How to Configure a Workstation for CAD14 Sep, 2011 By: Alex Herrera
Cadalyst Labs Report: Performance, longevity, value: Your next system can have it all if you know how to shop. We’re here to help.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2011 issue of Cadalyst magazine.
Let's face it: If you were to make a list of your favorite ten — or even one thousand — ways to spend your time, shopping for a new computer isn't likely to be on it. Choosing the right system for yourself or your entire department takes time, patience, and know-how and is fraught with the risk of unwisely spending an awful lot of money. And yet, you can't keep using that old clunker forever.
We're here to help. We can't promise to answer your real question, "I've got $2,000; which workstation is best for me?" There are too many variables specific to your job and your workflow to provide a black-and-white answer for anyone, let alone a universal solution to satisfy everyone. But we can provide some insight about workstation components and how they affect system performance, plus some practical guidelines to help you determine what's more important, what's less important, and how to get the most bang for your buck. You'll still need to do a fair amount of your own research, but it will be time well spent, as upgrading to a state-of-the-art machine will reap productivity dividends that will save both time and money.
In the interest of keeping this article to a manageable length, our focus this time around will be on desktop professional workstations. We won't be discussing standard PCs or mobile workstations, although much of the information shared here is universally applicable.
Now is a great time to buy a new workstation, thanks to good, old-fashioned free-market competition. On the platform side, we're seeing tremendous advances in performance per dollar and performance per watt. And the competition between the professional graphics card developers has been heating up in recent years, raising the level of graphics performance your dollars can buy.
Professional Workstations: The Benefits
What you get when you go pro.
Workstation or consumer-grade PC? What's the difference, and why should you care? Well, ten to fifteen years ago, no one had trouble distinguishing between one and the other. Workstations were very expensive, high-performance, proprietary, 3D-equipped RISC or UNIX boxes. PCs were lower-cost, lower-quality toys that couldn't handle 3D. But all that has changed.
Spurred on by technological advances funded by the huge economies of scale in the broader PC markets, workstation OEMs such as HP, Sun, and SGI got out of the component-making business, leaving that to independent hardware vendors (IHVs) such as Intel, AMD, and NVIDIA. As a result, workstations today share technology with PCs and enjoy the economy-of-scale benefits that come with mass-market production.
That raises the question: If the guts of the PC and the guts of the workstation are the same, why pay a premium for the latter? Interestingly, those exorbitant workstation premiums of the past are long gone. Yes, you can still spend your entire system budget on a single high-end graphics card, but today's entry-level system — which more than 80% of desktop workstation buyers choose (according to Jon Peddie Research) — can sell for only about $100 more than a similarly configured PC. Take a look at the recently released HP Z210 and Dell Precision T1600, for example, with prices starting well below $1,000. Sidebar: "Entry-Level to High-End: What You Get for Your Workstation Dollar"
Many such entry-level models incorporate Intel's new Xeon E3 family of processors with Intel HD Graphics P3000, which offers integrated graphics processing — that is, no discrete graphics card. Although in our opinion this option is not adequate for most CAD applications, it does offer improved graphics performance compared with a standard PC. According to Wes Shimanek, workstation product manager at Intel, "If you have been buying a PC to do CAD, you'll want to rethink that investment and consider [a Xeon E3-based workstation]. This system offers you better performance for similar dollars to the PC you have been using."
Although you don't have to pay much of a premium for a workstation, there are compelling reasons to do so. There's a whole laundry list of benefits to be had, but at a minimum you'll get independent software vendor (ISV) certification, meaning your CAD software developer has tested the hardware and vouches for its reliability, and in most cases, you'll get a professional graphics card as well.
"It is important that CAD users select an ISV-certified workstation to help ensure that the demanding applications they depend on run smoothly, right out of the box," said Greg Weir, director of Precision Workstation Product and ISV Marketing at Dell. "[ISV-certified hardware] comes with supported drivers to help eliminate issues and increase performance after the point of sale. This intense level of testing and development between an OEM and the ISV only comes with workstations."
In contrast to the graphics cards sought by gamers, professional graphics processing units (GPUs) enable special rendering modes unique to CAD in general, and often to your specific application as well. Drivers from NVIDIA and AMD optimize the quality and performance for common tasks such as rendering AutoCAD Smooth lines and Gooch shaders. Try to render the same visuals on noncertified, gamer-class hardware, and AutoCAD will turn off hardware acceleration, dropping your rendering to a relative crawl.
Consideration No. 1: Software
Let the system requirements for your primary CAD application be your guide.
Where do you begin your quest for the right workstation? This particular hardware search should start with your software.
Let's be real: Nobody relies on just one application over the course of a day. We're all bouncing between disparate tasks and windows. But for the majority of CAD professionals, there is one application — or maybe a couple — that consumes the bulk of your hours at the desk. What's the app that dominates your day? Got it? Now hit the web site of the software developer and find the minimum and recommended system requirements for your killer app. AutoCAD users can find this information at http://usa.autodesk.com/autocad/system-requirements.
In most cases, an application's minimum requirements set an extremely low standard, as the software vendors begrudgingly must address the least common denominator of the installed base. We don't recommend you follow these guidelines, but it's worth making a note of the minimum graphics, system memory, and CPU requirements. On the other hand, it's highly likely that any new workstation on the market today will meet or exceed these numbers.
More interesting is the list of recommended or certified hardware. For SolidWorks, Dassault Systèmes (as of this writing) specifies a minimum of 1 GB RAM, but suggests 6 GB. Well, if you go with 1 GB, you'll be sorry — even 6 GB isn't necessarily the best choice, depending on your budget, and especially given the incredible amount of gigabytes/dollar that can be had today.
Similarly, Autodesk isn't going to stop you from running a PC gamer graphics card, but the company will tell you which cards are optimized for performance and built for reliability when it comes to supporting AutoCAD or Autodesk Inventor. Increasingly, the only CAD-certified graphics cards are professional-brand NVIDIA Quadro and AMD FirePro. That's because software developers have consistently seen the fewest bugs and problems with cards that, like the system overall, have been exhaustively tested and tuned for professional workstation applications. In fact, the major CAD software developers will help you address issues related to running a Quadro or FirePro card, but they dedicate no support cycles to fixing bugs on consumer-class hardware.
Choosing the CPU
More cores or faster cores?
AMD or Intel CPU? This is a decision you won't have to make when configuring a workstation today. Although AMD is successfully mounting a comeback in professional graphics hardware with its FirePro brand graphics cards, the company is now virtually absent in the workstation-class CPU market. This could change down the road — the company's Bulldozer processors, expected by the end of 2011, should give Intel Xeon a run for its money — but for now you can be almost certain your new workstation will be equipped with an Intel CPU.
Intel Xeon vs. Core. From Intel, you're looking at either Xeon brand or a Core brand, such as Core i3, i5, and i7. Which to choose? If you're building a dual-socket, maximum-performance beast, there's no choice; you'll buy Xeon, the only brand Intel enables for dual-socket configurations. In the high-volume single-socket workstation segment, only the lowest-end machines offer Core i3 and i5, while the majority ship with a Core i7 or Xeon.
Several years ago Intel, along with virtually every other processor vendor on the planet, began backing away from a sole focus on cranking up clock frequencies and otherwise striving to squeeze every last possible bit of performance from singlethread processing. That path was heading down the road of diminishing returns and leading to other problems, most notably excessive power consumption and thermal output.
Growth of multi-core processing. Single-thread performance hasn't been forgotten, but the dominant thrust has shifted to parallel processing, with Intel moving from dual-core to quad-core and now hex-core processors. Factor in the dualsocket configurations available in mid-range and higher workstations, and today 12 processing cores in a single machine can easily be had.
Multi-core approaches have proved to be a great way to gain theoretical speed-ups, but for CAD professionals who have practical computing demands, how well reality tracks theory depends on their application. Some CAD software programs, including AutoCAD and SolidWorks, do limited multitasking if multiple processors are available — for example, in managing the user interface and on-screen display. And rendering software, whether running on the CPU, GPU, or both, tends to use multiple processing cores.
Given this, most CAD pros will want to find the right balance of multiple cores and increased single-thread performance, the latter enabled by Intel through a combination of architectural improvements in its CPU design and its Turbo Boost Technology 2.0, which delivers an (often temporary) increase in CPU clock speed.
Although an oversimplification, it's generally fair to say that if CAD modeling chews up more hours than anything else in your day, you should allocate more of your workstation budget to buying a fast processor. If you spend most of your time rendering, you should invest more of the budget in more cores, or in many cases, a more powerful GPU if that's what your application needs. Read on.
Where do you draw the line on how much of your budget to allocate to the CPU? Again, there's no universal answer — sorry, there never is — but keep in mind that the upward climb on this (or nearly any) product spectrum follows a path of diminishing returns. So once you've decided whether to favor most cores or fastest cores, try to get a sense of where the "knee" is in the price curve. That is, where do you start paying a lot more to get a comparatively small return? That's likely to be your sweet spot, tempered of course by the constraints in your overall budget.
More power is in the cards.
A GPU manages how your computer graphics process and display and, thanks to parallel processing, is typically more efficient than a CPU. The GPUs that are best optimized for professional graphics-intensive applications, such as CAD, design visualization, and analysis, are found in workstationcaliber NVIDIA Quadro and AMD FirePro graphics cards. Such professional-caliber GPUs come in a variety of flavors for desktop as well as mobile form factors. In the more mature desktop arena, they tend to fall into five categories of add-in cards.
The first category is 2D GPUs. Professional 2D cards can manage some 3D processing, but are not optimized for regular or intensive 3D applications. They generally aren't well suited for CAD use.
For professional-level CAD work, you'll want a Quadro or FirePro 3D add-in card. Each of these product lines includes approximately half a dozen models that fall into the remaining four product categories, as defined here by Jon Peddie Research:
- entry-level: $350 or less
- mid-range: $350–$950
- high-end: $950–$1,500
- ultra high-end: $1,500 or more
There are always exceptions, but most buyers will want to match the performance and capabilities of the GPU with the rest of the system — that is, an entry-caliber card for an entrycaliber workstation. Achieving good balance, where each component hits a performance level that is supported by therest of the system, is the best way to maximize ROI for your workstation purchase and optimize your productivity.
Fortunately, most workstation OEMs today do this work for you, offering that subset of cards from AMD and NVIDIA that best match the capabilities of the model you've chosen.
Optimizing GPU performance. Most graphics cards — and all performance-oriented models — slide into PCI Express x16 slots in the workstation. Graphics cards can be installed in open slots at the factory when ordering your new system, or anytime later if you buy a card off the shelf. A mid-life upgrade of your system with a latest-generation GPU can provide a cost-effective kick, for example if rendering becomes a bottleneck.
And unlike the machine that's at your desk today, your new workstation (unless it's a small–form factor model) will likely come equipped with at least two PCI Express x16 slots, able to accommodate two cards. Why would you want two (or more)? One reason is that multi-GPU technologies from NVIDIA (SLI) and AMD (CrossFire) allow the pairing of two cards (rendering alternate frames) to boost performance.
Multi-monitor support. The most compelling reason to install multiple GPUs is to drive multiple high-resolution displays. The secret's out that "multi-mon" is the single best way to improve your productivity. Anyone who's gone to two displays (or three — or more!) will tell you they could never go back to one. And more graphics cards can display more pixels across more monitors.
That said, you don't necessarily need to populate two cards to run two monitors, so pay attention to the cards you're selecting. NVIDIA's Quadro with nView and Mosaic technology can support two displays across most of the product line. A single high-end AMD FirePro V7900, with its Eyefinity technology, can handle four on its own, thank you very much. As such, if your performance demands have you buying midrange or high-end cards, you might get all the screen real estate you want with one card. But if you're much hungrier for pixels and screens than you are for polygons per second, you might consider two less-expensive, dual-monitor cards.
On top of multi-monitor support, you can use that extra slot to turn your workstation into a supercomputer. An exaggeration? Not to some. General-purpose computing on GPUs (GPGPU) technology is still evolving, but many of the applications that show the most promise are the ones of most interest to engineers and other CAD users: applications such as computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and finite-element analysis (FEA). Simulation software developers such as ANSYS and Abaqus are porting code to harness NVIDIA's Tesla GPUs to deliver big speed-ups over CPU-only computation.
Top-end workstations such as the HP Z800, Dell Precision T7500, and BOXX XTREME series models allow for the addition of NVIDIA Tesla-brand GPGPU acceleration in addition to Quadro GPUs. AMD is in this space as well; its FirePro and FireStream support GPGPU through the standard OpenCL programming API.
High-end graphics cards usually require more power than the 75 watts supplied by the typical x16 PCI Express interface. Workstation OEMs accommodate their extra needs via auxiliary power cables drawn from the supply. Some high-end and virtually all ultra high-end graphics cards are dual-slot thickness. They insert into one PCI Express x16 connector, but their thickness means an adjacent x16 slot may be blocked and rendered useless.
Making the right choice. When purchasing a workstation online, the OEM's product configurator should let you know if the chosen card or cards will mate to the chosen system, with respect to power supplies and connectors, the number of available PCI Express x16 slots, and whether a dual-slot card has sufficient clearance. For example, when outfitting graphics on a smaller chassis that can't accommodate two dual-slot cards, chances are the OEM will only offer the option of two entry-level or two mid-range cards, both of which are singleslot width.
For that matter, if you're perusing the latest flavor of entrylevel workstation — the small–form factor model such as the HP Z200 SFF — full-length cards may not have clearance lengthwise. Again, the online configurator should ensure compatibility, so you shouldn't have to worry about these issues.
Don't forget to stock up on RAM and storage.
Along with CPU and GPU, the other key components of a system's "big four" are system memory (RAM) and storage.
RAM. Memory size and speed, or RAM, can significantly impact performance, and depending on the application, could influence throughput even more than the other three components. But usually there's a sweet spot. To find it, start with the minimum recommendation for your primary software, then get a feel for how much more memory you'll get with incremental spending. To achieve solid performance within a reasonable budget, that sweet spot today is likely between 6 GB and 16 GB of DDR3 1333-MHz RAM. DDR3 is thirdgeneration, dual-data rate memory technology, with Intel's current platforms centered on 1333-MHz clock frequency — and it's really your best memory option these days.
Also pay attention to how many of your system's dual inline memory module (DIMM) slots are taken up by the system memory. This should be clear from the system specs and from the system configurator when purchasing a system online. For example, 4 GB might be specified as "1333 MHz, DDR3 SDRAM, ECC (4 DIMMs)," meaning that four slots are occupied (out of the total number of slots specified in the model's spec page or datasheet). Ideally, you'll want to leave some DIMM slots empty so you can give your system a mid-life memory upgrade if needed. Depending on the density you've chosen, leaving empty slots often involves no additional cost.
Error Correcting Code. And what of Error Correcting Code (ECC), an upgrade that typically allows single-bit memory errors to be detected and corrected? New Xeon processors offer integrated ECC, but with other processors it's an added expense. For most CAD applications, ECC is certainly valuable but not essential. If the added cost is modest and doesn't sacrifice performance — sometimes the DDR clock frequency must drop to accommodate ECC — go for it.
Hard-disk drives. The longtime, tried-and-true hard drive remains the backbone of a workstation's storage subsystem, but a new breed of solid-state technology is pushing its limits. Although they share the same basic technology as their ancestors, today's drives are much bigger, faster, and cheaper.
Traditional workstation hard-disk drives (HDDs) primarily come in a 3.5" form factor, supporting SATA or SA-SCSI standards. Essentially the same models that ship in corporate and consumer branded PCs, SATA drives are less expensive, sometimes dramatically so. (A terabyte for $50, anyone?) Pricing increases with drive capacity and RPM, an indication of how quickly the mechanical platter can spin within the drive and therefore how fast the drive can read and write data. The least-expensive SATA drives support 7,200-RPM speeds, while the highest-performance options jump to 10,000 RPM.
The second HDD option, the SA-SCSI drive, requires a motherboard interface that is also compatible with SATA drives (whereas a SATA interface will not support an SA-SCSI drive). With SA-SCSI, you'll get the option to move up to 15,000 RPM, but you'll sacrifice capacity and cash.
Whether you choose a SATA or SA-SCSI drive, you will generally face a trade-off between paying for more RPMs or paying for more capacity, because buying both can be costly. Most CAD professionals would opt for capacity and costeffectiveness, because running out of space or money is usually a more glaring roadblock than facing modest shortages of access speed and disk bandwidth. Many of us are paranoid about running out of disk space — and we all should be to some degree, because data piles up faster than we think it will. If this describes you, consider purchasing extra drive bays that bring more room to add drive capacity later — although you can always fall back on external drives to shore up capacity down the road.
An SSD stores data in solid-state memory — that is, SRAM chips — rather than on conventional hard disk platters. Today's SSDs are large enough to be useful, and although not exactly economical, have come down enough in price that they can enter the conversation when it comes to outfitting a new workstation.
The advantage of SSDs? There are several, including less noise and better reliability in the face of environmental issues like vibration. Unlike the HDD, the SSD has no moving parts. But the real motivation to choose SSD is performance. More specifically, it's about much lower latency, the time that lapses between asking the drive for data and receiving it. The SSD doesn't necessarily offer a big benefit over hard drives in bandwidth — how quickly the data comes once it starts coming — but it eliminates the seek time for the hard drive's head, delivering an indisputable advantage in access time. The downside is a glaring one: price.
Combination drives. Given the pluses and minuses, CAD users who have a slightly higher but not unlimited budget can entertain the option of SSDs in one of two ways. A combination of HDDs and SSDs in multiple drive bays — in particular, a smaller SSD with your OS installed paired with a large conventional disk drive for data — is very practical. Or choose a hybrid drive that combines the best of both worlds. This emerging technology is effectively a two-tiered memory device that implements its bulk storage on the cost-effective hard disk while implementing a much smaller, but much lower-latency cache on SSD. For frequently accessing reasonably sized chunks of data, you get the speed benefit of SSD without breaking the bank. Whereas an SSD currently commands ten times the price (or more) per gigabyte of a conventional 7,200-RPM HDD, the hybrid drive is a relative bargain at approximately twice the price (although the premium and the performance boost will vary by model).
The bottom line on selecting storage: Buy a lot more than you think you need, especially if you've chosen a system that limits you to one or two drive bays.
To RAID or not to RAID? It depends.
RAID is an option you'll likely want to consider for your new workstation, depending on the model you choose. The acronym stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks, and refers to the redundancy that provides reliability and data security. By far, the most common options offered in workstations are RAID modes 0 and 1.
RAID 0 is a misleading term, as it actually implements no redundancy, but focuses on raising storage performance instead. By "striping" interleaved data across two drives, read bandwidth (but not write) essentially doubles. Unlike RAID 1, each additional drive in a RAID 0 configuration adds incremental storage. The downside? Not only does RAID 0 lack fault tolerance, but because your system is now relying on all drives to function, it is more prone to failure. If you have twice the number of the same drives, you are twice as likely to lose data.
RAID 1 is straightforward data redundancy, typically mirroring data onto at least two disks. Disks in the array can fail without compromising data integrity as long as one remains healthy. Because data is redundant, you are essentially sacrificing half your capacity in return for fault tolerance.
Where your data is stored and how often it is backed up can help you make the call on RAID 1. If your sacred data is on a server or shadow copies are being made frequently, you can probably pass on RAID 1, as you are effectively implementing redundancy already. But if your unique copy of data resides for extended periods of time on your individual desktop machine, RAID 1 can be an attractive option.
Several other RAID modes are available. RAID 5, supported on some models, offers a performance boost in disk-striping plus the fault-tolerance benefit of redundancy. The drawback of implementing RAID 5 is that it requires a minimum of three disks, thereby limiting its utility to higher-end, higher-price machines.
Workstations can't live by components alone.
Networking. Every workstation comes with a wired Gigabit Ethernet network port; higher-end machines might have two or more. Wireless networking is typically available for desktop workstations, so you'll need to decide whether to add that option.
USB ports. USB has certainly lived up to its name. The Universal Serial Bus is absolutely universal, in terms of its pervasiveness across platforms and device types. USB 2.0 began replacing the first-generation standard technology a few years ago and has become the de facto general-purpose I/O interface. It yields a tenfold increase in maximum available bandwidth, a jump that is easily witnessed when, for example, transferring large models or videos to a flash drive.
The jump to next-generation USB 3.0 will also be substantial — another tenfold increase — but its impact will be less pronounced. Version 2.0 has been a slam dunk for just about every user and for many types of media (music, pictures, even video to some degree). It's harder to predict the benefits of moving to USB 3.0, as they will vary by use.
Still, USB 3.0 will in all likelihood supersede 2.0 over time. Some workstations today already support 3.0, not natively via the Intel platform but via an additional motherboard chip. It's widely believed that Intel's next-generation Ivy Bridge platforms (expected to launch by the end of 2011) will include native USB 3.0 support. Unless you frequently transfer huge files over USB, either version should suit your needs. Take whatever your model has as a default.
Think about the number and location (front vs. back) of USB ports you want — and for that matter, flash memory card access, if you need it.
PCI. Yes, the old standard PCI add-in card is still around, and from a user's perspective is completely different than PCI Express. A PCI slot can't support a PCI Express card, and vice versa. However, workstations will still include a PCI slot or two for low-demand legacy cards. Unless you have some special legacy PCI requirements, you're unlikely to be disappointed by whatever your OEM provides.
FireWire. In the age of first-generation USB, FireWire (also known as IEEE 1394) was pretty much a requirement, as USB's bandwidth was too wimpy to handle video. That changed dramatically with USB 2.0, which more or less matched FireWire in performance.
At this point, if you plan to keep a legacy device that requires FireWire — and check it out closely, as many devices that support FireWire also support USB 2.0 — then of course make sure your machine has a FireWire port (and you can always add a PCI or PCI Express card).
eSATA. Most modern workstations also include an eSATA connection, a high-speed computer bus interface that connects host bus adapters to mass storage devices such as hard disk and optical drives. With USB 2.0's advance in speed, most of us just naturally opt for USB to accommodate external storage. And with USB 3.0 on the horizon, it's hard to see what use eSATA will serve in the longer term, beyond supporting legacy devices.
The next move is up to you.
Cadalyst often receives e-mails from CAD professionals who spent precious dollars for workstations that met the specifications imposed by their software applications but ultimately were too minimally equipped to meet real-world demands. Buyers are left to wonder why they bothered spending the time and money to upgrade. Hearing such stories can lead us to become fearful of making the wrong decision, which can lead to procrastination when it comes to upgrading to a new machine, which can lead to needless frustration and lost productivity.
The alternative is to arm yourself with a good understanding of workstation basics and how to determine which components will deliver the performance you need at a price you can afford. There's a world of compelling technology at your disposal, packaged in systems that can have a dramatic, positive impact on your work life. Now is the time to have a look.