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Solid State Drives for CAD Workstations

April 9, 2013 Leave a comment
Computer Hard Drive

The old adage about getting a hard drive at least twice as big as you think you’ll need still holds true.

Hard drives, and SA-SCSI drives especially, face growing competition from a new breed of storage device: the solid-state drive (SSD).

An SSD stores data in solid-state memory — that is, SRAM chips — rather than on conventional hard disk platters. Today’s SSDs are large enough to be useful, and although not exactly economical, have come down enough in price that they can enter the conversation when it comes to outfitting a new workstation.

The advantage of SSDs? There are several, including less noise and better reliability in the face of environmental issues like vibration. Unlike the HDD, the SSD has no moving parts. But the real motivation to choose SSD is performance. More specifically, it’s about much lower latency, the time that lapses between asking the drive for data and receiving it. The SSD doesn’t necessarily offer a big benefit over hard drives in bandwidth — how quickly the data comes once it starts coming — but it eliminates the seek time for the hard drive’s head, delivering an indisputable advantage in access time. The downside is a glaring one: price.

Combination Drives

Given the pluses and minuses, CAD users who have a slightly higher but not unlimited budget can entertain the option of SSDs in one of two ways. A combination of HDDs and SSDs in multiple drive bays — in particular, a smaller SSD with your OS installed paired with a large conventional disk drive for data — is very practical. Or choose a hybrid drive that combines the best of both worlds. This emerging technology is effectively a two-tiered memory device that implements its bulk storage on the cost-effective hard disk while implementing a much smaller, but much lower-latency cache on SSD. For frequently accessing reasonably sized chunks of data, you get the speed benefit of SSD without breaking the bank. Whereas an SSD currently commands ten times the price (or more) per gigabyte of a conventional 7,200-RPM HDD, the hybrid drive is a relative bargain at approximately twice the price (although the premium and the performance boost will vary by model).

The bottom line on selecting storage: Buy a lot more than you think you need, especially if you’ve chosen a system that limits you to one or two drive bays.

Author: Alex Herrera

Do You Really Need ECC Memory for CAD Workstation Computing?

January 31, 2013 Leave a comment

I recently read an article by an Intel product manager on the need for “ECC” (error correction code) memory in CAD workstations. From the article:  “Corrupted data can impact every aspect of your business, and worse yet you may not even realize your data has become corrupted. Error-correcting code (ECC) memory detects and corrects the more common kinds of internal data corruption.”

For some reason this triggered my memory of the sudden-acceleration Toyota Prius incident from 2010. The popular press latched on to the idea that cosmic rays were screwing with the electronics in the Prius. While theoretically possible,  the probabilities of this were astronomically low.  It did however, make for a great story and the FUD (fear uncertainty doubt) caused Prius prices to temporarily plummet and sales come to a crawl.

Back to ECC memory and CAD systems. Is there really a need for ECC memory in CAD or is it just FUD marketing to upsell hardware and make products sound more valuable than they really are?  I decided to do a little research.

Question:

Who needs ECC memory and what is its role in professional & CAD workstation computing?

Answer:

Naturally occurring cosmic rays can and do cause problems for computers down here on planet Earth. Certain types of subatomic particles (primarily neutrons) can pierce through buildings and computer components and physically alter the electrical state of electronic components. When one of these particles interacts with a block of system memory, GPU memory or other binary electronics inside your computer, it can cause a single bit to spontaneously flip to the opposite state. This can lead to an instantaneous error and the potential for incorrect application output and sometimes, even a total system crash. However, the theoretical chances of a single bit error caused by a cosmic ray strike on your PC or workstation’s memory is fairly rare — only about once every 9 years per 8GB of RAM, according to recent data.

ECC technology — used as both system RAM, and in devices such as high-end GPUs — can reliably detect and correct these errors, reducing the odds of memory corruption due to “single bit errors” down to about once every 45 years for 8GB of RAM. Of course, just like everything else in life there are always tradeoffs. ECC memory is typically up to 10% slower and significantly more expensive than standard non-ECC memory.

Because the odds of a cosmic ray strike increase in direct proportion to the physical amount of memory (and related components) inside a computer, this is a real concern for large scale, clustered supercomputing and other environments where computing tasks often include high-precision calculation sets that can take days or even weeks to complete. In the case of supercomputer clusters, which often contain hundreds or even thousands of connected computer nodes and terabytes of memory, the odds of cosmic ray strikes on the system are much more likely — and much more costly. Restarting a week-long calculation on a supercomputer can cost a facility many tens of thousands of dollars in lost time, electricity and manpower —not to mention lost productivity.

But for even very beefy PC CAD workstation configurations with loads of RAM on board, you are probably not at imminent risk from problems caused by cosmic ray strikes and the resulting single bit errors. Over the course of your work, you are much more likely to endure system crashes or application hangs dues to failing components, power fluctuations and software bugs than due to cosmic ray strikes. Additionally, many applications in the desktop design and engineering space can actually endure a single bit error without negatively impacting the computing process or product. For example, if the color or brightness of a single pixel on a display monitor is changed due to this type of memory corruption on the system’s GPU, nobody will ever see or notice it. There are many such examples of this type of error not really impacting ones everyday work.

This said, many leading technology manufacturers are enabling their high-end products with ECC memory for compute-heavy (especially clustered supercomputing) applications where the benefits of using error correcting memory outweigh any comparative speed/cost drawbacks. AMD for example, has engineered their new AMD FirePro W9000 and FirePro S9000 ultra-high-end GPU cards to include ECC memory which can selectively be enabled by the end user and used for many advanced computing purposes where rock-solid stability and protection from space rays is crucial.

Sources:

  1. http://www.tezzaron.com/about/papers/soft_errors_1_1_secure.pdf
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ECC_memory
  3. http://www.smartm.com/files/salesLiterature/dram/smart_whitepaper_sbe.pdf

Author: Tony DeYoung

The Best Hardware Configuration for AutoCAD 2013, Part 4: Processor, Video Card, RAM and Hard Drive

October 31, 2012 14 comments

So far in this series, I’ve discussed how to determine if your hardware can handle the AutoCAD 2013 upgrade, how to outline your current and future needs and how to find new hardware if you decide it’s time for a new system. If you are looking for new hardware for AutoCAD 2013, here’s some specific components to look at closely.

The Processor and Video Card

Make sure to focus on the processor and the video card when looking for a new workstation. Especially the processor. This component is the most difficult to upgrade latter on.

A video card is easy enough to change out, but they can be very expensive. If you are working with 3D models and create a lot of renderings, make sure to get a good video card. “Regular” 2D CAD work will also require a good video card. Go through Autodesk’s list. Don’t fall into the trap of getting a gaming card. CAD requirements of video cards are very different from game requirements. CAD is a precision tool. Games are not. Games need speed. CAD needs accuracy.

RAM

RAM is another component that is easy to update later. Make sure you get ECC RAM (Error-Correcting Code Memory). One of the requirements of being a “workstation” is having ECC memory. This type of computer memory can detect and automatically fix common types of data corruption. That means fewer crashes while working in your CAD software!

Each motherboard will carry a certain amount of slots for the RAM chips. Get that number of chips. Each slot has a channel in which it can pump data through. If a slot is empty, then that channel isn’t being used.

Hard Drive

What are you going to do for internal storage? I’m talking about the hard drive. Workstations typically have support for RAID, or Redundant Array of Independent Disks. Essentially this type of storage system has multiple hard drives, each mirroring the other. If one fails the workstation still works because the second drive is still running. It’s automatic and can keep your CAD users working. Of course this will increase cost, but it could prolong the life of your workstation.

How much storage space is enough? If you are storing data files, images, videos, etc. on your network instead of your workstation, then you shouldn’t need much storage. 500 GB should be enough for most systems, probably even 350 GB. Make a list of all of the software programs a user needs, include the operating system, and add up the space needed. Leave room for growth and there you go.

The price of hard drives is always dropping, and the amount of storage space on each drive is always increasing. Getting a little less storage capacity could help reduce cost.

Author: Brian Benton

Hard Drives for CAD Workstations: SATA and SA-SCSI Standards

October 3, 2012 2 comments
Computer Hard Drive

The old adage about getting a hard drive at least twice as big as you think you’ll need still holds true.

The longtime, tried-and-true hard drive remains the backbone of a workstation’s storage subsystem, but a new breed of solid-state technology is pushing its limits. Although they share the same basic technology as their ancestors, today’s drives are much bigger, faster, and cheaper. Traditional workstation hard-disk drives (HDDs) primarily come in a 3.5″ form factor, supporting SATA or SA-SCSI standards.

SATA Drives

Essentially the same models that ship in corporate and consumer branded PCs, SATA drives are less expensive, sometimes dramatically so. (A terabyte for $50, anyone?) Pricing increases with drive capacity and RPM, an indication of how quickly the mechanical platter can spin within the drive and therefore how fast the drive can read and write data. The least-expensive SATA drives support 7,200-RPM speeds, while the highest-performance options jump to 10,000 RPM.

SA-SCSI Drives

The second HDD option, the SA-SCSI drive, requires a motherboard interface that is also compatible with SATA drives (whereas a SATA interface will not support an SA-SCSI drive). With SA-SCSI, you’ll get the option to move up to 15,000 RPM, but you’ll sacrifice capacity and cash.

The Choice Between Speed and Capacity

Whether you choose a SATA or SA-SCSI drive, you will generally face a trade-off between paying for more RPMs or paying for more capacity, because buying both can be costly. Most CAD professionals would opt for capacity and costeffectiveness, because running out of space or money is usually a more glaring roadblock than facing modest shortages of access speed and disk bandwidth. Many of us are paranoid about running out of disk space — and we all should be to some degree, because data piles up faster than we think it will. If this describes you, consider purchasing extra drive bays that bring more room to add drive capacity later — although you can always fall back on external drives to shore up capacity down the road.

Author: Alex Herrera

Optimizing Your Revit Workstation for Point Clouds

July 25, 2012 3 comments

Reality capture is a boom business for the building industry. With roughly 5 million existing commercial buildings in the United States alone, it’s easy to understand why. Laser-scanner-based reality capture is the dominant methodology used today to accurately capture the 3D state of an existing building. However, the typical laser-scan-based point cloud is in the hundreds of millions of 3D points, sometimes even going into the billions of points. With this additional data overhead on top of an already dense Building Information Model, it’s important to optimize your workstation hardware to deliver a productive user experience.

Point Clouds in Autodesk Revit 2013

Point Clouds in Autodesk Revit 2013

Finding the Bottleneck

Under the hood, Autodesk Revit utilizes the PCG point cloud engine to rapidly access the 3D points contained in point cloud and retrieve points to be displayed in the current Revit View.  Since the typical point cloud dataset is so large, a workstation’s RAM is insufficient to be used as the means for access by the PCG engine in Revit.  Instead, the disk drive is used for access, while a small amount of System RAM and Video RAM is used for the current Revit View.  Thus, the hard drive is commonly the limiting factor for point cloud performance, rather than system RAM, CPU, or GPU.

Learn the Options

With data access a common limiting factor to the performance of the Revit point cloud experience, let’s discuss the options available to deliver the best experience. There are two primary types that are found today: spinning platter and solid-state drives.

  • Spinning platter drives are the traditional hard drive technology, and are found in most computers today, as they deliver the best balance of storage capacity, read/write access speed, and cost.
  • Solid-state drives (SSDs) are relatively new technology, contain no moving parts, and are generally much faster at reading and writing data than typical spinning platter drives.

In a structured comparison completed by the Revit product team, we found the following results when comparing typical versions of these Disk Drive types:

Revit Point Cloud Performance Comparison

Revit Point Cloud Performance Comparison

Reap the Benefits

Based upon this investigation, we would highly recommend that those looking to optimize their Revit workstations for point cloud use install an SSD for at least the local storage of the point cloud data.  While you will also achieve additional benefits from running the entire OS on your SSD, a significant performance boost can be achieved through the retrofit of a ~$200 SSD to an existing workstation.

Author: Kyle Bernhardt, Product Line Manager, Autodesk Building Design Suite

Vectorworks Cloud Services: Reduce CPU Computing Times, Improve Collaboration in 3D Workflows

July 4, 2012 2 comments

When people think of cloud computing, benefits such as convenience and portability often come to mind. After all, the cloud may or may not deliver a faster experience for users of CAD solutions when compared to desktop processing. With this in mind, why then is cloud computing garnering so much attention these days?

It’s simple. The real benefit lies in the significant speed gains that emerge in your workflows. So if you find yourself twiddling your thumbs and monitoring your desktop CPU as it churns away at processing complicated client presentations, a cloud-based workflow could drive some needed improvements.

For example, under normal circumstances, if you want to generate a set of construction documents in PDF form, containing 10, 20 or even hundreds of sheets, sections and details on your local machine, this process can tie up your desktop for a considerable amount of time and lock you out from working. This forced downtime will vary, depending on the complexity of the viewport update and render.

Utilize the cloud, however, and the steps are basically the same, but you gain the benefit of being able to use your desktop during the process. This is because the calculations needed to generate sections, elevations, renderings and Building Information Modeling (BIM) data shift from the desktop to the cloud.

Cloud Services From Vectorworks

To synchronize and compute presentation and construction documents in the cloud, simply drag your Vectorworks file to the Cloud Services Desktop App’s project folder on your CPU, and wait for a connection. The file may reside temporarily in a queue based on load. Next, the remote server processes your file just as your desktop would, and results are automatically downloaded to your desktop or mobile device.

Vectorworks Cloud Services Portal

Cloud servers are very capable from a hardware standpoint, and can manage multiple file instances at once, meaning uploads won’t interrupt your workflows. Additionally, the Vectorworks Cloud Services sync can be automated to occur based on a user-defined schedule —sort of like a “set it and forget it” option.

Vectorworks Cloud Services users have up to 5 GB of storage capacity, and files are transferred over a secure HTTPS connection to and from the cloud, encrypted with AES-256, a U.S. government adopted security standard. Stored files are similarly encrypted. We also use Amazon Web Services for our cloud infrastructure, which enhances reliability and availability by providing redundancy and multiple data centers worldwide. (Read more about cloud security at http://aws.amazon.com/security/).

Leveraging Mobile Devices

Another benefit of the cloud is that it lets people use iOS hardware they already have to be more productive. For example, our cloud product features the Vectorworks Nomad app, which lets users browse through and share their designs from any computer or web-enabled device, such as an iPhone or iPad. So whether you’re at your desk, in a meeting, on the job site, or on vacation, you can view, mark up, share, and synchronize Vectorworks files across your devices and with your colleagues. The app runs on any iPhone or iPad that has iOS v5.0 or later, and an Android version will debut later this year. (The Vectorworks Cloud Services desktop app requires OSX 10.6.8 or newer and Windows XP SP 3, Windows Vista SP 2, or Windows 7.)

Vectorworks Cloud Services

Today’s iOS hardware relies on Wi-Fi and 3G or 4G data networks, which makes them a perfect conduit for communicating files processed in the cloud.  So just imagine the possibilities as these mobile devices become more powerful and as the services to match these capabilities also grow.

Vectorworks Cloud ServicesIn the meantime, CAD software users can take advantage of their iOS hardware to access files in a practical way. And from a project management perspective, it’s all about increasing the efficiency of employees to do more. Embrace cloud services and you’ll make your workflows and your teams more efficient.

Author’s Note: Vectorworks Cloud Services is currently available for free to members of Vectorworks Service Select, a subscription program that provides customers with the latest product releases and updates, as well as priority technical support, and VIP access to downloads and a growing library of on-demand learning tutorials. Visit www.vectorworks.net/cloudservices to learn more.

Author: Jeremy Powell, Director of Product Marketing, Nemetschek Vectorworks, Inc.

Dell Releases Four New CAD Workstation Models

May 30, 2012 3 comments

Spring has arrived, and the annual release of new CAD hardware is as dazzling as the blossoms on the trees outside. This season marks new beginnings, and the sense of renewal makes the CADspeed editors feel like digging into the latest releases and watching our hard work grow into something new and spectacular.

We found much to admire in Dell’s latest CAD hardware release, which comprises four new models featuring Intel microarchitecture and eight-core CPUs for multithreaded applications; generation three PCIe I/O support for improved visualization performance with next generation graphics; and up to 512 GB quad-channel memory for running large data sets in memory. They also offer the new NVIDIA Maximus technology, which allows users to run visualization and simulation tasks simultaneously. A range of professional-class graphics cards from AMD and NVIDIA is available, up to the AMD FirePro V7900 and NVIDIA Quadro 6000.

Systems are certified to support a variety of high-end design and engineering applications from companies including Autodesk, Dassault Systemes, PTC, Siemens PLM Software, Adobe, and ESRI.

System Specs

The Dell Precision T7600 is the most powerful and expandable workstation in the line, designed for working with massive data sets such as those integral to video, animation, engineering, simulation, and scientific analysis. It reportedly features some of the highest-performing CPU stacks, power supplies, and graphics power for a dual-socket system. It offers as many as two Intel Xeon E5-2687W 150-W processors with a total of 16 computational cores, a 1300-W, 90% efficiency power supply, up to 600 W of graphics, and up to four full x16 graphics slots.

The Dell Precision T5600 is designed for space-constrained environments that need substantial compute capability. The dual-socket workstation is built to support complex 3D modeling, creating film and video content, and performing complex engineering and analysis work. It features up to two Intel Xeon processors, each supporting eight processing cores, 128 GB of quad-channel ECC memory, and two power supply options of 635 W or 825 W.

The Dell Precision T3600 is built to carry mid-range workloads, offering a balance of performance and scalability for mainstream 3D, CAD, computer-aided-manufacturing, and digital content creation. Key features include Intel Xeon processor E5-1600 or E5-2600 family, two power supply options, and up to 64 GB 1600-MHz ECC or non-ECC memory.

The entry-level Dell Precision T1650 is designed for users who don’t need high-end power but understand the benefits and importance of running professional applications on a professional workstation, according to Dell. It will offer certified performance for professionals working with 2D CAD drawings and basic 3D models, editing photos, or developing web content. It will feature next-generation Intel Xeon processors, up to 75 W for graphics and new ISV and graphic certifications.

Pricing

  • Dell Precision T7600 pricing starts at $2,149
  • Dell Precision T5600 pricing starts at $1,879
  • Dell Precision T3600 pricing starts at $1,099
  • Pricing for the T1650 pricing starts at $649

Author: CADspeed editors

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