Dell Expects Desktop Workstations to Endure, in Spite of Clouds Moving In

25 Aug, 2017 By: Cadalyst Staff

On its anniversary, Dell’s Precision workstation business launches new models, looking to address machine learning, virtual reality, and other top trends.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Dell’s Precision workstation business. Much has changed in the past two decades, in terms of the affordability, portability, and capabilities of workstations. Rahul Tikoo, vice-president and general manager of Dell’s Precision workstation products, spoke with Cadalyst about some of the important trends that have punctuated that time period, driving demand and development in workstations.

Mobility — the ability to take workstations on the road just like their less-powerful laptop computer kin — has been a notable trend. “We saw the writing on the wall … mobility has been a big trend for 10 years, and will continue to be a trend,” Tikoo said. And going forward, Dell will continue to invest in and offer mobile workstation solutions, he noted, including a limited-edition anniversary model of the Dell Precision 5520 in a dark gray anodized-aluminum case (now available).

Desktop or Desk-not?

In recent years, there has been increasing interest in virtual workstations. (For more information on that technology, read Alex Herrera’s series, “Harnessing the Cloud for CAD: The Case for Virtual Workstations.”) With cloud-hosted workstation technology improving, it might seem that physical desktops will only be around for a short while longer. That’s not the case, according to Tikoo.

Since Dell entered the virtual workstation market in 2014, that segment has been growing, but not as quickly as expected, because “customers are moving back to desktop," Tikoo explained. Compute-intensive applications including virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR), machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI) are “much better done with physical workstations than over the cloud,” he said.

Dell will continue to have virtual workstation technologies in its portfolio, he said, and to develop resources such as its Centers of Excellence, where “customers can come and play and understand virtual applications … they can go and try out what works for them,” Tikoo explained. 

A View into the Future of Designs

For virtual reality, Dell sees great interest from industries as diverse as media and entertainment, gaming, and automotive. With luxury goods, VR can provide a shopping and product customization experience that a catalog simply can’t match, Tikoo explained, helping create an emotional connection to the consumer. In architecture, VR has a unique value; it enables “looking at buildings, looking at bridges, looking at stadiums, before a single brick is laid.”

Dell has initiated a partner program for VR that’s an attempt to clear the “murky waters” of a very crowded market of VR startups, Tikoo noted. “We’re bringing a very diverse set of partners together.”

Bigger than Virtual Reality?

Yet another “megatrend” affecting Dell’s workstation decision making is AI and machine learning, which Tikoo predicts will become “bigger than AR/VR” because those technologies require specific hardware (such as head-mounted displays). AI and machine learning, on the other hand, “will get built into every product we have, and every product is going to get smarter because of it.”

At the beginning of August, Dell unveiled a new set of towers and a rack workstation that were developed with AI and machine learning demands in mind: the Dell Precision 5820, 7820, and 7920 towers, and the Precision 7920 Rack. (These will go on sale in October.) This launch is “a big deal,” said Tikoo, “because usually we update the silicone every year, but this year, we have basically redesigned the towers and rack inside and out” to achieve a new level of performance, he said. “Most of these towers now will be machine learning–ready.”

The new models incorporate the latest Intel Xeon processors, which are well suited to AI because they provide “agile performance across a variety of workloads, including machine learning (ML) and deep learning (DL) inference and training,” according to Dell. “For customers starting AI workloads, the new Dell Precision tower workstations allow customers to use software optimized to their existing Intel infrastructure.”

With as much as 3 TB of memory and 48 TB of storage, “our storage capacity has increased tremendously,” Tikoo commented. These improvements were achieved without increasing power requirements, he noted; the thermal and acoustics metrics have been improved as well. “These things are supercomputers running at your deskside … now we have the ideal rig for someone who wants to do machine learning and algorithm development work.”

Putting Pen to … Touchscreen

At the same time, the company announced the availability of Dell Canvas, a horizontal touchscreen display that supports a digital pen and a “totem” — a removable knob that rests on the touchscreen and enables a variety of menu and shortcut interaction options, based on location and software context. (The form factor is similar to the Microsoft Surface Studio and Surface Dial.) 

“We have hundreds of ISV [independent software vendor] applications that support this product,” said Tikoo, including Autodesk, Dassault Systemes, and Corel. “Many of the larger ISVs have come through … we have a whole ecosystem of software.”

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