disabled. All other settings, all hardware, & all third-party drivers are identical. 

It is perfectly possible to tweak memory settings to improve these 'scores' in XP 32-bit; but deeper examination show these to lessen the Opteron platform's best feature - its remarkably low latency. In any event, a quick glance round other reviews on the web shows an untweaked DK8N using low-latency DDR with its NFORCE3 Pro/250 to have a decent memory-bandwidth advantage in non-NUMA Win32 mode over motherboards using AMD's reference chipset - an estimate might be somewhere around 10~15%.

Windows 32-bit installation practicalities 

Thanks to NVIDIA & Iwill, Windows XP Pro SP1/SP2 & Server 2003 install without hassle - probing for hardware takes a fair while longer than on simpler motherboards; but Windows untangles the buses & bridges & their attached widgets happily enough.

We didn't need to hit F5 [select kernel] at the beginning of an install; & an ACPI multiprocessor kernel was installed whether ACPI v 1.x or 2.x was enabled in the DK8N's BIOS . . . but please note you need to enable ACPI v 2.x in the DK8N BIOS for XP Pro SP2 & Server 2003 Enterprise or Data Centre Editions to correctly install as NUMA aware.

If you install XP SP1, then wish to run the SP2 patch & have a crack at enabling NUMA, all you need to do after patching is to edit in Notepad the file 'boot.ini' you will find in the root of your boot-drive. This will probably read (something like - ignore the stuff in brackets):

multi(0)disk(0)rdisk(5)partition(1)\WINDOWS="Microsoft Windows Professional" /noexecute /fastdetect

 - add the 'pae' switch, so it reads:

multi(0)disk(0)rdisk(5)partition(1)\WINDOWS="Microsoft Windows Professional" /noexecute /fastdetect /pae

Now for an apology

This reviewer doesn't use firmware ATA 'RAID' - & certainly not in a motherboard with all those 64-bit PCI slots waiting to be filled as the Demon Silicon intends: with multi-channel SCSI hardware RAID-hosts. 

The DK8N's SATA 'RAID'

If you intend to use either firmware 'RAID' option - NVRAID or Sil3114 - you will need to first enable the RAID option for that controller in the BIOS: by default Sil3114 'RAID' is BIOS-enabled, NVRAID disabled. A point we feel we should make about the onboard Silicon Graphics Sil3114 SATA controller is that the user should decide early whether it is to be used as a 'RAID' controller or a 4-channel SATA controller - this choice is set in the DK8N BIOS. 

To enable NVRAID, enter the BIOS, go to: Chipset/Southbridge/Configuration NVRAID ROM - then choose 'enable. Important: by default 'Third Master' & 'Fourth Master' are enabled - these are the PATA channels & if you want to use ordinary IDE/ATAPI devices on these channels you must select 'disabled' to both.

Obviously, those using the onboard NFORCE &/or Sil3114 'RAID' controllers, & wishing to install to drives attached to them, then configured in the desired arrays, will need to have prepared the appropriate driver-floppy or floppies & hit F6 at the beginning of an OS install - just the same as those who use any other SCSI & RAID hosts unsupported by Windows default installation drivers.

To make up a NVRAID floppy, simply copy over the contents of the 'IDE' folder from your NFORCE XP drivers. On installation, you will get a message that 'nvraid.cat' is missing - you can ignore this.

A feature of NVRAID is you can configure devices attached to NFORCE PATA, SATA, or both to arrays; but see the warning above should you wish to keep PATA for (say) optical devices.

 

SATA(N)

If the Sil3114 is BIOS-set as a 4-channel SATA controller, then installed with appropriate Win32 drivers, we found it impossible to later change this device to the 'RAID' alternative. Though the choice of option ROM could of course be remade in the DK8N BIOS, & though Windows XP Pro would recognise a 'new' RAID controller, Windows blue-screened if an attempt was made to install the 'RAID' drivers.

 

IDE drives attached to the NFORCE PATA channels work & are recognised as normal, & will have the default MS drivers installed . .

 . . but if you then install the NFORCE IDE drivers, you cannot simply roll back to the original MS drivers - Windows will blue-screen if you try. See our troubleshooting page for an answer.  

When in a new install of Windows, if the Sil3114 was enabled as a 'RAID' controller in the DK8N BIOS, Device Manager will show something like this: 

XP Pro SP1

 

XP Pro SP2

 

The obvious difference is that SP1 doesn't recognise either AMD 8131 HT IOAPIC (driver on the Iwill CD or here) - otherwise this is a most impressive install into such a complex motherboard with so many onboard & integrated features. The NFORCE PATA channels (the second Primary, & second Secondary - reading downwards) work fine at this point using default MS drivers.

Drivers are best installed in a specific order: after the 8131 (if required), install the Sil3114 SATA or SATA 'RAID' drivers as appropriate for the settings in your BIOS. Then find & install the Realtek ALC655 driver - we strongly recommend you use at least version 3.61, which we found here (earlier versions such as the 3.52 on the Iwill site did not properly enable the centre channel of our 5+1 system).

After a reboot, install all or your choice of components from the NFORCE XP driver package from your install CD, after having checked for an official update on the Iwill DK8N download page, the version on our Iwill 'Power Installer' CD v0426 contains: 

NFORCE Driver 'Remixes'  - some kind folk have cobbled together their versions of the NFORCE driver suite, often containing (much) more recent versions of some or all component drivers than the official releases. One 27MB set produced by 'Rolle2K'  & found here contains:

*Audio driver version 4.42 (WHQL)
*Audio utility version 4.44
*Win2K ethernet driver version 4.40
*WinXP ethernet driver version 4.40
*Ethernet NRM driver version 4.42 (WHQL)
*Network management tools version 4.42
*GART driver version 4.40
*Memory controller driver version 4.40
*SMBus driver version 4.40
*Installer version 4.46
*Win2K IDE 2.6 driver version 4.46 (WHQL) with updated uninstaller files
*WinXP IDE 2.6 driver version 4.46 (WHQL) with updated uninstaller files 

Please note that none of these components have been officially validated to work with the DK8N [or indeed in an SMP system]. We, being brave, tried the SMBus driver 4.40 & the XP IDE Driver 2.6/4.46 to try to solve specific issues we found when testing the DK8N: neither did any good - in fact the DK8N was definitely less stable.

Audio driver version 4.35 (WHQL)
Audio utility version 4.35
WinXP ethernet driver version 4.35
WinXP ethernet NRM driver version 4.35
Network management tools version 4.35
GART driver version 4.36
Memory controller driver version 3.38 (WHQL) with updated uninstaller files
SMBus driver version 4.04 (WHQL) with updated uninstaller files
Installer version 4.38
WinXP IDE 2.6 driver version 4.35 

 - at this point you need to decide whether you really want or need the NFORCE IDE drivers, because the way back is tricky

You may have to install this package twice to get the option of installing the FORCEWARE utilities for configuring the integrated firewall - manual here. This firewall install also offers the option of installing Apache - if you do so in SP2 you will get the following warning

We'll take a more detailed look at this firewall when considering the actual performance & stability of the various NFORCE integrated widgets: unless you know what you're doing we'd recommend not installing Apache in the first place.

As for the onboard sound, the NVIDIA NVSOUND package does quite a lot more than merely re-skin (quite nicely) the Realtek Sound Manager utility found with v3.61+

 - but if you prefer the simpler Realtek utility you can reinstall it - the NFORCE skin & its tasktray icon will be replaced by Realtek versions.

 

Windows install conclusions

It is a real tribute to all concerned that installing 32-bit XP Pro or Server 2003 onto such a complex, new, & highly integrated platform is so hassle-free . . .  but if you use IDE/ATAPI CD or DVD-burning devices we would recommend not installing the current NFORCE IDE drivers from the NFORCE driver-pack. 

Being enabled to install a 32-bit NUMA-aware version of Windows right now gives DK8N users a foretaste today of one of the performance advantages of 64-bit consumer-level operating systems in the near~ish future - all while using their normal range of applications.

This might be an irresistible selling-point for the DK8N . . . if, that is, NUMA improves the performance of today's 32-bit Windows & your day to day applications . . . 

copyright Stephen HoarAugust 2004 for www.burningissues.net - all rights reserved

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