The Small Form Factor Fixed Workstation: A True Desktop Machine for CAD
Herrera on Hardware: The Small Form Factor was the first and most successful industry shrink of the tried-and-true workstation tower.
The term “desktop” has a long history in computing markets, introduced when the first PCs emerged back in the 80’s, with models from Apple, IBM, and clone vendors actually sitting on top of desks, horizontally oriented and supporting the CRT monitor. The term has hung on ever since, despite the fact that for many — and especially in professional computing circles like CAD — the form factor of choice evolved into a tower that sat beside the desk rather than on top. Today, machines intended for use solely at the desk are better referred to as a deskbound or fixed machine rather than a desktop, though the latter term will likely endure.
While towers have dominated workstation markets for most of the platform’s life, smaller models have in fact been built for tops of desks, and those models have evolved and proliferated as of late. We recently profiled one of the smallest options, the mini workstation, a machine small enough to not only fit easily on a desk but even on the back of a monitor, effectively making it invisible.
The Small Form Factor (SFF) Workstation:
The Sweet Spot for Mainstream CAD Work in the Office
This month, we’ll look at the Small Form Factor (SFF) model, one that best fits the image most would think of as a true desktop machine. For a snapshot on what an SFF can offer today, we’re back visiting HP’s Z line, this time checking out the Z2 SFF. While all major suppliers of workstations today offer similar-sized models, HP gets credit for marketing the first workstation fitting de facto SFF dimensions with the original Z200 SFF back in 2010. The company is now on its G9 generation, refreshed recently in conjunction with Intel’s 12th Generation Core Alder Lake generation of CPUs (with commensurate upgrades across the system as well).
While today’s workstation line has broadened to the point a top-tier supplier like HP will offer more than five base fixed models and at least that many mobile workstations — each tailored to different balance of user preferences and priorities — the single highest selling model category is what I refer to as Entry 1S (single-socket) fixed. Fitting a sweet spot of size and price point, the Entry 1S SFF quickly rose to the point where its volume sits on par with Entry 1S towers as the most popular choices in fixed workstation for CAD.
The HP Z2 SFF, a true “desktop” workstation, supporting the Z2 Mini and backed by Z workstation towers. Image source: HP.
The Engineering Challenge: Fitting Components in Limited Physical Space and Limited Thermal Constraints
The obvious challenge facing workstation designers is figuring out how to physically fit as many components as possible in a reduced volume. But engineers would likely argue that the more daunting complication is in cooling that smaller chassis than simply jamming components inside. In fact, physical organization and thermal dissipation efficiency go hand in hand. It’s not a simple game of Tetris, because the bigger heat producers — typically the CPU and GPU — need most of the commensurate system cooling. Accordingly, the interior of a machine like the Z2 SFF is not only impressively compact, but reveals deliberate engineering of internal airflow. But more on the thermal challenge just ahead, especially with respect to one criterion not obvious at first.
The compact, meticulously organized Z2 Mini internals, with module housing up to two full-length PCI Express cards.
Still, and as Always … the Ergonomics vs. Performance vs. Capacity Tradeoff
Despite clever, thoughtful attention to component layout and thermal dissipation — all else equal — it will never be possible for the smallest volume mini to compete on top-end specifications with an SFF, and likewise for the SFF to compete with the conventional deskside tower. We looked at the tradeoffs of the mini versus its bigger siblings a few months back, and the same basic constraints apply in comparing the SFF to the tower, specifically in terms of size, capacity, and maximum achievable performance.
Continue to read the current specifications for HP’s Z2 G9 line — the tower, the SFF, and the Mini — at maximum configuration. Memory and storage capacity logically decline with form factor size (though also worth noting that not all specs are mutually exclusive, as for example, maxing out SSD may mean compromising maximum HDD storage). While features and specifications not surprisingly drop, stepping down from the full tower to the SFF and Mini, for many CAD users, the compromises in capacities and features are modest to moot, as its feature and performance range covers a wide swath of today’s CAD user base. The most noteworthy limitation across the three platforms is the GPU. The full tower’s size and hefty PSU can handle up to two high-wattage, dual-slot, ultra-high–end GPUs, while the SFF can handle one high-end, single-slot GPU and the mini can manage just one mid-range, low-profile card.
Continue reading as Alex Herrera compares the SFF and Mini to give you a real-world view of the workstations and how they'll perform under a CAD workload. Read more >>
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Mobile vs. Desktop Workstations for CAD
The Evolving Role of the Mobile Workstation
It comes down to physics — a deskside can always outperform a mobile workstation. Cadalyst hardware expert, Alex Herrera, looks under the hood of both to break down the pros and cons of each form factor.