Here at CADspeed, we get a lot of questions about buying new hardware for CAD applications. While the answer to, “What CAD hardware should I buy?” varies widely based on the person asking the question, it always starts in the same place: with the requirements of the CAD software you plan to use.
Yet a list of minimum requirements can be, well, only minimally helpful in the quest for the right CAD workstation. Most CAD users need hardware that will not just meet the minimum specifications, but enable them to maximize their productivity.
CAD software developers know this, and they have a vested interest in making sure you get the bang for your software buck. So this series will explore recommended hardware for a variety of common CAD applications from the makers of the applications themselves.
We start this series with Autodesk, creator of 3D design, engineering and entertainment software that includes some of the most commonly used applications in the industry. Autodesk has developed a web site to help users find certified or recommended software for Autodesk applications.
The truth is, however, many CAD users don’t use just one CAD software application. It’s very common to use both AutoCAD and Revit on the same system, for example. The intriguing part of the Autodesk hardware site is you can select multiple products and find the common driver and hardware configurations that will work best for your system.
Certified vs. Recommended
On the Autodesk website, you’ll see two terms that you need to understand: certified and recommended. “Certified” hardware meets Autodesk’s minimum hardware requirements for the applicable Autodesk software product. At least one configuration (e.g., GPU + driver, or CPU + GPU + RAM + HD + BIOS) has passed tests designed to verify that the hardware supports the product’s features.
“Recommended” hardware meets Autodesk’s recommended system requirements for the applicable Autodesk product. At least one configuration has passed tests designed to verify that the hardware supports the product’s features.
A “Recommended” or “Certified” rating is based on the test results for a graphics card and driver or a complete system. Clicking the link for a card or system will reveal the results of each individual component tests.
|Recommended – Meets Autodesk’s recommended system requirements and has passed all Autodesk certification tests.|
|Certified – Meets Autodesk’s minimum system requirements and has passed all Autodesk certification tests.|
|Icon||Component Test Results*|
|Passed – When tested with this configuration, the hardware passed testing.|
|Passed with issues – When tested with this configuration, the hardware has some minor problems or features that are not supported.|
|Failed – When tested with this configuration, the hardware does not adequately support the product’s features.|
|No Results – This configuration has not been tested by the associated product.|
* Test results are valid only for the tested combination of hardware and driver. Certified or Recommended status does not guarantee that the graphics hardware will operate acceptably with other drivers or configurations. Driver-specific test results are available for some hardware and can be found by clicking on a product name in the Hardware List.
Other Terms to Understand
Before using the Autodesk Certified Hardware site, you should understand a few other common terms to make sure you are getting the right results.
- Workstation—Graphics hardware designated by the manufacturer as workstation-grade, typically meaning it is designed to work with 3D CAD applications
- Consumer—Graphics hardware designated by the manufacturer for desktop or gaming level use, typically meaning it is not designed or recommended for use with 3D CAD applications
- Mobile—Integrated hardware normally found in laptops.
- Workstation Desktop—Desktop system designated by the manufacturer as workstation-grade, typically meaning it is designed to work with 3D CAD applications
- Workstation Laptop—Laptop designated by the manufacturer as workstation-grade, typically meaning it is designed to work with 3D CAD applications
- Consumer Desktop—Desktop system designated by the manufacturer for desktop or gaming level use, typically meaning it is not designed or recommended for use with 3D CAD applications
- Consumer Laptop—Laptop designated by the manufacturer for desktop or gaming level use, typically meaning it is not designed or recommended for use with 3D CAD applications.
- Tablet—Touch-screen device with integrated components.
The Hardware List page contains only the hardware products that Autodesk has tested for use with certain Autodesk applications. Autodesk tests a variety of hardware, but focuses primarily on hardware the manufacturer has indicated is workstation-grade and designed to work with 3D CAD applications.
Unless otherwise noted, Autodesk hardware certification tests are run on systems containing a single video card with a single monitor attached. Autodesk does not currently run certification tests on systems with multiple graphics cards installed or multiple monitors.
Author: CADspeed Editors
A GPU manages how your computer graphics process and display and, thanks to parallel processing, is typically more efficient than a CPU. The GPUs that are best optimized for professional graphics-intensive applications, such as CAD, design visualization and analysis, are found in workstation caliber AMD FirePro and NVIDIA Quadro graphics cards.
Five Categories of GPUs
Such professional-caliber GPUs come in a variety of flavors for desktop as well as mobile form factors. In the more mature desktop arena, they tend to fall into five categories of add-in cards.
The first category is 2D GPUs. Professional 2D cards can manage some 3D processing, but are not optimized for regular or intensive 3D applications. They generally aren’t well suited for CAD use.
For professional-level CAD work, you’ll want a Quadro or FirePro 3D add-in card. Each of these product lines includes approximately half a dozen models that fall into the remaining four product categories, as defined here by Jon Peddie Research:
- entry-level: $350 or less
- mid-range: $350–$950
- high-end: $950–$1,500
- ultra high-end: $1,500 or more
There are always exceptions, but most buyers will want to match the performance and capabilities of the GPU with the rest of the system — that is, an entry-caliber card for an entry caliber workstation. Achieving good balance, where each component hits a performance level that is supported by the rest of the system, is the best way to maximize ROI for your workstation purchase and optimize your productivity.
Fortunately, most workstation OEMs today do this work for you, offering a subset of cards from AMD and NVIDIA that best match the capabilities of the model you’ve chosen.
Optimizing GPU Performance
Most graphics cards — and all performance-oriented models — slide into PCI Express x16 slots in the workstation. Graphics cards can be installed in open slots at the factory when ordering your new system, or anytime later if you buy a card off the shelf. A mid-life upgrade of your system with a latest-generation GPU can provide a cost-effective kick, for example if rendering becomes a bottleneck.
And unlike the machine that’s at your desk today, your new workstation (unless it’s a small–form factor model) will likely come equipped with at least two PCI Express x16 slots, able to accommodate two cards. Why would you want two (or more)? One reason is that multi-GPU technologies from NVIDIA (SLI) and AMD (CrossFire) allow the pairing of two cards (rendering alternate frames) to boost performance.
Where do you begin your quest for the right workstation? This particular hardware search should start with your software.
Let’s be real: Nobody relies on just one application over the course of a day. We’re all bouncing between disparate tasks and windows. But for the majority of CAD professionals, there is one application — or maybe a couple — that consumes the bulk of your hours at the desk. What’s the app that dominates your day? Got it? Now hit the web site of the software developer and find the minimum and recommended system requirements for your killer app. AutoCAD users can find this information at http://usa.autodesk.com/autocad/system-requirements.
Minimum is the Starting Point Only
In most cases, an application’s minimum requirements set an extremely low standard, as the software vendors begrudgingly must address the least common denominator of the installed base. We don’t recommend you follow these guidelines, but it’s worth making a note of the minimum graphics, system memory and CPU requirements. On the other hand, it’s highly likely that any new workstation on the market today will meet or exceed these numbers.
More interesting is the list of recommended or certified hardware. For SolidWorks, Dassault Systèmes (as of this writing) specifies a minimum of 1 GB RAM, but suggests 6 GB. Well, if you go with 1 GB, you’ll be sorry — even 6 GB isn’t necessarily the best choice, depending on your budget, and especially given the incredible amount of gigabytes/dollar that can be had today.
Similarly, Autodesk isn’t going to stop you from running a PC gamer graphics card, but the company will tell you which cards are optimized for performance and built for reliability when it comes to supporting AutoCAD or Autodesk Inventor.
Increasingly, the only CAD-certified graphics cards are professional-brand NVIDIA Quadro and AMD FirePro. That’s because software developers have consistently seen the fewest bugs and problems with cards that, like the system overall, have been exhaustively tested and tuned for professional workstation applications. In fact, the major CAD software developers will help you address issues related to running a Quadro or FirePro card, but they dedicate no support cycles to fixing bugs on consumer-class hardware.
AMD launched the AMD FirePro A300 Series Accelerated Processing Unit (APU) for entry-level and mainstream desktop workstations. Featuring AMD Eyefinity multi-display technology, the AMD FirePro A300 Series APUs are designed for CAD and media and entertainment (M&E) workflows.
AMD FirePro A300 Series APUs combine CPU and GPU functionality on a single chip to blend workstation performance and application-certified compatibility required to help keep design professionals productive in their work.
“Design professionals demand workstation-class tools that enable productivity and flexibility in their workflow, and the AMD FirePro A300 Series APUs enable workstation integrators and OEMs an exciting new computing platform on which to design and build powerful, entry-level desktop workstation configurations,” said Matt Skynner, corporate vice president and general manager of AMD Graphics.
According to the company, the AMD FirePro A300 Series APUs are the first single-chip processors capable of delivering the workstation-class visual computing performance required for advanced professional design workflows. The introduction of AMD FirePro A300 Series APUs is designed to allow OEMs and workstation integrators (WSIs) greater flexibility, enabling new workstation designs that help save space, are energy efficient, and have low heat and noise levels without compromising true workstation-class performance and reliability.
AMD FirePro A300 Series APUs were developed for the entry-level and mainstream workstation segments, providing a blend of CPU and GPU performance and industry-leading features to keep design professionals efficient:
- Support for AMD Eyefinity Technology for enhanced efficiency and immersive, multi-monitor productivity;
- AMD Turbo Core technology, where CPU and GPU performance are dynamically scaled depending on workload demands, effectively providing a more responsive experience;
- Support for horizontal display resolutions up to 10,240 x 1600 pixels, enabling large desktop spaces across multiple high-resolution display devices for advanced multitasking;
- Support for Discrete Compute Offload (DCO), allowing additional compute capability by using discrete AMD FirePro GPUs in parallel with APU graphics for extended GPGPU performance;
- 30-bit color support to enable image and color fidelity for advanced workflows such as color correction and image processing when using displays capable of 10-bit-per-channel operation;
- Dedicated UVD (universal video decoder/VCE, or video CODEC engine) media encoding hardware for faster “fixed function” GPU processing of H.264/MPEG4 files and other motion media formats when using compatible software, to free up CPU resources for other tasks.
Pricing and Availability
The AMD FirePro A300 Series APUs will be available in systems from a number of workstation integrators starting in August 2012.
|AMD FirePro A300 Series APUs|
|APU Model||TDP||CPU Cores||CPU Clock (Max/Base)||AMD Stream Processors||GPU Clock||Unlocked|
|AMD FirePro A300||65W||4||4 GHz / 3.4 GHz||384||760 MHz||No|
|AMD FirePro A320||100W||4||4.2 GHz / 3.8 GHz||384||800 MHz||Yes|
Author: CADspeed editors
Editor’s Note: Q&A with CADspeed answers CAD hardware questions from our readers.
I am the CAD manager for a design group of eight. We are looking into upgrading our computers to be able to accommodate our 3D modeling needs. We primarily use AutoCAD and CADWorx for piping and vessel design. We do not use surfaces or rendering. My question is, what CPU/GPU combination should I be looking into for high performance orbit/zoom/pan/refresh? Our price point is below $2000 and we would like to get a comparable laptop as well.
Answer from CADspeed Blogger, Alex Herrera:
In general, I’d start with a CPU and GPU of relatively equal footing (i.e. both entry class, both mid-range, etc.) Then, if a lot of time is spent navigating/viewing a static model in real time with good render quality, then you’ll want to look for a higher-end GPU. If more time is spent creating models or rendering with final-frame or publish quality, then focusing on a higher-end CPU would be more appropriate.
The incessant pace of progress and innovation for workstation technology never slows.
Less than a quarter after every major workstation OEM launched a full trio of models based on Intel’s Sandy Bridge-EP (a.k.a. Xeon E5), the industry leader in CPUs has already released its follow-on processor generation, code-named Ivy Bridge. And subsequently, we are now seeing the first Ivy Bridge workstations hitting the market, including Dell’s Precision T1650 and HP’s Z220.
How Does Ivy Bridge Affect the CAD Workstation Market?
What benefits can Ivy Bridge offer to those plying their trade in CAD? Well, there’s the usual broad-based boost in performance that any good generational upgrade will provide, as Intel expects a 20 percent performance improvement for general computation from Ivy Bridge (though of course mileage will vary by application). But there’s more appeal for this upcoming product family than just the usual generation-to-generation performance bump. Because while that appeal extends across applications and usage models, there are a few special nuggets of technology in this generation that will pique the interest of workstation-wielding CAD professionals.
Intel’s lead in silicon process manufacturing continues to grow, and the benefits of Ivy Bridge should prove an ideal vehicle to showcase that lead. Just as competitors are getting their 32 nm process, with Ivy Bridge Intel’s jumping a full generation ahead with a 22 nm process that allows for millions more transistors in the same silicon area.
That’s a win for workstation buyers especially, as they represent a professional community that certainly care about CPU performance, but demand a lot more. First off, a shrink buys room for more cores, and we’ll eventually see some Ivy Bridge SKUs with eight or more cores (not at first launch, but later in the product lifecycle). Far from being one-trick-ponies, today’s MCAD professionals have to be jacks-of-all-trades — a competitive market, tight budgets and tighter schedules all demand it. Drawing is just one piece of the daily workflow, complemented by a host of other critical compute tasks, from simulation to styling. And chores like finite element analysis and computational fluid dynamics multi-thread quite well, making 50% more available cores a serious weapon in driving computation time down and achieving the ultimate goal — boosting productivity.
Improved Integrated Graphics
The extra silicon space also allowed Intel to dial up the performance and functionality of its integrated graphics hardware. For example, Ivy Bridge’s P4000 GPU populates more on-chip graphics engines and supports advanced features like hardware tessellation, a proven tool that can deliver finer, more realistic 3D surfaces in less time. With its range of upgrades, Ivy Bridge can claim full DirectX11 support that its predecessor could not. And with more of those bigger, faster graphics engines, Intel can claim a 30% increase in performance for Ivy Bridge’s graphics over Sandy Bridge’s. And that means CAD professionals on a budget can now more seriously consider choosing a low-cost CPU-integrated graphics solution like the P400.
Support for Three Monitors
But looking beyond performance, Ivy Bridge’s graphics is going to provide another big draw for the MCAD professional: native support for three monitors. While the mainstream is now just discovering the benefits of dual monitors, many mechanical designers are already using three: for example, one for drawing, one for simulation and one for visualization. Prior to Ivy Bridge, a desktop with three high-resolution monitors mandated at least one discrete add-in graphics card. But with this generation, a cost-conscious MCAD user could go three-wide and stick with base platform graphics.
MCAD Users: Same Performance, 50% Fewer Watts!
With more cores to speed CAD simulation and ultra-realistic rendering, as well as a 30 percent graphics improvement, Ivy Bridge promises to be a tide that raises all boats, as all workstations — deskside or mobile — will benefit. But there’s one unique advancement debuting in Ivy Bridge that’s a particular boon to the MCAD pro on the go. You see, Ivy Bridge’s 22 nm technology introduces a revolutionary new transistor structure called TriGate that offers the same performance at 50% fewer Watts than Sandy Bridge’s 32 nm.
And that’s allowing leading vendors HP, Lenovo, Dell and Fujitsu to introduce new mobile workstation models that dramatically extend battery life at the same performance level, or deliver far more performance, with the same battery life. Either way you look at it, it’s a win when computation demands are high. And few corners of the computing world demand more performance/Watt than mechanical designers trying to accomplish demanding design work on the road.
This post reflects industry analyst Alex Herrera’s views and does not necessarily reflect the opinions, product plans or strategy of either Dell or Intel.
Processors for CAD Hardware: Find the Balance Between Multiple Cores and Increased Single-Thread Performance
Several years ago processor vendors began backing away from a sole focus on cranking up clock frequencies and otherwise striving to squeeze every last possible bit of performance from single-thread processing. That path was heading down the road of diminishing returns and leading to other problems, most notably excessive power consumption and thermal output.
Growth of Multi-Core Processing
Single-thread performance hasn’t been forgotten, but the dominant thrust has shifted to parallel processing, with Intel moving from dual-core to quad-core and now hex-core processors. Factor in the dualsocket configurations available in mid-range and higher workstations, and today 12 processing cores in a single machine can easily be had.
What Does Multi-Core Processing Mean to the CAD Professional?
Multi-core approaches have proved to be a great way to gain theoretical speed-ups, but for CAD professionals who have practical computing demands, how well reality tracks theory depends on their application. Some CAD software programs, including AutoCAD and SolidWorks, do limited multitasking if multiple processors are available — for example, in managing the user interface and on-screen display. And rendering software, whether running on the CPU, GPU, or both, tends to use multiple processing cores.
Given this, most CAD pros will want to find the right balance of multiple cores and increased single-thread performance, the latter enabled by Intel through a combination of architectural improvements in its CPU design and its Turbo Boost Technology 2.0, which delivers an (often temporary) increase in CPU clock speed.
What Should You Buy?
Although an oversimplification, it’s generally fair to say that if CAD modeling chews up more hours than anything else in your day, you should allocate more of your workstation budget to buying a fast processor. If you spend most of your time rendering, you should invest more of the budget in more cores, or in many cases, a more powerful GPU if that’s what your application needs. Read on.
Where do you draw the line on how much of your budget to allocate to the CPU? Again, there’s no universal answer — sorry, there never is — but keep in mind that the upward climb on this (or nearly any) product spectrum follows a path of diminishing returns. So once you’ve decided whether to favor most cores or fastest cores, try to get a sense of where the “knee” is in the price curve. That is, where do you start paying a lot more to get a comparatively small return? That’s likely to be your sweet spot, tempered of course by the constraints in your overall budget.