By the Numbers

29 Nov, 2010 By: Alex Herrera

CAD to Go Sidebar: A mobile workstation is a valuable tool for the mobile professional, but don't throw away your desktop workstation quite yet, cautions Jon Peddie Research.

The mobile workstation made its first big splash in 2003 and accounted for roughly 101,300 units, or 6% of total workstation units shipped that year. In 2004 through 2006, it was by far the largest growth segment for the workstation industry. But in 2007, as expected, the segment's growth rate began to fall more in line with the overall market, and its market share began to settle in the low- to mid-20% range. The graphic below shows annual market share data from 2003 to 2009.

The guts of a mobile workstation have quite a bit in common with a high-end corporate notebook, but there is one key differentiator: the graphics. Whereas integrated graphics dominate shipments in mainstream mobile workstations — formerly in the chipset, and now migrating to the central processing unit (CPU) with the Intel Westmere and AMD Fusion microprocessors — the attach rate for discrete graphics processing units (GPUs) on branded mobile workstations remains at 100%.

And the GPUs that are populated by mobile workstation OEMs aren't the garden-variety, gaming-focused types. The core technology for NVIDIA's mobile Quadro FX and AMD's FirePro Mobility professional GPUs is derived directly from their gaming brethren, but the drivers (and sometimes hardware) are optimized to handle the types of graphics involved in professional applications. An AutoCAD user will see much faster rendering of smooth lines on a mobile workstation using a professional GPU than on a generic corporate machine without one.

Who Should Go Mobile? It's clear from the numbers that professionals are buying mobile workstations at a substantial rate. Engineers, designers, and digital content creators — those who would have relied on desktop workstations in the office — are natural candidates for using a mobile workstation rather than a corporate notebook on the road. For an engineer who is using a desktop workstation in the office and lugging a corporate notebook home at night and on weekends, replacing the latter with a mobile workstation is a no-brainer. For a geoscience engineer sitting at a potential drill site, the mobile workstation is clearly the better option. And anecdotally, a lot of management types are getting them as well, perhaps for status or cache, even though the performance of the standard corporate model would meet their computing needs.

All Mobile All the Time? If buyers can get all they'll ever want out of a workstation and get it in a mobile form factor, why shouldn't all professionals ditch the deskside and go mobile full-time? Well, as battery technology as well as CPU and GPU power efficiency improve, the capability gap between the mobile and the desktop certainly is shrinking. And that is encouraging more adoption of the mobile workstation as the primary machine — in fact, some enterprises are pushing for wholesale adoption of mobile workstations.

Today, however, this gap in capabilities remains significant. A desktop workstation will always allow for more power consumption, thermal dissipation, capacity, and usually display area in the common scenario where the office-based CAD user is equipped with multiple monitors. So most performance-hungry professionals who still spend a good chunk of the day at a desk running CAD, visualization, or analysis software will want the desktop workstation as their weapon of choice. It's hard for us to see those users ever abandoning the desktop system, unless they're out of the office literally all the time.
Add that all up and, although its current share of about a quarter of the market will grow, the mobile workstation likely won't surpass the desktop workstation in shipments any time in the foreseeable future.

For more information about the workstation market, see JPR's Workstation Report, a semiannual assessment of the state of the workstation and professional graphics industries.

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About the Author: Alex Herrera

Alex Herrera

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