AEC Tech News (#296)

15 Jun, 2011 By: Cadalyst Staff

Get Smart about Workstation Upgrades

As your applications become increasingly compute intensive, you'll do a big service to your productivity and ROI if you move away from consumer products and toward systems designed to support CAD.

Editor's note: Through a sponsorship by Dell and Intel, Cadalyst editors bring you this feature, part of a special series of articles designed to educate CAD users and managers about the benefits and realities of professional workstations. Find even more information at the CADspeed blog.

By Curt Moreno

You are a serious CAD professional doing seriously professional CAD work. In fact, things have been going so well that you are considering upgrading your computer set-up. You may even add a CAD machine to the home office. Hey, why work late at the office when you can work late at home?

Wait! Don't drive off to your tech big box store. Yes, those stores seem to have everything that we could ever want. In fact, we have come to expect that whatever is on the shelf is precisely what we want, and this inflates a giant tech bubble of supply and demand. The problem is that the bubble bursts when retail customers require professional equipment. Will that off-the-shelf computer push your CAD software to its limit?

Honestly, probably not.

Not Just Playing Games

From its power supplies to its RAM, the workstation computer — whether desktop or mobile — is constructed to a higher standard of quality. Workstation computers are designed to support expandability, upgrades, and longevity. This reduces the need for a total replacement of the workstation — a long-term savings to the hardware budget!

What goes in the box?

Even the most advanced PCs available to consumers, known as gaming machines, are not intended for professional use. These game machines are built using components of similar quality, but there are often major differences that affect performance. In the area of graphics cards alone, for example, a Microsoft DirectX optimized video card that gives ultimate gaming performance may yield less than impressive CAD performance. For ultimate OpenGL rendering and 3D animation regeneration, most workstation-quality computers use graphics cards that are certified by software developers. You can be sure your architecture or civil engineering CAD application of choice will burn up the screen! No coffee breaks for you, my friend.

It's What's Inside that Counts

Because you won't be buying an off-the-shelf, preconfigured PC, you will have some decisions to make about how to configure your workstation. How can you be sure you are choosing the correct parts?

Contrary to what many people think, step one in selecting the right hardware should be thinking about your software. Every software solution requires different hardware for optimum performance. Visit your software developer's web site to find a list of minimum system requirements for your application (or applications) or consider the following general guidelines:

  • A 64-bit operating system for better use of memory
  • Multicore processor with 6 MB cache
  • 8 GB of RAM
  • Certified graphics card with 512 MB to 1 GB of video RAM

Of course, meeting minimum system requirements only yields minimum system performance, but armed with this information, you know where to start. Avoiding minimum performance is the entire reason for moving from a consumer PC to a workstation computer in the first place.

Most new workstations meet or exceed these parameters, therefore increasing your system's performance and service life. Exceeding minimum requirements offers two main benefits.

First, there is the obvious benefit is performance. Faster processors, additional RAM, and more advanced graphics cards handle modern CAD applications much better. Many applications are on an annual release cycle with each new release boasting increased functionality — and requiring additional computing power. Whether you are dealing with point clouds from a laser survey or regenerating a 3D rendering, the latest software can only benefit from additional power.

Exceeding minimum requirements is one way to avoid upgrades in the near future. This forward thinking brings a second benefit into play: minimizing the amount of time and effort it takes to keep your computer running. A professional workstation should be a piece of equipment that you know will work reliably and not require constant attention or experience down time.

Step two in your hardware search is to check your software developer's web site for a list of certified hardware (including workstations and graphics cards). Certification, a very important feature of professional systems, means the software vendor has tested these hardware devices and systems to verify that they will adequately support your software. Very often, certified hardware has specialized drivers developed to perform optimally with certain software.

For more information about optimizing hardware for CAD performance, be sure to read Cadalyst's CADspeed blog.

Help is a Click Away

While you won't find your new CAD workstation at the big box store down the street, you will find that every major computer manufacturer offers workstations online that you get to select completely to order. Most manufacturers even have a line of workstations specifically built for CAD. Visit your manufacturer's web site and look for sections titled "workstation," "small business," or "high performance." This puts you on the road to discovering the treasure trove of your manufacturer's workstation product line. So, grab your mouse and click your way to greater productivity.

Time Equals Money

All that added power and performance translates into raw productivity, and that translates to the bottom line! Waiting for screen regenerations and staying late for plots will be a thing of the past. That increased RAM and graphics power comes in handy when a deadline is looming. In addition, these workstations come with a better warranty and after sale service than do standard consumer computers. The best part is that these new workstations, with all their benefits, are available today at prices comparable to many off-the-shelf PCs from the big box store — starting as low as $700 or $800. Don't be caught paying hundreds for a consumer PC with limited RAM and integrated graphics when you can have an entry-level CAD workstation for just a bit more. Even an entry-level CAD workstation will have better performance, better support, and better upgradeability.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Curt Moreno is a Houston, Texas-based CAD manager, writer, and wannabe speaker who has been using AutoCAD since 1990. Reach him via his web site,, or follow @wkfd on Twitter.



Mark Your Calendar: AEC Events


June 21–29, 2011
Various cities
2011 AUGI CAD Camps are focused on helping attendees gain industry-recognized credentials through Autodesk Certification to accelerate your professional development, improve productivity, and enhance credibility. This event includes training on Autodesk AutoCAD, Revit, AutoCAD Civil 3D, Inventor, 3ds Max, and Maya. Read more »

August 7–11 2011
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
SIGGRAPH 2011, the 38th International Conference and Exhibition on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, will offer technical and creative programs focusing on research, science, art, animation, music, gaming, interactivity, education, and the web. Read more »

2011 Autodesk University User Conference and Exhibition
November 29–December 1, 2011
Las Vegas, Nevada
Save the date! Autodesk University will include technical classes and hands-on labs, free Autodesk certification exams, and more. Read more »

2011 National Institute of Building Sciences Annual Meeting
December 5–9, 2011
Washington D.C.
This event will be held in conjunction with the Ecobuild America Conference. The Institute Board of Directors, councils and committees will convene for program meetings and to discuss new ideas for improving the built environment. Read more »

About the Author: Cadalyst Staff

Cadalyst Staff

Add comment

Note: Comments are moderated and will appear live after approval by the site moderator.

AutoCAD Tips!

Lynn Allen

In her easy-to-follow, friendly style, long-time Cadalyst contributing editor and Autodesk Technical Evangelist Lynn Allen guides you through a new feature or time-saving trick in every episode of her popular AutoCAD video tips. Subscribe to the free Cadalyst Video Picks newsletter and we'll notify you every time a new video tip is published. All exclusively from Cadalyst!

Follow Lynn on TwitterFollow Lynn on Twitter

Which device do you typically use to read content?
A desktop computer / tower workstation
A tablet
A smartphone
A laptop or mobile workstation
I regularly use both a desktop computer and a smartphone for this purpose
I regularly use another combination of devices for this purpose
I prefer to print out articles from the website and read them on paper
Submit Vote

Download Cadalyst Magazine Special Edition