9 new workstations you need to know about

DN Staff

February 7, 2000

13 Min Read
9 new workstations you need to know about

If you're like most engineers, then you probably want to shorten your design cycles and eliminate physical prototypes.

And if you're going to be successful at that, then you need a good workstation. Workstations enable engineers to perform design feats that were undreamed of a decade ago. With them, designers can rotate models, checking for tolerances and interferences. They can create scores of virtual prototypes, instead of the one or two models that they used to make. And, in some cases, they can even simulate machine operations.

By doing all that, workstations have transformed engineering, enabling teams to compress design cycles and create more reliable products. "Most engineers would rather visualize models on a screen than have to cut steel to make prototypes," notes Jim Campbell of Hewlett-Packard (Fort Collins, CO) a leader in the design, manufacture, and sales of workstations.

Indeed, most engineers would rather do that because it gives them the competitive edge they need. That's why so many firms are willing to shell out anywhere from $2,500 to as much as $50,000 for a single workstation.

Unfortunately, it's not always easy to determine which machines are the fastest, biggest, and baddest. The workstation marketplace has grown crowded with a dizzying array of technical features, from Intel-based Xeon processors to 3D graphics adapters.

So how do you choose? Unfortunately, there are no hard-and-fast rules. But, first, know your application. What do you need to accomplish? Solving complex simulation problems, for example, requires lots of memory. Similarly, single processors will do the job for engineers who plan to run CAD programs exclusively.

To help engineers with the selection process, we've compiled information on the major workstations introduced in the past six months, and asked manufacturers to identify their machines' primary advantages. (Other workstations, not included in this article, will be introduced shortly after our publication date. Among those: SGI will announce a new Windows NT product; IBM will roll out a new version of the Intellistation Z Pro.)

UNIX-based workstations

Hewlett-Packard J-Class Visualize Workstations

Like most UNIX-based workstations, the new J-5000 and J-7000 Visualize workstations from Hewlett-Packard are best-suited to users who are working on larger models with more complex surfaces.

One of the reasons is the 64-bit architecture. Sixty-four-bit architecture enables the machine to more effectively address the memory. And both of these systems are loaded with memory: up to 4 Gbytes on the J-5000 and up to 8 Gbytes on the J-7000.

Experts say that the additional memory, and the ability to address it more effectively, is critical when running complex simulations. In electronic design, for example, the system might need to store as much as 5 Gbytes of data in memory while it runs the simulation. "Simulations can take days," notes Campbell of Hewlett-Packard. "And you don't want it to run for a day and then crash for lack of memory."

The J-5000 and J-7000 also offer multi-processor architecture, which makes them well-suited for analytical applications, such as finite element analysis and computational fluid dynamics (many such programs are now multi-threaded--meaning they are designed for use on multi-processor machines.)

Sun Ultra 80 Workstations

Sun Microsystems says that the big advantage of the Ultra 80 workstation is its flexibility. Instead of using an NT-based architecture at the low end and a UNIX-base at the high end, the Ultra 80 enables users to apply the same architecture from end to end.

That means that a user who needs to do design work can configure the machine with a single processor and then apply the proper graphics adapters. And a user who wants to do CFD can stack four processors and more memory, and still work in the same operating environment.

As a result, the company says that designers can apply the machine to number-crunching, then use it for visualization of the same models. "We're trying to enable M-CAD engineers to use what we call 'human-scale design,'" notes Chris Scheufele, product line manager for Ultra workstations. "Basically, that lets them design in a 1:1 scale, so they can design a whole car as a single entity, instead of patching together sub-systems."

Sun officials also say that the machine is designed to accept the next two generations of graphics adapters.

IBM RS/6000 Model 170 and 270 Workstations

IBM's new RS/6000 workstations (Models 170 and 270) are so new that they're being rolled out on this magazine's publication date--February 7th, 2000. Like their new competitors at Hewlett-Packard, they both use 64-bit architecture, which gives them the ability to address larger memory. And that, in turn, makes them ideal for use with large complex models.

How good are these two new machines? An IBM spokesman told us that the Model 170 is so fast that it would have made the list of top 500 supercomputers in 1994. That's an astounding statement, especially when you consider that some of those supercomputers cost $30 million, and most ran over $1 million. Model 170, meanwhile, starts at about $12,000. And it's the slower of IBM's two new workstations.

But IBM executives say that these two machines fit in slightly different niches. The uni-processor Model 170, they say, is well-suited to design work. The reason: Most CAD programs aren't yet geared to work on multi-processor machines. At the same time, though, they point out that the 64-bit architecture makes it possible to use the Model 170 on analytical applications, too. "It has really good floating point performance for a desktop machine," says John Holz, vice president of worldwide sales for IBM workstations.

Model 270, meanwhile, is for engineers who crave raw number-crunching performance. The higher price and multi-processor design puts it out of the realm of pure CAD work, and into the realm of FEA and CFD.

IBM engineers also stress that both packages have low heat dissipation. That's important for engineers who plan on putting the machine in a space that won't be well-ventilated.

Windows NT-based systems

Hewlett-PackardP-class Workstation

Like most Windows NT-based machines, Hewlett-Packard's P-class machine is designed primarily for users of CAD applications. It's available for use with a variety of graphics adapters, and can do 3D graphics.

The availability of a second processor, however, puts the P-class a notch above past NT-based machines. The extra processor means that it can be used with multi-threaded FEA and CFD applications. But the smaller memory (768 Mbytes) means that the FEA models must be smaller--more on the order of vendor components, rather than full-fledged cars and aircraft wings.

Hewlett-Packard claims that the new Intel processors used in the P-class give it a 29% performance edge over competitors.

Compaq SP750 Workstations

Compaq's new SP750 (named for its Scalable Performance capabilities) uses the Intel Pentium III Xeon processor and the Intel 840 chip set, giving it extremely strong floating point performance for an NT-based machine. It also offers dual processor capability and up to 4 Gbytes of memory.

That puts it in a whole different realm than competing NT-based machines. The huge memory and high speed mean that it can be used for larger, more complex analysis problems than competitors.

It's also capable of running the most advanced 3D graphics adapters, which means that it can compete with the best NT-based machines in the CAD arena. "We have the fastest Xeon-based processor out there, and we've combined it with advanced graphics solutions," notes Nick Panayi of Compaq.

IBM IntelliStation E and M Pro line Workstations

IBM's new IntelliStation products have been heavily redesigned. The new M Pro models now employ an entirely new mechanical package, enabling them to offer more slots and bays for graphics adapters, additional disk drives, and more memory.

Both systems--M Pro and E Pro--are designed for use with advanced 3D graphics adapters, which makes them a strong choice for mechanical CAD users. That, say IBM officials, is a key difference between today's NT systems and those of the past. "A few years ago, if you wanted to rotate a part on screen, it could be very slow," notes Marco Rengen, marketing product manager for IntelliStation. "Now, if you want to rotate an engine on screen, it will rotate virtually in real time."

The key is processing power. M Pro uses the new Intel 840 chip set, so the processor is no longer the bottleneck that it once was.

The M Pro line also offers dual-processor capability. That means that it can be used with multi-threaded FEA and CFD applications.

IBM officials say they will also offer a new version of the IntelliStation Z Pro during the first quarter of 2000.

UNIX or Windows NT?

A few years ago, it was easy for engineers to choose between UNIX-based workstations and NT-based stations. Back then, Windows NT didn't offer the robustness, and the machines didn't have the necessary floating point capabilities. Not so anymore. Today's Windows NT machines are closing the gap.

Still, Windows NT can't solve every problem. So experts offer the following advice when choosing between the two operating systems.

  • Carefully consider your application. Not every application has been ported over to Windows NT. Some programs still run exclusively in a UNIX environment.

  • If you're doing extremely heavy number-crunching on huge models, UNIX-based machines are better-equipped to handle it. UNIX workstations generally have far larger memories and better floating point performance.

  • If you're trying to visualize an entire car, or an aircraft wing assembly, or if you're working with extremely complex surfaces, you're probably better off in a UNIX environment.

  • If you're doing lots of CAD work, even in 3D environments, Windows NT machines are more cost effective. Many can now do advanced 3D graphics, and they often cost about one-tenth as much as UNIX-based workstations.

Check the Specs

Unix Workstations

HP Visualize J-5000

HP Visualize J-7000

Sun Ultra 80

IBM RS/6000 Model 170

IBM RS/6000 Model 270

NT Workstations

HP P-class

Compaq SP750

IBM IntelliStation E Pro line

IBM IntelliStation M Pro line

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