Tier 1 Workstation Vendors vs. Boutique Suppliers: Different Strokes for Different CAD Folks

18 Sep, 2019 By: Alex Herrera

Herrera on Hardware: What do Tier 2 OEMs, resellers, and system integrators offer that Dell, HP, and Lenovo don’t? There are big differences in overclocking, core frequency, liquid-cooling options, and more.

When it comes time to shop for your next CAD workstation purchase, keep in mind that there’s more than one game in town. You might be thinking, “Of course there’s more than one, there are three: Dell, HP, and Lenovo.” And yes, after Lenovo acquired majority ownership in Fujitsu and NEC — the only other vendors that could arguably be called Tier 1 — the “DHL trio” now represents the default source for the majority of visual computing professionals, especially those using CAD. But while DHL accounts for the lion’s share of workstation shipments worldwide (roughly 89%), there’s a whole host of Others out there — boutique suppliers including Tier 2 OEMs, resellers, and system integrators — marketing workstations with special attention to manufacturing, design, engineering, and architecture professionals.

DHL rules the market for good reason: They build workstations that present a sensible range of highly competitive, highly economical products for the breadth of the customer base. And when comparing purely on value, boutique suppliers can’t compete with DHL’s economies of scale. But while some buyers evaluate on price exclusively, there are many who don’t, and more than a few will compromise on a few dollars here and there to get something that DHL doesn’t offer. Because the truth is, DHL faces different business constraints and priorities than smaller suppliers do. And boutique suppliers, not bound by those guardrails, are free to create machines that offer unique appeal, pushing beyond the norm in areas ranging from performance and functionality to form factor and aesthetics.

Dell, HP, and Lenovo dominate the workstation market, but don’t forget the Others. Graphic source: Jon Peddie Research.

Pushing Performance with Technologies Outside the Tier 1 Comfort Zone

The list of names in the Others category is long, including but not remotely limited to Boxx, @Xi, Asus, Velocity Micro, Maingear, Microway, and Eurocom. These shops know they are hard-pressed to compete on price, especially when it comes to the higher-volume entry and mid-range segments of the market. Accordingly, Tier 2 suppliers pursue ways to deliver performance for professional applications that other vendors can't — or, just as importantly, that they choose not to.

There’s little point competing with DHL in the entry-level class of the deskside workstation segment; boutique suppliers focus on the upper end instead. Graphic source: Jon Peddie Research.

In the age of multicore CPUs, DHL is front and center, pushing up core counts with Core and Xeon brand CPUs from Intel, today maxing out at 28 cores per processor. Boutiques are there as well with high-count CPUs, but several also push beyond DHL’s risk tolerance to offer the bleeding edge of core frequency as well via overclocking and liquid-cooling.

When it comes to the primary CPU tradeoff facing buyers — choosing between fewer cores running at a higher clock rate or more cores at lower frequency — which way to lean depends upon which applications you run, and which consume more of your valuable workday. Does your mission-critical application effectively thread across multiple cores, or is it still mostly sensitive to single-thread throughput (that in the same microarchitecture will scale largely by frequency/GHz)? For many, and perhaps especially in CAD, the latter represents the main bottleneck in two important respects: modeling and 3D graphics visualization. A CAD user spending the bulk of the day running iterations of a typical model/visualize/repeat cycle, for example, is likely to see his or her machine largely throttled by single-thread performance.

And that’s precisely where the lure of overclocking comes in. Most commonly employed in gaming rigs looking for any possible edge in performance, overclocking does precisely what the name implies: pushing clock rates beyond the nominal manufacturer’s specification (operation that is actually supported by vendors like AMD and Intel, but only in SKUs specifically marketed for such use). Liquid-cooling systems typically come in tandem with overclocking, to mitigate the additional thermal output (as power rises linearly with frequency) by using liquid to transport heat from the chip/package to a radiator situated by the chassis’s air intake.

Vendors such as Boxx often offer overclocked, liquid-cooled deskside workstations, for example, leaving a nominal 3.7 GHz in the dust and driving frequency all the way up to 4.8 GHz (base, not “turbo”), delivering a substantial and tempting 37% performance boost (albeit a best-case figure for purely CPU-limited processing).

By contrast, DHL doesn’t mess with overclocking in workstations, for several sensible reasons. Overclocking means more complexity and more moving parts, and thereby runs counter to a top Tier 1 priority for its workstations: reliability/availability/serviceability (RAS). (Interestingly, one vendor, HP, has implemented a liquid-cooling option for a high-end model in the past, however it was not overclocked and was offered instead as an option to increase tolerance to any possible thermal issues while running at nominal clock rates.)

A feature Tier 1 workstation suppliers avoid: An overclocked CPU sits under the liquid-cooling tower bearing the Boxx logo. Image source: Jon Peddie Research.

Straying from Intel Is Easier — and Often Desirable — for Boutiques

Intel can no longer claim blanket superiority over AMD in workstation-caliber CPUs — and that’s a tremendous accomplishment for the No. 2 vendor. As I’ve touched on in previous columns (here and here), AMD is finally in a position to challenge Intel again in CPUs for workstation platforms. The company’s Ryzen 7, Ryzen Pro, Ryzen Threadripper, and Epyc CPUs are riding DHL sockets to gains in consumer and corporate PC and server computing markets, but while all are possible fits for workstation platforms, to date DHL workstations remain Intel-only.

The lack of a DHL workstation based on AMD is understandable — at least for now — when thinking about the differences in strategy and operating principles. Nimble vendors like Boxx can search out market opportunities generation to generation, even if that may not sustain momentum over the long term. To gain that edge, they’re willing to assume some level of risk and have faith in the competitive longevity of both a supplier and its products. By contrast, taking a risk and having faith aren’t what Tier 1 vendors like HP, Dell, and Lenovo are interested in; they prefer a sure thing. Especially when it comes to the workstation — a product that demands ultimate longevity in terms of the products, the underlying technology, and the lifecycle of support — high-volume vendors need to feel confident that a critical supplier will have products that remain competitive over time.

Furthermore, they’ll need similar confidence that the supplier will have a strategy and commitment that supports them and workstation products. Some will remember AMD’s push into workstations and servers back in the mid-2000s. The company’s Opteron CPUs at that time were true disruptors introducing breakthrough technologies (like 64-bit extensions to x86 and direct-attach memory), outpacing Intel’s Xeon at that time by such a margin that OEMs HP, IBM, Sun, and Fujitsu all jumped on board to offer Opteron-based workstations, with only Dell resisting the temptation. A few years later, all dropped the platform, as AMD was not able to keep pace with a rejuvenated Intel. (That’s not to say AMD won’t be able to sustain its Zen momentum, but it does mean DHL will sensibly be more likely to play wait-and-see for a while.)

Though AMD ultimately will always be in search of the big volume of a Dell, HP, or Lenovo to hit the big time in workstations, to get started it has relied on Others — especially ones with track records of innovation, risk-taking, and quick time to market. Vendors like Boxx, Puget Sound, Maingear, @Xi, and Velocity Micro all came calling to build Zen-based workstations. What does AMD get them? An AMD house could argue an advantage in performance (mainly in core count versus GHz; Intel still tends to rule in the latter) and certainly price, but to be frank, the main reason is simply that AMD buys them differentiation. Like those that spurn Windows in favor of Linux mostly because they’re not Microsoft fans, many buyers simply want to buy AMD, and if Zen is what they’re looking for in a workstation, that means today they’re shopping at the boutiques and only the boutiques.

Unique and Custom Aesthetics

Who says workstations need to all look the same? If Apple and gaming-oriented PCs have proven anything, it’s that aesthetics matter, and to everyone. No, the vast majority of CAD workstation buyers aren’t going to put appearance above all other criteria, but at the same time, if they can find a machine that comes equipped comparably to a DHL box but packaged with style more to their liking, then more than a few will go that route. Several boutique workstation suppliers also play in PC gaming markets, and many of those leverage their gaming PC enclosures and chassis to build unique-looking workstations. Transparent glass or Plexiglas side panels, interior LED lighting, custom-painted or logo-wrapped exteriors: you won’t find such options available from DHL.

For your next workstation, can Maingear interest you in a custom wrap bedecked with your logo, or perhaps a tricked-out lighted interior? Image source: Maingear.

The More Exclusive Mobile Workstation Segment

The Other workstation vendors tend to compete in deskside workstations more than in mobiles. One reason is that mobiles require more time and cost in dedicated custom engineering than traditional towers typically do. However, that’s not to say there aren’t any non-DHL mobile workstations out there. And those providers that do choose to play in the mobile workstation segment aren’t going to do so armed with me-too products. The name of the game for boutique suppliers is differentiation, and that’s perhaps most applicable in mobiles.

Consider two examples in Asus and Eurocom. The former just introduced the ProArt StudioBook One, a mobile workstation built around NVIDIA’s new Ace platform, incorporating the Quadro RTX 6000 GPU and promising best-possible performance for real-time ray tracing and machine learning in a mobile package. Why is that significant? Because to date, we’ve seen mobile workstations limited to NVIDIA’s 5000-class GPUs, due to power and thermal constraints. The 6000 class demands a whole lot more in the way of power budget, and with that budget, more in the way of thermal dissipation as well. That poses a design challenge that DHL could certainly handle if they chose to, but given the engineering overhead and additional complexity in a product that would make up a tiny fraction of their overall volume, doing so doesn’t make sense. But for a boutique, it’s a whole different equation, and today if you want Quadro RTX 6000–level visualization, you’ll be headed to a vendor like Asus, not DHL.

Then there’s Eurocom, a company that not only participates in the mobile workstation market, but has really created a niche in which it is essentially the only player. Eurocom’s mobile workstations — the only ones we’ve seen that can legitimately be pitched as a desktop replacement — are configured with higher-performance components than even the typical tower. Accordingly, they are far thicker and heavier than any other mobile workstation out there.

While a hefty Eurocom mobile workstation can theoretically run on battery, it's something owners typically aren’t going to do, as this kind of performance demands the kind of watts a battery can’t deliver for long. So on one hand, nobody’s going to really enjoy lugging around a bulky mobile workstation that needs to be plugged in all the time. But on the other, no DHL mobile workstation can compete with the performance of the Eurocom, and that’s enough to score sales in niche corners of the market where maximum performance in a portable package is an absolute must.

A relatively hefty Eurocom mobile workstation won’t ever be mistaken for a DHL model, but it out-performs all those slimmer options. Image source: Eurocom.

Filling in the Gaps and Catering to Niche Needs

Today, second-tier workstation vendors survive — and even thrive — by specifically not following the market leaders with cookie-cutter products. They intentionally don't compete on the same footing as HP, Dell, or Lenovo, because they know they can't compete with the same proposition to customers, one focused primarily on price and price-to-performance. On the flip side, however, by making very conscious design decisions in its workstation products, they also know that HP, Dell, and Lenovo don’t want to compete in their corners of the market either — those that value no-compromise single-thread performance, alternative components, distinctive style, or unique configurations, and with customers that will pay reasonably higher prices to get it.

And finally, beyond all the choices in technology, specs, and form factors, one more reason some buyers look to Tier 2 vendors is simply because they are not DHL. That is, even if Dell hypothetically created an identical product to Boxx, for example, there are customers out there that will opt for the latter’s simply because they don’t want a “big box” supplier’s name on their machine. Call it the underdog mentality; perhaps it’s the same reason some buyers prefer to see AMD’s brand on their CPU versus the ubiquitous Intel label.

Add all those reasons up, and while DHL should continue to dominate the market for CAD workstations as it does today, Others will just as assuredly continue to fill in the gaps between those industry behemoths’ offerings. So the next time you’re due to replace your CAD machine, are looking for something different, and are willing to bend a bit to get it, give the boutiques a look.

About the Author: Alex Herrera

Alex Herrera

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