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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

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

RAID for the CAD Workstation

January 6, 2012 Leave a comment
RAID-1

RAID-1 can be used in a workstation.

RAID is an option you’ll likely want to consider for a new workstation, depending on the model you choose. The acronym stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks, and refers to the redundancy that provides reliability and data security. By far, the most common options offered in workstations are RAID modes 0 and 1.

RAID 0 is a misleading term, as it actually implements no redundancy, but focuses on raising storage performance instead. By “striping” interleaved data across two drives, read bandwidth (but not write) essentially doubles. Unlike RAID 1, each additional drive in a RAID 0 configuration adds incremental storage. The downside? Not only does RAID 0 lack fault tolerance, but because your system is now relying on all drives to function, it is more prone to failure. If you have twice the number of the same drives, you are twice as likely to lose data.

RAID 1 is straightforward data redundancy, typically mirroring data onto at least two disks. Disks in the array can fail without compromising data integrity as long as one remains healthy. Because data is redundant, you are essentially sacrificing half your capacity in return for fault tolerance.

Where your data is stored and how often it is backed up can help you make the call on RAID 1. If your sacred data is on a server or shadow copies are being made frequently, you can probably pass on RAID 1, as you are effectively implementing redundancy already. But if your unique copy of data resides for extended periods of time on your individual desktop machine, RAID 1 can be an attractive option.

RAID-5

RAID-5 is just one level of RAID -- there are many configurations available.

Several other RAID modes are available. RAID 5, supported on some models, offers a performance boost in disk-striping plus the fault-tolerance benefit of redundancy. The drawback of implementing RAID 5 is that it requires a minimum of three disks, thereby limiting its utility to higher-end, higher-price machines.

Author: Alex Herrera

CAD Workstation Storage, Part 2: Guidelines for Choosing HDD or SSD

December 8, 2011 3 comments
Advantages and Disadvantages of HDD versus SSD for CAD Workstations

A stark contrast between the advantages of hard disk drives (HDDs) and solid state drives (SSDs).

This series is comparing hard disk drives (HDD) versus solid state drives (SSD) for CAD workstation storage. Read part 1 here.

Now there’s no one answer that fits all when it comes to choosing any piece of hardware, so let’s boil down all those distinguishing characteristics to yield some useful guidelines for outfitting your workstation’s disk storage. Have high performance demands and a high budget to match, and don’t demand much in the way of capacity? Go SSD. Tight on dollars and need the storage space? Go HDD, and take a look at the price delta for going to 10,000 RPM over 7,200. (And if bandwidth is really a hot button for you, check out your options for SAS — Serial Attached SCSI — which can range up to 15,000 RPM, albeit at a non-linear increase in price and reduced capacity.)

The Best of Both Worlds

There’s another interesting middle ground to take in all this. Consider populating two drive bays, one with a smaller SSD and one with a big HDD. Then allocate your SSD to run your operating system and the HDD to store your models and working data. Remember that if you’re fetching big, contiguous modeling data structures, latency isn’t the main problem, it’s bandwidth. And the difference in bandwidth between HDD and SDD isn’t as significant, or at least nowhere near commensurate with the difference in price per GB. Besides, if you have a lot of model or analysis data, a 160 GB SSD isn’t going to be enough, anyway. But it will be enough room for the OS, whose performance by contrast tends to be more latency sensitive, making the SSD a great fit.

What About Mobile Workstations?

If we’re talking mobile workstations, there are another couple of angles to consider. First, you might be limited to one drive bay, making today’s 160 GB limit for SSDs an issue. And second, your machine could really benefit from another of the SSD’s major advantages I haven’t yet mentioned: shock tolerance. Since there are no moving parts like the HDD’s platters or drive heads, there’s much less risk of bricking your machine should it take a hard fall. Both considerations make SSDs a more compelling choices for mobiles.

Ultimately, the goal in selecting any workstation component ought to be a well-balanced system, one in which there is no glaring weak link, but where all components are of comparable capabilities. And that means paying attention to the more mundane specs as well as the glitzy. Of course, zeroing in on the perfect storage subsystem that will be superior on all criteria in all situations simply isn’t possible, so don’t sweat it. Think about where you need capacity, where you need bandwidth and where you can tolerate latency. And most importantly, remember the budget.

There are a plenty of great choices to be had … and honestly, with the performance and prices out there, it’s pretty hard to go too wrong.

Author: Alex Herrera

CAD Workstation Storage, Part 1: The Evolving Tradeoffs Between HDD and SSD

December 6, 2011 2 comments
Advantages and Disadvantages of HDD versus SSD for CAD Workstations

A stark contrast between the advantages of hard disk drives (HDDs) and solid state drives (SSDs).

When it comes to thinking about what should go in our workstations, we — both hardware suppliers and users— too often dwell on the glitzier technology inside, the “speeds and feeds.” How many CPU cores or GPU shaders there are, what frequencies they’re clocked at, and how many polygons/second or texels/second the GPU can churn through.

But just as often as any of these specs might be the bottleneck in your CAD workflow, so might something far less glamorous, like disk I/O performance. To maximize throughput, for both you and your workstation, all the components in your system need to be up to snuff, even — or in some cases especially — your machine’s storage.

And what sort of storage subsystem should CAD professionals be considering today when configuring their workstation? Well, there are two basic choices today, the traditional, tried-and-true spinning-platter hard disk drives and the relatively new solid-state drives (SSDs). Which is right for your machine depends on a few criteria, namely capacity, performance and price.

Hard Disk Drives

Beyond their huge capacities available in mind-boggling pennies per Gigabyte, conventional spinning-platter disk drives offer impressive performance as well. Rotating at 7,200 or 10,000 RPMs (5,400 for some mobiles), today’s SATA drivers deliver a peak 3.0 Gbps, enough to satisfy most, though certainly not all, CAD applications. (3.0 Gbps is typical for SATA version 2.0, supported by the vast majority of drives shipping today. In the future SATA version 3 will be closer to 6 Gbps. In either case, sustained usable bandwidth will be less.)

Solid State Drives

By contrast, SSDs, which are comprised not of spinning platters of magnetic media but of an array of SRAM chips, offer bandwidth boosts of around two to three times that of HDDs. The SSD’s edge in bandwidth is certainly substantial but not necessarily game-changing for most CAD use, not unless you’re frequently fetching and storing lots of big models.

Read Latency

But always remember there are two aspects to storage performance. Most think of bandwidth first, but read latency — the time from when the read is requested to the time when data is first received — can often be the bottleneck. Latency is the more serious performance issue when workloads and workflows mandate many short reads that bounce around between different data structures. And more so than bandwidth, it’s in the context of latency where SSDs truly shine.

Read latencies for HDDs can range from 10’s of milliseconds (seek and/or rotational delay) to a few seconds if those disks have to be spun up from an idle or power-saving mode. With no disks to rotate and no mechanical read heads to move around, read latencies for SSDs are comparatively trivial.

So the answer’s easy then, just outfit your drive bays with SSDs, right? It’s not that simple, as the HDDs have their compelling advantages as well, namely cost and capacity. Because while SSD prices per byte have come down a lot, they’re still down-right exorbitant compared to their disk-based siblings, in the range of 15 to 20 times more expensive. And while the differences in capacities are not quite as dramatic as that, the HDD has the clear advantage. Where 1.5 TB SATA drives are now commonplace, SSDs today are maxing out at around 160 GB.

My next post will help you sort through the options to find the right one for you.

Author: Alex Herrera

The Best Hardware Configuration for SolidWorks CAD Software

November 10, 2011 3 comments

SolidWorksOptimizing hardware for SolidWorks is essential for getting the most out of this heavy-hitting CAD application, as we’ve discussed on CADspeed previously. So we were thrilled when the SolidWorks forum addressed this very issue recently on their forums.

The key to getting the most out of SolidWorks, or any CAD application for that matter, is ensuring your hardware can handle the workload. Remember that your situation is unique. In simple terms, two users using the same software on the same system may have very different perspectives on their workload efficiency if one is using 3D rendering and the other is not. Consider your needs first and foremost.

On the flip side, if you know you need new hardware, simply buying the most expensive machine may not pay off in the long run either. Think in terms of your productivity while shopping for a new workstation to get the most for your budget, hopefully with a little room to grow for those inevitable upgrades.

That said, here’s a summary of the recommendations straight from SolidWorks themselves.

RAM (Random-Access Memory)

The amount of RAM you need depends less on SolidWorks and more on the number of applications you run at the same time, plus the size and complexity of your SolidWorks parts, assemblies and drawings. SolidWorks recommends you have enough RAM to work with your common applications (i.e., Microsoft Office, email, etc.) and load your SolidWorks documents at the same time.

The recommended RAM for the current SolidWorks versions is 6GB. That should be your starting point. For more information on how much RAM you need, here’s a great resource on the SolidWorks forums.

CPU

Processor speed is another key factor when selecting the right hardware for you. It’s hard to sort through all the different options though, so we recommend testing a system with your actual models. SolidWorks also offers a helpful Performance Test, which offers a standardized test for determining performance of your major system components (i.e., CPU, I/O, video) when working with SolidWorks datasets. Even better, when you complete the SolidWorks Performance Test, you have an option to share your score with others. This gives you, and other community members, a sense of where a system stands relative to others. Nice!

Note that SolidWorks and some of its add-ons (PhotoView 360) have some multithreaded capabilities, so the application can use the second processor or multiple cores. But SolidWorks says that rebuilds are single threaded and therefore rebuilds generally will not be faster with multiple CPUs or cores.

Disk

The size of your hard drive or solid-state drive should be based on the disk space you need. Take a look at all your system’s components: operating system, applications and documents. If you work primarily on a network, your needs may be different than those who primarily use their local drive. Don’t forget to develop a back-up plan for your data, if you don’t already have one. (You do have one, right?)

Graphics Cards

The very nature of CAD software requires a good workstation-level graphics card and driver. You are probably going to need at least a mid-range card, if not a high-end card, depending on the type of CAD work you do. For graphics cards, we recommend starting with the SolidWorks Certified Graphics Cards and System, because SolidWorks has done the testing for you.

Can’t get enough about hardware configurations for SolidWorks? Check out this great post from SolidWorks on their forums. Or learn more about the minimum requirements for SolidWorks.

Hardware Considerations for Maximizing the Performance of Vectorworks 2012 Software

October 27, 2011 3 comments

Vectorworks 2012In September we announced the release of the 2012 version of Vectorworks® software. The release contains more than 100 performance and usability improvements to help users save time and increase their productivity. If you’re thinking about trying one of the Vectorworks design series programs, or if you’re ready for an upgrade, you may have some questions about hardware selection. Here is a brief overview to get you started.

Core Considerations

The main benefits provided by hardware to Vectorworks 2012 come from the number of CPU cores available, as well as their individual clock speed.

If you use Renderworks, the Vectorworks rendering application, you’ll want a CPU with multiple cores because when rendering in Renderworks® modes, Vectorworks 2012 software is capable of utilizing dozens of cores. These cores can all be accessed at the same time, which drastically decreases the rendering time over older single-core machines.

Thoughts on Memory

Memory (RAM) is less important to Vectorworks software, with a good base being 4GB to allow plenty of free RAM for the operating system, as well as for the Vectorworks program and a few other applications to run in the background.

Vectorworks is normally not very memory intensive, so you would not notice the difference between two machines with identical processors and video cards. For example, if one had 4GB and one had 12GB, your experience with the program would likely be similar. However, there are instances where more memory can be helpful to you. For example, if you run multiple apps on your machine, such as CINEMA 4D or Scia Engineer, extra RAM will be useful to improving overall performance.

Drive Decisions

The other aspects to consider when choosing hardware for the Vectorworks 2012 program are video cards (which are covered in detail here), and the drive the machine will use. Vectorworks would receive a mild benefit to open/close times and speed increases when saving files if you were to use an SSD (Solid State Drive) as compared to a regular 7200RPM HDD (Hard Disk Drive). However, you would not notice significant drafting speed or rendering speed increases if you used a faster drive.

To learn more about how to maximize your Vectorworks 2012 software experience, please see our list of Vectorworks system recommendations.

Author: Jim Wilson, Technical Support Specialist, Nemetschek Vectorworks, Inc.

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