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How Much Should You Spend on a New CAD Workstation? Part 2: Mid-Range and High-End Systems

November 22, 2011 2 comments
Price Ranges for CAD Workstations

Price Ranges for CAD Workstations

This series focuses on helping our readers understand what CAD workstations cost and how much they are going to have to spend to find a machine that meets their CAD production needs. The first part focused on entry-level systems. This post will discuss mid-range ($2,500 to $7,000) and high-end (more than $7,000) systems.

Mid-Range and High-End

Stepping up to the mid-range and high-end, you’ll typically find dual-socket Intel Xeon processors along with full tower enclosures to handle more slots and drive bays. Spring for a dual-socket system and you’ll get twice as many CPU cores, twice as much memory bandwidth, and twice the memory capacity.

Some OEMs are going to great lengths to show off the enhanced speed of processors and increased capacity of both graphics cards (for multi-monitor or high-performance computing support) and larger storage capabilities. For example, BOXX’s top-end 4800 and 8500 series workstations feature overclocked CPU performance that provides a 25% higher frequency rate — that is, an Intel 2600k (Sandy Bridge) processor running at 4.5 GHz instead of 3.4 GHz. These workstations also provide support for as many as eight drive bays and an incredible seven PCI Express slots, allowing users to populate 18 TB of total storage and house seven single-width or four dualslot graphics cards.

But there’s more to be had at the upper end of the market, as vendors are taking a page from Apple’s book and investing an impressive amount of time and money to engineer hardware aesthetics and ergonomics, resulting in advances such as tool-less and (almost) cable-less designs; carefully designed air flow; and custom, workstation-specific, high-efficiency power supplies.

Start with Your Base Requirements

So do you really need a mid-range to high-end workstation? Will an entry-level CAD workstation do? The place to start is the base requirements for your CAD software of choice, then plan a system purchase accordingly. Note that this information makes a good starting point for configuring your workstation. We consider that the baseline, and you probably want some room to grow for software upgrades.

Also if you are doing any 3D modeling, look for faster and more capable processors, more RAM, more available hard disk space in addition to free space required for installation, and a graphics display adapter capable of at least 1,280 x 1,024 resolution in true color. The graphics card needs to have 128MB or more memory, support for Pixel Shader 3.0 or greater, and Microsoft Direct3D capabilities. (Again, consider these a starting point.)

Author: Alex Herrera

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.

Sustainability and the CAD Workstation: Heat, Noise and Power Consumption

November 3, 2011 2 comments

Sustainability and the CAD WorkstationPrice and performance generally increase as you climb the workstation ladder, and so do heat, nose and power consumption. These metrics, which were of low or no concern years ago, are top of mind today.

Heat

We’re all looking to cut costs and go greener; electricity is used by your new machine, of course, but also in cooling the office space that the machine heats up. Remember the heat output of a workstation impacts the company’s overall utility bills. If  you multiple that effect by the number of workstations in the office, it can have a measurable influence.

Noise

Although it might be easy to dismiss the concern over noise, we all know that nothing puts a damper on your productivity like the incessant whir of all those fans moving air through that desktop chassis. So how do you quantify the noise? Big buyers are actually measuring decibels now, before even checking out price tags and performance specs.

But for the rest of us without access to acoustics chambers, the basic premise is straightforward: the more watts the machine consumes, the higher your electric bill, the more heat is produced, and the greater the air flow necessary to cool it, meaning more noise.

Power Consumption

Where’s the greatest power consumption? For anyone who’s peered inside a chassis and seen the big heat sinks and fan sinks (with an active fan on top of the chip), you know the CPUs and GPUs are notorious problem areas. Über-clocked CPUs and GPUs consuming more than 150 watts mean more fans and more noise.

Testing a Workstation

Now every OEM is paying attention to more effective chassis design to optimize air flow and cooling, and these efforts are noticeably reducing noise. However, system noise is difficult to ascertain unless you can try out the unit yourself, so if unexpectedly high noise or power consumption is a major concern, see if you can buy at a brick-and-mortar store to more easily test it out and return, if necessary.

Otherwise, just keep in mind that choosing the fastest CPUs and GPUs — and opting for a dual processor for either — will drive up power consumption quickly, and chances are more noise will follow.

Author: Alex Herrera

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

Remote Graphics and the Professional CAD Workstation, Part 3: Security and Service

October 4, 2011 3 comments

We’re talking about remote graphics in this series. We’ve outlined the potential benefits for CAD users and the reduced hardware costs, and now we’re going talk about the benefits for the heavy-duty 3D users.

Why Would You Need Remote Graphics for Heavy Duty 3D CAD?

Security Advantages of Remote Graphics for CADIn a word: security. With remote graphics solutions that include hardware accelerated PCoIP technologies (like the RG220), all transmissions are encrypted 128-bit AES. The data resides on the server and graphics card and never is at risk for theft (inadvertent or intentional) from the local machine. If the projects your company handles are super top secret, the IT admin can enable user authentication and peripheral (USB) authorization or even opt for zero clients without USB ports.

Think about engineering companies who do projects for government or large defense manufacturers. These sites might have hundreds of user and security truly matters.  Remote graphics give high performance, but eliminates many security issues.

For highest performance, one remote graphics card is mapped to one thin client.  The levels of performance in this kind of 1:1 scenario is basically about 90% what you can do on a FirePro V7800 (the pre-Cayman architecture).  So to be realistic about expectations, this is not top of the line performance, but it is more than adequate for many 3D projects. The big gain is security.

Reduce Time Servicing and Managing Systems

Imagine you have 100 employees doing basic CAD. With remote graphics, from a central location you can push out software updates, even while employees are working on the system.

For example, there is oil and gas company in Canada using the FirePro RG220 to push out computing set ups to remote oil prospecting sites up to 100 miles away. Because the cards use full PCoIP hardware display compression/security encryption, they provide fast connections with minimal latency that can tackle moderately complex 3D designs/GIS analyses.

In our final post, we’ll discuss sustainability advantages with remote graphics.

Author: Tony DeYoung

Remote Graphics and the Professional CAD Workstation, Part 2: Reduced Hardware Costs

September 29, 2011 4 comments

We’re talking about remote graphics in this series. We’ve outlined the potential benefits for CAD users, and now we’re going to get more specific.

The Remote Graphics 4:1 Advantage

Many companies are looking for ways to cut back on their IT spend and want to purchase hardware and software solutions that allowed them to do more with less. By implementing a remote graphics solution that is capable of supporting more than one user on zero clients, that’s fewer workstations and graphic cards you have to buy and support.

FirePro RG220 Remote Graphics card The FirePro RG220 Remote Graphics card for example, supports hardware-accelerated PCoIP compression and is capable of supporting up to four users on thin clients with a single professional graphics card and at least one quad-core CPU server running the Parallels Workstation Extreme 4.0 hypervisor.

At each users desk, in addition to keyboard, display and mouse, there is just a PCoIP-supporting thin or zero client that is mapped to the graphics card. And it doesn’t matter where these four individuals sit (well they do need to be within 100 miles). As long as they have a 10+ MB/sec network connection (sorry your 3G MiFi card won’t do the trick), they can use the remote computing solution.  For more complex modeling a 20-50MB connection is recommended (i.e., a standard office Ethernet LAN, Verizon Fios connection, or even my high-speed Comcast line).

Now obviously we aren’t talking about four users manipulating multi-million polygon 3D models and rendering.  That can tax a single high-end FirePro or Quadro card.  But in many engineering/CAD firms, many users are working on 2D AutoCAD DWG drawings or are working on medium-complexity 3D projects that would generally require the resources of a low-end 3D graphics card like the FirePro V4800.

Next up, we’ll outline the benefits for the heavy-duty 3D CAD user.

Author: Tony DeYoung

Remote Graphics and the Professional CAD Workstation, Part 1: Will It Work for You?

September 27, 2011 6 comments

Remote Graphics for CADThere is a growing demand for portability, energy conversation and cost savings in the CAD world — hence the movement to small form factor devices use of the cloud for review and commenting. But there still remains the need for complex 3D graphics, security and high performance computation.  Hence killer workstations and professional graphics cards like the FirePro or Quadro.

So how do you get the best of both?  Is it even possible and under what conditions?  This thought was exciting to me as I read all of the press releases talking about new remote graphics solutions tapping into professional workstation graphics cards.  So I decided to do some research beyond the marketing brochures in order to find out what is real today for remote graphics as a high performance and viable solution for professional CAD firms.

What is Remote Graphics for CAD?

In a nutshell remote graphics is the ability to have a full CAD computing experience — with display, keyboard and mouse — but the actual 2D/3D computing is done on a device that sits in the data center. The experience can be virtually (no pun intended) equivalent to a regular desktop workstation. In fact if you just sat down and started doing some basic CATIA work on one of these systems, you probably wouldn’t realize the workstation was missing from your desk until you went to power off the system, charge your phone or save files to a USB thumb drive.

When Would You Really Want/Benefit from Remote Graphics?

If you are truly a 3D power user or if money, desktop space, green-ness and security are  total non-issues for you, then don’t even think about remote graphics.  It is not for you.

But as a CTO or IT manager responsible for outfitting several employees who work on less complex designs and models, or outfitting employees/contractors working on sensitive projects (at any level of complexity), current remote graphics solutions can help to:

  1. Support more CAD employees with less equipment
  2. Keep security tight on sensitive 3D/2D CAD projects
  3. Reduce time spent servicing and managing systems
  4. Reduce power and cooling costs

Sounds interesting, huh? Next we’ll discuss these benefits in more detail.

Author: Tony DeYoung

Cadalyst Systems Benchmark, Part 3: The Compare Option

August 30, 2011 2 comments

Previously, we discussed the meaning behind the various index scores reported by the Cadalyst Systems Benchmark. Next, we talked about operating the benchmark. In this, part 3 of our blog, we finish discussing the operation of the Cadalyst Systems Benchmark.

Compare Option

The final choice of the benchmark’s initial dialog box enables the compare option, which lets you save and compare times for different test runs. This is a powerful tool that we added to C2008 v5.1 to help us develop new tests for the benchmark itself. You can use it to easily see the effects (if any) for alternate configurations of your workstation. This option is disabled by default.

Compare Option

Compare Option

Compare Options Menu

You have six choices here. The first three concern the operation of the compare function: Save Current Test Times for Later Comparison, then EXIT; Compare Current Test Times to Previous Test Times; and Save Current Test Times and Compare to Previous Test Times.

Compare Options Menu

Compare Options Menu

The compare function lets you compare the times from two different test runs, creating a new set of relative index numbers. It calculates the index numbers based on the ratio of the test times from the first selected file compared to the test times of the second selected file. If nothing has changed and the two different test times are virtually identical, the new calculated index is approximately 1.00. Where something has changed, the new index number clearly shows the relative improvement. For example, an index number of 1.50 indicates that performance has improved by 50%. This is a handy method for directly quantifying the benefits of, say, using a RAID 0 configuration for your hard drives.

The fourth choice, Just Exit C2012, simply aborts the compare option. The last two choices deal with help dialog boxes: Enable Informational Alert Boxes and Disable Informational Alert Boxes—the default setting.

Informational Alert Boxes

If enabled, informational alert dialog boxes popup (using AutoLISP’s alert message function) to provide contextual help when saving and comparing different test results. These dialogs, one for each of the three compare options, guide you through the process of using the compare function until you are ready to disable them.

Save and Compare Inforrmational Alert Box

Save and Compare Inforrmational Alert Box

One More Option

There is a hidden option (disabled by default) that appends the actual times for each individual test, in seconds, to the end of the C2012_data.dta file. To enable this option, you must edit the C2012_indx.lsp file. You can edit this text file using Windows’ WordPad utility. To enable the option, just remove the two semicolons at the beginning of the line located near the end of the file, which reads: ;;(load “times”).

(Note: The AutoLISP interpreter ignores any code on a line after a semicolon.)

Enable Hidden Option with text

Enable Hidden Option with Text

This wraps up our blog on the Cadalyst Systems Benchmark. We hope it helps you to evaluate and compare the performance of different workstations running AutoCAD.

Author: Art Liddle