Workstation Perspective
Issue: Jan-Feb-March 2021

Workstation Perspective

Workstation and workstation products are essential to any type of graphics work. But, what will workstations of the future bring? Speed of course, and security too, as well as diversity. Here we examine recent workstation-related trends and what we can expect tomorrow.

Market size and forecast. In third-quarter 2020, workstation shipments declined. Most home offices were set up in Q2. However, the year-over-year (YoY) growth for mobile workstations was just 6.5%, well down from Q1 and Q2. And fixed desktop shipments dropped -38.4% YoY. That was the most severe YoY decline since the 2008 recession. Overall, the industry shipped approximately 1.30 million units. The outlook for 2021 still looks good. There should be a rapid return to normalcy after COVID is under control.

Trends in CPU developments. Intel has been the undisputed leader in workstation CPUs. Its workstation CPU Xeon brand, and high-end consumer Core processor, held 99+ percent of the market. Intel introduced its third-generation Whitley platform in 2020. There was a 10nm+ 28-core Ice Lake-SP and the Cedar Island Platform's 20-core 14nm+++ Cooper Lake. There will also be a 56-core variant in the Cooper Lake.

In mid-2020, AMD announced its 7nm 64-core Threadripper Pro workstation processor. AMD Ryzen processors are also being employed for workstations. Lenovo introduced an exclusive P620 ThinkStation Threadripper-based workstation, a significant vote of confidence to AMD, and a bid for markets where rendering and parallel computing play vital roles - entertainment content creation and some segments of design and engineering. Historically, AMD launches a workstation processor as a follow-on to the consumer processor launch. And in late 2020, the company began offering its Vermeer consumer x86 processors.

Also in 2020, Apple introduced its Arm-based Mac Pro notebook. Speculation that the company will also use Arm in its workstation has bubbled up. Arm processors are used in supercomputers, so the idea is not so far-fetched.

Trends in GPU developments. Nvidia has been the workstation leader and had the Quadro brand for add-in boards (AIBs) and mobile. In late 2020, the company dropped the Quadro brand. The new AIBs are the 8nm 84-core RTX A6000 (for Ampere) and A40. The RTX AIBs have 48GB of GDDR6 memory with error-correcting code (ECC).

Further in 2020, AMD introduced its 7nm 22-core RDNA-based Radeon Pro W5500 workstation AIBs with 8GB GDDR6 and its mobile W5500M GPU.

Trends in displays. In 2020, 21- and 32-inch 4K, 10-bit HDR monitors became established. Dell and LG introduced a 49-inch 88% 4K curved monitor. The 8K monitor introduced by Dell in 2017 and professional (studio) color monitors from HP and BenQ sold to specific application users.

We also saw a new 3D display introduced. Sony Electronics announced the debut of its Spatial Reality Display (SR Display). It is a stereo 3D display made with Sony's Eye-Sensing Light Field Display (ELFD) technology.

The display does not need virtual-reality glasses or a headset. And Sony is not alone in this market. Looking Glass Factory also has a glasses-free 3D display. Looking Glass offers a 15.6-inch display that starts at $3,000; with touch it costs $6,000. The offering provides a 50-degree cone view.

In 2021, we will see 40-inch curved 4K and 5K IPS HDR monitors announced.

Trends in apps. Ray tracing and digital twins were the most often mentioned developments, along with the explosion of data and how to manage it. VR and AR took hold. The notable change will be in adaptive and supportive software based on AI predictive behavior. Pixar's USD gained more adopters, and Nvidia built an entire ecosystem around it called Omniverse.

Working at home considerations. In 2020, COVID-19 hit, and people were sent home to work. What they worked on and how they worked were quite diverse. Enterprises scrambled to outfit engineers and designers with equipment to empower their creativity and productivity.

Cloud, rack, local WS, remote WS, and thin client. All scenarios were possible, and the ratios shift every week - one-size does not fit all. Many engineers took home their laptops, and others got new ones. Maybe lucky timing or incredible planning, but Dell was ready with a powerful new 17-inch 5K mobile workstation. It has a 5K display driven by an Nvidia Quadro GPU.

Some users tapped into their powerful tower workstations in the office using tech like HP's Z-Central Remote Boost. Others connected to the cloud and set up virtual machines. In both cases, the data never left the big office workstation or the rack-mounted workstations in the cloud. Only pixels were sent over the Internet, and no copy of the data (model) is on the local machine. The mobile workstations and remote VM machines were the perfect answer for the gig workers and the DCCs and designers.

In addition to rack, tower, notebook, and cloud, new form factors like HP's Z2 G5 mini-workstation were developed. It's worth noting that making machines smaller that run cooler and quieter is ideal for home settings.

Changing IT needs. The pandemic created an urgent need in IT departments. They had to shift from managing systems on-site to supporting remote hardware and software. Many security-conscious organizations, including production studios, financial trading, and automotive design, have never let hardware or access to data out of their sight, let alone their internal controls. However, they had to quickly develop support for mobile solutions at remote locations to maintain business continuity. Before moving users off campus, the strategy was to keep the data secure inside the building or data center confines while maintaining the performance needed for workstation-class workflows.

Cost of capital goods vs. operation expenses. Working at home will drive more remote scenarios, especially for the users of big WS systems. Corporations hoping to avoid the cost of duplication of buying two big workstations - one for the office before COVID, and one for the engineers at home - looked to the cloud and hoped to shift capital expense (CapEx) to operational costs (OpEx). That didn't give quite the savings hoped for because engineers who would leave their machines running 24/7 found out that the cloud provider was charging them by the minute - every minute. The meter was running. This led CFOs to ask the engineers to limit their time in the cloud, and that, as you can imagine, led to some interesting conversations.

Cloud and security. Organizations that design multimillion- to multibillion-dollar projects - from feature-length movies to jetliners, new cars, and bridges and skyscrapers - don't want their IP stolen. Every major company in the industry is working on security. Like so many other things, there is no single answer. Microsoft thinks it has a solution and has introduced a new security chip it calls Pluton. It is the result of a partnership between Microsoft, AMD, Intel, and Qualcomm. Pluton could be a more unified approach. Maybe better than what is done on Linux/OSX.

Collaboration. Before COVID, many industries, particularly the film industry, talked about and even experimented with collaboration via the Web. When COVID hit, the studios and other organizations suddenly were forced to embrace, and make work, collaboration. Once they got past the learning curve, they discovered there was incredible value in it.

Alternatives to a workstation. The branding and superior construction of workstations will go on. But the elements that differentiate a workstation from a high-end PC will be more difficult to discern.

Certification vs. none. Certifications of applications as a distinction of a workstation will continue to decline in importance because consumer-class devices can handle general-purpose professional graphics applications like 2D and simple photo editing.

Uptime and mission-critical. Workstation products have always been lauded as the solution for mission-critical workflows, where performance is king, in order to meet strict production deadlines. Many workflows that are multi-threaded by design take advantage of multi-core systems, and even GPU compute engines continue to scale well with increasing core count. There continues to be strong demand for more performance across video and movie production workflows. With the move to 8K, growing data set analysis in oil & gas and automotive & aerospace design and analysis, as well as a growing AI and data-science capabilities, all the software solutions in these segments take advantage of high core count workstation solutions.

Looking ahead. Where do we sit with Moore's law? The original ROI from Dr. Moore's observation (a doubling of performance at the same price) has changed, some say slowed down, but the performance continues to improve with each semiconductor generation, and not just by 2X. Therefore, workstation performance should be better, either by faster hardware or better heterogeneous computing models and system architecture.

The same goes for reliability. All the leading workstation suppliers have it down to a science. If a system (or your phone) fails in, say, two years, it's because it was designed that way.

New concepts and designs are on the threshold. The RISC-V adoption is expanding and is a candidate for a low-cost future workstation.

A new GPU architecture has been proposed using a MIMD architecture in place of the traditional SIMD used today.

It's worth noting that with market drivers of the workstation platform unlikely to subside anytime soon, there is no reason that workstations should not keep outperforming other client computing platforms. On a relative basis, there is a healthy long-term outlook - subject to unforeseen economic conditions. However, that outlook must consider a possible shift in the type of platform within the overall market - for example, moving from deskside workstations to datacenter types and a continued, more robust growth for mobiles.

Dr. Jon Peddie (, president of Jon Peddie Research, is a recognized author and pioneer in the graphics industry.