The CAD Workstation Configuration Cheat Sheet

7 Jul, 2015 By: Robert Green

CAD Manager Column: To ensure you've got the computing power your software requires, check these guidelines before you make your purchase.

Solid-State Drives (SSDs)

All the processor cores and fast RAM in the world do no good if your CAD model is stuck on a slow mechanical hard drive. To get the most from your expensive processors and RAM, do the following:

  • Equip all your machines with a 500GB SSD boot drive.
  • Upgrade laptops and old machines with SSDs as well.
  • Buy the fastest SSD technology you can afford. SATA 3 controllers are slowest, PCIe(2) drives are twice as fast as SATA 3, and PCIe(3) drives are four times the speed of SATA 3.
  • Add a large hard drive for additional storage if needed, but make sure all software and active projects are on the SSD drive for optimal processing speed.

If you have any doubt about how much SSDs can add to workstation performance, go work on one and see for yourself. There is simply no way I would own a CAD workstation or laptop without an SSD, given how little they cost.

Conclusion: Of all the upgrades on the market, SSDs provide the best bang for your buck.

Graphics Processing Units (GPUs)

Which GPU to purchase is always a subject of debate, but there are relatively simple rules for getting the right graphics hardware:

  • What monitor resolution will you use? (The higher the resolution, the more GPU memory you'll need.)
  • How many monitors will you use? (Be sure the GPU has ample connections to accommodate your needs.)
  • What software will you use? (Getting a GPU that is certified for your software applications will radically reduce configuration glitches and problems.)
  • Given the above parameters, you can now purchase a GPU that just meets — but doesn't exceed — your needs.

Conclusion: Because software and GPU technology changes so rapidly, I'd rather save money now and invest the savings in an SSD; after all, I can always update the GPU later.

Mobile Machines

When purchasing laptops/mobile workstations, the simple rule to keep in mind is this: A laptop is a computer, so you should configure it just like any other computer.

Or put another way:

  • Do not settle for an i5 processor when purchasing a laptop; get an i7 at minimum.
  • Do not settle for 8 GB of RAM; get at least 16 GB.
  • Do not buy a laptop without an SSD — it isn't worth it!

I realize that these rules eliminate many of the very inexpensive laptop machines available, but since when does CAD run well on a super cheap machine anyway?

Conclusion: If you travel for a living and need to run CAD on the road, be sure you have a mobile workstation that's up to the task!

Summing Up

I hope you'll use these basic rules when discussing hardware purchases with your IT department or boss. My goal is to never again see a CAD manager or power user stuck with a slow, plodding computer!

And if all else fails, ask your boss the following question: "Why are you paying me $[fill in the blank] every year, yet we're arguing about $500 worth of RAM and SSDs on a new machine that'll last three years and let me rip through CAD work much faster?" When you put it that way, you'll drive home the point that fast hardware is a smart investment, not a cost.

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About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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Re: The CAD Workstation Configuration Cheat Sheet
by: Engrtech
July 8, 2015 - 3:09pm
"Xeon processors outperform i7 processors" This is not necessarily true. Core i7 processors generally run faster than Xeons, but don't have as much cache. Xeons usually have lower clock speeds than the i7s.
Re: The CAD Workstation Configuration Cheat Sheet
by: neaton
July 11, 2015 - 12:36pm
Very timely article since I am researching for a new computer. Thanks for summarizing the different processors and RAM requirements.