Dell Prepares for the Diverse Future of Workstations

13 Mar, 2014 By: Cyrena Respini-Irwin

Whether customers want to stick with desktop workstations, adopt a mobile machine, or move to a virtualization solution, the hardware developer has an answer ready.

“It’s a coming-out party after 17 years.” That’s how Jeff Clark, vice-chairman of operations, described Dell’s first global Precision press event, held last week in the Austin, Texas area. The hardware developer invited media representatives to tour Dell facilities and hear about the company’s plans for the future of Precision, its workstation product line.

Andy Rhodes, general manager of Dell’s Precision business, explained that the company is building its portfolio around the “megatrends” it sees reshaping the market — including workstation virtualization and more widespread use of professional-level tools — and the related challenges that its customers face.

Just Like the Real Thing: Workstation Virtualization

The Age of the Workstation is not drawing to a close just yet: “Customers are going to have [desktop workstations] on their desk for many, many years,” said Rhodes. There is increasing interest, however, in moving 3D modeling, rendering, and other demanding computing tasks away from the desktop and into a data center.

With virtualization, the application in question — SolidWorks, for example — runs on powerful rack-mounted computers in a company’s data center. For users, the experience of using a virtualized workstation is not noticeably different from a traditional workstation. (If all components of the virtualization infrastructure perform correctly, that is. If they don’t, latency problems — delays between the user’s action and the program’s response — will make the difference very noticeable.)

But because the software isn’t running on their local machine, users aren’t tethered to their desktop; they’re free to work in various locations, and to use a less-powerful computer or mobile device. That’s not a small benefit, as modern collaborative workflows often require users to access their projects in meeting rooms, at client offices, and on job sites; CAD users need to collaborate with each other, with other departments, with contractors and clients. “This notion of one person being able to finish one piece of work independently is sort of gone,” said Rhodes.

In addition, virtualization frees up resources on users’ local machines, and gives them access to more computing resources. Lee Miller, vice-president and director of buildingSMART implementation for HOK, commented that many of his company’s files are in the range of 300–800 MB each. “Some of our big projects can’t be opened on local machines,” he noted.

Another potential benefit is improved security of project data. With virtualization, files reside within the data center, which can provide physical security as well as firewalls. “Most customers see a data center as a more secure environment than an office,” noted Rhodes.

Dell announced two initiatives in support of this trend:

  1. The Workstation Virtualization Center of Excellence (or CoE, to save a few syllables) located in the Dell Solutions Center in Round Rock, Texas. Customers can access this facility in person or remotely to test how their applications, CAD and otherwise, will function on a virtual workstation setup before taking the plunge and investing in their own virtualization infrastructure. “[When] these customers bring their versions of applications into our lab and do performance testing, [it can] make them feel confident with the proof of concept,” said Rhodes. This CoE is intended to be the first of many that will open in Dell Solutions Centers worldwide.
  2. The Dell Wyse Datacenter for Virtual Workstations, a set of reference architectures, or hardware and software configuration templates, for use with the VMware Horizon View and Citrix XenDesktop platforms. The reference architectures are certified and supported by Dell, and “lead to very fast deployments,” said Rhodes. They can be deployed using Dell Precision R7610 rack workstations or Dell PowerEdge 720 rack servers with NVIDIA GRID K1 or K2 graphics cards. Configurations are available for Siemens PLM Software now, and for Autodesk, PTC, and Dassault Systemes SolidWorks this spring.

Democratization of Access to Professional Tools

Dell also sees a trend toward democratization of access to professional-quality creation tools. In response to what it calls a “customer imperative” for fast and affordable digital prototyping, the company recently announced that it would sell 3D printers and 3D scanners from Stratasys subsidiary MakerBot. These offerings are relatively inexpensive, starting at $2,199 and $1,399 respectively. “We’re bringing the barriers to entry down,” said Rhodes.

Here, too, virtualization has a role. Ben Cochran, a senior software architect at Autodesk, spoke of the goal to democratize rendering — to make high-end imagery production available to everyone, including users without high-end machines at their disposal. “Virtualization helps bridge that gap,” he noted.

On the workstation side, Rhodes observed that some users whose work requires professional computing power are hindered by their consumer-grade computers; he likened them to a surgeon wielding a steak knife. Dell identified a market of underserved technical users, including engineering students and the lower ranks of engineers in large companies, and determined that what that market needs is a 15" mobile workstation at “the right price point,” said Rhodes.

That vision took shape as the Precision M2800, which will be available this spring, starting at $1,199 — the lowest price available for 15" mobile workstation, according to Dell. The 5.6-lb M2800 is “a true professional-grade mobile workstation,” explained Rhodes; it will be independent software vendor (ISV)-certified for applications including Autodesk Inventor, Revit, and AutoCAD; Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks; and PTC Creo.

The Dell Precision M2800 is a 15" mobile workstation with a starting price of less than $1,200. Images courtesy of Dell. Click to enlarge.

The M2800 also features:

  • Fourth-generation Intel Core i5 or i7 processors
  • AMD FirePro W4170M graphics with 2 GB of dedicated video memory
  • Up to 16 GB of system memory and 1 TB of storage
  • Support for multiple monitors
  • Compatibility with existing docking solutions
  • Dell Precision Performance Optimizer, an application that automatically tunes settings for particular applications, thereby increasing application performance, explained Alex Shows, a Dell systems engineer. Preconfigured settings are currently available for SolidWorks and CATIA, Creo, Siemens NX, and Autodesk Maya.

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