Select and Configure a CAD System

18 Jun, 2004 By: Greg Jankowski

Optimize your hardware to get the most out of SolidWorks.

I'm often asked what type of computer system is best for SolidWorks, so I've compiled a list of criteria to help you get the most out of the software. The first step is to determine what you need from the software and then use that information to figure out what type of workstation will work best for you.

Depending on the type of work your company does and the size of its models, CAD software can tax your computer. As we all know, time spent waiting for your system to respond equals lost productivity. Your hardware and its configuration play a part in the performance equation. Another issue to consider is that as hardware continues to get faster and cheaper, the system you buy today may be obsolete in a couple of years. It may be more cost-effective to just replace it.

I've listed the following sections in order of priority. If you're working within a given budget, analyze the tradeoffs between spending more on the high-priority items and less on the low-priority ones.

Type of System
The type of system you select should be based on your answers to the following questions.

  • Is the system supported and tested by a major manufacturer? Typically, home-built and non-major manufacturers don't put as much effort into designing, testing, and verifying a computer system.
  • What type of machine are you working on? Workstation-class machines are a better investment for CAD. Regular business- or personal-class machines aren't built to handle the requirements of CAD software. A workstation-class machine can also have a longer life because it's more expandable with memory, multiple CPUs, and so forth.
  • What support is available? At what hours?
  • What the computer's lifespan? Prior to buying a system, you should have an idea of the computer's useful life. If you plan to use the system longer, invest more money in your new system and make sure it has some expandability (for example, room for a second processor).
  • Is the system vendor a partner of the developer of your CAD application? SolidWorks has a list of computer hardware vendors under its Partner Products section.

RAM plays an important part in system performance. The issue here is how much is enough? That depends on the number of applications open at any given time, as well as the size of the data sets you use. When you exceed your RAM capabilities, your system's performance seriously degrades to the point of being unworkable.

To determine how much RAM you need, start SolidWorks with an example of a data set and some applications you typically use all running on your system. You can track and report memory used in the Windows Performance system monitor (figure 1). The items tracked here were Available Mbytes and Committed Bytes. You need to change each item's scale so that each moves up in the chart. Just select the item, right-click, and select Properties. You can select the appropriate scale based on the value shown.

Figure 1. Performance system monitor application.

Other considerations regarding RAM:

  • It can be less expensive to buy two chips instead of one. The disadvantage (in this example) is that future expansion may be limited. Computers have a certain number of RAM slots, so if you use them all up, you may have to trade out some or all of the existing chips to expand later.
  • Faster RAM is more expensive than slower RAM. You must weigh the advantage of speed against your budget constraints.
  • Windows XP Professional has a 3GB mode that lets you use additional addressable memory, which means that 4GB can be added to your computer. Your applications use 3GB, and your operating systems uses the remaining 1GB.

Processor speed is second only to insufficient RAM as the most important factor when selecting a CAD system. Money spent on a faster CPU is money well spent. The harder issue is sorting through all the different options. The one factor that makes a difference is cache size. A CPU that has a 2MB cache offers better performance than one with only 1MB. The ways to determine whether the investment is worth it include real-model testing, SPEC SolidWorks Benchmark, or a combination of different benchmarking options.

Many workstation-class computers let you add a second CPU to your system. SolidWorks and some of the add-ons (PhotoWorks) have some multithreaded capabilities, which means the application takes advantage of the second processor.

Other considerations regarding multiple CPUs:

  • Buying a system that supports multiple processors gives you more flexibility later, even if you don't initially purchase a second CPU. This future capability should be weighed against the extra cost of such a machine.
  • The advantage gained through a second CPU may not justify the additional cost unless you use other applications (such as COSMOS) on a regular basis or you are trying to get that last extra drop of performance out of the system.

Disk Speed, Size, and Type

  • Hard disk type, spindle speed, and data transfer rate affect the system's overall performance.
  • Drive size should be based on the disk space you need. Consider your operating system, applications, and local SolidWorks documents if you use a local workspace.
  • For performance, a low-cost option that performs well in most cases is adding a second disk and controller, if necessary, to include RAID level 0 striping to the system.

You need to buy a good workstation-level graphics card and driver. When working with a limited budget, consider a midrange instead of a high-end card unless you work with non-SolidWorks applications and rendering applications that need high-end power.

When you're considering graphics cards:

Operating System
SolidWorks works on two operating systems-Windows 2000 and Windows XP. One of the main performance advantages of Windows XP is the 3GB mode, which isn't available in Windows 2000. You can find the service pack tested with SolidWorks and other system requirements on the SolidWorks Web site.

System Imaging and Backup
Once you set up and configure your system, it's to your advantage to image your computer in case you need to restore it. Imaging software captures a snapshot of your system after it has been set up and configured. Using this software, your system, or one just like it, can be re-imaged in a matter of minutes from the original computer image.. One of the benefits of buying computer platform similar to the one you currently have is that you can create and configure your system and deploy and repair it without using the original CD-ROMs and reloading all of the software. Remember that if the chipsets or components are different on a new machine with different drivers, you need to create a new image for each platform.

Bottom line
The system you purchase today will stay with you for some time, so the more you can do up front to ensure the longevity of your investment is time and money well spent. The best way to understand the differences in the workstations is to configure the machines and test them in your environment. The problem is that this is rarely possible. Often the only thing you can evaluate are standard benchmark scores. A SolidWorks Workstation Benchmark is available from Many vendors provide performance numbers based on this and other benchmarks, and you can also run this test on your system.

Balance your investment with short- and long-term productivity gains or losses to help you determine what system to buy. Understand your hardware's lifecycle and plan to replace, upgrade, or move the machine to another user at some point in the future.

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Lynn Allen

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