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.
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:
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
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.
Nothing gets us more excited at CADspeed than the idea of free hardware, so check out AMD’s Experience FirePro! Sweepstakes from February 13-27, 2012. AMD wants to hear unbiased reality from end users — from the single designer using PhotoShop CS5 to the multi-person CAD shop using a range of DCC and CAD/CAE apps.
How to Enter
You can either:
- Post a message on Twitter that describes your experience with reliability, stability and compatibility for any recent* FirePro graphics cards. Be sure to include the hashtag #FireUserCAD in the message.
- Post a comment to the FireUser Blog describing your experience with reliability, stability and compatibility for any recent* FirePro graphic cards. This comment can be as short as one sentence or as detailed as a paragraph or two.
Comments and Tweets should represent real experiences — good, bad or indifferent. As long as your experience references a recent* card, you are using an up-to-date driver, and you say what app(s) you are using, we want to hear what you have to say.
Examples of tweets that describe the quality, graphics card and software:
FirePro V7900 is fast, stable in CREO/Elements Pro + Keyshot workflow. Can’t live without Eyefinity #FireUserCAD
FirePro V4900 is performing as expected in SolidWorks 2011 running a 2 million polygon model #FireUserCAD
Driving 6 HD displays for studio broadcasting using Viz Engine and FirePro V9800. Glitches not an option. #FireUserCAD
My new FirePro V5900 is outperforming my Quadro 2000 and shows no artifacts in CATIA #FireUserCAD
Once I cleared out old drivers and installed latest versions, FirePro V7800 started performing well in Maya 2011 #FireUserCAD
What to include if you comment:
Comments on FireUser can of course be longer and provide more detail including the applications you work in, how you have stressed the card and if you have any direct comparison using another card with these applications.
* Recent eligible graphic cards
Eligible graphic cards for the sweepstakes include the FirePro V3800, FirePro V3900, FirePro V4800, FirePro V4900, FirePro V5800, FirePro V5900, FirePro V7800, FirePro V7900, FirePro V8800 and FirePro V9800.
NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. SWEEPSTAKES IS OPEN ONLY TO LEGAL RESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES AND LEGAL RESIDENTS OF CANADA, EXCLUDING QUEBEC WHO ARE AGE 18 YEARS OR OLDER.
This series focuses on helping our readers understand what CAD workstations cost and how much they are going to have to spend to find a machine that meets their CAD production needs. The first part focused on entry-level systems. This post will discuss mid-range ($2,500 to $7,000) and high-end (more than $7,000) systems.
Mid-Range and High-End
Stepping up to the mid-range and high-end, you’ll typically find dual-socket Intel Xeon processors along with full tower enclosures to handle more slots and drive bays. Spring for a dual-socket system and you’ll get twice as many CPU cores, twice as much memory bandwidth, and twice the memory capacity.
Some OEMs are going to great lengths to show off the enhanced speed of processors and increased capacity of both graphics cards (for multi-monitor or high-performance computing support) and larger storage capabilities. For example, BOXX’s top-end 4800 and 8500 series workstations feature overclocked CPU performance that provides a 25% higher frequency rate — that is, an Intel 2600k (Sandy Bridge) processor running at 4.5 GHz instead of 3.4 GHz. These workstations also provide support for as many as eight drive bays and an incredible seven PCI Express slots, allowing users to populate 18 TB of total storage and house seven single-width or four dualslot graphics cards.
But there’s more to be had at the upper end of the market, as vendors are taking a page from Apple’s book and investing an impressive amount of time and money to engineer hardware aesthetics and ergonomics, resulting in advances such as tool-less and (almost) cable-less designs; carefully designed air flow; and custom, workstation-specific, high-efficiency power supplies.
Start with Your Base Requirements
So do you really need a mid-range to high-end workstation? Will an entry-level CAD workstation do? The place to start is the base requirements for your CAD software of choice, then plan a system purchase accordingly. Note that this information makes a good starting point for configuring your workstation. We consider that the baseline, and you probably want some room to grow for software upgrades.
Also if you are doing any 3D modeling, look for faster and more capable processors, more RAM, more available hard disk space in addition to free space required for installation, and a graphics display adapter capable of at least 1,280 x 1,024 resolution in true color. The graphics card needs to have 128MB or more memory, support for Pixel Shader 3.0 or greater, and Microsoft Direct3D capabilities. (Again, consider these a starting point.)
What’s the difference between a workstation or consumer-grade PC, and why should you care? Well, ten to fifteen years ago, no one had trouble distinguishing between one and the other. Workstations were very expensive, high-performance, proprietary, 3D-equipped RISC or UNIX boxes. PCs were lower-cost, lower-quality toys that couldn’t handle 3D.
But all that has changed.
Economy of Scale
Spurred on by technological advances funded by the huge economies of scale in the broader PC markets, workstation OEMs such as HP, Sun and SGI got out of the component-making business, leaving that to independent hardware vendors (IHVs) such as Intel, AMD and NVIDIA. As a result, workstations today share technology with PCs and enjoy the economy-of-scale benefits that come with mass-market production.
That raises the question: If the guts of the PC and the guts of the workstation are the same, why pay a premium for the latter? Interestingly, those exorbitant workstation premiums of the past are long gone. Yes, you can still spend your entire system budget on a single high-end graphics card, but today’s entry-level system — which more than 80% of desktop workstation buyers choose (according to Jon Peddie Research) — can sell for only about $100 more than a similarly configured PC.
Independent Software Vendor Certification
Although you don’t have to pay much of a premium for a workstation, there are compelling reasons to do so. There’s a whole laundry list of benefits to be had, but at a minimum you’ll get independent software vendor (ISV) certification, meaning your CAD software developer has tested the hardware and vouches for its reliability, and in most cases, you’ll get a professional graphics card as well.
“It is important that CAD users select an ISV-certified workstation to help ensure that the demanding applications they depend on run smoothly, right out of the box,” said Greg Weir, director of Precision Workstation Product and ISV Marketing at Dell. “[ISV-certified hardware] comes with supported drivers to help eliminate issues and increase performance after the point of sale. This intense level of testing and development between an OEM and the ISV only comes with workstations.”
Not All Graphics Cards are Created Equal
In contrast to the graphics cards sought by gamers, professional graphics processing units (GPUs) enable special rendering modes unique to CAD in general, and often to your specific application as well. Drivers from AMD and NVIDIA optimize the quality and performance for common tasks such as rendering AutoCAD Smooth lines and Gooch shaders. Try to render the same visuals on noncertified, gamer-class hardware, and AutoCAD will turn off hardware acceleration, dropping your rendering to a relative crawl.
Many such entry-level models incorporate integrated graphics processing — that is, no discrete graphics card. Although in our opinion this option is not adequate for most CAD applications, it does offer improved graphics performance compared with a standard PC. According to Wes Shimanek, workstation product manager at Intel, “If you have been buying a PC to do CAD, you’ll want to rethink that investment and consider [a workstation]. This system offers you better performance for similar dollars to the PC you have been using.”