Same Hardware, Different User Experience31 Dec, 2014 By: Alex Herrera
Herrera on Hardware: With components in common, what factors distinguish entry-level workstations from business-class PCs — and do they justify the increase in price?
"Workstations are just glorified PCs — don't waste your money."
While they're no longer the rule, such misconceptions about the modern workstation remain common in the CAD community, especially among those working in or running small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Given the history of the workstation and the PC, that impression is understandable — but it's anything but accurate.
Today's workstation offers the same benefits in reliability and application-tuned performance that it always has, but thanks to the economies of scale of its sister platform, the PC, those benefits are now available at far more attractive prices. Those looking to buy a PC for CAD work should give an entry-level workstation a good, hard look; they may find it's a far more attractive option than they'd imagined.
Does Differentiation Extend to the Low End?
At the upper end of the market, a premium-build workstation features a spec sheet that no one will confuse with that of a conventional corporate or consumer PC. If you need the performance a higher-end workstation offers — including much more CPU and graphics processing unit (GPU) power, bigger memories, maximum storage, and more reliability options — there is no substitute. It will come at a substantially higher price, but for the highest-demand applications, no PC can deliver the hardware that a full-tower, dual-socket, maximum-wattage, branded workstation can.
However, the same argument isn't true at the lower end of the workstation market. Today's entry-class models share many of the same hardware building blocks as high-end PCs, begging the obvious question: Should you buy the PC (for example, a Dell Optiplex or HP Pavilion model) or should you pay a little more to get the workstation brand (for example, a Dell Precision or HP Z machine)? Given that entry-class models make up the vast majority of the workstation units sold into the CAD space, it's a question many will find worth asking.
Birth of the PC-Derived Workstation
The choice of a hardware platform for visual, interactive CAD computing used to be a clear-cut. Back in the 80s and early 90s, if you wanted a machine that could stand up to the computational and visual challenges in CAD computing, there was only one game in town: the workstation. The PC of that age was a distant cousin in terms of performance, particularly when it came to graphics. Only the proprietary workstations from vendors such as SGI, Sun, HP, and IBM — leveraging silicon generally or exclusively in-house — could tackle such work.
But over the past two decades, that's all changed. The raw performance of PC desktop and server-class components has grown by leaps and bounds, making them now capable of serving the demands of workstation applications.
For example, consider Nvidia's Quadro GPUs, which were introduced at the tail end of 1999. Built off the same core GPU chip technology as its GeForce gaming peers, the Quadro line provided higher-end 3D functionality with a drastically lower cost structure than the in-house designers at HP, SGI, and Sun could manage. Over time, all the big-iron makers of proprietary workstations realized it no longer made sense to develop their own GPUs, and instead began procuring them from independent hardware vendors (IHVs) such as 3dlabs (now defunct), Nvidia, and AMD.
The same basic story unfolded in the CPU aspect of workstation development, where it became apparent that the investment required to develop home-grown, client-side PA-RISC (HP), UltraSPARC (Sun), and MIPS (SGI) CPUs simply was no longer a financially viable one. All those in-house developments eventually ceased as well, with workstation vendors instead choosing to use outsourced chips, primarily Xeon and Core processors from Intel.
What Low-End Workstations and High-End PCs Have in Common
Although the age of the traditional proprietary model came to an end, the concept of the workstation did not. Rather, it simply adopted a new platform that leverages the same core silicon as desktop and server PCs. And that's a good thing, allowing the workstation business model to leverage a common investment in technology, while spreading that investment over a far larger marketplace. The result? Modern workstations not only retain access to the best available technology, but they do so with far more competitive prices than in the past.
How much more competitive? Well, that's where one misconception can be put to rest. Yes, workstations cost more than business-class PCs, particularly at the aforementioned upper end, where the platform's far superior hardware specs justify higher prices. But at the lower end, the premium of a workstation over a comparably configured PC is modest — a little more than $100, on average. That may come as a surprise to many who still think all workstations carry the bloated price tags of yesteryear.
Today, the premium for a workstation over a comparably configured PC is usually modest. This example compares a Dell Precision T1700 with an Optiplex 3020 SFF on Dell.com, both outfitted with an Intel Core i3-4150 processor, Intel integrated graphics, 8 GB of 1600-MHz DDR3 memory, a 7,200 RPM 500-GB SATA drive, and Windows 7 Professional.