Professional Workstations Are Still Important

Article From: 2/28/2014 Automotive Design & Production, , Contributing Editor

With all the clamor about tablets and mobile phones, one could easily forget about workstations. Don’t. Nowadays, they’re even more primed for the heavy lifting in CAD.

Space is very much the ultimate frontier in an all-in-one (AiO) computer, which means things tend to be fixed in place; however, in HP’s Z1 G2, computer components are easily accessible and changing them requires no tools.

On the entry-level side of extremely powerful, compact desktop workstations is the overclocked, liquid cooled, 3DBOXX 4150 Xtreme from BOXX Technologies. In a case measuring about 16 x 14 in., this workstation has a quad-core, 4th-generation (Haswell) Intel Core i7 (4.3 GHz) processor, can hold up to two professional-grade graphics cards, has a variety of upgrade options, comes with a 3-year warranty, is certified for various pro design/engineering products, and starts at $2,800. Because it is a conventional desktop workstation, the display is separate.

At one end of the spectrum . . .
. . . is the Z1 G2 desktop workstation from Hewlett-Packard ( This is the “second generation of the world’s first and only all-in-one [AiO] workstation.” Starting at about $2,000, the Z1 G2 features a 27-in. display (2560 x 1440) with a 178° viewing angle; several options for Intel processors (2-core Core i3, 4-core Core i5, or one of three 4-core Xeon E3-1200 v3 processors); a choice of one of three Nvidia Quadro graphics cards; up to 32 GB DDR3 RAM; up to 3 TB SATA disk storage, plus solid-state drive storage; several USB 3.0 ports; and a wireless keyboard. The display can be an edge-to-edge, 10-finger multi-touch glass display or a non-glass, anti-glare, non-touch display. 

The included optical drive can be swapped for a Thunderbolt II module. Thunderbolt is a technology that provides fast, bidirectional data transfer speeds. Thunderbolt II provides four times the bandwidth as USB 3.0, namely 20 gigabytes/second. (Most office local area networks rarely even reach 10 GB/s.) Not many Thunderbolt-enabled peripheral devices currently exist—hard drives, expansion docks, displays, and media/entertainment devices—but that’s enough for the mechanical-CAD engineer needing to transfer large solids models from one workstation to another. Rather than transfer these files over the office LAN, an engineer can return to “sneakernet,” but instead of carrying 3.5-in., 1.44-MB diskettes, carry a 3.5-i6., multi-terabyte hard drive and plug that into the workstation.

The Z1 G2’s performance matches 
HP’s entry-level tower workstations, which is probably a good 30% to 40% of the CAD/architecture market, according to Mike Diehl, HP’s worldwide product manager, high-end workstations, Commercial Solutions Business Unit. The Z1 G2 is certified for professional applications; the components inside are professional-grade. “That’s not to say you couldn’t go out and buy some Kingston memory or a 3.5-inch SATA hard drive,” says Diehl. “They work just fine, but they wouldn’t be qualified by HP.”

But an AiO as a professional work-station? AiO desktops have all the computer’s components in the same case as the display. They are generally heavier than laptops. (The Z1 G2 weighs 47 lb.) And unlike conventional desktop computers, AiOs are space constrained. Swapping and upgrading components is limited. Don’t even think about adding components (a second graphics card or hard drive).

That said, HP first noticed years ago in the Asia-Pacific region that office space was getting physically smaller. Engineers and artists were being constrained to office space “basically smaller than card tables,” says Diehl. Today, workspaces worldwide are getting smaller. “Desk space has become such a premium and users are more and more being constrained where they can put their big displays and desktop workstations.”

Regarding the other “issue” with AiOs, components within the Z1 G2 can be upgraded without tools. A person need only push the workstation down flat across a work surface, pull on two side tabs, then lift the display from the case like a car’s hatchback door. Power supply, graphics cards, hard drives, memory, and more can then be removed and exchanged by hand. 

AiO computers already exist, but these aren’t workstations, points out Diehl. “Applications engineers, scientists, and artists use professional applications that typically don’t run optimally on non-workstation-class systems. They’ll run, but the performance and the reliability isn’t there. The applications aren’t certified on consumer-type platforms. The Z1 G2 basically provides that combination of professional components and software that is completely certified and qualified by HP and the software vendors.”       

Then, at the other end of the spectrum . . . 
. . . BOXX Technologies ( builds high-end workstations, a market involving compute-intensive work that cannot be satisfied with regular workstations. For instance, a couple of years ago, a standard 2,000 x 2,000-pixel image could easily take an hour or more to render; 4,000 x 4,000 images, three to four hours. A souped-up BOXX system generated the 2,000-pixel render in 5 minutes; 4,000-pixels, 20 to 30 minutes. Where rebuilt models are rendered several times a day, the time savings can be considerable.

One would think this speed-up is a result of multiple CPUs and multiple cores/CPU. Unlike rendering or simulation, which are multi-threaded processes, virtually all CAD programs are predominantly single-threaded, according to a BOXX blog, which further states, “This means that in most cases, when working with CAD software, your workstation can have all of the cores in the world and your application will only utilize one of them. Not just one CPU, one core. That’s it.”

“Most mainstream workstation vendors build their systems based on standard components,” says consultant David Cohn ( “These are excellent, reliable computers, but they don’t push any envelopes. The problem is, when you run the CPU faster, it generates more heat. The top-tier vendors could certainly overclock their systems, but doing so would mean that they’d need to deal with the extra heat. Dissipating the additional heat requires something more sophisticated than passive cooling augmented with an extra fan. Simply running the CPU faster does not guarantee improved performance. The other components within the system must all work in concert with the CPU.” Moreover, continues Cohn, not all CAx tasks “rely on the processor. Some, such as rotating a shaded image of a 3D model, are actually computed using the graphics card rather than the CPU.”

Now look inside a BOXX workstation for visualization, simulation, and other compute-intensive jobs. The 3DBoxx 8950, starting at $18,353, has liquid-cooled, dual Intel Xeon E5-2600 v2 processors (incidentally, Xeon processors can’t be overclocked), support for 256 GB DDR3 RAM, up to four professional-grade graphics cards (Nvidia Quadro for visualization and Nvidia Tesla for compute, according to another BOXX blog, or ATI FirePro), and bunches of internal drive bays, expansion slots, options for SATA and SSD SATA drives, and more—in a tower case about 18 x 24.7 x 7-in.

BOXX uses professional-grade components; its workstations come with a 3-year warranty and are certified for Ansys products, Autodesk Systems AutoCAD and Inventor, Dassault Systèmes Catia and SolidWorks, and many other CAx software programs.