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Are Intel’s CPU-integrated GPUs Good Enough for CAD? (Part 1)

July 11, 2012 1 comment

Intel had been promising that its latest generations of graphics-enabled CPUs would make CAD professionals think twice about paying extra dollars for a discrete graphics card on their next workstations. And it appears those promises are holding true … not in dramatic fashion, but valid nonetheless.

The thought of CPU-integrated graphics is a new proposition for buyers of professional-caliber looking to speed their CAD workflows. Prior to Intel’s Westmere generation, released in early 2010, virtually ever workstation shipped with a professional-brand graphics add-in card installed. The vast majority have been Nvidia Quadro models, with a minority share of units bearing AMD’s FirePro brand.

Westmere’s CPU+GPU combination first raised the question — could integrated graphics perform well enough for CAD duties to allow buyers to save some cash on the add-in card? The answer in 2010 was generally “no.” Performance was not up to snuff, even for entry-class CAD use, and as a result, most workstation OEMs still required the presence of a Quadro or FirePro card in any machine leaving the factory. That choice made sense, as the last thing HP or Dell would want for their professional customers is a poor graphics experience that might turn them off workstations altogether.

But then came 2011 and the launch of the Sandy Bridge generation of die-integrated graphics. With Sandy Bridge, Intel more than anything else focused performance improvements in graphics. And for the first time, the company began actively marketing its graphics for professional use (the “P” prefix in the P3000  signifying “professional” grade). The combination of Intel’s posture and Sandy Bridge’s substantially improved graphics were enough to get OEMs like HP to (for the first time) allow buyers to choose integrated graphics and pass on the graphics add-in card.

Now, Sandy Bridge’s graphics can’t compete head-to-head with Quadro or FirePro … it’s not intended to. What it is intended to do is provide competent graphics for CAD professionals who don’t have the highest demand for performance and whose budgets are especially tight. How did Intel do on its goals? Well, a look in the past few quarters at the add-in card attach rates for low-end systems and the distribution of the add-in cards sold should give a clue.

Professional Graphics Class

Professional graphics unit share history, by class. (Source: Jon Peddie Research)

Anecdotally, OEMs are reporting that, while attach rates remain quite high, they have dropped with Sandy Bridge. And those reports seem to be validated by shipment numbers seen for professional graphics add-in card segments, specifically the low-cost Entry 3D segment. That segment sees steady gains over the years, for a logical reason … as average street prices fall and capabilities climb, the Entry class satisfies more and more of the workstation community. But then right around the start of 2011 — precisely when Sandy Bridge comes out of the chute in workstations like HP’s Z210 —Entry 3D shipments start to flatten and then decline (albeit modestly).

Next week, I’ll continue this discussion by explaining why Entry 3D sales more indicative than other segments of a possible erosion from integrated Sandy Bridge graphics.

Author: Alex Herrera

GPU-Accelerated Transparency for 3D CAD with Creo Parametric 2.0 and AMD FirePro

June 27, 2012 1 comment

Order Independent Transparency (OIT) in computer graphics programming terminology denotes any technique that can correctly render overlapping semi-transparent objects without having to sort them before they are being rendered. Rendering semi-transparent objects has always been a problem because the blending operation is order dependent: when a semi-transparent fragment is rendered, the underlying color (i.e. the background) is crucial for the final color to be correct.

OIT is a new option that can simply be enabled in Creo Parametric 2.0. With OIT, Creo Parametric 2.0 allows for pixel accurate rendering of overlapping semi-transparent objects without having to sort them before they are being rendered, providing up to 10 times performance of blended rendering in PRO/Engineer Wildfire 5.0 compared to when rendering transparency in Creo Parametric 2.0. This translates into less time waiting for your model to render and increased productivity over the long run.

This technique is easy to implement and add to an existing rendering pipeline: everything can be rendered as usual, semi-transparent or not. The technique here is fully implemented on the AMD FirePro professional graphics board, which totally frees the CPU from multiple render passes or face sorting. OIT only works with FirePro cards.

OIT assembles a pixel-accurate representation of the model and its surrounding geometry while maintaining user interactivity and visual quality. This creates a more practical transparent 3D viewpoint to continuously work within, helping improve the sense of design intuition and aid in better decision-making throughout the product development stages. It is also very accurate since the actual sorting that happens on the GPU is done per fragment.

The technique has a very low impact on the existing rendering pipeline and is therefore very easy to integrate in an existing rendering engine. As far as performance goes, the results speak for themselves: it achieves up to 10x faster frame rate compared to face sorting and regular blending.

OIT comparisons (GPU-accelerated Transparency)

Benchmarking graph showing 900%+ faster viewport
performance with Creo Parametric 2.0 OIT
accelerated transparency mode.

How It Works

The technique is based on the usage of an A-buffer, a simple list of fragments per pixel, in its simplest form as a linked list of fragments per pixel. First, all primitives are rasterized to the A-Buffer, writing some color value and some depth value (Red-Green-Blue-Alpha-Depth), one index buffer (RAT) is used to keep the number of fragments in this pixel. Finally, a full screen shader pass will sort that A-Buffer according to the depth value and do the blending for each fragment according to their sorted indices.

With and without OIT

OIT fixes visual artifacts caused by inaccurate “depth sorting” of the geometry that often happens in the older “blended mode”. This means some parts of the object are being rendered incorrectly with the old blended mode technology

With and without OIT

OIT also removes “jagged” triangles or distorted “banding” typically seen on objects that are used within the older “blended mode”.

Glass Effect with Fresnel

Some new effects that used to be very difficult to render correctly are now being made easy like glass effect with Fresnel.

Viewport performance with OIT enabled has been measured to increase up to ten times versus OIT disabled with transparency visual quality dramatically improved with pixel-accurate transparency rendering, solving visual artifact problems and z-ordering issues seen without OIT enabled. AMD developed the OIT implementation for PTC and the Creo Parametric 2.0 community, showing the company’s commitment to the market as an innovator – not just a product company.

For more information, visit the AMD FirePro website.

Q&A with CADspeed: Hardware Upgrade for 3D Modeling

June 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Editor’s Note: Q&A with CADspeed answers CAD hardware questions from our readers.

Question:

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.

Read more on hardware configurations for 3D CAD.

Have a question about your CAD hardware? We’ll try to find the answer. Contact CADspeed.

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

Hardware Requirements Released for AutoCAD 2013

April 24, 2012 2 comments

Autodesk has released the platform and system requirements for AutoCAD 2013, which was launched on March 27, 2012. You can review the system requirements on the Autodesk website.

Below are a few frequently asked questions about AutoCAD 2013.

Does AutoCAD 2013 software support 64-bit operating systems?

Yes. (See the system requirements on the Autodesk website.)

Does AutoCAD 2013 software support Windows Vista?

No, AutoCAD 2013 does not support the Windows Vista® operating system.

Does AutoCAD 2013 software support Mac OS X?

AutoCAD 2013 for Mac supports some versions of Mac OS® X. (See the system requirements on the Autodesk website.)

What are the differences between AutoCAD 2013 and AutoCAD 2013 for Mac?

AutoCAD 2013 and AutoCAD 2013 for Mac are based on much of the same source code; however, AutoCAD for Mac 2013 has a look and feel that is familiar to users of other Mac software. (See the system requirements on the Autodesk website.)

Does AutoCAD 2013 software support multiple CPU systems?

Yes, AutoCAD 2013 software supports multiple CPUs. The performance of AutoCAD graphics and rendering systems benefits from multiple CPU systems.

Share Your FirePro Graphics Experience and Win a AMD FirePro V5900

February 13, 2012 Leave a comment

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Official Rules

You can download a PDF copy of the official rules.

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.

The Difference Between a Workstation and Consumer-Grade PC for CAD

November 15, 2011 1 comment

Dell T5500 CAD WorkstationWhat’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.”

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.

Installing Autodesk 2012 Software? Prep Your System First!

November 1, 2011 2 comments

Autodesk has released it’s juicy new 2012 software upgrades, and you finally have that software license in your hand. Here’s a few tips from the Autodesk folks on preparing your system before installing Autodesk software.

Installing your Autodesk software consists of the three main steps shown in the diagram below. This guide will take you through the first step of preparing your system before beginning the installation process.

Installation process for Autodesk 2012 products.

Installation process for Autodesk 2012 products.

Before you begin your installation, it is important that you first prepare your system. Preparing your system is essential to a smooth and successful installation of your Autodesk product and consists of five simple tasks. Click on the tasks below for further explanation.

The concepts and procedures apply to all Autodesk 2012 products.

Remote Graphics and the Professional CAD Workstation, Part 4: Sustainability

October 11, 2011 3 comments

Sustainability and Remote GraphicsWe’re talking about remote graphics in this series. We’ve outlined the potential benefits for CAD users, the reduced hardware costs and the security advantages. This post will wrap up this discussion with some details about sustainability as well as some final comments.

Remote Graphics = Greener and More Sustainable

Ever notice the noise and heat in an office with just 5-10 CAD workstations? Imagine a big CAD firm running 100 workstations? Using remote graphics you replace the energy-hungry, heat-producing, noise-polluting workstations with quiet, cool thin zero clients. That translates to reduced AC costs and reduced stress in the workplace. Moreover since you can now use one rack-mounted workstation/graphics card for every 4 workers, you also reduce overall power consumption and costs. That is what sustainability is all about.

What About Microsoft’s RemoteFX?

You would think that with all of the marketing hype around RemoteFX (e.g., the FirePro 7900P/9800P and Nvidia Quadro/Tesla), that this would be a great solution for the CAD user — with claims of support for up to 25 users!  But alas, this is not a CAD solution.  Because the RemoteFX 3D display adapter driver in the virtual desktop is based on DirectX, it will not support OpenGL or OpenCL, so that eliminates most professional CAD/CAE applications.  Even for the  AutoDesk DirectX-accelerated apps, the hypervisor creates a virtual graphics driver. This means there are none of the CAD-specific optimizations typical in certified FirePro or Quadro drivers.

So while a great solution for general office use, full-motion video and very basic DirectX 3D apps, RemoteFX is not a viable solution for the professional CAD 2D or 3D market.

Remote Graphics Will Not Replace Your High-End Professional Workstation — Yet

I started this blog with somewhat of a strawman idea about using remote graphics to replace professional CAD workstations.

The real question is not if you should replace all of your high end workstations, but rather to examine when and where it makes economic and performance sense.

For the true CAD power user, remote graphics is not there yet in terms of matching performance with a dedicated local workstation with a top-of-the-line FirePro or Quadro-based graphics card.

But for users working on 2D drawings or moderate complexity 3D models:

  1. If you are a large company about to install new workstations or replace end-of-life existing workstations, you should carefully look at remote graphics as a way to significantly reduce costs and improve the ambient work environment.
  2. If you have real IP security issues where you need to tightly control what CAD information leaves the office, then PCoIP hardware on the remote graphics card and the zero client translates to heightened security for all users.  For the user who works with moderately complex CAD, a 1:1 remote graphics setup will not save costs, but it will increase security.

Author: Tony DeYoung