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Hardware for the CAD Professional, Part 5: Hard Drives

April 19, 2011 8 comments

In part 1 of Hardware for the CAD Professional, we reviewed the basics of system requirements. In part 2, we defined some commonly used terms. In part 3, we talked about processors and how they can affect your workflow. Part 4 helped you calculate how much RAM you need. Now, let’s talk about hard drives.

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 Drive Capacity and Speed

This is an area where lots of change is happening, both in drive capacity and in connectivity options. It was not all that long ago that the 1TB drives became available, but now there are multi-terrabyte drives in a number of configurations — both for internal use and as externally mounted drives. If you’re creating design files, you’ll want to take advantage of the larger capacities, while paying attention to how much time it takes to save data to the drive and/or back up the drive for security.

RAID Configuration

Many users opt to configure their hard disks in some form of RAID configuration. Among the most common configurations, RAID 0 is the fastest RAID level, using a technique called data striping. It requires at least 2 disks. RAID 1 uses a pair of hard disks at a time to provide fault tolerance (no performance benefit) — it requires at least 2 hard disks. By using disk mirroring, the same data is written to both disks at once, so if one hard disk crashes, the same data is available from the remaining hard disk. There are other RAID configurations, but these two seem to be the most popular for workstations.

I will provide a caveat here — I’ve used RAID extensively in the past, but some bad experiences resulted in data loss and I no longer trust RAID as an option. This is strictly based on my personal experience — your mileage may vary.

Like faster RAM, higher RPM rates on drives tend to provide a percentage point or two increase in performance, so if you’re looking to eke every bit of performance from a system, this may be something you should consider.

SSD Drives

SSD drives store data in solid state memory rather than using conventional hard disk platters. These drives tend to be both speedy and pricey at present, but some hybrid drives combine features of both HDD and SSD in one unit. These hybrid drives typically contain a large HDD with a smaller SSD cache to improve performance of frequently accessed files. These drives can provide fast system startup and fast application loading, while being less expensive than pure SSD drives, but they’re not ideal for data intensive uses.

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

Next, let’s talk about connectivity.

Author: Ron LaFon

Find the Right Graphics Card Driver for SolidWorks

April 18, 2011 2 comments

The latest version of SolidWorks® 3D design software offers fully integrated tools for users to easily leverage the power of 3D graphics. Using RealView, users can create realistic looking models due to real-time rendering capability of photorealistic lighting, reflection, shadowing and surface texture in the design workflow.  PhotoView 360 allows users to create photo realistic images and animation.

In order for users to get the best performance out of RealView and PhotoView 360, it is very important for them to have the right graphics card in place. Users sometimes make the mistake of choosing a consumer level or a gaming graphics card, or just selecting the most expensive graphics card out there. However, when it comes to taking advantage of the features in SolidWorks, a bigger and an expensive graphics card may not always be better.

Interface for Selecting Graphics Card

To help users make the right choice, SolidWorks provides an interface to select the graphics card that will ensure system performance and stability. This interface provides the options to select the computer vendor, computer model, graphics card vendor, graphics card model, and operating system, as well as SolidWorks version. It also provides the flexibility to select after market graphics card.

SolidWorks Test Results

This interface provides the results of various tests SolidWorks performed on the graphics cards. If a card has limitations or notes they will be indicated within the results. All these cards are tested in house at SolidWorks. This interface is used to help you find the right graphics card driver for your system to ensure system performance and stability. SolidWorks tests and certifies graphics card drivers for each version of SolidWorks and supported Operating Systems.

Thus the resource allows users to not only select the certified graphics cards for running SolidWorks, but also download the latest graphics cards drivers.

Click here to view the interface.

 Author: Shantanu Kedar, Partner Technical Marketing Manager, DS SolidWorks Corp

Tips for Going Mobile with CAD, Part 4: More 15″ Laptops

April 15, 2011 4 comments

In Part One of this series, I talked about how 17-inch mobile workstations aren’t really mobile, but rather desktop workstation replacements that you bring to a stable destination, plug in and go to town. In Part Two, I outlined the features I would look for when selecting my 17-inch mobile workstation. This post continues our discussion from Part Three about features for 15″ mobile workstations:

Display

For the display, just make sure that it is at least an 8-bit option. Ask and be sure to check out a gray scale blended image with your own eyes, before you buy. If you see banding, you want to look for a different display.

Hard Drive

While a regular hard drive is fine for a 17” workstation where you are putting down roots when you use the system, with a 15” mobile workstation, you need an SSD (solid-state drive) for two reasons:

  1. You are going to be moving this thing around while it is working. 6 lbs. is not light, but it is light enough that you will have your machine on while you take it with you from your office to the kitchen or bathroom. You are supposed to power down your hard drive when you move it, but I never do this. I simply move the laptop with the hard drive spinning away. This is a recipe for data loss. However, SSDs can be moved without potentially damaging your data. There are no moving parts to break. So get a 200+ GB SSD. If you can afford it, spring for extra storage in a 500 GB SSD.
  2. The other big advantage of SSDs over hard drives: typically they are faster and lighter.

Backup

Finally, get some kind of backup option in place, preferably cloud-based so it is offsite. 15” laptops are magnets for theft because they are small and relatively lightweight. So have an automated cloud backup system in place. I have been using Mozy because it had an unlimited option and runs in the background. The unlimited option has been discontinued, so do your research for other cloud backup solutions. At the very least, backup your critical working data to the cloud, while backing up movies or mp3 or photos on a USB drive.

What about 14” or Smaller Mobile Devices?

For CAD production work, forget anything smaller than 15” — you won’t have the performance or the real estate you need. But for CAD or architectural presentation work, smaller laptops or tablets can be great options. You can do some incredibly sexy demos of your CAD work to clients on an iPad. While you can’t really modify anything, you can present your work in a form factor that makes everyone want to interact.

The Next Generation

I’m not privy to the refresh cycle for Dell and HP mobile workstations, but each is at about a year since last update. So in the next few months, for 15” inch mobile workstations, I would expect to see: lighter devices (6 lbs. is increasingly difficult to justify in a word of MacBook Airs and tablets), high end FirePro mobility graphics cards, and maybe quad core CPUs with higher clock speeds and lower power consumption than today’s dual core systems (e.g. Fusion and Sandy Bridge).

Author: Tony DeYoung

Tips for Going Mobile with CAD, Part 3: 15″ Laptops

April 15, 2011 1 comment

In Part One of this series, I talked about how 17-inch mobile workstations aren’t really mobile, but rather desktop workstation replacements that you bring to a stable destination, plug in and go to town. In Part Two, I outlined the features I would look for when selecting my 17-inch mobile workstation.

In this third post of the series on going mobile with CAD, I want to look at 15” mobile workstations. These devices are small enough to actually be considered mobile (as in you can use them anywhere, anytime). With some intelligent buying choices, you can get a lot of CAD goodness in a small, portable form factor.

Pretty much everything I mentioned for 17” inch laptops applies to 15” mobile workstations, but let me add on a bit.

CPU

If it is an option with the laptop vendor, stick with dual core at higher clock speed, then quad core at lower clock speed. This saves battery life and gives you faster performance for non-rendering CAD tasks. Remember your goal is to be mobile, unconstrained by the need for a nearby power outlet. So you want a laptop that stays cools and has staying power. 15” laptops can go about 75 min when processing CAD under battery power. Not bad, especially when compared to the 17” average of just 45 min. (Your mileage will vary depending on the size of models and the amount of time you spend thinking vs. manipulating.)

RAM

Don’t skimp on RAM to save cash. Go with the 8 MB option. The default 2 or 4 offered for some 15” models just means you will spend more when you eventually find it necessary to upgrade.

Workstation Graphics

Go with a FirePro mobility. You have a small screen but you still want 3D performance and you want performance that will drop power consumption when there is no real load. The FirePro is cheaper than the Nvidia FX1800 (the competitive 15” high end option) with better, certified CAD performance, DX11 support (i.e. games) and full Eyefinity support. (Check out this AutoCAD Eyefinity demo if you aren’t already convinced that Eyefinity is a must-have)

Unfortunately at the time of this post, the FirePro option is only the M5800 (as opposed to the FirePro M7850). Hopefully this will change in the next few months. You want the most powerful graphics card (with low power consumption) that you can get. This will become even more relevant as OpenCL is used in more applications (the topic of my next blog series).

Part 4 continues this discussion with options for the display, hard drive and backup system.

Author: Tony DeYoung

Hardware for the CAD Professional, Part 4: RAM

April 14, 2011 12 comments

In part 1 of Hardware for the CAD Professional, we reviewed the basics of system requirements. In part 2, we defined some commonly used terms. In part 3, we talked about processors and how they can affect your workflow. Now let’s talk about one of the most common hardware-related questions: How much RAM do I need?

RAM: How Much is Enough?

The type of RAM and the amount you can install will depend largely upon the motherboard in your new system. You’ll need to make a few decisions here that will impact the performance of your new workstation and, indeed, make certain kinds of work possible. For a given processor, motherboard, and chipset, you will typically have several options as to what type of RAM you can install. Without going into the arcane specifics of RAM types, have a look at which kind or RAM that’s available for your system is the fastest. You can opt for the faster RAM, but this will cost you more and only add a couple of percentage point gain in benchmarking your system. If you’re going for the absolute maximum performance on your system, you’ll go for the faster RAM. If the incremental gain is not worth the amount you’ll pay, then that makes your decision for you.

How much RAM is enough is the next question once you’ve decided on the processor, motherboard, chipset and type of RAM you want. Have a look at how many memory slots are available on your motherboard and the capacity of RAM that each slot will accommodate. RAM is typically balanced, so numbers like 2, 4, or 8GB or more of total memory is typical. You can elect to fill the available slots on your motherboard or use high capacity RAM that will fit in fewer slots and allow possible expansion at some future time.

Software Requirements

Look at the RAM requirements specified by the most powerful application you plan to use and figure that these are typically minimum requirements — you’ll almost certainly want more than the minimum, but you won’t need to totally populate your motherboard with RAM right away.

It was not so long ago that 2GB of RAM on a CAD system was considered a real luxury — these days it’s usually considered to be a minimum. Last year we researched how much RAM was typically installed on new workstations that were targeted for CAD and engineering use and found that it was 8GB. As this is being written, this number is increasing, with 12GB appearing to be the new “sweet spot.” We are aware of at least one industry benchmark that’s about to be released which requires 16GB, so that may prove to be the next standard. Get what you need and can afford, but try to get a system that will allow future expansion.

Next, let’s talk about hard drives.

Author: Ron LaFon

Hardware for the CAD Professional, Part 3: Processors

April 13, 2011 16 comments

In part 1 of Hardware for the CAD Professional, we reviewed the basics of system requirements. In part 2, we defined some commonly used terms. Now let’s look at processors in your hardware and how they can affect your workflow.

Processors, Cores and Background Processing

The heart of your system is the processor, and these days that processor might beat with more than one heart. While the headlong advance towards higher and higher processor clock speeds has waned somewhat, multi-core processors have become much more sophisticated. At the same time, more applications are supporting multi-threading, including the most capable design and visualization software packages. The move to 64-bit operating systems has been fueled by the ready accessibility of processors that will run such software and take advantage of its support for a larger memory model.

Active graph of multiple cores in application

Active graph of multiple cores in application

Watching an active graph of multiple cores in application is informative in that you can see tasks being assigned to and finished by each of the operative cores. Some applications, including AutoCAD, use some multitasking if multiple processors are available, but only in limited ways — for example in handling the interface and on-screen display. Visualization products such as Autodesk’s 3ds Max make more extensive use of multitasking and multicore processors. Often the cache size of the chip, bus speed, and dual vs. triple channel memory has a greater impact on performance than an application’s multitasking abilities — at least at present.

What Should I Buy?

Since multitasking and 64-bit operating systems have become the norm for CAD and Visualization software, it certainly makes sense to have one or more multi-core processors in any new system that you anticipate purchasing. When it’s time for me to purchase a new system, I tend to get whatever is the fastest and most capable processor available at the time of purchase. This ensures that I have a speedy system at present and that it won’t be obsolete for a longer period of time. As I see it, you can put in the money now and reap the benefits, rather than paying sooner when your system becomes too slow for the work you’re doing.

Before purchasing a new workstation, do your research on processors — what’s coming, when it’s expected, and what features and benefits does it bring. Also have a look at the socket it uses — will it allow upgrading processors in the future without having to purchase a new motherboard?

Next, how much RAM do you need?

Author: Ron LaFon

Hardware for the CAD Professional, Part 2: Commonly Used Terms

April 12, 2011 6 comments

In part 1 of Hardware for the CAD Professional, we reviewed the basics of system requirements. Now let’s look at some commonly used terms. We often hear entry level, mid-range, and high-end applied to workstations, without any clear definitions of what these mean and where the borderline between each of these categories lies. It helps to look at what each workstation is going to be best suited to do.

Defining Workstation Categories

  1. Entry level systems tend to be relatively inexpensive, with the intended use focused on simple drawings, drafting, and 2D work — with minimal, if any, 3D work.
  2. Mid-range systems are intended to cover a broader range of work, typically have more powerful graphics cards, more RAM, and more horsepower. These are typically production machines designed to produce final work.
  3. High-end systems are the most powerful of these three divisions, ideal for accommodating complex models, 3D graphics, rendering and visualizations. These more expensive systems are generally allocated to the most experienced users with the most demanding needs.

Time is Money

If you run a benchmark on each of these systems, you’ll find the slowest to be the entry level systems and the fastest being the high-end systems. Said another way, it takes longer to do something on an entry level system and since time translates to money, the most experienced and highly paid personnel typically get the high-end systems that everyone else wants. Time is money, and if an experienced user working on a capable system gets a given piece of work done faster, it means less of the user’s time is used and that the system is freed for other purposes sooner.

While there can be some crossover in these categories — for example, if you put a faster graphics card in an entry level system, you can achieve performance more akin to the mid-range systems. Since this tends to be a fairly costly addition, and since the gains are limited, it’s not typically considered feasible to go this route in order to get enhanced performance. A better option would be to get a more modern system that has more capabilities and faster, multi-core processors. It should be possible to obtain such a system for about the cost of the more advanced graphics cards.

Now in Part 3 of this series, let’s look at processors in your system and how they can affect your workflow.

Author: Ron LaFon

Hardware for the CAD Professional, Part 1: Requirements

April 12, 2011 7 comments

At Cadalyst we often hear questions regarding the hardware end of the equation, particularly about the system requirements to do useful work with the AutoCAD family of products. As a result, I’m starting this series of blog posts on hardware for the CAD professional, with each segment focusing on a specific area such as graphic cards, memory and hard disks.

Base Requirements Are the Starting Point

Users often have a look at the base requirements for their planned design software and plan their system purchase accordingly. For the most part, vendors such as Autodesk provide requirements based on what is considered workable speeds, not what gives the absolute best performance overall. This information makes a good starting point for configuring your workstation, but shouldn’t be thought of as the “perfect” system requirements. These days Autodesk is providing both the requirements for just running AutoCAD, along with an additional set of higher specifications required for systems creating 3D work.

Requirements for 3D Modeling

The additional requirements for 3D modeling (all configurations, 32-bit and 64-bit) include faster and more capable processors, 2GB RAM or more, 2GB of 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. On looking at even these more advanced requirements, they seem to be still targeting the minimum rather than the truly useful range.

Best Performance for Your Dollars

My plan is to go through the system component choices you’ll be faced with if you configure a workstation online — what will give you the best performance for your dollars. With technological innovations and higher capacity hardware, this presents a constantly changing target. We all too often receive emails from users who “bought a system that meets the specifications provided” but is still too slow for the kind of work they are doing. All too often the impact of a given system component can negatively impact overall performance. At the same time, it’s possible to make some tweaks to well-performing systems to enhance their capabilities even more.

First, let’s define the categories of typical CAD workstations.

Author: Ron LaFon

Calculate How Much RAM Memory You Need for Autodesk Revit 2011

April 8, 2011 6 comments

Autodesk Revit 2011 optimized file loading by using multiple CPU threads to transfer model data to RAM; maximizing the use of computational resources required to open a model. Since the slowest performing hardware in a computer is often static data storage, usually a hard drive, Revit employs an “in memory” data model, taking advantage of much faster RAM to manage the model in an editing session. Due to the constricted performance represented by hard drive access, it is recommended, that whenever possible, to prevent the underlying Windows operating system (OS) from caching active model data to the hard drive.

To understand how much RAM a given model will use in a typical editing session, check the size of the RVT file on disk. Because an RVT file on disk is highly compressed, loading the model into memory requires an expansion process. As a result, Revit uses roughly 6 times as much RAM as the size of the RVT file on disk. As users open views, add and change elements, additional expansion takes place, typically topping out at a memory use of approximately 20 times the RVT’s size on disk. These factors can vary with the complexity of the model, but often they provide good guidelines to understand how a Revit model will reside in RAM. Looking at a common workstation configuration with 8GB of RAM, we can calculate the approximate size of a model that can reside in memory:

8GB – 1GB (OS) – 1GB (video and other drivers) = 6GB / 20 = ~300 MB model on disk

Different modeling techniques can vary the division factor of 20 somewhat, but in general this formula provides a good guideline to understand when you’d expect a model to perform optimally through complete memory residency.

One exception to this rule occurs on Revit model upgrade, say from Revit 2011 to Revit 2012. Where a typical editing session will only require the expansion of some elements of the model, an upgrade requires the expansion of all model elements, resulting in higher memory use or increased swapping to hard drive by the OS. For this reason, the one-time upgrade operation requires more processing time than subsequent file opens.

Considering the inevitable trade-offs when specifying a new workstation, maximum performance can be achieved by including enough RAM to fully load a typical model into memory, enabling Revit to take the best advantage of the Windows platform.

Author: Anthony A. Hauck, Revit Senior Product Line Manager, Autodesk AEC Solutions Division

How GPC-Based Accelerator Technology and Multi-Threading Support Can Improve TurboCAD and DoubleCAD Performance

April 6, 2011 Leave a comment

In the past year, the developers of TurboCAD have been taking advantage of hardware enhancements and overall processing power increases on the PC in order to significantly improve the performance of our CAD applications. 

GPU-Based Accelerator Technology

We started by taking advantage of new, GPU-based accelerator technology that is found on newer graphics boards from manufacturers such as AMD/ATI and Nvidia. In order to do this, we integrated a relatively new graphics middleware, Redsdk, dedicated to display visualization and rendering available from the company, Redway3D

With Redsdk now integrated into TurboCAD and DoubleCAD, we have seen overall speed enhancement over previous versions of these products of up to 60X in both 2D and 3D models. These speed gains in wireframe, hidden line, and shaded, draft rendering modes, let the user concentrate on their design without the disruption caused by slow zooms, refreshes and regenerations. The performance enhancement is particularly evident when working with larger sized models.

Multi-Threading Support

More recently, we’ve added multi-threading support to both editing of solid models and to draft and photorealistic rendering to our TurboCAD Pro product. Multi-threading takes advantage of multi core processors, so the turnaround time on calculations is much faster.

While TurboCAD has long supported multi-core processing, the ability to do multi-threaded processing across multiple CPU cores means that mathematically intensive processes such as photorealistic rendering and Boolean operations now take significantly less time.  This improves the quality of CAD projects by quickly being able to view many different design iterations/schemes in less amount of time.

Performance is always an issue for CAD users. Your hardware’s ability to render complex designs on a display requires iterating through the pixels and calculating values for each of them. Large blocks of memory also are required to load images, perform filter operations and other high-end features. Additionally, when using these complex shapes, patterns, and images in a 3D application, it’s more difficult to achieve fast and reliable rendering. As hardware technology continues to improve, the CAD user can benefit in terms of speed, performance and advanced features.

 Author: Bob Mayer, Chief Operating Officer, IMSI/Design