Workstations

Same Hardware, Different User Experience

31 Dec, 2014 By: Alex Herrera

Herrera on Hardware: With components in common, what factors distinguish entry-level workstations from business-class PCs — and do they justify the increase in price?



What's Your Time Worth?

So from a cost standpoint, today's workstations are nothing like their ancestors. Still, even if the price gap is much smaller than it used to be, why should a CAD professional pay any more dollars for the same package of hardware components?

First, while the baseline hardware capabilities may be very similar — or even identical — even an entry-class workstation offers hardware-configured reliability options above and beyond those of a conventional PC, such as RAID and ECC. RAID (redundant array of independent disks) can either insulate a machine from a storage drive failure, improve storage read performance, or both. ECC (error-correcting code) support in memory can, in real time, detect and correct single-bit errors in memory — errors that could otherwise crash a system, or perhaps worse, generate the wrong results.

A second, and perhaps more compelling way to address the workstation's purchase price premium, is that it's not merely the price on the box that ultimately concerns a CFO or small-business owner. Rather, it's the asset's total cost of ownership (TCO) and return on investment (ROI). The former measures how much cost the machine incurs over its lifetime, from the day it's purchased to the day it's retired, including the typically larger burden of costs to maintain the machine, not just acquire it. The latter measures whether those extra dollars result in a higher-than-commensurate return in productivity. Both metrics are improved through the workstation's two primary design goals: maximum system reliability and performance optimized for CAD applications.

Even if it houses the same core silicon, an entry-class workstation is designed to be more reliable than its consumer or corporate focused siblings. Compare a PC-class consumer-grade GPU add-in card with a professional-brand GPU, for example: Common upgrades on the workstation-caliber products include gold PCI Express fingers, burlier retention, modestly slower clocks, and substantially larger GPU memory to handle big CAD datasets.

And even the most basic of entry-level workstations offer one important feature that a PC can never — and will never — have: independent software vendor (ISV) certification. To certify a workstation, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and ISVs (companies such as Autodesk and Dassault Systèmes) team up to exhaustively test the complete system: the hardware, the applications, and the drivers. Comprehensive regression testing ensures a new workstation runs the same programs — AutoCAD, SolidWorks, CATIA, and Creo, for example — that every other certified workstation before it did, accurately and reliably.

Certification not only provides assurance that the chances of system failure are minimized, it also means the guesswork in pairing up drivers, operating system versions, application versions, and graphics cards is gone. Match your configuration to the certified set, and you're good to go.

More robust hardware designs combined with ISV certification lead to higher availability, with reduced chances of crashes, bugs, memory errors, and repairs. And in the unlikely event of a system failure, guess which machine an ISV or OEM is more likely to prioritize: the certified workstation, or the PC with some arbitrary mix of components and drivers? ISVs will nearly always put a bug report for a certified solution at the top of their priority list.

Furthermore, even systems that never fail will incur costs to maintain — costs that workstations are tailored to minimize. OEMs and graphics IHVs typically ship IT management tools, exclusive to the professional models, that allow a large, enterprise-sized array of machines to be more simply deployed and managed (e.g., driver updates, system settings). Shrink the maintenance costs, which typically outweigh acquisition costs, and down goes the total cost of ownership.

Then there's ROI. Even if the investment is comparable, a workstation promises returns in productivity through higher application-specific performance. Consider the GPUs again. Even if the GPU chip on the cards are the same, that doesn't mean the performance it delivers for CAD will be. Any graphics chip's performance is only as fast as the driver allows, and drivers for games are designed with different goals than drivers for CAD. A classic example is smooth 3D lines. Games don't use them, so a consumer-class driver isn't going to generate them quickly; often, it won't even support them in hardware.

Optimal driver design also takes into account which types of drawing are more commonly requested than others. It fast-tracks the common paths, and those paths are dramatically different for games than they are for a modeling application or stress-analysis tool. The end result: Professional drivers are slower on games, and game drivers are slower on CAD.

Application-Tuned Performance and Reliability

Today's workstation bears little resemblance to the machines that defined the glory days of SGI, Sun, HP, and DEC. However, the fact that PC and workstation now share technology and core components has not diluted the workstation's value proposition — instead, it's made it more appealing. Thanks to the PC's tremendous growth and economies of scale, the workstation now offers its most compelling combination yet of price, performance, and reliability.

As a side effect of the platform's transformation, the differences in raw hardware capabilities between PCs and entry-level workstations have undeniably gotten thinner over the past two decades. But so has the discrepancy in price. Today's workstation continues its valid and age-old pitch to shoppers: we'll give you more, in exchange for more — specifically, in exchange for better ROI and lower TCO over the product's lifetime of CAD computing.

Can a conventional Windows PC run AutoCAD and SolidWorks, from its first day to its last? Absolutely, and that's precisely the premise the many CAD professionals rely on today. But if a PC has been your platform by default, rather than by conscious choice, you owe it to yourself to consider the merits of a workstation. Because it's no longer valid to assume a comparably equipped workstation costs a lot more, nor is it safe to assume that a lower purchase price will ultimately yield a superior TCO or ROI, the two metrics that matter most.

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About the Author: Alex Herrera

Alex Herrera

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