What Is a Professional CAD Workstation, and Why Would You Need One?
What distinguishes workstations from other types of computers? Although they may look identical to standard PCs on the outside, workstations are designed for heavy professional-level use, comprising components and features that are typically more powerful and more reliable than those found in consumer-grade machines, such as error-correcting code in memory. In addition, workstations — and workstation components — may earn ISV certification, meaning that independent software vendors (such as Autodesk or Dassault Systèmes) have tested and confirmed that the hardware can run their software smoothly.
Are Workstations Worth the Extra Expense?
Workstation customers have a wider range of price points to choose from than in the past, and the price gap between workstations and consumer-grade computers is smaller than it used to be, but workstations still cost more than standard PCs, in general. What justifies the difference in cost? And is it better to save money by buying a PC instead?
For some demanding applications, such as heavy simulation and rendering, workstations are non-negotiable; they provide top-end compute performance that is simply not available at lower levels of the market. An entry-level workstation appropriate for less compute-intensive work has more competition from standard PCs, but is still distinguished by ISV certification and greater reliability, which save time during purchase and use. For casual computer users, downtime and data loss from crashes and throttled software are an annoying inconvenience; in design and engineering environments, they spell wasted wages at best, and disaster at worst.
Choose Workstation Components That Meet Your Needs
Configuring a workstation — choosing the right combination of components for your workload — is a balancing act. On one side, you have software performance requirements that you must meet, or you’ll suffer the consequences of slowed software operation, crashes, or inadequate storage. On the other, you have budget constraints, and you certainly don’t want to waste money by buying more computer than you need.
Start with recommended specs for the processor, memory, and GPU — the heart of the workstation.
Robert Green's workstation configuration "cheat sheet" gives guidance on RAM and storage as well.
- When evaluating processors or central processing units (CPUs), understand the relationship between the speed and number of CPU cores relative to your most-used software.
Don’t Skimp on CAD Workstation Peripherals
Although not part of the workstation itself, peripherals are key to a productive, comfortable interaction with your machine.
Monitors are fundamental to workstation utility, whether you prefer to use one or several, flat or curved, glossy or matte. Before you start your monitor search, familiarize yourself with available types, sizes, and aspect ratios.
- Be sure to choose a well-designed keyboard and mouse, trackball, or other input device. Some, such as 3dconnexion's 3D mice and Contour Design's RollerMouse, enable ways of working not possible otherwise. Let your physical needs, work style, and workflow guide your choice of input device.
Find the Most Functional Form Factor for You
Tower workstations. The tower (or desktop) workstation, the oldest and most common form factor, is a familiar sight in design and engineering offices. They are generally more affordable than other form factors, and their lack of portability doesn’t affect the office-bound CAD user. In addition, full-size towers are often necessary to house all the components required for compute-intensive workflows such as simulation and rendering.
Mobile workstations. Because so many CAD users today require portability, mobile workstations have proliferated in recent years, with capabilities that are coming ever closer to those of their desktop kin. Who needs a mobile workstation? They can be a helpful addition for users who visit remote offices or client sites, or even as a replacement for a desktop workstation in some cases. Keep in mind that although they are portable, mobile workstations have shorter battery lives than consumer laptop computers, and they’re heavier. Mobiles also have different configuration considerations than desktops.
Small and other workstations. If space is a concern, look for small form factor (SFF) models, which are a more compact version of the classic tower shape (you may also see the term minitower). Recently, some even smaller models have made their debut: The pocket-sized Lenovo ThinkStation P320 Tiny and HP Z2 Mini are barely recognizable as workstations.
A few users would benefit from a more specialized machine, such as an all-in-one touchscreen workstation such as the Microsoft Surface Studio.
Virtual Workstation Options
Today, a workstation is not necessarily a physical item humming away within arm’s reach. Thanks to cloud computing, CAD professionals have access to new technologies including shared virtual workspaces and hosted virtual machines. Cloud-hosted virtual workstations can alleviate some data handling struggles and security concerns, and help companies scale up or down with workforce fluctuations more efficiently than they can with physical hardware.
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