Workstations, what is that?

Posted on Mar 11, 2009 | No Comments
  • Workstations

Workstations are a class of personal computers all to themselves. They feature the latest hardware and firmware to give its users the ability to create without having to worry about their machines on hand processing power or system stability.

One of our contributors was in the market looking to replace his older workstation, so we decided to post a review of the hardware that is available in the market today. This review is intended to address the specifics of a computer build as it would apply to the architectural profession. These computer builds will address the various software that architects use on a daily basis. This will give us the parameters through which we can make the best decisions as to what hardware to include in these builds, and trust me there are a lot of decisions to be made.

This discussion is intended to give you some background into making the best decision, regardless of which platform you pick. We don’t want to get caught up in the PC or MAC debate. This review is intended to address the hardware aspect of a computer build not the OS.


There are a lot or really fast processors and the two that are often brought to the foreground of the workstation debate, are the Intel core i7 and Intel Xeon processor families. For architects, you should choose the Xeon processors rather than the i7, and here is why.

Architects do a lot of renderings, and renderings require a lot of data crunching for all the lighting and reflectance calculations. With a single processor it can take several hours to complete just one of these renderings. So the more cores you have the more processors you have computing all of those calculations. So, in the end the more cores you can allocate to a rendering the quicker the rendering will get done. More cores will also allow you to keep working while a rendering is underway.

You kids today are lucky. Four years ago we would start a rendering then go home and hope that nothing went wrong during the night. All of these reasons are why the multiple processors with multiple cores are the preferable choice. While there are also multi core multi processor i7s the rather unimpressive QPI speeds are the Achilles heel of the i7 processor family.

The QuickPath Interconnect (QPI) is the hard line that lets the processors communicate with each other and the other components within the workstation. The i7 line averages around 4.32 GT/s, while the Xeon line averages around 5.86 GT/s. Also making the Xeon the prefered choice is the Xeon’s direct to RAM feature, which eliminates the need for the FSB for communication between RAM and processor. All these processor and IO improvements add up to make a big difference over the i7.


This is probably the most over looked category in a computer build. Careful consideration should be given to the timing of the RAM, making sure it is compatible with the processor you chose.

RAM choices should be made in reference to the type of processor you have. For example, if you have a dual core processor you should think of that processor as actually two individual processors, each requiring its own allotment of RAM. So, when running a 64bit operating system you should allot the recommended 2GB of RAM per core. A single dual core processor running a 64bit OS should have 4GB RAM. Two, dual core processors running a 64bit OS should have 8GB RAM, so on and so on.

As architects you want to have these high RAM numbers because of the file sizes we have to deal with. As applications give us the ability to create files with more and more detail, our systems need more RAM to be able to read them. If you have a huge GIS map and don’t have more than 4GB or RAM, you will have no luck being able to open it and manipulate it effectively.

While there are faster RAM speeds out there, there is not much need for RAM faster than 1066MHz. At these speeds you will find yourself investing a lot of money in bigger numbers but not seeing much, if any, improvement in the speed of your system.

It is important to note that if you are buying a workstation and are not planning on using an 64bit operating system then don’t get more then 4GB of RAM. 32bit operating systems cannot access more than 4GB (3.5GB technically) of RAM. You might have 12GB of RAM installed on your motherboard but you operating system will only use 4GB of it.

Moral of the story get a 64bit operating system with at least 6GB of RAM.

Internal Storage

A computer is only as fast as its slowest device. Most often the slowest device in any workstation is the storage devices. However, there have been significant advances in the storage devices in the past two years.

With the advent of solid state drives (SSD), traditional hard disk drive (HDD) makers have had to innovate to stay competitive. This has led to the development of very fast platter drives like the Western Digital Raptor drives. These drives are still spinning platters, but they read at speeds close to the Intel SSD.

SSDs work like really fast thumb drives. Information on the drive can be read at the same speed regardless of the size of the drive or how full it is, which is in stark contrast to the traditional HDD. Another reason to pick an SSD drive over and HDD is because SSD have no moving parts in them. Typically, the first thing to give out in a computer is the HDD. The high speeds and temperatures in these storage devices age them quickly. After two years of solid use you should expect a drive to fail.

Our recommendation is to build your machine with two different hard drives in them. Use one drive for your operating system and the other for your applications and files. If you are going to order a computer from any manufacturer just buy one hard drive and install the next one when your workstation arrives. Manufactures tend to overcharge for large storage drives. You can find 2TB HDDs for around $120 if you look around.

If you can afford a SSD then get one. We recommend the Intel versions as they have the highest read speeds and also the longest lifespan in hours. FYI, if you get a SSD do not defragment the drive. SSDs don’t store data in the same was as a HDD, and if you defragment a SSD you will lose data. A SSD requires no maintenance, just plug it in and forget it. For those of us who don’t have the money for SSD just yet a 10k Western Digital Raptor drive will do just fine, for now.

Sorry for you Mac users, you have to pick from two huge and SLOW drives for your internal storage.

Display Adapters

This is where a lot of college students buy the wrong hardware. Nvidia GeForce cards are designed for gaming systems. Gaming computers are designed to deal with a completely different set of data. Rather than the creation of environments, gaming graphic cards are designed for fast refresh rates and the display of pre-created scenes and environments. These cards don’t utilize a lot of the potential contained within the graphics processing unit (GPU).

Nvidia has created an entire line of graphics cards for individuals in the visualization industry. The Nvidia Quadro series features the latest OpenGL support and most importantly these cards give users access to the power of the GPU. Users can use Nvidia’s proprietary CUDA enviorment to manage and visualize IMMENSE ammounts of data. The GPU in these cards are a full 30 times faster than the traditional CPU.

The Quadro series is a must, however, these cards are not offered as an option for the Mac.

Optical drives

Almost no need for these, but might as well get a CD/DVD burner combo.

Recommended System Builds

We officially recommend the BOXX. BOXX makes their workstations with visualization professionals in mind. Their workstation build quality is better than any other computer on the market. For example, the air intake at the front of the computer has an air filter to remove dust and other particles from the air before the air enters the main compartment. Their machines are built with the highest quality hardware and their customer support is unrivaled in the industry. While they are the most expensive of the three, you should buy from them if you can afford to.

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