Choosing a workstation? It’s not that straightforward

16 January 2018

With so many powerful new technologies coming online, choosing a workstation for design and engineering is no longer the straightforward decision it used to be. Greg Corke explores several ways to help future proof your investment

Might you be relying on VR in a few years?

Of the 20 years I have been writing about workstations, this is by far the most exciting time. Not because the CPUs, and GPUs are more powerful than ever — which they are, of course — but because the software that designers, engineers and architects use is starting to change dramatically.

It used to be all about CAD and a little bit of rendering or simulation. Now, we are starting to see core design workflows augmented with technologies like game engine viz, Virtual Reality (VR), GPU rendering, generative design and reality modelling.

This presents a big challenge when buying a new workstation. It was always a good bet that a machine with a high frequency quad core processor, mid-range pro graphics card, 256GB SSD, 2TB HDD and 32GB of memory would serve you now and well into the future. After all, CAD software and its hardware requirements have not changed dramatically for many years, and this should remain the case for some time.

But with so many new technologies coming online, almost all of which demand a much faster workstation, it’s now a lot harder to choose a machine that you know will be able to support your changing workflows in years to come. There are a few options here.

The first is to buy a workstation that is faster than you currently need. A GPU that is ‘VR-Ready’ or a CPU that has more cores, for example, would give you some built-in headroom — and the flexibility to try out new tech. However, getting budget approved may be hard, particularly when firms have long held views on how much a ‘CAD workstation’ should cost.

The second is to make sure the workstation is upgradeable. This could mean checking that there are spare DIMM slots available to increase RAM when datasets get more complex or the number of applications you use or their memory footprint increases. Or, that the workstation chassis and power supply can accommodate a more powerful graphics card — or multiple thereof for GPU rendering or some game engine viz and VR applications.

GPU, memory and storage upgrades are very easy to do, even for novice users. CPU upgrades, on the other hand, are harder and require more specialist knowledge. In some cases, depending on your motherboard, the additional benefits are also very small.

Upgrades do not have to be made inside the machine. With new I/O standards like Thunderbolt 3, a tiny desktop workstation or mobile workstation with limited expansion, can be easily upgraded with fast external storage. More recently, external GPUs can also be added. Nvidia’s Quadro eGPU solution, for example, can give users access to a powerful ‘VR Ready’ professional desktop GPU. Importantly, the Windows OS can see this as the primary GPU, so it can be used for game engine viz or VR and not just as a co-processor for GPU rendering or processing reality models.

There’s also third option, which is to invest in a workstation that can handle 95% of your workload, then offload the other 5% to the cloud – or a shared local resource. Why buy an expensive estate car for the city when you can hire a roof rack for your occasional holidays away. With this approach, you can reduce your capital investment and pay for additional CPU or GPU power, on-demand.

The obvious candidate for this ‘pay as you go’ approach is rendering, which may only be needed at certain times in the design process. However, it could also extend to virtual desktop services from companies like Frame, which allow you to run powerful 3D apps in a web browser. This is not a viable solution for pro VR, however, as the GPU needs to be local.

Conclusion

It’s very hard to predict how your design workflow is going to change over the life of your workstation but, with so many new technologies coming online, it could certainly look very different in the next few years.

With this in mind, it’s never been more important to be prepared. Kitting out every member of your design team with an ultra high-end workstation is unrealistic, but if you don’t have a solid plan in place and the flexibility to adapt then you could get left behind.


This article is part of a DEVELOP3D CAD/Viz/VR workstation special report. To read articles and reviews in this report click on the links below.

Desktop Workstation Buyer’s Guide
Essential advice for those looking to buy a workstation for product development

Lenovo ThinkStation P320 Tiny
In a world of shrinking workstations, Lenovo’s ThinkStation P320 Tiny in the smallest yet

Fujitsu Celsius W570POWER+
This compact workstation delivers the goods for 3D CAD, game engine viz and VR

Boxx Apexx S3
The overclocked six core ‘Coffee Lake Core i7 CPU makes this CAD workstation fly

Workstation Specialists WS-1160A
AMD CPU and AMD GPU combine for a powerful workstation for CAD,viz and VR

AMD Radeon Vega GPUs
What does AMD’s Vega GPU architecture bring to CAD, VR, viz and GPU rendering?

Scan 3XS WI6000 Viz
An overclocked 18-core Intel Core i9-7980XE CPU makes this a phenomenally fast workstation for CAD and design viz

Armari Magnetar R80 (Pre Production Unit) 
This dual Intel Xeon Gold workstation delivers the goods in single and multi-threaded workflows

Boston Venom EPYC (Pre Production Unit)
Dual 32 core AMD Epyc CPUs make this rendering beast fly, but it’s at the expense of single threaded performance

Iceotope EdgeStation
‘Total liquid cooling’ makes this specialist machine ideal for harsh and dusty environments

Mobile workstation buyer’s guide
A rundown of the things to look out when buying a professional 3D laptop

Wacom MobileStudio Pro 16
Wacom’s legendary pen technology is embedded in a pro 3D tablet

HP ZBook x2 G4 (Pre-Production Unit)
This detachable 2-in-1 combines Wacom pen technology with a Quadro GPU for 3D CAD

PNY PrevailPro P4000
This slimline 15-inch mobile workstation breaks all the rules by putting a powerful ‘VR Ready’ GPU at its heart

Fujitsu Celsius H970
This 17.3-inch mobile workstation offers incredible power for demanding VR and viz but there are some downsides

Dell Precision 7720
With powerful processors, impressive cooling, good serviceability and excellent build quality, this 17” mobile workstation is hard to beat

Samsung Portable SSD T5
This portable drive offers fast, secure solid-state storage in a sleek package

Download a PDF of the 36-page workstation special report, complete with charts

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