Workstation Options for CAD Span the Economic Spectrum

29 Mar, 2015 By: Alex Herrera

Herrera on Hardware: Budget-friendly models and wallet-draining heavyweights mark the extremes of a workstation market that's as broad as it's ever been. But what's the difference between entry-level and high-end options?

$2K vs. $18K

If you take into account all that a Premium 2S tower provides in basic capabilities over an Entry 1S machine, you'd expect the "starting at" price to be commensurately greater, and it is. A typical Entry 1S machine in its bare-bones configuration might go for as little as $700, while a minimalist Premium 2S machine may price out around $2,000 — both figures that still qualify the machines as low-end workstations (less than $2,500, as defined by Jon Peddie Research). Ultimately, the bulk of the cost comes down to how those base machines are configured, and because the Premium 2S machine can accommodate a greater number of higher-performance components, it can easily exceed the price tag of the Entry 1S machine.

Jon Peddie Research (JPR), a technology research firm with a focus on workstations, recently explored both ends of the spectrum, reviewing a modestly configured Lenovo ThinkStation P300 (Entry 1S) and a heavily loaded P900 (Premium 2S). The contrast in the machines' hardware specifications and price tags is striking. Boasting five times the CPU core count and 14 times the memory footprint, and with superior-performing storage (solid-state drive, or SSD, versus HDD) and graphics processing unit (GPU; NVIDIA's Quadro K5200 versus K4200). The P900's far superior configuration doesn't come cheap, however, with a final build price of more than $18,000; the P300, in contrast, comes in around $2,000.

Night and day: a modestly configured Entry 1S workstation compared with a loaded Premium 2S machine. Table includes data from Jon Peddie Research.

What does all that incremental hardware in the P900 buy? Better performance, of course — about three times better in the workstation-focused SPECwpc benchmark, according to results published by JPR. Of course, if you're running the arithmetic in your head right now, you'll realize that getting three times the performance will cost you about nine times as much money. Is that tradeoff reasonable from a technology standpoint? And is it fair from an economical standpoint? The answer to the former question is yes, as performance scaling by price will always be a game of diminishing returns, and a 3X performance gain for 9X the dollars is justifiable.

The answer to the latter depends on which type of user you are and how large a budget you have at your disposal. While every workstation shopper cares about performance, for the vast majority, budgets will have the biggest say in the decision. And for those, the machines most often purchased will be single-socket, entry-class machines, built in the $1,500–$2,500 range. Something like the P300 configured in our example would provide a sensible balance of performance and price for the bulk of workflows and applications in CAD. The exceptions will be workflows that are heavy in either simulation or best-quality rendering (for large-scale models in automotive and aerospace, for example). And for those exceptions, there is a huge middle ground of workstation possibilities to explore between the two extremes we've explored here.

And finally, there's a real and valid, albeit much smaller, portion of the customer base: the 1% of computing professionals for whom price is not relevant at all. It doesn't matter a bit that the low-end machine offers 3X better performance-per-dollar than the high-end machine. They need the high-end machine's 3X better performance, because the return in throughput, model-scale, or simulation accuracy will outweigh any price a vendor would charge for hardware.  Consider the seismic analysis that determines where a company will spend hundreds of millions of dollars in a new drill site, or a financial analyst running complex futures models that need to return valuations in milliseconds, with big investments hanging in the balance.

Such examples are few and far between in the CAD space, and an entry-level or midrange model will satisfy the performance goals and budgets of the vast majority of users. But if you're one of the 1%, you can configure a high-end workstation to deliver more deskside performance than anything else on the planet can — just be prepared for a wallet-draining price tag to match.

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About the Author: Alex Herrera

Alex Herrera

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