t h e b u s i n e s s o f c a d
Issue #742 | July 10, 2012
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In This Issue
1. How Workstations Differ from Desktop Computers
- CPUs and GPUs
2. Workstations vs Desktops, Continued
- Workstation Body Styles
3. Out of the Inbox, and the other regular columns.
From the editor: There will be no upFront.eZine next week, because I will be away on a brief vacation. See you again on July 24.
How Workstations Differ from Desktop Computers
In the early days of desktop CAD, you could tell a workstation from a regular desktop computer. Workstations ran UNIX for their operating system (instead of DOS), were really expensive (at over $10,000), and came primarily from two manufacturers, Apollo and Sun. Apollo was bought by HP, and although the Apollo name is gone, HP is today #1 in the workstation market. (Sun was bought by Oracle, and their hardware now powers much of the Internet.) Numbers 2 and 3 are Dell and Lenovo (formerly IBM's desktop computer division).
Today, workstations run Windows and Windows software like AutoCAD and SolidWorks, and look just like desktop computers and laptops, but with somber, tough looks and sometimes sport large handles.
So, if they operate the same software and look like regular computers, how do workstations differ? They are different in three areas: CPU/ GPU, expansion capabilities, and quality. Let's take a detailed look at each area.
CPUs and GPUs
Desktop computers use consumer-grade CPUs from Intel and AMD that have names like Core i3 and A-series (aka Trinity). In contrast, nearly all workstations use Intel's highest-end CPU, the Xeon. Xeons differ from Cores by having greater capabilities and higher pricing. For instance, the top-end Xeon E-7 CPU has a list price of $4,600 and the cheapest Xeon E-3 is around $200. In contrast, the typical Core i3 CPU is $100-$150.
Here is what you get with the higher priced Xeon:
Except for the E3-1200 model, Xeon CPUs do not have built-in graphics, as do Core CPUs. And, Xeon's clock speed is no higher than that of Cores, curiously enough.
Be aware that low-end workstations tend to use Intel Core i5 or i7 CPUs, or the low-end E3-1200 Xeon. This allows vendors to boast sub-$1,000 pricing, but then the computer lacks the expansion capabilities of Xeon-based workstations. Even among Xeon CPUs, some are less worthy: for instance, some Xeon are available as the more capable 2600 or 1600 models, or as the underperforming E3 1200. You can visually identify these less capable CPUs by the workstation's small desktop housing, as well as being found in laptop workstations -- but only the spec sheet will tell you for sure.
Desktop computers today usually come with integrated graphics. This means that what used to be on a graphics board is now integrated into the CPU. The integration allows lower prices, but also poorer performance in some cases. In contrast, workstations almost always come with 'discrete' graphics, which means they have a separate graphics board. In all cases, these are Quadro graphics boards from nVidia or FirePro models from AMD. (The discrete graphics boards named nVidia Geforce and AMD Radeon are targeted at gamers, not CAD.)
Discrete graphics are usually faster than integrated graphics, and support crucial graphics interface standards, such as OpenGL and DriectX 3D. These standards allow CAD programs to offload graphics generation to the graphics board, and are the reason you get real-time 3D renderings complete with drop shadows. I called these standards 'crucial,' because without them, your CAD program grinds to a crawl. (OpenGL works on just about every platform, even smartphones, while DirectX is limited to Windows.)
Professional graphics boards don't just generate graphics on behalf of software; they are capable of running programs using OpenCL and CUDA. The capability, however, is being adopted more much slowly than I would expect, and currently is typically limited to programs that benefit from highly parallel computing, such as finite element analysis and computational fluid mechanics. A more trivial example is AutoCAD's option to hand off texture generation to the graphics board.
Each year Intel improves the capabilities of its homegrown integrated graphics (known as GMA) -- to the frustration of nVidia and AMD. When I did some benchmarking last year, I found the Intel GMA on my desktop computer was as fast as nVidia's Quadro 2000 graphics board, and in some cases faster; the primary exception I found was that the Intel GMA was much slower at displaying hidden-line removal. (AMD has been integrating its more powerful ATI graphics into some of its CPUs.)
Where workstations shine is in the area of large numbers. For instance, your desktop computer is limited to a maximum of 16GB RAM and sometimes less. In contrast, many workstations handle 32GB-256GB, and a new model from Dell takes 512GB - assuming you can afford the price tag! The benefit is that more of your CAD program's drawings and other data stay in RAM, and so operate faster. (Computers need to run 64-bit Windows to access more than 3GB RAM.)
Workstations use ECC memory, which corrects for the errors that sometimes occur in RAM; desktop computers do not. In some cases, additional software even maps areas of RAM were errors occur repeatedly, blocking them from further use.
Desktop computers usually host just a single CPU that holds at most four cores, versus workstations that can take up to eight CPUs, each with up to 10 cores; that's like 80 equivalent-CPUs. On the downside, software does not 'scale' linearly with more CPUs and cores, and so an 80-core machine is not 80x faster than a single-core one.
Workstations support more monitors than do desktop computers. Primarily, this is a function of the number of graphics boards, for workstations have the room for multiple graphics boards. Each board has ports for 2-3 monitors. Some workstation can display graphics on up to 8 monitors.
Although solid state drives are slowly dropping in price, hard disk drives are still necessary for capacity. The top Lenovo workstations supports 10TB worth of drives. While desktop computers can now handle hard drives larger than 2TB in size, they tend to run at a leisurely 7,200 rpm (5,400 rpm on laptops). Hard drives for workstations are available in 10,000 and 15,000 rpm models, and I have found this doubling in speed noticeable.
Workstations feature larger and more efficient power supplies that output 600, 800, 1,000 watts or more at 90% efficiency. Home computers might have as few as 200W available. The need for so much power in workstations is all that extra hardware, such when they hold multiple high-end Quadro 4000 graphics board at 140W for each -- in addition to top-end Xeon CPUs at 130W each.
Some workstations can be converted to rack mount-computers by sliding off the cover and then screwing on side rails. Rack mounting allows a firm to stack many computers on top of a small floor space.
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Workstations vs Desktops, Continued
Because they are meant for all-day production work, workstations are designed to run 24/7, and so are manufactured with better quality components than are desktop computers, which are designed down for low pricing. Many workstations feature tool-free access to add and remove components, which means large plastic knobs and levers instead of small screws.
HP, Dell, and Lenovo each put their workstations up to tests to ensure they work with specific hardware configurations, graphics boards, and target software, such as Inventor and Solid Edge. This is known as 'ISV Certification.' Most commonly, benchmarks created by SPEC are run, as well as testing by the ISVs (independent software vendors) like Autodesk and Siemens PLM.
Some Xeon and Core CPUs have VPro management functions, which does things like locking drives remotely in case they are stolen, apply security patches to all PCs, provide remote support, and even manage computers when they are 'turned off.'
Workstation Body Styles
Workstations come in two basic styles, desktop towers and laptops with 15" or 17" screens. Among towers, you get a choice between larger towers that can take a large number of peripherals, like multiple graphics board and storage devices, and large amounts of RAM; these typically sit on the floor next to the desks of a firm's top designers. Or you can pick among cheaper mini-towers that are small enough to be on the desk, but have few expansion possibility; these small form-factor desktops also tend to have Xeon CPUs with fewer capabilities or Core CPUs.
All-on-one desktops cram all of the computer guts into the back of the monitor. These have some popularity among consumers. They are kind of portable like a notebook computer, but boast larger screens, and recently HP released a workstation version.
Workstation laptops are popular at schools, for they fit nicely on desks, and are popular with designers who have to travel. Like mini-towers, they have lower specs than full workstations, and are very limited in expansion possibilities.
At the opposite end of the portability spectrum is the rack computer, which is mounted horizontally in a frame. In this configuration, workstation computers are used as servers and internal clouds.
I've described the many differences between workstations and desktops, and fundamentally it comes down to the Xeon CPU and the added capabilities it allows. Me, I wouldn't buy a workstation, because it is too expensive for my modest needs; I am content with the few speed boosting upgrades I've applied to my 3.1GHz 4-core desktop (doubled RAM to 8GB, added an 8GB ReadyBoost drive).
But then I am not a design firm. Companies who live to see another day these days need exciting new designs executed quickly, and so these are the customers of workstations. Such firms have formal benchmark processes that test representative workstations from HP, Dell, Lenovo, and others to confirm whether the latest models are sufficiently faster than earlier ones to justify the (roughly) $2,000-expense. And then they hand them over to their top designers.
[This article first appeared on CADdigest.com at http://www.caddigest.com/exclusive/CAD_hardware/062112_PC_or_workstations.htm]
Out of the Inbox
solidThinking 8.5 of Italy has a successor and it is named solidThinking Evolve 9.0, a hybrid modeling CAD system organic surfaces, solid models, and parametric CAD. One new function flags features needing repair, another is "smart delete" that hides and unhides source objects when erasing items. For Windows and OS X. http://solidthinking.com
Geometric Limited of India appoints Louis Pascarella as principal consultant of its consulting group. Mr Pascarella formerly headed up strategic automotive initiatives at Dassault Systemes.
CGS Plus of Slovenia offers CGS Revit Tools ($50) that adds functions to Revit 2011-2013, such as selection filtering, BIM management, legend creation, building rooms automatically, aligning text, and querying element properties. You'll find a couple of tools that can be downloaded at no charge from their site at http://usa.cgsplus.com.
Graphisoft of Hungary last week unleashed ArchiCAD 16 and BIMComponents.com. 16 has Morph for creating custom structures and elements, while the .com is a community site for sharing BIM components among ArchiCAD users. http://www.graphisoft.com/products/archicad/ and https://bimcomponents.com
Dassault Systemes of France updates V6 to Release 2013 of what they are now called their "3DEXPERIENCE platform." (We know it as Catia, et al.) R2013 adds CAD converters, new APIs useful for robotics, ergonomics, and machining; a PDM interface to SAP. http://www.3ds.com/products/v6/latest-release
Trimble of USA is the CAD vendor no one knows about, and now they've acquired WinEstimator for construction cost estimating. http://www.winest.com
On our blogs
WorldCAD Access last Friday for the first time had more than ten thousand readers in a single day. And here is some of the news items people were reading at http://worldcadaccess.typepad.com:
...and on Gizmos Grabowski blog <http://worldcadaccess.typepad.com/gizmos/>
Letters to the Editor
Re: Readers React to Benchmarking Rendering: Desktop vs Cloud
"My colleague regularly makes photorealistic renderings to be printed on advertising flyers of relatively simple model (doors, cross section details). The resolution is 4000x3000 pixels, the model uses several lights, several complex materials, shadows, and so on. Rendering it easily takes few hours on a quad[-core] computer. We have not tried cloud rendering yet."
- Jure Spiler
Basic d.o.o., Slovenija
The editor replies: "You should try online rendering, because the first few rendering jobs are free at rendering.360.autodesk.com. I am interested in your results."
"I noticed the recent newsletters in which you talk about Revit rendering performance. We just put out a recent press release about a new offering we have <http://www.prweb.com/releases/2012/6/prweb9652959.htm>. Part of this new offering is for rendering Revit files using V-Ray in our RevUp Render Cloud."
- Ry Bruscoe, president
"Would 'not suck worse'. Is that a triple negative?"
- Terry Priest
The editor replies: "As America sang, 'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain'."
"If your only measure is speed, then the test is essentially valid. If your measure is general functionality, relative ease of use, accessibility (rendering from an airport on a layover) or possibly having the mother(in-law) ship of Autodesk maintaining the processing engine instead of you. Maybe the metrics are different.
"I equate it to buying a sports car: nice to know you can do 140mph, but most days 55-60mph gets you there on time and with no conflicts with the rest of traffic (business processes)."
- Greg Hruby
The editor replies: "This is the question Autodesk needs to answer: which models are too small to bother rendering online?"
"You might want to alter your focus about the cloud-versus-local rendering debate. A more revealing question may be, 'Who needs it?' What companies have the clientele that will pay them to spend loads of time in Revit setting up lights and materials? You can probably dismiss almost all of an architect's sub-consultants -- civil, structural, and MEP [mechanical, electrical, plumbing] don't have much need for rendering -- along with at least half of all architects.
"Extensive efforts at rendering maany images during design is very time consuming, and most clients don't have the budget for it. My completely unsubstantiated guess would put the market at no more than 25% of all architects (and trace numbers of landscape design folks) might have a regular need for cloud rendering. If this is anywhere near reality, Autodesk could perhaps hone their marketing efforts to more closely focus on those folks who actually need their cloud rendering service, and leave the rest of us alone to continue our struggle with their other Rube Goldberg products.
"Last year we made an effort to render a two-minute walk-thru in Revit MEP 2011 with sunlight, basic shadows, and no materials. Once we had it set up, Revit calculated that with a dual Xeon CPU, 16-thread HP z800 and 24GB RAM, the render would take over three months, running 24/7. Exporting the model and rendering in 3D Studio MAX took only a couple of days (because we're not very good at it).
"There is a rumor that the rendering engine in Revit is purposely hobbled, because if it worked too well sales of 3DS MAX would fall dramatically. If this is rumor is true (conspiracy theorists unite!), then it would not be much of a stretch to imagine that once a Revit model is uploaded to 360, Autodesk could conceivably invoke a routine that 'unlocks' the hobble and render it much faster. There's no law against that."
- Peter Lawton
The editor replies: "In my conversation with Autodesk, it seems that they meant their online rendering service primarily for Revit users, but failed to market it correctly."
"With respect to the whole 'cloud rendering' discussion: I wish more people would get as passionate about other issues as well. I can only imagine how many problems could be solved."
- Dave Stein
"Thanks for your work and helpful explanations of the CAD industry and software."
- Fred Lont
"All Microsoft really needs to do to engage its enterprise customers [for Windows 8] is drop the Maoist insistence on forcing users into a violent context switch [with the Metro interface]."
- Andrew Orlowski, "Windows 8: Not even Microsoft thinks businesses will use it," The Register
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Entire contents copyright 2012 by upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd. All rights reserved worldwide. Letters sent to the editor are subject to publication. Article reprint fee: $250 and up. All trademarks belong to their respective holders. "upFront.eZine," "The Business of CAD," and "WorldCAD Access" are trademarks of upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd. Letters to the editor may be edited for clarity and brevity. Translations and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd.