Lenovo ThinkStation P920 Workstation ReviewNovember 7, 2020
The top of the line Lenovo ThinkStation P920 workstation tower (SHOP HERE) is “the” pinnacle of ThinkStation technology, at least in 2019. The P920 handles the same complex applications supported on other workstations, and yes, we’re talking about Independent Software Vendor certified applications. It’s designed to compete against the HP Z8 G4 and Dell’s Precision 7920 Tower Workstation, and there is definitely a case for that.
There are three desktop workstations that make up Lenovo’s ThinkStation line-up, four if you count the compact version of the P520…the P520c. From bottom to top, that would be the single-socket P520, dual-socket P720, and the dual-socket P920. Most of these high-end systems will most likely never be fully outfitted to the ridiculous specs possible, unless you want to rack mount the system and share its wealth of technological goodies.
What’s this system good for? Just about anything you can imagine. What else are you going to use for your super-secret intellectual data, or creating that simulation of Mars weather patterns or making sense of the readings from your financial model covering the impact of Bitcoin failure on financial markets? If it’s complex, this is your first step in unravelling the secrets of the universe.
The Lenovo ThinkStation P920 itself has a very industrial look with plenty of ports, front and back, to connect a variety of external components. The front media bays can also be configured to support other options, but we’ll get to that in a minute. It has handles to move this system around the office, and you will need those because even with a minimal configuration, the system is quite solidly built. Once you remove the lockable side panel, it’s very neat and tidy inside with a plastic air shroud directing air over the critical components (I.E. Processors, Memory, and GPU slots) and red markers throughout the case indicating touch points to remove the various components.
You can install two Intel Xeon Scalable processors from the Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum families up to 205W of power and 28 cores. Each processor supports 6x memory channels and on this system each processor has 8x memory module slots. That means you’ll have 4x memory modules each in their own memory channel and the other 2x memory channels will have 2x memory modules installed per channel.
Registered, Load-Reduced, and 3DS Registered memory modules are supported on this system offering transfer speeds of up to 2666MHz. However, to support the full complement of memory you will need one of those processors with an “M” as only they can support 1.5TB each. Using 128GB memory modules in all 16x memory module slots, along with those “M” processors, you will achieve the full 2TB of memory.
This is also where you’ll be faced with a problem, and it goes like this: Should I spend like three times more for that extra 500GB of memory for 2TB, total, using two of those “M” processors? Or, will I be satisfied with just 1.5TB and go with those still quite expensive Xeons that only support 768GB each? Tell us how that goes. However, at this point we should also mention that both HP and Dell support up to 3TB of memory using 24 memory modules slots loaded with 128GB 3DS memory modules, and again that would be with the “M” suffix on the CPUs. If you need 3TB then you should go with one of the other guys, but let’s face facts: memory is expensive and CPUs are expensive. 2TB is a lot of memory, but so is 1.5TB. For the best memory performance, you’ll install a single memory module in each memory channel, and graciously, Lenovo has already considered that. With only a single memory module in each channel you will maximize memory performance and you will only need the standard non-“M” processors because that configuration will total 1.5TB.
Like the P720, Lenovo says the Lenovo ThinkStation P920 workstation will support up to 12 internal drives, and that includes SATA, SAS, and NVMe storage devices. To arrive at 12 internal storage devices requires all 4x internal flex bays are outfitted with a dual-drive hot-swap backplane. The internal Flex drive tray can support either a single 3.5-inch drive paired with a 2.5-inch drive or two 2.5-inch drives. You can install three more drives using the front 5.25-inch media bays, one of which will support a single 3.5-inch and a 2.5-inch drive, and another that will support a single 2.5-inch drive with a slimline optical device. So that makes 11 drives. Lastly, there is a dedicated spot on the motherboard with two x4 PCIe slots for a proprietary circuit board with heat sink that can support a maximum of two M.2 drives. And there you have it, 13 drives. Wait, didn’t Lenovo say 12 drives? This must be a bonus Lenovo forgot to mention, but we’re not stopping there. You can install even more storage if you use the PCIe slots outfitted with Lenovo’s single, dual, and or quad M.2 adapter cards.
If you want to utilize the full performance this form factor offers make sure you have NVMe M.2 drives as a SATA III M.2 will not provide any better performance than a standard SATA SSD drive at about 550GB/s. With NVMe you utilize the blazing fast speed of the PCIe lanes and transfer speeds of up to 3500MB/s, particularly useful for large file transfers. For large file transfers you might also want to consider installing that optional Thunderbolt add-in module.
As a professional workstation, all these drive bays are needed to enable RAID options for protecting your data or for faster performance. You can install multiple RAIDS to address different workloads using either the integrated RAID controller, Intel Virtual RAID on CPU, or one of the Broadcom RAID controller options. SATA drives are supported on the Lenovo P920 by the integrated RAID controller that supports RAID configurations of 0, 1, 5, and 10 using Intel’s Rapid Storage Technology Enterprise (RSTe). For NVMe, RAID is supported through VROC, virtual RAID on CPU.
VROC uses Intel’s Volume Management Device to create RAID arrays for NVMe devices. The VMD is an integrated controller in the CPU and provides access to the PCIe lanes for NVMe drives. M.2 drives using the x8 PCIe lanes can be configured to RAID 0 without a VROC hardware key. However, if you want other RAID options, then you will need a VROC Standard, Premium, or an Intel ONLY SSD license key module that installs in the VROC connector on the motherboard. That last one provides the full range of RAID options, but can only be used with Intel Drives. Funny how that works…
VROC enables you to create RAID groups and is used specifically for NVMe drives. VROC will save you the cost of purchasing one of those Mega-RAID controllers, but if you do install one of those controllers you won’t need VROC because NVMe RAID can be handled through the controller. There’s also an SD card slot on the system board.
A diagnostic panel on the front of the Lenovo ThinkStation P920 provides tell-tale warning lights for the basic components. You have options to manage the system beginning with Intel Active Management Technology that’s part of the CPU architecture and enables remote and at-chassis management. There’s also ThinkStation Diagnostics for Windows and an app for your Android or iOS-based phone or tablet, which is handy if you’re on the go! And then there’s Lenovo’s proprietary Performance Adviser that acts like a launch window for the supported ISV-certified applications and enables the best performance for your particular configuration.
If you want to run SAS drives you will need to purchase a separate PCIe MegaRAID controller, like the Broadcom MegaRAID 9440-8i or the 9460-16i. Both will support both SATA and SAS drives operating at speeds of 6 and 12Gb/s plus NVMe storage devices connected to the PCIe lanes. An optional Super capacitor module straddles the PCIe slots and attaches to the PCIe card retainer brackets at both ends. It provides temporary backup power to the MegaRAID controller in the event of a power failure ensuring data protection.
There are 8x PCIe slots total, with 5x on the bottom controlled by CPU 1 including two x16 slots and three x8 slots. Three more x16 slots at the top of the chassis are only active with a second processor. With just a single CPU you can install two double-wide GPUs using the two x16 slots in the lower level.
NVIDIA Graphics Cards
With both processors you can install a third double-wide high-performance card in the top slot. This workstation supports the ultra-performance cards from both Nvidia and AMD. If you want more video ports than 12, then you can install up to 4x mid-range cards, or up to 5x of the lower end GPUs with a TDP of up to 75W each.
And now we’ll answer your biggest question: will it support that new Nvidia RTX 2080TI? You bet your ass it will. In addition to an HD/RAID controller, more M.2 PCIe storage card options, and additional GPUs, you can also install WiFi faster network connection cards instead of just the two 1GbE ports on the back of the system.
This definitely verifies that the Lenovo ThinkStation P920 workstation features an obscene display of technology at its finest.
If you’re creating that next disruptive technology from the ground up or doing some world-building for a simulation, the Lenovo ThinkStation P920 is a great choice. Especially when you take advantage of all the high-performance features supported on this system like faster Scalable processors and memory courtesy of Intel, which is kind of a given.
You can also install up to 3x GPUs totaling 750 watts of power or 5x cards under 75W, and if each of those cards supports 4x display ports, that’s enough for up to 20 displays! You also have super-fast storage from those M.2 drives and a load of storage in general.