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Are Intel’s CPU-integrated GPUs Good Enough for CAD? (Part 2)

July 18, 2012 Leave a comment

Last week, I talked about why Intel’s latest generations of graphics-enabled CPUs might make CAD professionals think twice about paying extra dollars for a discrete graphics card on their next workstations.

As I mentioned previously, the low-cost Entry 3D segment has seen 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).

Professional Graphics Class

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

Why are Entry 3D sales more indicative than other segments of a possible erosion from integrated Sandy Bridge graphics? Well, if recent buyers were to opt for Sandy Bridge graphics, the discrete card they’d most likely be opting against would be an entry-class product. Those shopping for a mid-range or better card aren’t going to be enticed by CPU-integrated graphics. Such buyers have both the need for performance and the dollars to pay for it. So if Intel’s new push into professional-brand integrated graphics were to have an impact, we would logically see the effects first in Entry 3D. And that appears precisely to be the case, albeit at a far-from-dramatic rate.

Don’t expect the impact of CPU-integrated graphics to be either dramatic or fast-paced. For the near term, while Intel’s “good enough” graphics performance can satisfy a big chunk of the mainstream, it will be an appropriate choice for only the most budget-conscious professionals. Still, the trend line, as it was in mainstream graphics, is pointing just one way: up. Sandy Bridge’s successor, Ivy Bridge, has just recently begun shipping in the market, and it again provides a substantial bump in performance and features over its predecessor.

Give it time, and integrated solutions will eventually hold significant share among CAD pros … not to the extent it does in mainstream PC markets, but significant share nonetheless.

Author: Alex Herrera

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.

Intel’s Ivy Bridge Processors Hit the CAD Workstation Marketplace

June 13, 2012 1 comment

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.

Author: Alex Herrera

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.

Optimize ArchiCAD 3D BIM Models to View on Mobile Devices

February 29, 2012 3 comments

BIMx is GRAPHISOFT’s solution to explore, present, communicate and share design. BIMx enables architects and their clients to walk through professionally rendered 3D models with an easy-to-use navigation interface.

BIMx files can be exported from the ArchiCAD BIM software as a self-contained executable file for Mac or PC, or as a BIMx file that runs in the BIMx player app on iOS  mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPad.

If you are not familiar with BIMx yet, you can try it now — just download a sample file along with the player environment from the Facebook-integrated BIMx community site.

How Large Can BIMx Models Be?

The maximum size of a model depends on the device where the project will be presented. BIMx uses OpenGL technology, so the video memory is often decisive. Still, due to smart optimization, even mobile devices can run amazingly complex models.

It is important to note that the BIMx file size is not indicative of the model complexity. What really counts is the memory usage of the geometry. When saving a BIMx file, this geometry size is calculated and labeled either Small, Medium, Large and Extra Large.

BIMx file save dialog indicates model complexity.

Figure 1: BIMx file save dialog indicates model complexity.

Small models run on any device. Medium size models will most likely run on mobile devices, but might be slower to navigate; while large models will only run on the latest mobile devices like iPad2 and iPhone4. Extra large models are not suitable for mobile devices, but will work well on desktops and laptops with powerful video cards.

How Can I Optimize Model Size?

By optimizing your model, you can achieve smoother navigation, especially on lower-spec devices. Optimization means lowering the size of memory needed to run your model. You can achieve this in three ways:

  • Lowering the polygon count of the model
  • Reducing the number and size of textures used
  • Exporting model without global illumination.

Lowering Polygon Count

With the help of ArchiCAD’s PolyCount Add-On (which is a goodie tool — see ArchiCAD downloads under ArchiCAD’s Help menu), you can keep track of the overall polygon count of your model.

You can reduce the number of polygons by:

  • Filtering elements — turn off layers of building elements that you don’t necessarily want to show in your model. Use the marquee tool to crop the model if you only want to show parts of it.
  • Reducing the complexity of objects — many library objects have settings for level of detail. Curved elements also have resolution settings. Lower resolution means fewer polygons.
  • Leaving out unnecessary details — plants, car and people objects are often very complex. Look for such objects with low polygon counts. Door knobs, faucets, taps are often very complex even though their model dimensions are small.

Optimizing Textures

The number and size of textures can greatly inflate the model size. Here are some tricks to optimize textures:

  • Use low-res, compressed images (e.g. .JPG files) as images. With an image editor you can reduce the texture map’s size to a size which still looks good enough in 3D, but results in a smaller .JPG file.
  • Use as few textures as possible. Make sure that similar materials use the same texture map file.
  • Don’t apply texture to elements whose model dimensions are small and therefore the texture doesn’t really improve the overall image quality.

Export Without Global Illumination

Global Illumination is an optional setting at model export that adds a more realistic lighting effect to the model, but uses considerable hardware resources. In the BIMx desktop viewer, you can check exactly how much video RAM it requires (see Figure 2). If a model proves to be too heavy with global illumination turned on, re-export the model a second time without this setting.

Exact memory usage and model size data.

Figure 2: Exact memory usage and model size data.

You can find more information about BIMx on graphisoft.com. If you want to learn more about optimizing your model for BIMx, check out our knowledgebase.

Author: Gergely (Greg) Kmethy, director of customer support at GRAPHISOFT

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.

Q&A with CADspeed: Remote Graphics versus Virtual Desktop

January 12, 2012 Leave a comment

FirePro RG220 Remote Graphics cardEditor’s Note: Q&A with CADspeed answers CAD hardware questions from our readers. This question was a response to Tony DeYoung’s recent blog series about remote graphics.

Question:

Could you explain the difference between remote graphics and hosting a virtual desktop by running a VM session from a server with MS server 2008 and RDP or Citrix? It seems exactly the same. This also seems similar to the way Onlive gaming works — just the graphics are being sent. Another question you might be able to answer: can the RAM & graphics card be dynamically shared or are they allotted and dedicated to the VM session?

Answer:

The quick answer is the FirePro remote graphics solution can be used in either a 1-1 remoted solution (e.g., one remote workstation running AutoCAD with a FirePro card providing graphics to one user) or a 1-N multiple VMs remoted solution (e.g., one server workstation running two copies of AutoCAD each in a VM, with two FirePro cards providing high performance 3D graphics to two users).

The card does not virtualize it’s own 3D driver, so it can’t dynamically allocate some computing to one user and leftover computing ability to another (which is what Microsoft does with RDP for non-3D graphics).

The real advantage of remote graphics is that you can have one workstation “server” rather than four individual workstations (or workstation laptops). And, of course, the security of having all data remote.

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

Author: Tony DeYoung