How do high-end business PCs differ from entry-level workstations? What, if any, additional value do workstations bring to MCAD applications? The best way to get a handle on these common concerns is to first define “workstation.”
In general, a workstation is a computer with more specialized capabilities than a desktop PC. For example, workstations feature higher-performance processors, professional-grade 3D graphics, and more expansion slots for adding memory, graphics capabilities, or support for special devices. Workstations use powerful processors and error-correcting code (ECC) memory. In addition, workstations are certified by independent software vendors (ISV) for MCAD and other applications. Workstation vendors like Hewlett-Packard (HP), Palo Alto, Calif., rigorously test hardware platforms and software stacks to ensure reliability and performance.
Workstations also include features that are not found on a PC such as the HP Performance Advisor on the new HP Z210. It lets users easily configure, customize, and optimize the system for each new software program and driver installed. HP Performance Advisor also organizes configuration information, which streamlines the decision-making process for loading the latest drivers and up dates. In the case of any problems, Autodesk, San Rafael, Calif., and SolidWorks, Concord, Mass., support staff can review HP Performance Advisor configuration reports to provide better service and support.
The HP Z210 workstations come as expandable convertible minitowers (CMTs) or as compact small-form factors (SFFs), suitable for tight workspaces. Their price starts near that of high-end business PCs. The HP Z210 workstations feature Intel Xeon processors with four cores (quad core), which include features that support faster and more robust performance than Intel Core processors primarily found in PCs. As compared to earlier models, the HP Z210 boosts AutoCAD’s speed by up to 50%. This makes the workstation a good choice for 2D and 3D MCAD applications on a budget.
The HP Z210 is one of the first workstations to provide Intel Xeon E3-12X5 processors with Intel HD Graphics P3000. Here, the same die contains the CPU and graphics engines, providing good entry 3D graphics capabilities while leveraging Intel Turbo Boost Technology 2.0. Turbo Boost lets processor cores run faster than the base operating frequency when the core is operating below power, current, and temperature specification limits. It works for both multithread and single-thread workloads.
HP Workstations also undergo more testing than PCs. Technicians perform drop, shock, and vibration testing to ensure workstations will withstand the rigors of transportation and being moved around the office. Humidity, temperature, and altitude testing ensure continued operation in unusual settings. Other tests use electron microscopes to check internal components and ensure that all is working well.
Entry-level workstations offer a wide range of professional discrete graphics, which are not typically found on desktop PCs. Unlike integrated graphics on the processor, discrete graphics cards provide a higher range of graphics processing power and have dedicated graphics memory independent of the computer’s RAM. The HP Z210, for instance, provides graphics options from AMD, Sunnyvale, Calif., and NVIDIA, Santa Clara, Calif., that incorporate dual-graphics-card capabilities and support up to four 2D displays. 3D choices include entry-level and midrange graphics from AMD and NVIDIA as well as a high-end NVIDIA Quadro 4000 graphics cards for large, complex 3D designs.
The workstations also have cooling and airflow systems that help provide good acoustics for quiet operation even when configured with powerful discrete graphics cards as well as high-performance hard-drive options with expanded storage capacities, which cater to the increasing storage demands of ever-growing CAD models.
What’s more, workstations deliver enhanced reliability. For example, unlike PCs, workstations have ECC memory, which detects and corrects single-bit errors and keeps data-intensive applications running reliably. This type of memory delivers greater peace of mind when using complex MCAD applications requiring larger memory sizes. The Z210 CMT will be capable of expanding up to 32 Gbytes of ECC main memory when 8-Gbytes ECC DIMMs are available later this year. Workstations thus have the memory capacity to handle large MCAD models and provide a safety net against memory errors that could cause system crashes or data corruption.
HP’s entry-level workstations specifically target MCAD. Should an issue arise with a workstation running Autodesk, SolidWorks, or other MCAD application, expert ISV engineers can help solve them. PCs are not ISV-certified to run MCAD software, so application reliability and performance is not guaranteed.