How Workstation Design Affects CAD Performance28 May, 2015 By: Thomas A. Salomone
What factors shape the indispensable hardware that makes CAD possible — and how do those choices ultimately impact CAD users?
So you’ve decided — or perhaps your CAD manager or IT department has determined — that you need a new workstation. Fortunately, you couldn’t have picked a better time: major improvements in central processing unit (CPU), graphics processing unit (GPU), storage, and workstation technologies have all hit the market within the past year. Once you make the decision to get a new machine, however, there are still more choices ahead of you. Should you simply purchase an updated version of your current workstation, or will you select something completely different? More importantly, what features do you need to look for?
For most CAD engineers, the answer to the latter question is simple: performance, performance, performance. And many assume that as long as their machine has the fastest CPU, GPU, storage, and memory components, they’ll be guaranteed the performance they need to run their most critical applications. They’re not entirely wrong; the latest generation of components is so advanced that the right combination can handle extremely demanding workloads.
With today’s technologies, however, it's not enough to simply pick a machine that has the latest components and an appealing price tag. The overall system design is also key to success; it's responsible not only for powering those carefully selected components, but also for enabling them to operate reliably at their best levels of performance. Good workstation design can also significantly improve your ability to scale for future performance as application demands become greater over time.
In this article, I’ll explain why engineers and designers should consider workstation design as a critical factor in selecting a new machine, and provide an overview of the ways that design affects workstation performance, reliability, and usability. My hope is that you’ll come away with a new perspective on the ways that workstation design decisions impact your own ability to create innovative designs and gain a competitive edge.
Performance is the most obvious beneficiary of good workstation design. The overall design of a workstation can be a determining factor in how well a workstation will perform, because it enables users to implement the right configuration of components, and to install them in the best way to maximize their performance.
Once you've selected the amount of memory you need, the best processor you can afford, the graphics card, and the storage, you'll need to look at various workstation models to see which one fits your needs. The first step is to identify which model supports the components and capacity you need. For instance, if you want more than 32 GB of memory (which is limited by the processor selection), then you will not be able to use an entry-level workstation. You may need a system design that supports RAID 0, 1, 5, or 10, or dual processors, or a large number of disks. An important consideration here is possible expansion over the life of the workstation: Are there enough memory slots, disk drive slots, and graphics card slots to accommodate future needs?
After you’ve made the model choice, you’ll need to look deeper into the design. You may want to use PCIe solid-state drives (SSDs), for instance (PCIe drives, a technology that became available recently, can operate at 32 GB/s, versus 6 GB/s for SATA SSDs). If so, you will need to determine whether the model has a special connector designed for these drives. Some vendors offer such a connector — Lenovo's Flex Connector is one example — but others don't, meaning you'll have to use a PCIe slot instead, which may create cooling or fit problems. And if you install a drive in that PCIe slot, you won't be able to use it for an additional graphics card.
The number of memory slots is an important consideration, as is ease of access. Dual in-line memory modules (DIMMs) must be placed in the correct DIMM slots to get the best performance. They need to be installed in a certain order to ensure they are balanced on the memory bus. Although manufacturers should ship it correctly, when you get your system you may want to open it and check. Additionally, check to see what your memory expansion strategy will be. Are there extra slots for future memory expansion? Limited memory is a performance killer, and as time goes by designs almost always require more detail and larger files, which in turn require more memory. In other words, your needs in this area are bound to increase.
Next, look at the airflow. The best cooling designs are those that are simple, yet well thought out.
One important aspect of workstation design is the cooling system, which increases the speed at which the workstation can operate and prevents component failure from overheating. Image courtesy of Lenovo.