CAD to Go

29 Nov, 2010 By: Nancy Spurling Johnson,Ron LaFon

Cadalyst Labs Report: The newest mobile workstation technology meets the processing, graphics, and memory demands of AEC, manufacturing, and GIS users.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2010 issue of Cadalyst.

Today's mobile workstations truly have become desktop workstation replacements. For dramatic proof of this claim, look no further than the performance figures of the GoBOXX 1640 system. This new mobile workstation, which BOXX Technologies describes as a mid-range system, set a new performance record for any workstation — mobile or desktop — reviewed by Cadalyst Labs to date.

Mobile workstations take users above and beyond the laptop, providing the processor and mobile graphics card performance, RAM, and software certification required for demanding modeling, analysis, and visualization applications in CAD, engineering, digital-content creation (DCC), and geospatial information systems (GIS).

For a firsthand look at mobile workstation developments of today — and tomorrow — we interviewed representatives of several system developers. And in the sidebar "By the Numbers," senior analyst Alex Herrera of Jon Peddie Research discusses how mobile workstations are faring against their desktop counterparts in today's market. We round out this issue's cover story with a sampling of several notable mobile workstations that have hit the market in recent months, as well as First Look reviews of two new systems that illustrate the latest advances in mobile workstation technology: a Lenovo ThinkPad W510 that offers a terrific price-to-performance ratio and the aforementioned BOXX Technologies GoBOXX 1640, which delivers speed that is literally off the chart.

Now, we take a closer look at mobile workstation technology with the help of the players in the market.

What are the greatest technological leaps in the current generation of mobile workstations?

On par with their desktop counterparts, mobile systems today are typically equipped with high-performance quad-core and six-core chips, with the six-core Intel Xeon processor offering the best performance. Also like their desktop counterparts, mobile workstations are making a steady migration to 64-bit operating systems and applications, specifically Microsoft Windows 7 x64, as well as high-performance graphics technology such as the NVIDIA Quadro FX 3800M, NVIDIA geForce 480M, and the ATI Radeon HD 5870 graphics cards, in single or dual (SLI or Crossfire) configurations. An increasing number of applications take advantage of multithreading, which offers better software performance and productivity than have previously been available.

Jeff Witt, director of product communications at Lenovo, said, "Mobile workstations are experiencing the leap into parallel processing, where the advantage of using the GPU [graphics processing unit] to process complex computations is taken advantage of. This is done through both open architecture such as OpenGL and specific code from the graphics manufacturer."

High-capacity memory also is playing a role in untethering the workstation from the workplace. Six gigabytes of RAM seems to be the norm today, but 16 GB to 24 GB and beyond is possible. RAID 5/10 storage, with an internal battery for data protection, is another driving force.

Mobile workstation displays are growing too, pushing past the 17" norm. HP introduced its EliteBook 8740w, which boasts a billion-color DreamColor display, the first of its kind on a mobile device.

Chris Convertito, worldwide category manager for HP Mobile Workstations, added that connectivity technologies such as eSATA and USB 3.0 provide mobile users with many high-speed options for working with large files and data sets.

What drove the major advances in systems we have today?

User demands as well as vendor-driven efforts are the foundation for new mobile workstation features. Witt at Lenovo observed, "The user communities have been driving to more real-time, interactive, computer-intensive applications and are less and less willing to accept interruptions or slow system response times." He added, "Due to the amazing power inside these portable machines, users are now taking a second, and very serious look at mobile workstations as their platform of choice — some as their only workstation — because the mobile workstation can act as a desktop (with additional large screens) and as a mobile unit."

Mano Gialusis, senior product manager, Dell Precision Mobile Workstations, said that in addition to technological advances and user/application needs, "the advances in our systems are driven by requirements and requests we gather directly through customer interactions. This ongoing customer feedback informs our product adjustments and development to ensure we are developing products that satisfy our customers' needs."

Mark Bialic, president of Eurocom, offered another perspective: "It's up to technology developers to drive technology forward in an intelligent, functional way and inform people about how it can improve their lives."

Convertito said HP's developing products incorporate "a combination of customer feedback, R&D investment in new technologies like DreamColor display technology, and industry-standard technologies. We also make heavy investments in our industrial design," so systems look good but can also withstand the rigors of travel.

The vendors strive to make prospective customers aware that there has been a sea change in computing technology, particularly where mobile workstations are concerned. A common mindset views mobile workstations as underpowered substitutes for "real" workstations, rather than as capable replacements. Eurocom's Bialic spoke of an "Aha!" moment when users learn about all these capabilities in a mobile system and realize how it opens a world of possibilities.

What's in development for the CAD market?

We realize vendors can't say much regarding activity behind the closed doors of R&D departments — so we especially appreciate the following tidbits of insight.

When looking into the future of mobile systems for users in the CAD, engineering, and DCC fields, Lenovo hinted at a focus on improved graphics for visuals as well as computing itself. Dell reported that new materials are in development that will increase system durability and decrease weight, resulting in increased portability.

At Eurocom, Bialic noted, "We're seeing the increasing importance of virtualization driving hardware advances across the entire system." Virtualization, he explained, is the process of running one or more virtual systems from within one physical system. For example, you could run Windows 7 64-bit with a number of applications, and at the same time run a virtual Windows XP 32-bit machine with its own set of applications. The XP virtual machine simply appears as another window on your Windows 7 desktop. "This can enable you to easily run software that perhaps isn't Windows 7–compatible, on a Windows 7 machine, without having to install Windows XP as a second operating system. And, of course, you can virtualize practically any OS, even more than one at once."

Do the requirements of users in manufacturing, AEC, and GIS influence hardware development?

Users in all corners of the manufacturing, AEC, and GIS communities continue to push the envelope in terms of required processing power, graphics power, memory capacity, and display technologies to create and visualize models.

Gialusis at Dell noted, "These are unique vertical markets, but we do see some parallels. Namely, the demand on the workstation continues to grow as professional applications are written and updated to take advantage of greater technology thresholds. One hand washes the other, because our workstations are also predominant software development and test platforms. We have also seen a movement to mobile workstation solutions from traditional desktops as the need for mobility and greater collaboration meets capacity and performance gains on these platforms."

Eurocom is observing an increasing demand for high-performance computing with professional graphics capability in a
number of notebook form factors — especially with companies such as NVIDIA pushing multipurpose computing on its GPU.

Eurocom's Bialic added, "There is also a need, especially with GIS, for very fast, high-capacity, redundant storage. To address that, we've developed systems with up to four 2.5" drives and RAID 5/10, which can offer well over one terabyte of storage, while being both fast and redundant."

"In terms of unique trends in each field," Bialic continued, "there aren't any that we can easily pick up on. A decade or so ago, they would all be running very specialized hardware with very specialized capabilities, but things have developed to the point where most high-end, workstation-class computer hardware is capable enough to do the job."

Dell's Gialusis observed that GIS users generally require increased processing, graphics, and memory; product development is usually more graphics-intensive; and the broad number of applications that support AEC use graphics and memory with processing power for common workloads such as rendering and analysis.

In the end, said Convertito at HP, users configure their mobile workstations according to their workloads. "We see a range of configurations where users invest in different levels of performance in each subsystem. For example, users may opt for higher CPU frequencies and lower GPU performance (or vice versa), depending on what applications they are using."

Where do you see mobile workstations a year from now? Five years? Ten?

It's always intriguing to have a look into the crystal ball to try to determine where and how things will progress. The further into the future we look, the foggier the picture tends to become, but some exciting ideas and insightful commentary hint about developments that will likely shape mobile computing in the near — and not-so-near — future.

Lenovo is seeing mobile workstation adoption today in areas such as video (movie sites, real-time scene editing); multiple video output (Dual Link, for example); and design, engineering, and DCC. Looking beyond the next year, the company speculates that many user communities will be drawn to mobile workstation technologies in increasing numbers, including medical and engineering users who clearly perceive a need for on-site workstation power. Other fields, such as color management and finance, will recognize the advantage of on-site use as well as the benefit of size that a mobile workstation offers.

Dell foresees a proliferation of mobile workstations and believes that, further down the road, mobile workstations will power multiple large displays, will have 3D stereoscopic capabilities, and will be increasingly thinner and lighter.

Convertito at HP predicted that, "Technologies will continue to improve in areas like processing power and graphics capabilities as well as power management. This will help keep form factors reasonably small and travel-friendly relative to their processing capabilities. The need for workstation users to be mobile will continue to grow in the coming years, as companies continue to explore alternatives to traditional office environments. Mobile workstations will provide CAD/engineering users the flexibility to work in a variety of environments, which could range from virtual collaboration to traditional office settings."

Eurocom envisions two phases of mobile workstation advances in the coming years. Phase 1 — comprising the next one to three years — will see limited deployment of mobile workstations for specific projects or workgroups. Phase 2 — the next three to five years — should see the migration to a mobile workstation client on an organization-wide basis, as well as development of an all-portable workstation strategy.

Eurocom expects to facilitate the portable workgroup of the future, or what it has labeled the RED (Rapid Engineering Deployment) Team Concept — in which an entire engineering team can be dispatched to a remote site with all the necessary hardware, software, and data to complete a project. Placing all essential personnel on site avoids the need for multiple — and costly — trips back and forth to complete a project. Accordingly, Eurocom foresees development of several categories of mobile workstations. A full-function system would be configured depending on a user's job function. A limited-function system would support users who don't require a full software and hardware implementation. Joining these systems would be ones that have light traveling configurations, and rounding out this picture would be mobile servers complete with built-in uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) to avoid data loss from the unreliable power sources that often are a fact of life at remote sites.

Future Is Now

Yes, there's much to anticipate in the future of mobile workstation technology, both on the near and far horizons. But the fact is, some of the future has already arrived in today's mobile systems. As users become more aware of the advances in mobile workstations currently available, the popularity of these portable powerhouses only will increase.


About the Author: Nancy Spurling Johnson

About the Author: Ron LaFon

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