CAD Workstation Form Factors 101, Part 2: The Tried-and-True Deskside Workstation

20 Jun, 2018 By: Alex Herrera

Herrera on Hardware: You know that the deskside form factor is the familiar mainstay of the CAD workstation world — but do you know why?


Common maximum configurations for today’s de facto standard deskside workstation models.

Moving from the Premium 1S to the Entry 2S delivers primarily what the name suggests, the second CPU socket. But available processing core count goes up not only from (optionally) filling the second socket, but from the Xeon SKUs OEMs make available. Today, that means going from the Xeon W’s maximum 18 cores all the way up to the Entry 2S’s dual 28-core Xeon scalable processors for a total of 56 cores. Since memory is directly attached to each CPU, memory naturally doubles, with Entry 2S models offering a maximum of around 512 GB today. In terms of GPUs and storage, Entry 2S and Premium 1S chassis and PSUs tend to support around the same types and capacity.

Finally comes the ultimate in what today’s workstation platform can be: the Premium 2S machine, which takes the Entry 2S’s CPU support but drives up capacity up … way up. Bigger chassis sizes and more potent PSUs let OEMs support as much as 1.5 TB of memory; around 6 TB and 40 TB of PCIe SSD and SATA HDD storage, respectively; and four (or sometimes more) add-in GPU cards. Moreover, up to three of those GPU cards can be of the high-power variety.

Common maximum configurations for today’s de facto standard deskside workstation models.

Note that while top-tier CPU options are Intel-only for now, that may change as AMD’s Zen-generation processors — bearing the brands Ryzen, Ryzen Pro, Threadripper, and Epyc — are all starting to gain footholds in workstations (as covered in this column previously).

Bigger Budgets Buy More Capable Hardware, but Who Needs What?

There are a few points worth making regarding model capacities and configurations. First, some of the aforementioned max specifications are not mutually exclusive. Often, a user’s configuration needs to trade off one component for another; for example, to give up some SSD storage because the space, power, or interface is needed to support more HDD storage somewhere else. Still, all things considered, we see a steady march forward when it comes to performance and capacities, perhaps best illustrated when normalized to Entry 1S SFF models. Fairly consistent relative gains can be had as one traverses up the deskside model tiers, so the extra dollars spent are most certainly buying more capability.

But two other observations are just as valid. First, the price-to-performance ratio is not at all constant across tiers, as the incremental gains experience diminishing returns heading up the price range. Second — and more importantly — just because more capability can be had for the extra bucks doesn’t mean every CAD user needs it. Take a good look at what a buyer today can outfit with a generously configured Entry 1S machine: up to 64 GB of memory, copious SSD and HDD storage, a high-end GPU, and a high-frequency quad-core Core i7 or Xeon E3 processor. Yes, those specifications pale in comparison to a heavily outfitted Premium 2S machine, but they’re nothing to sneeze at either.

Given that the vast majority will be satisfied with the performance and capacity of an Entry 1S machine, and factoring in the very aggressive price points — sub-$2,000, and even down to $1,000 — and smaller footprints available with a mini-tower or small form factor, it’s no surprise that nearly 6 of every 10 deskside workstations sold are Entry 1S class (either tower or SFF). Stepping up to a Premium 1S system satisfies even more of the professional computing community, especially CAD-focused buyers. Only about 1 in 8 buyers demand the massive parallel-computing power of a dual-socket model, and they tend to be aggregated in applications like the sciences and certain financial pockets. As such, while heavily configured workstations can cost in excess of $20,000, the average selling price of today’s deskside workstation is right around $1,900 (Jon Peddie Research).

The volume vs. price curve for fixed/deskside workstations stays remarkably consistent over time. Courtesy of Jon Peddie Research.

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About the Author: Alex Herrera

Alex Herrera

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