CAD Tech News (#103)

20 Mar, 2019 By: Cadalyst Staff

▶ Herrera on Hardware: The Modern Workstation — A Litmus Test for Today

What makes up a workstation today?

By Alex Herrera

What's the difference between a workstation and a PC? The question comes up often among industry insiders and professional users alike and for good reason. Today, the two share much of the same core technologies — in both software and silicon — and in the particular case of entry-class workstations, it can be difficult to point at exactly what makes it different than another machine branded as a high-performance PC.

It wasn't always that way, and in fact PCs and workstations were once completely different breeds. Over time the two evolved to share many of the same genes. What we see now is a modern workstation that hasn't lost any of its appeal, but one that in its more basic configurations blurs the line separating it from its PC siblings.

Looking Back

Back in the 80s, and for most of the 90s as well, defining the term workstation wasn't at all controversial. From many perspectives and measures, most people familiar with the marketplace could point to a laundry list of generally accepted characteristics that separated workstations from the mass-market PCs below. Workstation pioneers such as HP, Sun, SGI, DEC, and IBM built machines from the ground up with virtually everything inside homegrown and unique to workstations. Most notably, the systems' CPU, GPU, and operating system were only found in workstations and servers and completely foreign to PCs.

Into to the mid-90's, it was ludicrous to think that a PC was a reasonable platform for handling professional applications. There were simply too many issues, for example: immature x86 processors from Intel, especially prior to the inclusion of floating-point capability; poor-reliability, single-user, non-virtual operating systems DOS and early Windows; and less capable graphics accelerators, especially prior to inclusion of 3D support. Compared to the workstation's proprietary high-performance RISC CPUs (e.g. POWER, SPARC, MIPS, PA-RISC, and Alpha), UNIX operating systems, and home-grown 3D accelerators of the time, PC-class hardware simply couldn't pass muster for mission-critical 3D visual computing.

Table 1. Technology separating workstations and PCs in 1994 were both obvious and dramatic.
Table 1. Technology separating workstations and PCs in 1994 were both obvious and dramatic.

Entry-level workstation blurs line. Over time, PC technology and components — driven by much higher revenue, much shorter product cycles, and many more engineer-hours in development — managed to close the gap with traditional proprietary UNIX-based workstations. By the late 1990s, the differences in capability were small enough, while the advantages in price and performance became too big to ignore. For the bulk of applications, it began to make more sense to build and use workstations based on components either taken off the shelf from the PC world or derived from PC components. In addition, applications such as AutoCAD which at that time focused on 2D designs and not targeted for workstation use per se, had been further fueling interest in exploiting more pervasive PC technology for CAD use. Combine all those factors, and the migration to a new PC-derived workstation was on.

Independent hardware vendors such as Intel, NVIDIA, and AMD began to offer CPUs and GPUs that engineering teams at companies such as Sun simply couldn't beat, or at least not anywhere near the price points. Bit by bit, vendors discontinued in-house development and transitioned to PC-derived hardware. However, the PC industry not only injected compelling hardware components for use in workstations, it also introduced daunting new competition in the form of PC vendors that could now compete as well. In the face of pressure from vendors such as Dell, the only workstation vendor to survive was HP, as one by one, DEC, SGI, Sun, and IBM all faded from the market they pioneered.

How to differentiate? With proprietary platforms now gone, the "PC-derived workstation" has simply become the "workstation," but how do you differentiate between these products? Therein lies the challenge with two boxes containing very similar hardware — one branded a workstation and the other a desktop PC.

For the mid-range and high end workstations, hardware differentiation isn't confusing, as such models typically boast a build list that won't be confused with a commercial or corporate desktop or notebook, including dual sockets, high-end chipsets supporting above-and-beyond input/output, max-performance, huge-capacity and reliable/redundant storage subsystems, and far more scalable form factors.

The same is not true at the high-volume low end of the market, where workstations today at a component-level share much of the same technology and chips that drive the general PC marketplace. Under the hood of most workstations less than $2,000 are the same pieces of silicon-powered machines branded as high-performance PCs. CPUs are often the same Intel Core brand and even if the GPU is branded NVIDIA Quadro or AMD Radeon Pro, the silicon die at the heart of the graphics card is the same silicon driving sibling GeForce and Radeon consumer products. At this point, we can no longer point a finger at one or two hardware components in a box and conclude that the machine should be classified as a high-end desktop or a low-end workstation.

Is the low-end workstation a marketing scam perpetrated by OEMs looking to increase their margins at the expense of customers? No, that's a myth long dispelled, with most buyers understanding that while the make-up of the workstation has changed, its value as the premier tool for 3D visual computing is clear. However, there needs to be a different, legitimate means to cleanly differentiate the two, as the definitions or preconceptions formed in the 80s and 90s no longer apply.

The Ultimate Workstation Litmus Test

To answer to the question, "What is a workstation?" I've now come down to this simple litmus test to whether a machine warrants the workstation label or not:

While there is no one specific differentiator that a workstation must have beyond a PC label, it has to have at least one differentiator and it must deliver something meaningful to buyers who demand reliable, high-performance visual computing.

That is, in exchange for the premium a workstation supplier charges, the product and/or vendor must offer something of value to the professional user that can't be found in a general-purpose PC. Even low end workstations comprised of virtually identical core components as their corporate or consumer brethren must offer something more to the professional user, something more than just the workstation brand on the enclosure. Read more »

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Alex Herrera is a consultant focusing on high-performance graphics and workstations.

▶ Don't Reinvent the Wheel!

Improve engineering workflow and save time using CAD search technologies.

By Cadalyst Staff

A student engineering team from Ryerson University in Toronto was under pressure to finish a high-profile design competition for the SpaceX Hyperloop concept. The team needed to design a wheel system that could support 180 mph stops and starts, yet retract when the Hyperloop capsule traveled at full speed (700 mph). To make the most of their time and to lower manufacturing costs, the team borrowed an idea from aviation, where retractable wheels that work at high speeds are common.

Using Aerospace Industries Association specifications as a baseline, the team searched through a library of 3D CAD models of landing gear assemblies. Using CADENAS PARTsolutions CAD search technology and databases, they found a suitable design already on the market. The selected wheel system had eight subassemblies, 42 custom designed parts, and 162 standard parts. The team estimates it saved 58% of the time it would have taken to design a similar system without using the PARTsolutions database. Their efforts won first prize in the subassembly division of the competition.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

There are a handful of companies that specialize in CAD part and data search technologies. In this age of digital twins, model-based engineering, and need for ever-increasing amounts of engineering data for simulation and to train artificial intelligence algorithms, it becomes more important than ever to search CAD data directly and efficiently so that you don't redesign a part that already exists.

Some CAD search vendors offer their services specifically for their own library of existing parts; others sell search technology that users can use within the company. A third category of CAD search uses community platforms where individuals and vendors share content.

Really, it's Data Management

At the heart of it, CAD search is a data management issue. Synergis Software, maker of engineering document management solution Adept, says that its research shows the typical engineer wastes 20% of their time looking for unstructured data, and that unstructured data volume is expanding at an average of 35% to 50% per year. CADENAS claims 70% of controllable overall product costs can be traced back to early-stage product development planning. Both see their solutions as process optimization plays, rewarding the user with better designs created faster and cheaper.

In addition, iSEEK agrees that most engineering firms are overloaded with multiple design data and the company states that there are six specific benefits to organizing CAD data with custom search technology: cost reduction, standardization, product line consolidation, service parts substitution and commodity analysis, and data preparation for PLM migration or upgrades.

CAD Search Technology

Here's a list of the leading vendors that currently offer CAD search technology. There is overlap between CAD search products and PDM (product data management), PLM (product lifecycle management) or EDM (engineering document management) software. This list only covers products or services that are primarily about geometry search as opposed to more general file and process management for CAD.


CADENAS has two CAD search technology products. PARTsolutions is a strategic management software for components and standard parts. The software uses proprietary technology to search geometry, dimensions, topology, and text, as well as queries based on user sketches or similarity.

CADENAS PARTsolutions is a parts management platform for a company's internal use. Image source: CADENAS PARTsolutions.
CADENAS PARTsolutions is a parts management platform for a company's internal use. Image source: CADENAS PARTsolutions.

eCATALOGsolutions offers an automated parts catalog solution for parts vendors and hosts a community portal at CADENAS PARTcommunity. The company claims 86% of 3D CAD part models downloaded from a community site or catalog end up being specified and purchased for a new product. Read more »


Webinar: Pitfalls and Possibilities for Autodesk Vault

Webinar: Pitfalls and Possibilities for Autodesk Vault
From IMAGINiT: Companies invest in Autodesk Vault to better collaborate, organize design data, manage documentation, track revisions and generate accurate BOMS. However, many companies are not using Vault to its full potential. Because Autodesk Vault can be configured to match a company's data management needs, there are many options and settings that can easily be overlooked. Join us for this complimentary webcast as IMAGINiT expert Caleb Funk explores the pitfalls and possibilities for Autodesk Vault. Read more


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During our last video, Lynn Allen showed you how to manually run a cool productivity tool called Power Trim to speed up the Trim and Extend commands. This week our AutoCAD expert shows you how to automate it so you can Power Trim with fewer picks and clicks. Watch the video »

About the Author: Cadalyst Staff

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