Mobility is no stranger to white-collar office professionals. Yet, while it’s no big deal to polish up PowerPoint presentations from a laptop in an airport or collaborate on the big proposal at a client site, that same level of freedom has been elusive to engineers who still require a desktop workstation to get the horsepower and graphics processing necessary to run most 3-D intensive CAD and simulation applications.
Those restrictions are starting to ease, however, as the performance gap between desktop and mobile workstations shrinks. Thanks to new mobile graphics processing units (GPUs) from companies like NVIDIA Corp. and ATI Technologies and processor advancements like Intel Corp.’s Core Duo low-battery consumption dual-core technology, workstation providers from Hewlett-Packard Co. to Dell are rolling out new high-end laptops that rival the performance of mid-range or better desktop workstations.
“The tide has risen equally across components — the amount of onboard memory, the amount of onboard storage, the processor technology and the bandwidth,” says Alex Herrera, senior analyst for Jon Peddie Research, a market research firm specializing in graphics and multimedia. “We’ve hit this inflection point where my mobile workstation is never going to be as fast or reliable as my desktop, but it’s now to the point where I can take my mobile workstation home and do productive work rather than sit there and bang my head against the wall because it’s too frustrating.”
Prior to these advances, engineers were constrained in terms of running their mission-critical CAD, analysis and visualization applications on anything but the high-end workstation in their office. Many would make do with corporate-class notebooks to take on the road for client meetings or off-site work, but they were limited to low-end tasks and restricted from working on large assembly models or simulation data sets.
“At the beginning, the gap between desktop and mobile workstations was so big, not that many people could benefit from a mobile platform,” says Wilhelm Geyer, director for workstations at Fujitsu Siemens, which got into the mobile workstation market in 2001 and now sells the CELSIUS H Series only in Europe and Asia. “Engineers have the same reasons for wanting workstation performance for mobility. They want to travel with their designs to customer sites or make presentations to customers. In the past, they’d have to lug around a luggage room of devices to get that done with a desktop workstation.”
The numbers show engineers flocking to the new devices to take advantage of this newfound mobility. According to Jon Peddie Research, mobile units constituted only 11 percent of the total number of workstations shipped in the fourth quarter of 2004. That number has blossomed to 26 percent of all workstations shipped in the fourth quarter of 2007 and Herrera expects growth to continue at a rapid pace.
Marvels of Packaging
One of the more important enabling technologies fueling workstation mobility is new GPUs. Products like NVIDIA’s Quadro FX 3600M professional GPU for notebooks provides advanced graphics performance and visualization capabilities on par with traditional desktop workstations. Power advancements like NVIDIA’s PowerMizer technology are also instrumental in allowing more graphics horsepower to be delivered in a compact notebook platform where heat and battery size is a key concern. PowerMizer, now in its fifth generation, throttles the GPU on and off automatically depending on workload. For example, the technology kicks into low-power if a user is working in an Excel spreadsheet, but powers up if in SolidWorks when editing a 3-D model. “This brings the battery requirement down and allows the battery to last longer and put out less heat,” says Jeff Brown, general manager of Professional Solutions at NVIDIA. “These mobile workstations are marvels of packaging technology into a small space and everyone tries to be efficient on how to use power.”
The HP Compaq 8710w mobile workstation leverages the Quadro FX 3600M GPU and its support for high-end graphics standards like OpenGL 2.1, Shader Model 4.0 and DirectX 10 to give mobile users workstation-level performance, says Chris Convertito, HP’s category manager for performance notebooks. Along with the GPU horsepower, the HP Compaq 8710w leverages Intel’s CoreDuo technology and HP’s design efficiencies to pack a high-powered system, complete with a 17-inch display, into a lightweight 7.6-lb footprint. “All of these ingredients combine really nicely with our design philosophy of keeping workstations and laptops light and thin,” he says.
Application certification is another big plus with the new workstations for engineers in the market for mobility. HP, Fujitsu Siemens, Dell, NVIDIA and others in this category certify their technologies will run with specific CAD and simulation applications. “It reduces the complexity for users and guarantees productivity and that performance is optimized,” Convertito says. “A lot of times, consumer-class notebooks use lower-cost, but less reliable components, and if you’re looking at a designer being off-line for a couple hours, saving a few hundred dollars isn’t worth it.”
Despite all these improvements, the laptop footprint still has some limitations in terms of delivering the highest level workstation-class performance. Current laptop designs can’t accommodate dual CPUs or GPUs and are limited in terms of storage and memory requirements (the current class of mobile workstations provide 4 Gbytes of memory and in some cases, up to 8 Gbytes). For that very reason, NextComputing opted for a different approach with its mobile workstation offering. Its FlexTop mobile workstations, about 15 lb and the size of a briefcase, employ the same chipsets and architectures used in desktop workstations instead of the class of components optimized for laptop designs. In turn, NextComputing relies on its own design techniques to reduce the thermal heat package for its smaller size, according to Bob Labadini, the company’s president.
The trade-off for this slightly larger class of computer is high-end workstation-class performance: Larger memory capacity (up to 16 Gbytes), the ability to use up to eight processors, as well as multiple GPUs and modularity or the freedom to swap out processors and graphics cards as new technologies emerge. “We’re not as small as a laptop, but you can still take the FlexTop on the road — it fits into the plastic bins for airport security or as a carry-on,” Labadini says. That makes the FlexTop a fit for high-end engineering applications like medical imaging and simulation, where even existing and more powerful mobile workstations still fall short on horsepower.
Bob Williams, product manager for Algor, a provider of simulation software, agrees laptop devices still have some growing to do in terms of providing the workstation-class functionality necessary for high-end simulation studies to hit the road. The bandwidth for transmitting extremely large data sets, not to mention security concerns and reliability issues with hardware, are still impediments, in his view, for giving engineers the full-blown road warrior status their office professional colleagues enjoy. “Certainly, pieces of the analysis process are becoming much more open and mobile, but I don’t know that you could do analysis from start to finish on a mobile platform at this time,” says Williams.