The Bleeding Edge
Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 1 (January 2006)

The Bleeding Edge

The workstation has undergone a profound evolution in the last decade. Once the unassailable domain of Unix/RISC systems, the workstation classification now includes machines based on processors from Intel, AMD, IBM/Apple, Sun, Hewlett-Packard, SGI-MIPS, and even Alpha, the first 64-bit processor, is still being put to work. The list of operating systems includes Unix, Linux, Irix, Windows, Mac OS, and Solaris.

In the past, vendors such as SGI, Sun, HP, IBM, and Fujitsu built highly-tuned and optimized workstations with proprietary components including processors, chipsets, graphics subsystems, and operating systems. Alas, those days have ended with the rise of commodity strategies that allow companies to buy off-the-shelf components, add workstation-specific features such as custom cooling, massive amounts of RAID and ECC memory, and advanced graphics boards for selling products branded as workstations for considerably less money than RISC- and Unix-based alternatives.

Windows-based workstations are the most common on the market today, which is where a majority of the innovation is taking place. According to Jon Peddie Research’s Workstation Report, Windows-based workstations account for 92.6 percent of the workstation market. But there is a lot of room for differentiation within the classification of a Windows-based workstation. The brief dominance of x86 processors is giving way to the x86-64 processors, and single processors are losing ground to dual-core alternatives. In fact, AMD is planning to introduce quad-core processors in 2007.

SGI’s flagship Prism visualization machine redefines workstation technology with scalable modular bricks for high-performance processing and graphics.

The 4-bit Itanium is hanging in there, and for some people, Itanium workstations define bleeding edge. The Itanium has a place in server systems and high-performance computing, but as the successor for RISC/Unix workstations, it has failed to fit the niche it was once designed for. It seems customers and developers alike really took to the idea of x86-64. The 64-bit platform lets customers transition to 64-bit applications as their applications are ported; and developers will port applications as soon as there are enough customers using the x86-64 platform.

AMD has the biggest advantage at the moment. Not only did the company get a head start with its x86-64 processors, but the company’s DirectConnect architecture puts the memory controller on the processor, while its HyperTransport technology lets the processors share and access memory between controllers. Data gets to and from memory faster-and for many applications, especially graphics-that’s extremely enticing. To counter AMD, Intel has relied on HyperThreading. The company announced plans for a processor architecture similar to AMD’s, but those plans have been delayed, giving AMD some breathing room. Intel in fact, had to rush its Paxville dual-core Xeon processor to market in order to counter AMD’s Opteron. In November 2004, the first dual-core Xeons, the Xeon 7000 line, started shipping for servers. Intel plans to introduce the Glidewell platform for workstations based on the Dempsey processor this year, and the word is that Intel is working furiously to get them out the door.

The three primary graphics suppliers are ATI, Nvidia and 3dlabs. The introduction of PCI Express (PCI-e) technology enables motherboards to accommodate two graphics boards. ATI’s Crossfire and Nvidia’s SLI technologies are available, allowing two GPUs to work together on an application. Meanwhile, 3dlabs’s Wildcat Realizm 800 is a single PCI Express card with multiple GPUs, combining a graphics processor with a Vertex Scalability Unit (VSU) to act as the traffic cop for data being sent by multiple graphics processors to and from the memory.

Programmable shaders have actually leveled the playing field for graphics providers. The development of OpenGL 2.0 and Microsoft’s DirectX 9 defines APIs through which the hardware can accelerate software functions. Software developers no longer have to depend on hard-wired graphics functions and, instead, can create their own effects.

Graphics processors now differentiate themselves based on performance and capabilities such as anti-aliasing, anisotropic filtering, and image and video scaling and filtering. In general, 3Dlabs is defined in the ultra-high end, while Nvidia and ATI battle for market share in every other area of workstation graphics.

Workstation manufacturers are locked in a competitive race to increase system performance, provide flexible configurations, and reduce the costs of owning a professional graphics workstation, all the while literally upping the coolness factor of system designs and customizable system alternatives.

Some of the many high-performance workstations currently available from companies such as Alienware, Boxx Technologies, Hewlett-Packard, and Monarch Computer include multi-core processing options and customized cooling solutions that qualify their systems as bleeding edge.

Alienware, well known for its lineup of extreme gaming machines, has a series of high-performance workstations that incorporate inventive noise reduction and cooling technology, including its new liquid-cooling solution. Its easy to recognize an Alienware system by the distinctive creature face adorning the front. Its deskside workstations have two fans: an intake fan that pulls in fresh air to help cool the internal components and a rear exhaust to eliminate the hot air. The liquid-cooling alternative eliminates the need for a secondary fan with a small, strategically placed low-noise fan that cools the components surrounding the processor, reducing decibels and providing temperature reductions of up to 30 percent more than conventional air-cooling methods. The addition of liquid cooling adds $202 to the base price.

Alienware's Liquid Cooling reduces noise levels and lowers temperatures.

Boxx specializes in high-performance workstations for digital content creation and video and audio editing, with custom-designed machines having single-, dual-, and now quad-processor configurations.

Boxx’s new Apexx4 workstation, which is scheduled to be released this month, is targeting VFX and animation professionals creating large scenes and complex special effects with a need for accelerated work flow. The workstation incorporates four dual-core AMD Opteron 875 series processors, making it a true quad workstation, with eight CPUs and up to 128gb of memory. With a $25,000 price tag, the Apexx4 sits comfortably between a high-end server and an uberCG workstation. Boxx has designed a special chassis that allows for maximum airflow, to accommodate the special cooling requirements of the high-CPU configuration, keeping the noise level low enough to sit on a desktop. The system is scalable, offers Nvidia FX4500 GPUs, includes two PCI Express graphics boards, and supports up to 10 data drives at 500 gb each for up to 10 tb of local storage. SLI configurations are also available, and Boxx plans to offer Apexx4 workstations with ATI graphics cards.

The top-of-the-line workstations for HP are the xw9300 series, based on single- or dual-core AMD Opteron 200 series processors. HP systems offer a great deal of expandability with five internal and three external drive bays. And, probably where HP soars above the crowd is in the work it has done to certify systems with ISVs. HP is targeting the film industry and continues to develop certified systems for 3D modeling and animation, special effects, and rendering. HP also offers optimized systems for science and visualization, CAD, and earth applications such as oil and gas exploration.

HP machines feature a chassis with noise dampening, a tool less upgrade, and a Performance Tuning Framework to increase performance for commercially available applications by up to 25 percent. The Performance Tuning Framework analyzes the system and its applications and checks an online database for the most current drivers. HP’s utility supports Inventor, I-deas, Pro/Engineer, Catia, Unigraphics, SolidWorks, and 3ds Max, all running under Windows 2000 Professional or Windows XP Professional.

Monarch, famous for its Hornet gaming boxes, applies the do-it-yourself model to workstations, offering systems with every configuration conceivable. Among its top-of-the-line systems are the Monarch Accela workstations built with Intel Xeon processors with an 800mhz front-side bus or Empro systems with AMD’s Opteron processors. The base system ships with two AMD Opteron 275 Dual-Core 2.2 ghz processors. The Empro cases are serious looking but they incorporate the see-through panel inspired by gamer machines and have built-in heat-reduction features. Monarch also ups the power supply, adds ECC memory support for up to four hard drives with RAID options, and offers a lineup of graphics options. The base system, which is priced at $4564, ships with ATI’s FireGL V7100 with 256 mb DDR3, and Dual-DVI. Monarch also offers a ULB, Ultimate Linux Box (ULB), a highly customizable system based on Opteron processors from the 1.4 ghz Opteron 240 to the 2.4 ghz dual-core 280. Graphics options run the gamut and include 3dlabs, ATI, and Nvidia boards. The ULB pricing starts at less than $2300.

The idea of a workstation compressed into a notebook configuration is a dream for overworked artists. While the systems don’t accommodate multiple graphics boards (at least for now), and adding monitor displays tends to defeat the whole purpose of being mobile. But the power of today’s processors and mobile graphics makes a notebook computer a logical option when working out of the studio or in the field. Practically every workstation manufacturer offers notebook workstations and, as you might expect, their features line up fairly similarly. The truth is notebooks are built by a handful of companies based in Taiwan.

Nvidia helped launch the mobile workstation category with its Quadro FXgo series of graphics boards.

Eurocom has so far pushed the category the furthest with its D900K F-Bomb notebook. Available with a menu of options including AMD dual-core and FX or Intel Pentium 4 Prescott processors (performing at speeds of up to 3.6ghz), and a choice of ATI or Nvidia graphics subsystems. The workstation can be configured to include RAID, an optical drive, internal TV tuners, DVI-I for dual-monitor support and an internal PC camera for video conferencing. The systems are available with 17-inch wide displays with resolutions of 1680x1050 or 1920x1200. F-Bomb system pricing starts at approximately $3000.

Eurocom’s D900K F-Bomb offers dual-core Opteron processors.

Artistic professionals are drawn to Apple’s sense of design, ease of use, long list of installed media software, and fabulous accessories like the Cinema display.

Even as Apple has announced plans to move to the Intel platform for future products, the company has introduced a new PowerPC-based G5 built on dual-core PowerPC processors in dual and quad configurations, with one and two dual-core processors, respectively. Moreover, Apple has stepped up to true 64-bit processing and now supports 16gb of addressable memory.

The new Power Mac G5 workstation with dual-core 2.5ghz PowerPC processors could be considered just another dual-core workstation until it’s paired with an Apple Cinema HD Display. These workstations are the first Apple machines to take advantage of Nvidia’s Quadro graphics, and they’ve gone all the way with the Quadro FX 4500. Apple has added support for PCI Express, allowing users to add up to four graphics cards driving eight Apple Cinema HD Displays.

Apple G5 Quad taps into PCIe architecture for the first time.

Apple has also added to its PowerBook line up. These machines are based on G4 PowerPC processors, but Apple has cut the prices on the new systems, increased the battery life to about 5.5 hours, and added its Superdrive DVD burners to the entire line. The top-of-the-line, 17-inch notebook is available with ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 graphics with 128mb of DDR for $2499.

SGI doesn’t even call the Prism, its flagship visualization machine, a workstation. Built to be immensely scalable with modular bricks for processing and graphics, the Prism is built around Intel Itanium 2 processors and is available in four configurations: deskside, power, team, and extreme. Starting at $8500, the base system includes two Itanium 2 CPUs, one or two ATI FireGL CPUs and up to 24gb of memory, scaling up to 256 Itanium 2 processors, 16 ATI FireGL graphics accelerators, and 3 tb of memory.

The Prism is designed for hefty graphics challenges. For instance, it was recently demonstrated with Pixel Farm’s PFPlay system and Sony’s prototype SXRD 4k projector for digital intermediates, digital cinema, and people working in 2 k (2048x1556) and even 4 k (4096 x 3112) space.

Even as most of the market moves toward standardized parts, there is new work being done that may change the workstations of the future. Just out on the horizon, Mercury Computer has announced plans to build systems for compute-intensive tasks in medical imaging, military applications, oil and gas exploration, etc. using Cell BE processors, the same technology developed by IBM, Sony, and Toshiba for the next generation Sony Playstation console. The company has introduced a two-processor blade server based on the Cell, and most recently Mercury demonstrated the Cell processor going to work on CT (computed tomography) image reconstruction. The company claims that the Cell is capable of orders-of-magnitude faster processing for high-performance applications in medical imaging.

At one time, Sony’s Ken Kutaragi, the father of the PlayStation, opined that Cell processors would be used to build workstations for game development. That hasn’t happened, but experimentation continues on several fronts. The combination of 64-bit technology and the ability to build processors with multiple cores has inspired new designs-two of which, were showcased recently at the Fall Processor Forum sponsored by In-Stat. Fujitsu showed off a new Sparc processor the dual-core Sparc64 VI, and a new company on the scene, PA Semi, is using the IBM Power architecture to build new multi-core processors that deliver high performance at low wattages.

In the future, unless humankind drastically changes for some unforeseen reason, graphics professionals still will be pushing the edges of what is possible, and deadlines will still threaten their sanity. But, if it’s any consolation, workstation designers are working just as hard to produce systems that rise to unreasonable challenges.

Kathleen Maher is a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, CA-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor in chief of JPR’s “TechWatch.” She can be reached at

   Visit this month as Kathleen Maher identifies workstations that take customization to an extreme in “Workstations with ‘The Look.’”