Repurposing old equipment

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Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Fri May 16, 2014 6:08 pm

I was cruising eBay the other day, looking at line cards ($4K? ouch!), and on a whim I looked up old computer equipment. While an AS/400 or RS/6000 would be neat, I've got no use for them currently. Some of the SGI workstations, and older Origin servers were reasonably priced.

I guess my question is, since all of the above are outclassed by a decent PC today, is there any possible use for some of this? I think the Tezro or Onyx was supposed to be a 2D beast, with 40bit color support, but 3D-wise nothing except maybe infinitereality4 comes close to a decent Radeon or GeForce. Would it be worth it for 2D content creation, or just for the bragging rights? I'd be better off with a good Wacom, a beast of a PC, and ToonBoom Harmony, wouldn't I?

The video-toaster 4000 and accompanying Amiga 2000 just looked all quaint and nostalgic. I'd almost buy one, just for grins.
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Re: Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Fri May 16, 2014 6:42 pm

I tend to think that unless you've got some piece of legacy software you need to run that requires one of them, there's no real practical use. You're basically looking at bragging rights and/or coolness factor only.
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Re: Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Fri May 16, 2014 7:20 pm

The old stuff is a waste of space and electricity unless you're doing it for nostalgia or cool factor.
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Re: Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Sun May 18, 2014 12:16 am

They're interesting for figuring out computer software hasn't advanced much in twenty years and dimming your faith in humanity accordingly. There are no flying cars, so to speak.

They would also be useful for making sure OpenBSD or NetBSD, and software in ports, compile on that particular architecture. The other practical use is just preserving the systems for study. Some of those systems were so unique and advanced, it would be a shame for them to be lost to time.

There is still an underground community of Amiga users supporting the platform. I don't have any links or contacts, but they are out there.
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Re: Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Sun May 18, 2014 10:48 pm

I still use a lot of the old stuff, although a lot is in mothballs since power costs a lot more now than it used to. I still use the system in my sig for a lot of stuff, plus old skool gaming requires old skool computers for the most realistic gaming experience.
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Re: Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Mon May 19, 2014 1:10 am

There isn't much use for older systems except for functions tied to some legacy application. The interesting thing is that many of these relics have had hobbyist programs in place to get legitimate software. So while there isn't much modern practical usage, there is a lot of history there worth studying.

Granted, there are still a few pieces of hardware out there that are still relevant. For example, if you happen upon an inexpensive IBM POWER5 server, you could experiment with PowerVM, AIX and Linux to tinker or use to train yourself toward a relevant certification.
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Re: Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Mon May 19, 2014 6:26 am

This topic is just up my alley.

Around 2009-2010 I was really into these RISC workstations. I had a SGI Indy. It didn't want to install IRIX over the network, so I got an Octane for 50EURs instead. Wow, it was huge. Beautiful. I enjoyed doing 'hinv -vm' on it. I installed IRIX 6.5 and updated it to 6.5.22f.

There's MATLAB and Mathematica for Unix OSes (both hard to find). There's nekoware, which is a community maintained package management system for IRIX. The best you can do is Firefox 2.0. Opening GMail in FIrefox 2.0 on a 300MHz MIPS R12000 is a sobering experience, where most of your dreams of actually using it for proper desktop work will crash and fall. Okay, I said, no dice using it as anything close to a desktop. Let's repurpose it as a server instead.

OK, so as a server, the Octane takes up to 3 hard to find SCA-80 drives (although in reality, the Octane doesn't seem to be designed with hotplugging drives in mind - it's probably only because it shares the same system as the Origin 200), and the largest you can find is ~300GB. Plus, it's loud, and I lived in a dorm room. That, and I didn't have much use for a server anyway. So eventually, after running glxgears on the SE graphics, it just sat there in the corner gathering dust. It was still devastatingly beautiful, and I dreamed of a Tezro, even though I knew it was going to be just as unpractical. That was back then. Today you have the Raspberry Pi, and SSDs that blow away any 10k SCSI hard drive you could put in the SGIs. Makes the proposition even more dreadful.

IRIX's main problem is that not enough people maintain the GNU ecosystem required for newer programs to run (like FIrefox 3). The slow hardware I can live with (you need to use slow ones sometimes to appreciate the fast hardware). But a software ecosystem really is the life and blood.

So, the RS/6000. There was a great deal going on those, the Intellistation POWER 275. 2 1.45GHz POWER4+ CPUs with 4GB RAM and a GXT6500P for what, 200EURs? What a steal! I got one from eBay. It arrived in a palette, all smashed up, the rear muffler dented. I complained, and got another for free. Woo hoo! Actually, it's still somewhere in the university... gotta get it back.

The Intellistation POWER 275 is even larger and heavier than the Octane, with much more brittle, low quality plastic parts that break often, and comes with a rear muffler and front plastic door (very easily broken, which is attached to the sturdy metal case in a complicated fashion which seems to be endemic to any entity that works closely with the US government), has a mini computer that handles the boot process and has its own fan that produces noise even when the workstation isn't powered on. You manage this mini computer through DB9 serial, which means you need another computer (most likely faster to begin with anyway). POST takes 10 minutes. You press the button, some complicated codes show up on the cool green LCD, and after a minute, the fans spin up and something starts happening. Welcome to AIX!

Right away, the GXT6500P doesn't want to play with Linux (although there have since been fixes for that - just adding the PCI ID to the list somewhere for the GXT4000 driver or something). For proper Linux graphics support on RS/6000, I have to have a GXT135P, a rebadged Matrox G450! Damn that's old! But the worst part is that old beater still gets sold for 200-300EURs. What a ripoff. So I had to stick to AIX.

AIX has a better software ecosystem than IRIX. But it's still not quite enough. I think I had Firefox 3 running at some point, and its page rendering performance was around 60-70% that of my Core Duo laptop, which is to say, usable. Quite usable. Back then, web browser based office suites were just catching on, and I didn't trust them at all, but whereas IRIX just had OpenOffice 1.1 and Abiword, AIX had it much better. AIX uses RPM for its package management system, but crucially, without a central repository and without dependency resolving. So you have to install every dependency manually, by yourself. I remember feeling so accomplished when I finally got KDE 3 installed.

AIX's GNU software selection is maintained by a corporation, whereas Nekoware is community maintained. I'm not sure how to describe the difference, but I think I like community maintained software ecosystems better. They probably fit my use case more.

Speaking of use cases, the Intellistation POWER 275 uses SCA-80 drives too, but with a special PCB adapter that spreads the pins out flat. The best thing to do is to get a used 9GB drive for RS/6000, take apart the drive sled and use the adapter on a bigger drive of your own. Of course, it still makes for a bad file server since it accepts 4 drives total, but each drive for SCA-80 tops out at 300GB. But it does have Gigabit Ethernet.

The Intellistation POWER 275 was kinda boring in the end. Sure, it was fast, capable, and definitely reliable. But it was just a black box that happened to have lots of requirements. No story, or fancy design to keep me interested.

There was a Sun Blade 100 which I got because I got tired of noisy RISC workstations, but that was such a steaming pile of slowness that I got rid of it as fast as I could, and lost interest in any higher end Blade machines. Plus, it wasn't even quiet. I even bought an aftermarket silent 80mm fan for it, and it didn't get much better.

Then I sold one of my POWER 275s off and used the proceeds towards a Powermac G5 dual. It was the perfect progression - the PowerPC G5 was a higher clocked modification of the POWER4 with less emphasis on reliability. It arrived. It was beautiful, large, sturdy, didn't have flimsy plastic bits. I pressed the power button, and it revved its fans like a race car, and then settled down to a quiet whisper. No matter what I did with it, it was always quiet, composed, even when raytracing in modo. Best of all, I could jam a 1TB SATA drive into it. Finally. And the audio wasn't just an after thought cheap PCI card, like on the POWER 275 (the Octane is supposed to have good analog audio outs too, and even has a SPDIF plug, but the machine itself was noisy and storage space was limited). Best of all, I could run the latest Firefox (okay, TenFourFox). But I never felt like the software was holding me back. PowerPC still has lots of supporters, and the software ecosystem is booming compared to IRIX or AIX. I was close enough to home territory to get the benefits, but yet feel like I was on a different planet. I loved the dual G5 with all my heart, even if it struggled when playing 1080p H.264.

Lesson: for desktop use, use an old Powermac if you have to have RISC. for server use, get an old desktop too - why? Because as an old system, it's already holding you back in terms of expandability, speed and power consumption - the least it can do is be quiet and look good to compensate. I would like to try a SPARCStation 20 sometime - those were genuinely beautiful.
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Re: Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Mon May 19, 2014 6:42 am

I mean, think about it - so many RISC machines, yet only one of them is capable of giving a good computing experience, despite the fact that IRIX wasn't too bad in its own right. Two systems, both PowerPC based, yet such wildly different computing experiences. Evidently, a lot of work separates the two, and I have to say Apple deserves every bit of praise it can get, because it is best at making computers people actually want to use. It was my very own Ferrari.
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Re: Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Mon May 19, 2014 9:50 am

AIX isn't really meant to be a desktop OS, so it's not surprising it's rather boring. Businesses pay good money for boring.

Motif is an ugly widget toolkit. It's never been pretty, even by the standards of the 90s, and that's the toolkit many of the old Unix DEs use.

The pizza box Sparcstations are pretty neat. CDE is really ugly since it uses Motif, and the desktop metaphor is rather odd when compared to the metaphors used in Windows and Mac. It's rather nice when you get used to it, but at first it's odd. I have a friend who used to own one.

The NeXTstation, my friend used to have, is probably the neatest workstation I've seen. OS X is related to NeXTSTEP, but NeXTSTEP has a much purer Unix heritage. A NeXT machine would probably be the one machine I would own.

I'm content with Linux on x86 hardware right now. I would like to get an ARM board, probably the Odroid-U3 (http://www.hardkernel.com/main/products ... 8745696275), to play around with RISC again.
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Re: Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Mon May 19, 2014 11:52 am

Crayon Shin Chan wrote:The Intellistation POWER 275 is even larger and heavier than the Octane, with much more brittle, low quality plastic parts that break often, and comes with a rear muffler and front plastic door (very easily broken, which is attached to the sturdy metal case in a complicated fashion which seems to be endemic to any entity that works closely with the US government), has a mini computer that handles the boot process and has its own fan that produces noise even when the workstation isn't powered on. You manage this mini computer through DB9 serial, which means you need another computer (most likely faster to begin with anyway). POST takes 10 minutes. You press the button, some complicated codes show up on the cool green LCD, and after a minute, the fans spin up and something starts happening. Welcome to AIX!


Actually POWER4/5 and PowerPC 970's literally can't boot themselves, hence the need for the embedded system. The GX bus uses a divider form the main CPU's clock speed for operation. That 1.4 Ghz POWRE4 likely has a 700 Mhz FSB with a divider of 2. The catch with the GX divider system is that it has to be calibrated every time the system starts up and is one of the reasons why it can take forever to boot. Additionally the larger POWER systems have external GX bus cards the boot process involves querying them to see if they're part of a coherent node. This is important as some models can have a malfunctioning node replaced while the system is live and running. IBM wasn't kidding when they said they'd be moving some mainframe RAS features down to their UNIX line.

Crayon Shin Chan wrote:Speaking of use cases, the Intellistation POWER 275 uses SCA-80 drives too, but with a special PCB adapter that spreads the pins out flat. The best thing to do is to get a used 9GB drive for RS/6000, take apart the drive sled and use the adapter on a bigger drive of your own. Of course, it still makes for a bad file server since it accepts 4 drives total, but each drive for SCA-80 tops out at 300GB. But it does have Gigabit Ethernet.


I suspect that it is the same caddy used in some earlier AS/400 models. I got a couple when I acquired a RAID card from an AS/400 from an old job. Unfortunately I never got the RAID card to work but the drivers were standard SCA 80 pin units after they were removed from the caddies. The only other gotcha was that they were Seagate Barracuda's but had IBM firmware so I had to jump through some hoops to reformat them.

Crayon Shin Chan wrote:The Intellistation POWER 275 was kinda boring in the end. Sure, it was fast, capable, and definitely reliable. But it was just a black box that happened to have lots of requirements. No story, or fancy design to keep me interested.


Umm.... it was a computer with a muffler. That gets people's attention.

Crayon Shin Chan wrote:Then I sold one of my POWER 275s off and used the proceeds towards a Powermac G5 dual. It was the perfect progression - the PowerPC G5 was a higher clocked modification of the POWER4 with less emphasis on reliability. It arrived. It was beautiful, large, sturdy, didn't have flimsy plastic bits. I pressed the power button, and it revved its fans like a race car, and then settled down to a quiet whisper. No matter what I did with it, it was always quiet, composed, even when raytracing in modo. Best of all, I could jam a 1TB SATA drive into it. Finally. And the audio wasn't just an after thought cheap PCI card, like on the POWER 275 (the Octane is supposed to have good analog audio outs too, and even has a SPDIF plug, but the machine itself was noisy and storage space was limited). Best of all, I could run the latest Firefox (okay, TenFourFox). But I never felt like the software was holding me back. PowerPC still has lots of supporters, and the software ecosystem is booming compared to IRIX or AIX. I was close enough to home territory to get the benefits, but yet feel like I was on a different planet. I loved the dual G5 with all my heart, even if it struggled when playing 1080p H.264.


The PowerMac G5's had their share of issues though. The AGP based ones had a horrible north bridge controller with very low memory bandwidth that was designed by Apple. The PCIe based G5's had a better north bridge chip from IBM but very little in terms of aftermarket upgrades. Even mundane things like PCIe Ethernet cards may have issues due to architectural differences.

Crayon Shin Chan wrote: I would like to try a SPARCStation 20 sometime - those were genuinely beautiful.

I have one of those pizza boxes. It has always sat in a neglected corner due to one thing: it uses proprietary memory and it didn't come with any. Otherwise it looks to be a neat machine. I think it had a processor in each of the Mbus slots and two video cards in Sbus slots. It would have been an interesting machine if it had any memory to use.

EDIT: Typo fixings
Last edited by the on Tue May 20, 2014 12:34 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Mon May 19, 2014 1:02 pm

the wrote:The PowerMac G5's had their share of issues thought. The AGP based ones had a horrible north bridge controller with very low memory bandwidth that was designed by Apple. The PCIe based G5's had a better north bridge chip but very little in terms of aftermarket upgrades. Even mundane things like PCIe Ethernet cards may have issues due to architectural differences.


I got a G5 quad. One day I'd like to max the RAM, slap in an SSD, and get a better video card. It's got dual gigabit ethernet and I don't really have a need to expand anything on it. Sound card? I don't do audio stuff. Gaming? Yeah, not so much on that PPC. Video capture? Naw, not really. Though it is liquid cooled, so far I've avoided any pain:

http://www.xlr8yourmac.com/systems/G5_c ... leaks.html

I'd like to mess around with an old DEC Alpha and maybe an HP Itanium workstation. I've used Irix before (ugh) but not an Irix-based workstation and SunOS 2.6 on a Sun pizza box of some type. Neat-ish but oh my god CDE sucked. I go back and forth on picking up old SGI and Sun hardware. I had a chance to get an old Cray but the shipping would have been too much. Got an old Amiga 500+ and KayPro II but haven't fired them up in ages. I have a dual PPro 200 workstation, that's kinda cool. I had a half notion to hunt down a BeBox but they are horribly expensive. Or a quad-PPC Mac just for fun, but again hard to find and expensive. Would love a NeXT Cube, but... yeah.

The rest of the stuff, old Mac IIci, IIsi, Quadra 950, Umax C600, Powermac G4 (466 and 1.25), iMac G4 (looks like a table lamp), Powermac G3, buncha 486's, are projects I'd love to get back to for old-school gaming or computing.

Do I think any of it is useful? Maybe the Powermac G5 or the Powermac G4 1.25 GHz.
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Re: Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Mon May 19, 2014 2:39 pm

Wow, didn't expect so many RISC aficionados here! Much appreciate the company!

the wrote:Umm.... it was a computer with a muffler. That gets people's attention.

Yeah... not really, I always had to point it out. It was always the Octane that got the most attention. It just looks crazier.

That info about the GX bus is interesting. Where did you read up about that?

Scrotos wrote:I got a G5 quad. One day I'd like to max the RAM, slap in an SSD, and get a better video card. It's got dual gigabit ethernet and I don't really have a need to expand anything on it. Sound card? I don't do audio stuff. Gaming? Yeah, not so much on that PPC. Video capture? Naw, not really. Though it is liquid cooled, so far I've avoided any pain:

A quad G5 with a SSD would be seriously awesome. Too bad Leopard doesn't have TRIM support - but SSD controllers these days supposedly do quite well without it. I sold my G5 off for a GTX470, but now that I don't game that much, I feel like I don't need a huge desktop anymore.

I'm on a Macbook Air now, and I have to say, knowing that it's really a plain x86 under the hood doesn't diminish the joy of using it at all. Maybe by 5%, tops.
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Re: Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Mon May 19, 2014 3:01 pm

Scrotos wrote:I had a half notion to hunt down a BeBox but they are horribly expensive.


I'd forgotten about those. Those are rare birds, and it would be neat to own one. As an aside, I once bought a case because it kind of reminded me of a BeBox.

That reminds me I need to find some hardware to install Haiku on.

Crayon Shin Chan wrote:Wow, didn't expect so many RISC aficionados here! Much appreciate the company!


Oh yeah. I keep waiting for ARM or PPC hardware that isn't built for embedded purposes. ARM is almost there, and I'll probably buy a little dev board soon. PPC used to have some boards, but they were more expensive then what I could afford at the time.

I'd like to think OpenPower will spur something like what ARM has going on now, but I'm not optimistic since all of the names mentioned so far have nothing to do with consumer electronic products.

MIPS could be interesting, but it depends on what the Chinese do.
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Re: Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Mon May 19, 2014 4:10 pm

Speaking of PPC workstations, Amiga has a few. Amiga/MorphOS/AROS has support for various models and PPC accelerator boards that pop into 68K Amigas.

http://www.a-eon.com/?page=x1000
http://amigax1000.blogspot.com/
PA Semi Dual-core PA6T-1682M, nominal 2.0GHz (1.8GHz standard) PowerISA™ v2.04+ CPU

Remember PA Semi? Yeah, they are using those chips for that machine.

They intend to build X3500 and X5000 based on:
http://www.freescale.com/webapp/sps/sit ... code=P5020
http://www.freescale.com/webapp/sps/sit ... code=P3041
http://www.osnews.com/story/27421/Amiga ... MP_support

A decent starting off point for Amiga stuff now would be: http://www.amiga.org/

There are lots of other sites and stuff but you can use that as a stepping off point to find the other junk.

With anything Amiga, most people take a "believe it when I see it" attitude. Lotta drama. Some people have reimplemented Amigas in FPGAs, too:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimig
http://www.fpgaarcade.com/
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Re: Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Mon May 19, 2014 4:22 pm

Flatland_Spider wrote:MIPS could be interesting, but it depends on what the Chinese do.


I haven't really been following them:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loongson

They are kinda neat and all, but can they play Crysis?!?
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Re: Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Mon May 19, 2014 5:27 pm

Probably via eBay, a friend scored a 19" x 36" (or maybe 42" high) standard rack with several 4U AT/ATX compatible enclosures and a couple of disk draws partially populated with reusable SCSI drives, for the cost of shipping. After gutting the obsolete h/w, and moving a few free-standing PCs into the rack-mount enclosures, had a setup that was somewhat interesting for a while.
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Re: Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Tue May 20, 2014 1:03 am

Crayon Shin Chan wrote:
the wrote:Umm.... it was a computer with a muffler. That gets people's attention.

Yeah... not really, I always had to point it out. It was always the Octane that got the most attention. It just looks crazier.

That info about the GX bus is interesting. Where did you read up about that?


The only place that matters: an IBM Red Books. Some of the details stem from the PowerPC 970 and the IBM CPC945 north bridge which was used in last generation of PowerMac G5's. IBM never released any low level information of the POWER4 and POWER5 system controllers publicly.

At one time I was researching how to overclock the PowerPC 970 chips. Most of the bus settings are software controlled and hence why no one succeeded trying the same hardware approach used for G4 overclocking. There is a small ROM on the G5 daughter cards used by Apple that contains the initialization data and thermal calibration data, including the clock speed it was to run at. OS X reads that value at boot time to set the maximum clock speed the chip can run at and then enables power management to dynamically change the clock. My idea was rather simple: just overwrite the maximum clock speed value via a kernel extension with one higher and let then power management adjust itself higher while under load. I never moved past the concept phase as I quickly realized how over my head I was getting.

Crayon Shin Chan wrote:A quad G5 with a SSD would be seriously awesome. Too bad Leopard doesn't have TRIM support - but SSD controllers these days supposedly do quite well without it. I sold my G5 off for a GTX470, but now that I don't game that much, I feel like I don't need a huge desktop anymore.


The G5 benefits from the lower access times but not so much from bandwidth as the onboard controllers are limited to SATA 1.0 speeds. Really nice for boot up (as is an SSD for any system).

Edit: Typo fix
Last edited by the on Wed May 21, 2014 9:37 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Tue May 20, 2014 7:20 am

I find that an SSD is useful even at SATA1 speeds. Mechanical drives can barely saturate that. The real benefit comes from random access times dropping to a relitive near-zero time. I've used SSD's in many things, like the old EEE netbooks. While it did help the load times, the studders from just typical usage were far fewer.
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Re: Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Tue May 20, 2014 9:54 am

I agree. Also, if you really want to, you can get an eSATA 6G PCIe card for the G5 and put an SSD in an external eSATA enclosure to get the full speed. There are no internal SATA cards due to the case layout. Like thus:

http://eshop.macsales.com/item/NewerTech/MXPCIE6G2S2/

Even for PCI-X:

http://eshop.macsales.com/item/Highpoin ... es/RR1742/
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Re: Repurposing old equipment

Postposted on Tue May 20, 2014 10:05 am

Losergamer04 wrote:I find that an SSD is useful even at SATA1 speeds. Mechanical drives can barely saturate that. The real benefit comes from random access times dropping to a relitive near-zero time. I've used SSD's in many things, like the old EEE netbooks. While it did help the load times, the studders from just typical usage were far fewer.

Yup, the biggest win under most typical usage scenarios is mostly in the elimination of seek and rotational latency, not streaming throughput.
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