Workstation Options for CAD Span the Economic Spectrum

28 Mar, 2015 By: Alex Herrera

Herrera on Hardware: Budget-friendly models and wallet-draining heavyweights mark the extremes of a workstation market that's as broad as it's ever been. But what's the difference between entry-level and high-end options?

A few months back, this column addressed the salient differences — and commonality— between high-performance PCs and modern workstations. That article retraced the evolution of the workstation, from yesterday's costly, proprietary machines to today's new breed, which taps into the technology and economy of the PC ecosystem to deliver high performance and reliability at far more competitive prices.

Models at the low end of the workstation market share much of the same component hardware and base technology as PCs, and that's a good thing for those relying on workstations to power compute-hungry CAD workflows. First and foremost, this new breed of PC-derived workstation has brought prices down dramatically, as original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) can now leverage tremendous economies of scale in tapping a common foundation of processor, memory, and graphics technologies. Today, an entry-level workstation optimized for CAD work can be purchased for not much more than a comparably equipped, general-purpose PC.

But what about the other end of the market? What can be had in a high-end workstation today, and how much more can it deliver than a low-end machine can? Answering that question is revealing in two respects: it illustrates how much breadth exists in price and performance, and it highlights the incredible amount of horsepower that can be had by those who must have it and for whom cost is a minor issue — or no concern at all.

Although there are exceptions, most deskside workstation models fall into one of four basic categories:

  1. Entry single-socket (1S): a compact, entry-level machine designed with economy and integration in mind.
  2. Premium single-socket (1S): this machine is more capable and expandable than its entry-level equivalent.
  3. Entry dual-socket (2S): a model that can support dual CPUs with moderate expandability.
  4. Premium dual-socket (2S): this machine can support dual CPUs with maximum expandability.

Like most workstation developers, each vendor in the dominant triumvirate — namely HP, Dell, and Lenovo — has a branded workstation model fitting each of these basic categories.

The workstation industry's four most common types of deskside models.

The differences a buyer can expect to see between a more minimalist, Entry 1S machine versus a fully loaded, no-compromise, Premium 2S system go well beyond the number of CPU sockets. Those differences can be categorized as the capabilities that the base design of the chassis offers, and the level of components that are selected or custom-configured by the buyer.

Entry 1S vs. Premium 2S

A high-end Premium 2S system exceeds the capabilities of a low-end Entry 1S machine by virtue of two advantages: more space inside the case, and a bigger design budget. More space, in terms of system volume, means more components can fit within both physical and thermal envelopes. In addition to providing more room for storage bays, add-in slots, and dual inline memory modules (DIMMs), the high-end machine's ample volume allows for superior heat dissipation — and that means the larger tower can accommodate higher-wattage power supply units (PSUs). Whereas an entry-level workstation might ship with a PSU of 300 watts or so, a big high-end workstation might have a 1300-watt PSU. (See a previous Herrera on Hardware column, "Do You Have the Power?" for more on the design, efficiency, and capacity of modern workstation PSUs.)

All those extra watts go to a good cause. The high-end workstation's higher power budget not only means more components can be populated, but each component can consume more power — and provided all other factors are equal, a higher-wattage component delivers better performance. For example, rather than a single CPU socket, the Premium 2S system offers dual CPUs, and often incorporates the specific CPU models that tout higher core counts and therefore demand more watts.

The same goes for GPUs, memory, and storage. For example, an economy-focused Entry class system (particularly the small–form factor variety) can typically accommodate a single entry-level or mid-range GPU, a high-end tower might be able to manage four (or two or three high-end GPUs). The Entry 1S system might max out at 32 GB of memory and 8 TB of storage, while the Premium 2S machine might handle 512 GB and 24 TB, respectively.

The bigger budget allows for higher-quality materials and construction, more advanced engineering, and more "bells and whistles." These days, those bells might translate to modular PSUs, integrated handles, and tool-less access to components throughout the unit, and the whistles could mean more robust cooling (even liquid-cooling systems), rack-mount options, and wider use of aluminum alloy instead of plastic in the construction.

An example of the difference in features sported by typical models at the two ends of the workstation spectrum. Table includes data from HP, Dell, and Lenovo sources.

Generally speaking, the Premium 1S and Entry 2S models will offer capabilities somewhere between these two ends of the workstation product spectrum.

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About the Author: Alex Herrera

Alex Herrera

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