Workstations - Surviving the economic downturn

11 January 2009

As the world economies teeter on the edge of a great abyss, Rob Jamieson shares a few tips to help keep your company’s CAD workstations running smoothly without breaking the bank

We all know that most of the current economic issues are purely about confidence but that doesn’t stop your accountant cutting your budget, does it? But there are still plenty of things you can do to your workstation to keep it running smoothly, if not a little faster.

Now as usual, some of my suggestions could lead to data loss, so if you do follow any of the following suggestions, be careful and make sure you have a backup!

Clean up what you have

On my many travels I’ve seen numerous systems that are badly configured or need a good clean up to make them work more effectively. If a disk is more than 80% full it will slow down dramatically for two reasons. The first is the central part of the disk is slower than the outside (the bit that’s nearly full). The second is that it will be heavily fragmented and defragging with so little space won’t be enough. So how do you fix this? First off, delete duplicate files.

It’s amazing how many files can get spread across a hard disk, there are many examples of free software on the web which can find these files and delete them. Various CAD systems will copy files into new multiple folder trees and form relational connections, even with a PDM system, so investigate and make sure you are not breaking them.

When Windows updates with a new service pack or patch, it backs up the previous version so you can uninstall them if you encounter an issue. These sit on the hard disk taking up, in some cases, heaps of room. Search Microsoft site “remove service pack restore files” -  I saved 1GB on one machine for example.

More system memory is always a good choice if a) you have very little, say only 1GB, or b) a 64-bit OS where you can make use of more memory

We all know we should delete the Internet Explorer temp folder as it can build up with files. If you exit Outlook with open attachments these are stored in the “Temporary Internet Folder/OLK8”. In my case it had 3GB of data in it, including 300 copies of the same logo. It might take some searching but the Microsoft site has the info on this as the folder is hidden.

All this chipping away is good but putting your data onto a server or offloading old data to DVD is better. Dual Layer DVDs cost pence and store up to 9GB. I personally prefer DVD storage over hard disk as once it’s burnt it can’t catch a virus. The end result is faster drives with less on them (do a defrag of course) and without the need to upgrade.

Now I could write a whole page on drivers but generally download the latest off the vendor’s site and configure your CAD application to suit.

Spend money to make do

If you cant afford new systems but have funds to make existing kit better, where do you spend it? A lot of this answer depends on what software you have. More system memory is always a good choice if a) you have very little, say only 1GB, or b) a 64-bit OS where you can make use of more memory. In reality, systems that are only two or three years old are cheaper to upgrade than older ones. This is because of widespread availability of DDR2 memory which is still manufactured compared to DDR which is not. Remember you will need memory in pairs for laptops and desktops (see laptop section).

CPUs are generally a little harder to upgrade but if you use multi-threaded applications then swapping from a Dual Core to a Quad core CPU is a good choice, but this only really applies to systems under a year old. Getting a higher clock speed CPU is an option if your CPU socket can take it, but it’s always the fastest CPU that has the price premium so alternatively get the second highest. For example, I upgraded an Athlon 4200+ (2.2GHz) to an Athlon x64 5600+ (2.8GHz) for only £38 and the system feels a lot faster.

Graphic cards are also an area where you could downgrade from an old high end card to a current mid range card for a smallish outlay and get better performance. A mid range workstation graphics card at the £250 mark today would likely give twice the performance in a modern CAD application than an £800 high-end card from two years ago. It would also save electricity because of die shrinkage. Modern cards use less power and produce less heat and noise. But enough of the sales pitch - the point is with careful spending you can make your kit more useable.

Laptop upgrades

Laptop upgrades are harder but are still doable. I’ve recently spent some money on a workstation laptop to improve it. Laptop 2.5 inch hard disks either come in IDE or SATA types and are quite cheap. Putting a 120GB (£35) into an old laptop will give enough room for lots of data.
1GB SoDimms in pairs cost £30 (you will need them to be matched). DVD burners are £25 and are standard (as long as you re-cage the adapter and drive cover) and give 9GB of backup storage.

One of the biggest problems is weaker wireless lan performance. There are a few compatibility checks that need doing but the Atheros 108MBps cards that fit in the Mini PCI slots cost £12 and give a lot better range and maintain connections. Ebay is a good place to source these. The caveat for laptop upgrades is that you will need a small set of screwdrivers, a lot of patience and the install CDs if you replace the hard drive, but note that graphics cards are not upgradeable. 

Recycle
Now I’m not talking about taking the empty wine bottles out after Christmas but using the resources you have in a better way. At a recent major hardware manufacturer event I spoke to two customers within ten minutes of each other with contrasting performance issues. One was stating his rotation performance was poor – he was using an entry-level graphics card with a serious solid modelling application. The second person was asking why his workstation was so physically big. I discovered he had multiple graphics cards, lots of memory (8GB) but was using Windows XP and 2D in AutoCAD with small files. One under specified and one was a complete overkill. Now if these two customers were in the same company the logical solution would be to swap their kit around.

There are lots of companies which might be half way through a hardware transition, where some people have new kit and others older stuff. The first thing to do is to assess what you have and determine what your users need to do. There may be some upset people if you swap their kit around, and it will cost in downtime to do this but there is a recession on. Also remember the old kit is full of RAM and spare hard disks you could reuse. In today’s climate its about getting the job done and not being nice to someone whose shiny new system is being underused.

Rob Jamieson is marketing manager for workstation graphics at AMD. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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