Posts by greg corke

Blue Ridge looks to cluster technology to boost CFD performance

Published 26 February 2009

Posted by greg corke

Article tagged with: amd, cfd, intel, cfdesign, core i7, cluster, windows hpc

Despite the emergence of multiple CPU cores in individual workstations (the standard is now 4 cores) most CAE applications still can’t harness all the available power, probably never will until there’s a major architectural change, and many max out at two cores. The way round this is to use clusters, or to put it simply a series of desktop computers directly connected together with some clever stuff.

Blue Ridge Numericsis the latest CFD vendor to promote its own cluster solution, which works with Microsoft Windows HPC networks. (I’m not hugely familiar with cluster technology, but I do know that Microsoft introduced its cluster technology a few years back, in response to the success of Linux in this sector.)

Blue Ridge’s CFdesign high performance computing (HPC) Module works directly with Windows Server 2008 HPC Edition, and with a little tinkering can turn two or more desktop workstations into a mini cluster. As with a single workstation, there is a limit to the performance gains you can get but Blue Ridge is quoting a maximum reduction in simulation time of 550% for a four node, 16 core setup. From what I can ascertain it looks like there might be a little exaggeration here as the baseline appears to be taken from a single core workstation.

Blue Ridge told me last year that in a single multi core workstation one can expect speed increases in CFdesign of up to 140% (Intel) to 160% (AMD), though I would imagine Intel has now got faster with the introduction of the Core i7, which receives its data directly from system RAM rather than going via a front side bus (FSB).

So by my rough calculations, the performance increase from a single multi core workstation to a four node, 16 core cluster, would be about 350%, which still is not to be sniffed at (I’m sure Blue Ridge will correct me if I’m wrong here).

Percentages aside it’s certainly a very interesting technology and I look forward to test-driving it in the near future. I’d better dust off my copy of Windows HPC cluster for Dummies first though.

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Intel Core i7 Processor

Published 24 February 2009

Posted by greg corke

Article tagged with: amd, multithreading, intel, cpu, core i7

The big news at the tail end of last year was the launch of Intel’s brand new Core i7 chip. Codenamed Nehalem, the Quad Core chip features a brand new architecture, which represents one, if not the biggest architectural shifts in Intel processors for ten years.

Core i7 systems are shipping now from the specialist systems builders such as CAD2, Xworks and Scan, and we should start to see Core i7-based workstations from the likes of HP, Dell, Fujitsu Siemens and Lenovo in the next month or so.

So what is all the fuss about? There are three major architectural changes to

Core i7 that not only look good on paper, but should have a real impact on the way users work with CAD/CAM/CAE and rendering applications, so let’s have a look at each of these in turn.


At the heart of this new architecture is a change in the way the chip accesses memory. Instead of the CPU communicating with the memory via the Front Side Bus, Core i7 can receive data directly from the system RAM. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is, as AMD pioneered this integrated controller strategy with its Athlon & Opteron processors a few years back.

With Intel’s Front Side Bus architecture, which is used on the Core 2 Duo and many generations before, there was a lot more latency when accessing memory. Now with Core i7, applications that access a lot of memory, frequently, will see a benefit. This is why AMD’s Opteron has remained a popular choice with certain CAE users, despite it being slower in most mainstream applications.

The other change in the memory architecture is that the new memory controller has three channels to the RAM which means that Core i7 systems will work best when memory modules are in multiples of three, as opposed to two. This means we are likely to see workstations with 3GB, 6GB and 12GB memory instead of the usual 2GB, 4GB, and 8GB.


All Core i7 CPUs have four cores as standard, but they also feature a technology called HyperThreading, which simulates additional threads so each chip actually has eight logical cores.

HyperThreading first came to market with the Pentium 4, but was abandoned for the Core 2. It uses spare CPU cycles on each physical core to simulate additional cores, and these can be seen when you bring up the Windows System Performance Dialogue.

The technology only works with certain multi-threaded applications, and can cause confusion when a process assigns itself to a ‘logical core’ even when there is a physical core sitting around doing nothing. Our limited tests show that it does make a small but significant difference in rendering applications such as 3ds Max.


Core i7 features a new Turbo Mode technology which can automatically adjust the speed of the cores dynamically. The chip can literally switch off those cores that are not being used and channel additional power to the remaining cores.

Intel claims that for single threaded applications (of which most CAD applications are) the speed of a single core can be boosted by around 400MHz.

While Turbo Mode can dynamically adjust the speed of the CPU, specialist workstations manufacturers are looking to get more out of each piece of silicon by overclocking or permanently increasing the speed of chips.

With Core i7 and indeed Core2 Duo, Intel has built in a lot of headroom into its chips. Some say this is because it has no real incentive to sell faster CPUs at this moment in time, because it could jeopardise future sales if the performance leap is too high.

The good news is that those in the know are able to get more out of the chips for no additional cost, safely overclocking them by around 20%.

Overclocking has never really been used in the CAD/CAM/CAE sector, simply because reliability has been deemed more important than performance. However, even with standard cooling solutions, specialist workstation vendors are now offering overclocked systems. But this is not pony tailed geeks in bedrooms with soldering irons, the system builders are extremely confident that the silicon will not be damaged by overheating and this is being backed up with three year warranties.

At DEVELOP3D, we don’t expect overclocking to be embraced wholeheartedly by customers, simply for fear of unreliability. However, if confidence grows, and specialist workstation manufacturers continue to push overclocked systems, it will be very interesting to see what impact this has on the Tier One Vendors as the likes of HP, Dell and Lenovo will have to play by the rules and ship systems at Intel’s published speeds. And with the top-end 3.2GHz Core i7 chips costing around £700 it’s not only a performance advantage that we’re talking about here. Specialist system manufacturers are already offering 2.66GHz Core i7 chips clocked up to 3.2GHz for under £300, so price/performance could also become a major differentiator.


Core i7 is a huge leap forward for Intel, introducing a number of new technologies, which not only improve efficiency in multi-threaded applications but enhance performance in single threaded applications. As with any new technology, prices are high at the moment, but deals can be had on overclocked systems and expect significant cuts later this year.

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AMD Phenom II X4 processor

Published 24 February 2009

Posted by greg corke

Article tagged with: solidworks, amd, autodesk inventor, firepro, intel, cpu, 3dsmax

Back in 2005 the workstation sector was all about AMDand its Opteron CPU. At that time the Opteron wiped the floor with anything Intel could throw at it and all the major Tier One workstation vendors, with the exception of Dell, took on the powerful chip to head up their workstation lines. But then Intel introduced the Core 2 Duo and things changed overnight. AMD lost its leadership position and Intel began outgunning AMD across the board. Since then AMD-based workstations have only been seen in niche sectors, targeting price/performance sweet spots or users of specialist CAE applications.

This month, however, AMD introduced a brand new quad core chip called the Phenom II X4, which it hopes will take the fight back to Intel. Available in speeds from 2.5GHz to 3.0GHz, the Phenom II X4 is built around AMD’s Direct Connect architecture, which means it receives data directly from the system RAM, rather than going via a slower Front Side Bus. This is a technology that AMD originally pioneered with its Opteron processor and one that Intel has only just ‘borrowed’ for its Core i7.

To put this new technology to the test we managed to get hold of an extremely rare 2.8GHz Phenom II X4 925 courtesy of specialist workstation builder XWorks. Nestled alongside an AMD ATI FirePro V3750, 4GB RAM, a 250GB hard drive and Windows XP SP3, the compact workstation is designed to offer excellent price/performance and at £745, the price is certainly competitive.

While the cost of an AMD Phenom II X4 925 chip is comparative to a 2.67GHz Intel Core i7 920, the big saving comes through the ASUS M3A78-CM mainboard, which with a retail cost of around £50, is around a quarter of the price of most Core i7 motherboards, which are particularly expensive at this moment in time.

But what about the performance? In terms of CPU-specific tests we benchmarked with 3ds Max Design 2009, an application which makes full use of multiple cores when rendering scenes. The performance was almost 50% slower than the overclocked 3.2GHz Core i7-based Scan 3XS workstation we tested last month, but that doesn’t tell the whole story as far as CPU performance is concerned. 3ds Max is one of the few 3D applications to offer finely tuned support for HyperThreading, a unique feature of the Core i7 which boosts multithreaded performance by simulating additional cores (click here).

The most interesting results, for CAD users at least, came when testing graphics under SolidWorks and Inventor. To begin with we didn’t quite believe the SolidWorks 2009 score of 17 Frames Per Second (FPS), simply because it’s the fastest we’ve yet to see in any machine, but repeated tests verified our initial findings. The Inventor score of 3.3 FPS was more in line with what we’d expect, slower than the Core i7, but impressive all the same.

From our tests it’s hard to pass a definitive judgment on the Phenom II X4, simply because it doesn’t support HyperThreading, which gives Intel’s Core i7 an advantage in our 3ds Max benchmark that it wouldn’t have in other applications. However, for CAD applications our 3D graphics tests, which are very much linked directly to CPU performance, indicate that it’s certainly in the same ball park as the Intel Core i7.

While AMD looks to have an interesting technology on its hands, particularly when compared to Intel’s Core i7 in terms of price/performance, one mustn’t forget Intel’s Core 2 Duo, which is now being sold at extremely competitive prices, even at high GHz. And if dual core is not enough because you have specific multithreaded rendering or analysis requirements, then Intel’s Core 2 Quad has also come down in price since the introduction of Core i7.

The long and short of it all is that AMD has delivered a chip, which while not setting the workstation sector on fire, certainly warrants closer attention. While it is unlikely that Tier One vendors will back the Phenom II X4 wholeheartedly, the chip is likely to be picked up by agile system builders like XWorks meaning at long last there’s an AMD chip that should be considered alongside Intel when choosing a workstation, particularly when the purse strings are tight.

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Al Dean brings the noise to Novedge

Published 16 December 2008

Posted by greg corke

Article tagged with: develop3d, al dean, scary, novedge

DEVELOP3D’s very own Al Dean makes a guest appearance on the informative Novedge blog today. If you look beyond the incredibly scary picture of Al (he’s not that terrifying in real life, honest), you’ll find an in-depth interview carried out by Franco Folini where Al explains the rationale behind DEVELOP3D (the magazine) how we integrate online and offline content and why you’ll never ever see him in a pair of white wellington boots and thermal underwear again.

Even though I’ve heard some of the stories before, it’s certainly a fascinating read. The boy’s got passion.

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Lenovo W700DS - industrial design on the go

Published 12 December 2008

Posted by greg corke

Article tagged with: manufacturing, cam, delcam, cnc, powermill, featurecam, return on investment, g code

Mobile workstations are all the same. They’ve all got the same processors, same graphics, same memory and hard drives, right?

Wrong. This latest one from Lenovo is different. As you’ll see from the pic, it’s got a 10-inch colour display which pulls out from the main 17-inch screen; it also has a built in 128 x 80mm Wacom digitizer (and pen) and an integrated Pantone colour calibrator.

This is surely every industrial designer’s idea of mobile heaven - the ability to sketch out your designs on a colour accurate screen, and have all of your tool palettes set off to the side so you’ve got 17-inches of uninterrupted design space is pretty darn compelling. It’s also a powerful beast, so things don’t have to slow down when you start to formalise your design in 3D.

It looks like Santa will be bringing me one for Christmas (but unlike a puppy this will be just for Christmas as I have to give it back) so we’ll be taking a closer look at Lenovo’s W700 and a host of other mobile workstations in the January print/PDF edition of DEVELOP3D.

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nVidia launches 4GB beast

Published 24 November 2008

Posted by greg corke

Article tagged with: nvidia, graphics cards, cuda

Nvidia has again upped the ante in the professional graphics sector with the launch of a new monster of a board, which is likely to set you back around £2,000.

With 4GB RAM, the ultra high-end Quadro FX 5800 has the biggest amount of memory on any graphics card, doubling the previous 2GB record held by AMD’s ATI FireGL V8650. However, this amount of memory and the high-level performance that this card boasts, is only likely to appeal to a small proportion of users, with nVidia touting the medical imaging, oil and gas, and automotive styling sectors, as key markets. Additional interest is likely to come from high-end CAD and design visualisation users with products such as NX and 3ds Max, particularly if these companies need one or two top-end workstations to complement their mid-range machines.

Built using the nVidia’s parallel CUDA architecture, the Quadro FX 5800 is also set to play a key role in the company’s drive to move complex computational problems away from the CPU and onto the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit).

While nVidia has done much to promote this technology, which is specific to nVidia hardware, little progress has been made in the mainstream CAE sector, with the majority of developments coming in the more niche areas of science and finance.

One development that should help bring CUDA more into the mainstream, is the launch of nVidia’s new Quadro CX card, which is a dedicated graphics accelerator for Adobe Creative Suite 4. With the Quadro CX, CUDA is used to encode H.264 videos in Adobe Premiere at what is claimed to be lightning-fast speeds. The card also powers real time image manipulation in Photoshop for the first time, though this feature is actually supported by all OpenGL 2.0 compliant graphics cards.

While the £1,000+ price tag is likely to put off all but the most power hungry users of Creative Suite, nVidia Quadro supplier, PNY, told DEVELOP3D that this card would also deliver excellent performance in 3D CAD/DCC applications. This could make it an attractive proposition for design visualisation specialists who use Photoshop and Premiere alongside products such as 3ds Max.

At the other end of the spectrum, nVidia’s Quadro business is also concentrating on the lower end of the market with the launch of the Quadro FX 470, the company’s first integrated professional motherboard GPU, and Quadro FX 370 Low Profile (LP), an entry-level Quadro graphics board for small form factor systems. While Nvidia has not yet signed up any of the major workstation OEMs for the Quadro FX 370 LP and Quadro FX 470, specialist workstation manufacturer CAD2 told DEVELOP3D that it was currently investigating the new technologies and hoped to be able to offer small form factor workstations in the New Year.

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Objet advances desktop RP market with new 3D printer

Published 20 October 2008

Posted by greg corke

Article tagged with: 3d printing, rapid prototyping, objet

Objet Geometries has upped the ante in desktop 3D printing with the launch of its latest machine, the Alaris30. The office friendly machine is small enough to fit on a desk but still manages to offer a build volume of 300 x 200 x 150mm. Like Objet’s other 3D printers, it utilises the company’s PolyJet Photopolymer Jetting Technology, meaning it can print parts with fine detail (0.1 - 0.2mm accuracy), including “finished-quality” smooth surfaces, and moving parts. The sample parts we have seen are testament to this.

To achieve such high accuracy the Alaris30 squirts Objet’s proprietary FullCure photopolymer material at 600 x 600dpi in 28 micron layers. Similar to an inkjet printer, the jetting head moves back and forth along the X-axis depositing a single layer of photopolymer onto the build tray. Each layer is immediately cured and hardened by UV light, producing fully cured models that can be handled immediately without additional post-curing.

The machine also builds support structures with a gel-like FullCure Support material, and this enables complicated geometries, such as cavities, overhangs, undercuts, delicate features and walls as thin as 0.6mm. When the build is finished, the support material can be removed by water jetting or by hand, and the model is ready for fit, form and function testing. According to Objet, it can also be painted, drilled, chrome-plated or used as moulds for tooling.

In terms of operation, the Alaris30 is designed to act like a network printer and its four cartridge loading permits up to 36 hours of unattended printing. CAD data is prepared using Objet’s Studio software.

Unlike Objet’s Connex500, the Alaris 30 doesn’t offer the ability to print multiple model materials with varying mechanical properties simultaneously.
Look out for a full review soon.

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