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Issue: Volume: 30 Issue: 5 (May 2007)

Workstations


About a decade ago,
 
PC workstations began giving SGI machines a run for their money in what had been, until that time, a single-horse hardware race within the digital content creation market. It didn’t take long for these attractively priced alternatives to overtake the expensive O2s and Octanes installed in film and VFX studios, game development facilities, CAD shops, and other locales producing high-end DCC imagery. Presently, professional workstations from Boxx Technologies, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Xi Computer, and others have all but retired the SGI boxes. Not resting on their laurels, professional workstation vendors—working alongside graphics card companies and chip makers—continue to push computing power forward.

Today, the professional workstation arena continues to deliver surprisingly strong results to the market’s big players. According to a recent report from Jon Peddie Research, the overall workstation market showed continued strength in the fourth quarter of 2006, withvendors shipping roughly 706,000 workstations, accounting for almost $1.8 billion in revenue. For the year, units were up 22 percent to 2.5 million and revenue up 17.3 percent to $6.2 billion. Dell still out-ships number 2 workstation supplier HP, but the gap has narrowed, according to the report.

What’s important is that the race for innovation continues—and of this there is no question. Recently, representatives from Boxx, Dell, HP, and Xi discussed their past, present, and future road maps, and what their plans mean for graphics professionals, with chief editor Karen Moltenbrey. Commenting from the vendors are: Francois Wolf, director of marketing at Boxx; Antonio Julio, director of marketing, Precision Line at Dell; Jeff Wood, director of product marketing, personal workstations at HP; and Robert Bragaglia, marketing manager at Xi.

What new offerings has your company released in the past several months, and what are their main features?

Boxx: Boxx recently launched the new 3DBoxx RTX Series workstations. The RTX Series was specifically designed to accelerate a user’s work with HD and 2k film. With its dual-processor architecture and up to 17 internal drives, RTX has the bandwidth to improve the digital intermediate process.

Dell: We released the Dell Precision 390, 490, and 690. The 390 offers balancing performance, scalability, and affordability. Its innovative design is focused on optimal performance, customer experience, acoustics, and thermals. The 490 offers the ultimate performance in form-factor-sensitive applications. It contains the same innovative design that focused on optimal customer experience and thermals, but also allows for additional performance through scalable CPU and memory capability. The 690 offers the ultimate in performance and scalability, with an innovative design focused on the customer experience, with chassis expandability that supports scalable CPU (up to eight CPUs), memory (up to 16 DIMMS equaling 64gb), and graphics (up to two high-end graphics cards) performance capability.

HP: Most recently, HP introduced the industry’s first blade workstation solution, which combines the benefits and security of a centralized data center with workstation-class performance. Based on Intel’s Glidewell architecture, the HP ProLiant Blade Workstation solution gives users the ability to quickly and seamlessly access workstation compute power from anywhere in the world using thin client devices or Microsoft-based workstations, PCs, and notebooks.

Xi: Lately we have introduced a successful line of MTower workstations based on the Intel Quad Core CPU QX6700 and QX6800 with silent water cooling at 3.20 and 3.40ghz. The new dual-processor quad-core Xeon Xi MTower 2P64X is doing well, with up to eight cores in a single unit.

How are the more important trends in the graphics industry affecting the workstation market?

Boxx: The latest professional-class graphics cards will allow digital artists to come up with unique looks thanks to sophisticated shader models. They also have the processing power and onboard memory to smoothly handle very large datasets. Another trend is the ability to use the GPU as a CPU with new programming interfaces. This is going to drive very high performance for some high-end visualization applications.

Dell: One is larger buffer sizes for large models—such as those in oil/gas and  high-end CAD. Another is scalable graphics—harnessing the power of two graphics cards combined doing dedicated work. Also, there is DirectX 10 and OpenGL 2.1, GP/GPU to do CPU-type functions, and DisplayPort [a new digital display interface standard].

HP: There is an insatiable demand for performance in industries such as digital content creation, computer-aided design, oil and gas, and more. The challenge is to provide a system infrastructure that supports the highest-end graphics solutions while still providing maximum memory allowed by the architecture, along with several terabytes of hardware storage—all in a single enclosure.

Xi: Microsoft Vista is changing the graphics balance of OpenGL and DirectX in the CAD and workstation market, finally breaking the 3gb, 32-bit limitations of XP.

How are you addressing those needs/trends?

Boxx: Boxx maintains close engineering relationships with all graphics vendors to make sure 3DBoxx, Apexx, and RenderBoxx leverage these new technologies for customers. Boxx Labs thoroughly tests all professional-class cards and optimizes all its platforms with VFX applications to find the sweet spot that allows users to improve workflow. Boxx also runs advanced R&D projects that push the limits of parallelized graphics processing for rendering, in particular.

Dell: The key tenet of Precision is: time to market with the latest, relevant technologies.

HP: The HP workstation product line covers a broad spectrum of user environments. From the affordable HP xw4400 workstation to the high-performance AMD Opteron-based HP xw9400 workstation, HP offers the broadest expandability and flexibility, helping deliver customer choice and the solution that best meets their specific needs.

Xi: We are offering a full line of Vista-based workstations with top-of-the-line video cards that are both OpenGL- and DirectX 10-compliant.

Which workstation features have changed the most over the past year?

Boxx: Certainly the advent of Intel’s multi-core (currently Quad Core) processors  is radically improving the ability for digital artists to multi-task with several advanced VFX applications. ISVs are putting a lot of effort into multithreading applications to take advantage of the new processors. But it is for rendering that multi-core CPUs are a real boon. A stack of RenderBoxx nodes with dual quad-core Xeon processors can radically improve the delivery speed for a VFX studio.

Dell: The fundamental change in graphics architecture, the biggest performance jump: Shader Model 4, Unified Shader, memory scalability from 16gb to 64gb, and processors—lower power and dual-core/quad-core.

HP: The HP workstation product line has consistently been first to market with the latest advancements from Intel, AMD, Nvidia, and ATI. Each new workstation offering provides the latest features, from memory architecture and processor technology to the graphics infrastructure. HP is dedicated to pushing the performance envelope to help our customers optimize their productivity and stay ahead of the curve.

Xi: Mid of last year, AMD Opteron was the performance leader. With the Core 2 Duo architecture, both single and dual processors, Intel took back the lead.

Name some short-term industry concerns that your company will be addressing.

Boxx: Windows Vista has generated a lot of interest because of its interface, file system, and security technology, along with some concerns about its deployment in professional pipelines. Boxx Labs is taking all the necessary steps to make sure digital artists get the best out of Vista. Boxx has also been executing on a very aggressive product development plan that has yielded innovation such as the 16-core Apexx 8 and the RTX for HD/2k work. This year, Boxx will announce important new products for VFX artists that address significant issues the industry is facing right now.

Dell: They are: energy, cooling (which addresses acoustics), and power efficiency. HP: The HP workstation global business unit will continue to: invest in our time-to-market delivery of the industry’s latest technology architectures; work closely with our ISV community to ensure a trusted, complete solution for our customers; and develop new, even more energy-efficient systems that comply with the government’s new Energy Star requirements, while maintaining the power and reliability our customers know and expect from HP.

Xi: That would be 64-bit Vista migration, memory addressability beyond 3gb, and O-GL versus DirectX 10.

Name a few longer-term industry concerns that your company will be addressing.

Boxx: Boxx’s expertise is in leveraging standards-based technology to design specialized systems that solve the challenges faced by professional digital artists. The main concern is smoothly handling increasingly high-resolution digital media. We continue to push the performance envelope to do that with non-proprietary technology building blocks.

Dell: Continued focus on energy/cooling with the addition of security and addressing customers’ longer-term needs.

HP: First, virtualization in the desktop environment—the expectation for greater compute power to be leveraged by multiple users—will be the greatest challenge in all aspects of the compute pipeline. Next, power in the workstation versus power at the plug. There will also be a continued battle between increased horsepower of the architecture and power required at the plug. It won’t be long before we need to move to 20-amp circuits at the high end of the workstation line.

Xi: They are: noise reduction, power consumption, multi-core/multi-processor full utilization.

Is your company reaching out beyond traditional workstations and into other technology areas?

Boxx: Boxx is renowned for its RenderBoxx render nodes.

Dell: Yes—solutions oriented.

HP: Yes. The new HP ProLiant Blade workstation is a prime example of our investment in new technology areas.

Xi: A workstation is characterized by strong CPU power, great graphics, and memory addressability. Those subsystems obviously overlap some other high-end computing areas.

Elaborate on that.

Boxx: Rendering is a challenge for all VFX studios, and Boxx dedicates significant expertise and energy helping our users address it. RenderBoxxes drastically improve the ability to experiment with different design options while modeling, animating, or compositing.

Dell: When you understand the total solution, you can solve the complete problem.

HP: Customers continue to be challenged by the ability to power and cool workstations under the desktop. That, combined with new offshore resource investments, require flexibility in compute solutions to increase collaboration across the world. The new HP Blade workstation solution with network-optimized access allows individuals or teams to work and collaborate remotely and reliably while bringing mission-critical security and operational continuity to workstation computing.

Xi: We have strong positions in servers, HPC rack-mount clusters, and real-time simulation and visualization for a variety of applications.

Which are the fastestgrowing CG markets for your workstations?

Boxx: VFX continues to be a dynamic, growing community of users. The democratization trend in digital content creation that Boxx and other technology providers are enabling is empowering new digital artists, new studios every day. Media and entertainment created with digital tools is not going away, ever. Other fields are growing fast, such as architecture, but also medical, and even CG animation of evidence in courtrooms.

Dell: Growth across the board—continued growth within economic/finance, DCC, engineering/scientific.

HP: The DCC and upstream production of oil and gas are fast-moving markets for the workstation industry. This has been fueled by the transition from SD to HD and a growing community of pro-sumer video editors in the DCC market. The oil and gas industry continues to invest in high-end computing to optimize their ability to reach crude deposits with the first hole drilled.

Xi: We see all the workstation graphic markets in the CG world growing evenly.

How has Moore’s Law changed your business approach?

Boxx: Standards-based workstations are still catching up to the requirements of handling digital film at the native resolution of traditional film. So, at Boxx, we hope that Gordon Moore’s observation will hold with the advent of multi-core CPU architectures.

Dell: Graphics and the CPU are no longer the bottlenecks of the solution, enabling new work models and much larger work loads (eight cores into a single platform). How are we taking advantage of that technology? With significant gains for price/performance.

HP: Moore’s Law has been driving investments in workstation products from the beginning. Workstation products are expected to drive the highest performance available in the industry for client computing.

Xi: Never so far. It will change our approach when he reaches his physical-end limitation. [It will be a few more years, and is getting close.]

What technologies are having the biggest effect on your market?

Boxx: 64-bit architectures that allow     work with very high-resolution media; large hard drives that allow a 3DBoxx RTX to pack almost 13tb of data of direct-attach internal storage; multi-core that powers multi-tasking and accelerates rendering; powerful graphics that drive productivity with complex scenes and characters.

Dell: Graphics and the CPU.

HP: Graphics card technology combined with the latest round of performance processors from Intel and AMD have enabled the largest performance gains in the past several years. Customers are seeing approximately a 30 percent increase in performance for many of their applications in various environments.

Xi: Microsoft Vista and multiple cores.

How has consolidation in the workstation market affected the industry?

Boxx: Traditional Unix workstations are declining, leaving a large opportunity for companies like Boxx to deliver very high-performance systems by applying an original technology integration process. At Boxx, we call it Innovative Integration.

Dell: We have seen consolidation in the RISC/Unix side and a shift to standards-based offerings: The Dell model.

HP: Vendor consolidation has made it easier to integrate high-quality solutions for the workstation product line. Consolidation also has forced each vendor to provide a compelling value proposition for customers.

Xi: It is for better. We enjoy a nice position with less small competition aside from the ‘two’ big vendors.

Describe how you see the role of workstation vendor/graphics card maker.

Boxx: For most Boxx users, their Boxx workstations are their main professional tool on which their whole business depends. Our role at Boxx is to deliver on these very specific hardware requirements, and add the other attributes they need in order to maintain the effectiveness of their creative pipeline, such as expert technical support for VFX.

Dell: As trusted partner and solution provider relevant to the customer’s need.

HP: HP is on the forefront of defining graphics solutions for the workstation market. HP has a rich heritage in professional graphics solutions development, which is recognized by our longtime partnerships with Nvidia and ATI. 

Xi: A very challenging spot at present. [Overall, it would be to] integrate new appealing features in compliance with the Vista OS.

Who is leading the charge in the market—the workstation vendors or the card makers? Why?

Boxx: It really goes hand in hand. A workstation is much more than just a graphics card. CPU, storage, memory, stability with advanced applications all play a role in defining a workstation. Professional-class graphics are also very hot. They need to function within a chassis that can reliably and silently cool them. Part of the value that Boxx delivers to VFX pros is cool, therefore stable, platforms and quiet workstations that always reside very close to the artist.

Dell: Workstation vendors with the customer-facing relationship are able to deliver the right solution.

HP: It is a joint relationship with the HP workstation group and the graphics vendors. We invite our graphics partners to our many customer advisory councils in order for them to hear requirements directly from our customer base so we can work together to define the future of graphics solutions.

Xi: Is that “charge” or “change”? (smile) We currently have a strong lead of Nvidia Quadro versus AMD/ATI FireGL, with Intel regaining market share in the top-performing CPU arena. It will change, but not dramatically in the near term.

How is your company uniquely positioned to satisfy the overall needs of graphics users?

Boxx: Boxx is unique in that the entire company is solely dedicated to designing and delivering workstations and render nodes for digital artists. Our accumulated knowledge base in animation, compositing, editing, color correction, etc., and our exclusive focus on ensuring performance and stability when running VFX applications have resulted in the success Boxx enjoys today.

Dell: As a workstation market leader, Dell partners with the leading graphics suppliers.

HP: Our workstations are designed and engineered to provide a professional edge.  They cover a broad spectrum of user environments, starting with the affordable xw4400 through the high-performance AMD Opteron-based xw9400. HP offers the broadest expandability in the industry and gives customers a choice to accommodate their needs.

Xi: We offer a superior level of customization compared to the “big” vendors. Our tech support is impeccable and mainly geared to the high-end graphics and CAD markets. Our prices are competitive with the quality and performance delivered.

What final thought would you like to leave with our readers?

Boxx: Workstations remain a specialty compared to the size of the server market or the home PC market. Workstation customers seek a different type of performance than do IT managers. One of the roles that Boxx plays in the PC technology ecosystem is to always drive for the development of subsystems and specifications that benefit workstation users. Our extensive industry relationships allow us to do that.

Dell: At Dell, we are concerned with three things: customer satisfaction/experience, delivering the right tool for the right job, and high reliability/quality.

HP: HP is driving industry innovations with blade solutions for data center workstation computing. HP provides centralized workstation computing power in the data center with high-performance blade systems that are driven, graphically, from client workstation devices, with a system solution built with HP ProLiant quality and Blade innovations proven in the most mission-critical operations. HP’s Remote Graphics Software, a breakthrough with HP innovation, efficiently delivers high-performance graphics through a standard network connection. This provides professionals with a workstation computing experience that is transparent to the means of delivery—workstation-class performance and responsiveness. RGS makes it possible to remotely share and deliver advanced workstation graphics (in 2D or 3D) and motion-picture quality and full-motion video.

Xi: When a customer approaches us with a certain budget and specific workstation requirements in term of applications, we go to great lengths to maximize the person’s ROI in terms of performance and longevity of the chosen solution. We have done it successfully for almost 20 years.
 
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