Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 3 (March 2000)

Defining a Workstation

By Jon Peddie

Workstation is a word marketing managers love to use, but few really understand. Workstations were once defined as anything that cost more than $10,000 and ran Unix. They were big, powerful machines designed for solving technical and scientific problems. In contrast, Macintoshes and Intel-based PCs were better suited for running office applications.

Nowadays, there is some disagreement in the industry as to what defines a workstation. Powerful machines running Microsoft Windows NT have blurred the boundaries, and over-eager marketers trying to associate power with their products have further confused the definition. Some companies insist that any product running NT, or any simply branded as a workstation should be counted. But even though a company may have shipped a lot of NT-based computers, these are not necessarily workstations. In fact, very few are-the overwhelming majority sold are enterprise PCs. But to use the words PC and NT in the same sentence makes it more difficult for marketers to charge a lot of money, so they use the workstation moniker to convince users they're getting something special. For example, I have seen $700 Celeron-based machines advertised as "Workstations." But NT does not a workstation make.

So what exactly is a workstation? By my definition, it is a computer used 90% of the time for scientific or technical applications-simulations, for example-that require a graphics display. Workstations are also used for computer-aided design, electronic publishing, and modeling and animation.
Intel-based workstations and enterprise PCs may both run Windows NT. The difference between the two lies mainly in the number and power of the processors, the memory, and the graphics subsystem.

Some manufacturers want to count applications that are only 2D, such as most electronic CAD (ECAD), Geographical Informa tion Systems (GIS), and financial programs. But I am using 3D applications, and subsequently, machines that are involved in challenging uses of graphics, to define workstations. Sometimes this segment is referred to as "professional graphics."

If you do this sort of work and are deciding what to buy, it may be easier to differentiate between workstations and PCs on the basis of what's inside them. The chart "Workstations vs. Enterprise PCs" illustrates the major differences between the two. (I've left out SGI Irix and other legitimate machines with proprietary operating systems, because their status as workstations is relatively unambiguous.)

A workstation, in short, has a processor (or more likely, more than one) that is among the fastest currently available. It has a great deal of memory-more than 512mb and preferably in the form of SDRAM. It features a graphics subsystem that is clearly formulated for 3D graphics applications: frame buffers up to 64mb, texture memories up to 256mb, full OpenGL, and more. Examples of high-end add-in graphics boards include Evans & Sutherland's Tornado 3000, Intense3D's Wildcat 4110, and Hewlett-Packard's Visualize-fx2.4 and 6. There are more, but as a general rule, high-end boards range from $1695 to $2995. Mid-range boards run from $699 to $2995, and entry-level boards for workstations cost from $49 to $1199.

Knowing what components make up a workstation is essential, but which brand do you choose? You could, of course, choose from among the suppliers that are market leaders at any given time. In the NT graphics workstation market, the current leading suppliers are Dell, Compaq, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard. There is comfort in knowing that a supplier is successful and will still be in business when you call for help or want to expand or upgrade your system. And all things being equal, picking from among the top companies could be a smart move-after all they didn't get that way by being stupid or overcharging.

Whatever you do, make sure the vendor you buy from is in the graphics workstation business. The company that sells the most PCs is not automatically the company that sells the most or best graphics workstations. Before you buy, it helps to keep in mind the differences between the two kinds of machines.

Jon Peddie is principal of Jon Peddie Associates (, a market research firm based in Tiburon, California, that specializes in graphics and multimedia.