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the epia board is something quite interesting, especially the way its processor has been designed. the first thing about it is the board size : they call it mini-itx and it's just 17x17 cm so it's just a little bigger than a cd-rom. the holes on the board are the same as those found in atx boards so you can put those anywhere but people like to "mod" those boards to a lot of funny and sometimes weird custom boxes. the first web site you can check is mini-itx.com where you can find the last news and information.
i discussed with david feugey about it and he had a better knowledge of cyrix's history than I did. so i got pretty interested by the board and tried to contact the press services of via to get one. i tried for over 3 monthes but i never got any answer from their french contact and writing directly to them either until one of them told me they didn't even know what the epia board was (:
so as i wanted to write an article about them i had no other choice than buy one. took over a month to find the first ones being sold and i finally bought mine. it came in a small box, with an incredibly small board. the board is perfect for some appliances as it has several output plugs: standard vga, rca and tv.
the cpu is very interesting. the cyrix people worked over the x86 instruction set and they wanted to build a processor that could run at nice speeds, several hundred mhz, but without requiring any fan or very small so noise would be nil or minimal. so they classified instructions and found that over the whole instruction set, only a minimal part of it was used most of time. so their C3 processor implemented in hardware about 80 % of the most used instruction set, while more rare instructions are emulated. they took care in optimizing in hardware the 80 % instructions so they are executed faster on the C3 than on a default x86 chip. so they got a C3 that runs at 500 mhz and requires no fan at all but it lacks power to play dvd/div-x content so people took on the 800 mhz model like i did: it's small fan does very little noise anyway. today you can buy newer models that offer much more performance.
the board works fine on both openbsd and netbsd, and i also tried it under linux and windows. i use it today as gateway under openbsd. after using it for some time i wrote an article that got published on login and then, suddenly, the people at via started contacting us and perhaps they realized we would agree to write articles about their stuff :) well they sent me a newer version of their board a few monthes later but it fried itself on the bonnie+ test after 10 minutes or so under NetBSD and i left login so this stopped there :/
the epia runs in my home directly on the desktop without any box, laying directly behind my lcd screen and it looks on the picture with some dust over it. it's uptime is over 1 year now but i had to restart it to apply some patches or new versions of openbsd. an important note: the board ethernet has a defective PHY and you must use it under either netbsd after version 1.6.1 or later and any version of openbsd past 3.0 where a fix is available otherwise the network card is gonna die all the time with "watchdog timeout" if you use it for high-load stuff like ftp/nfs transfers (the watchdog is a counter that is set and checked to detect when a card is no longer responding, sources explain it better). i had wrote a fix for it that did a reset of the card on each watchdog timeout but miod (openbsd project) found that the PHY was the source of problem and he fixed it once and for all (: (what's fun is i gave him a card with the same chipset and PHY as network card when i offered him my 667eb box and he had the same trouble with it as i did have with my epia board - this only made miod hate a little more x86 crappy hardware).
this machine is my faster and more powerful box right now. it's been running for over a year now and it's a kick ass machine to act as compiling farm for my p3 laptop and especially my sparcstation 2 (where compiling a full release would take days and days and be very annoying because it kills the box availability).
the ss51g is a very small form-factor pc from shuttle, an english builder. it's as wide as a standard pc but much smaller in height. it offers excellent connectivity: usb 1.1 and usb 2.0, digital fiber-optic input/output, full 5.1 sound, internal video card with agp x4 plug (currently used by a radeon 8500 128 mb ddr). i filled it with a pentium 4 2.66 ghz (the biggest cpu that was available for sale when i bought it) and 1 gb of ddr ram, the whole thing running with a fsb of 533 mhz with ram clocked at 333 ddr. while small (200x300x185 mm) it's big enough so you can even fit inside of it one of those big nvidia cards that are way long (but not the most recent ones with are very wide).
the power this box has under netbsd is just incredible. building a current kernel takes a few minutes and half an hour for a full release build (takes 2 hours on my 1.2 ghz laptop). i use it mainly with netbsd's build.sh so i can build anything for any processor i might require, and this box has been compiling each release of sparc32 code that has been running on the sparcstation 2.
the machine has a heat-pipe which gives excellent results. the pentium4 runs at almost 3 ghz but has no fan over it. a double channel heat-pipe takes the heat from the cpu, it's liquid boils and turns into vapor that goes up to the radiator on the back of the machine, where a fan (controlled by the bios, that has variable speed according to load/temperature) expels out the heat. the vapor cools down and turns back to a liquid that goes down to the cpu again. very neat stuff and very effective, temperature during a full compilation raises to 45C while normal temperature is near 35C (i found over 70C on a friend's running pentium4 at 3 ghz but this has improved since he bought a far better fan and now he's at 50-53C using an zallman fan).
the box is perfect to use. i use it under netbsd-current under console with screen. the ati card has a little problem because it did not implement vesa modes correctly and a kernel fix is required to be able to switch consoles from 80x25 to 80x50 (check the GENERIC config file for a line about ATI). so i was stuck with 80x25 for a few monthes until this fix was developped. one year later i am still surprised by how fast this box is under netbsd (:
a fix has also been wrote to get full speed from its SiS 651 chipset. you need netbsd post 1.6.1 (take any current) to get full udma-5 from it. you can also keep using 1.6 or 1.6.1 by applying a patch written by manuel bouyer but it's been integrated into current which has since a month or so new lines for ide on the kernel config, each line for each kind of chip for ide control: good stuff.
the p4 installed is the 2.66 ghz with 533 fsb. there is a 533 fsb version and other ones so you must choose wisely. i installed 2 x 512 mb corsair 333 ddr/pc2700 ram units. 2 usb on front, 2 usb on back with firewire on front, two firewire on back, etc. (check pics to see all plugs!) optical output in front and input on back. audio is powered using a realtek alc650 ac97 v2.2 and lan is also a realtek, rtl8139 10/100. inside you will find one agp slot (x4) and one pci. power supply is 200w so you can handle even big video cards but using models since and after radeon 9600 might introduce flickering and later models require much more power so either you avoid them or you install a more powerful powerunit. for nvidia fans this means you should not install a card later than a geforce4 Ti 4600 there. there is room for one hard-disk, and one dvd/cd 5 inches slot.
september, 6th update
replaced the ati 8500 128 mb video card with a nvidia 5700 ultra one. big boost :)
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last update: Mon Apr 5 21:29:48 UTC 2004