What’s the Right Workstation for SOLIDWORKS?
Kyle Maxey posted on February 09, 2016 | 17502 views
A room full of workstations chugging away. What a beautiful sight.

A room full of workstations chugging away. What a beautiful sight.

Workstations are the backbone of CAD operations today, and they have been since drafting moved from an artistic exercise done by hand to one that’s disappeared into the virtual world.

In this piece, I’m going to walk you through my ever-evolving relationship with workstations and suggest a few ideas that might help you decide about the machine, or machines, that might be right if you’re setting up a workstation for SOLIDWORKS. But before we begin, let’s get a good grasp on what a makes a workstation a workstation.

What Makes a Workstation a Workstation?

Sure. Many of us take for granted the power of the machines that we fire up every morning. But what separates those machines sitting under our desks from regular old computers? What makes them workstations?

Some will say that it’s the golden triad (CPU, RAM and Hard Drive) that makes a machine. Sure, in many respects, they’re right—having powerful components is critical for workstation performance. Others will say that a workstation has to be robust enough to keep chugging at a peak clip 24/7 for years on end. They’re right too.

But, when it comes down to it, a workstation is a computer that’s bolstered by enterprise-level hardware.

But what’s enterprise-level hardware?

Computer and electronic components, whether they are designed for the consumer or the enterprise, are scored by a simple metric, mean time between failure (MTBF). Essentially, MTBF is a prediction that defines how long a device or system will operate before it fails. Without digging too deep into this statistical thicket, the MTBF of a component can be measured by finding the arithmetic mean period between device failures in a large population of identically manufactured components.

So how do you determine if your hardware fits an enterprise MTBF requirement?

When it comes to workstations, the average MTBF of its components should be nearly an order of magnitude greater than those that you’d find in a consumer-level computer. With that being said, the best way to determine that difference between consumer and enterprise MTBF is to arduously compare the MTBF rate for different products by pouring over the vast expanses of technical data written about components.

So, in the end, a workstation has to be able to not only ace the largest calculations and graphical demands, but also withstand long-term, high-performance use. In essence, a workstation is a computer stocked with powerful components that’ll perform long hours with little chance of dying in its first, say, five years.

With that info in mind, let’s take a look at two scenarios where configuring a workstation will end up with drastically different results.

Building a Personal Workstation

A while back, after spending two years learning how to use all types of MCAD software, I decided to buy my own workstation.

Although there were a number of vendors that I could have considered, I chose to make the purchase from a company that builds machines for gamers. In the end, they offered a computer with the right specs at the right price point. I named the machine George.


Here’s how I configured my machine:

MFG

CPU

RAM

GPU

HD

Price

IBUYPOWER

AMD Phantom II X6 1100T @3.30 GHz

8 GB

1-GB AMD Radeon 6800 HD

Seagate

7200 RPM 500 GB

>$1,000

 

To start with, George featured an AMD Phantom II X6 1100T 3.30-GHz processor. I chose a six-core AMD processor because I knew that I’d need multiple cores to handle the image and video rendering that I’d be doing to showcase my CAD models to clients. Although there were other options for multicore processors, including Intel’s i3s 5s and 7s, the price-to-performance difference between my AMD and Intel’s chips was too small to command a price jump of several hundred dollars. 

In addition to the processor, I added 8 GB of DDR4 RAM, a 1-GB AMD Radeon 6800 HD video card and a 7200-RPM 500-GB hard disk. Admittedly, none of these components are certified as enterprise-level hardware, but because I skimped on an enterprise level MTBF, George cost me just under $1,000 before the monitor. 

Sure, some of you may argue that George doesn’t constitute a workstation because I did sacrifice the enterprise-level hardware that I defined as the critical component of a workstation. But I knew very well that I wouldn’t be running my machine full bore, 24/7, and on top of that, I had an ace up my sleeve—an iron-clad three-year warranty on all parts. 

Currently, George is in command of several CAD applications, but I most commonly use SOLIDWORKS, Fusion 360, Cinema 4D and a rendering client that helps network all of the other machines in my house. Four years into his life, George is still doing everything that I need him to do. He’s a bit louder than he was when I first bought him, but I image a can or two of compressed air would remedy his heavy wheeze. 

Most importantly, I have to report that George hasn’t required any of his components to be replaced. As far as computational labor is concerned, I think George has earned his stripes as a workstation in deed, if not in name. 

Building a Workstation for a Larger Operation

 Although building a workstation for a single user is one thing, configuring several workstations for an entire office is another endeavor altogether. 

For starters, budgets have to be considered. What’s more, if numerous workstations are networked together, the workload that a single machine has to undertake can be significantly reduced when it comes time to run computationally intensive simulations. 

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the last big purchase that I had a hand in at Austin Community College’s (ACC) A&E CAD Department.   

During the past few months, my team and I have invested just under $154,000 in 32 new Dell Precision 5810s. Coming in at a whopping $4810.99 a piece, each tower comes equipped with a Xeon E5-1650 v3 3.5-GHz turbo processor, 16 GB of 2133-MHz DDR4 RAM, an NVIDIA Quadro k4200 4-GB video card and two 7200-RPM 500-GB hard disks that are banded together via RAID. 

MFG

CPU

RAM

GPU

HD

Price

DELL

Intel Xeon E5-1650 v3 @3.5 GHz

16 GB DDR4 @ 2133 MHz

NVIDIA Quadro K4200 4 GB

7200 RPM 500 GB

$4,811

 

On a daily basis, the computers at the department labs handle a number of different CAD packages, running an application gauntlet that covers IC layout to civil engineering and everything in between. On top of that, each machine rarely ever gets a break between the hours of 8:00 am to 10:30 pm, Monday to Saturday. So it’s evident that enterprise-level hardware was the only choice when configuring the department’s lab machines. 

One of the most critical decisions that the department had to make when configuring our machines was what kind of processors to choose for our workstations. Although equivalent Intel i7s could be had for a little less money, they lacked one critical feature, Error Checking and Correcting (ECC) RAM, which comes standard on Xeon chips. 

ECC RAM can be a lifesaver for heavily used computers. Essentially, ECC RAM can spot and correct data errors before they ever happen, minimizing catastrophic events such as system crashes and generally prolonging the life of a system’s components.

In addition to their use as individual workstations, all of the computers across the department’s labs (there are 125 in total) can be marshaled together to create a powerful rendering engine that can produce videos and stills for design reviews. This need for rendering is another element of our workstation scheme that necessitated the choice of Xeon processors. 

Aside from their onboard EEC RAM, Xeon processors also come equipped with six cores and double the L3 cache that an i7 chip carries. For rendering purposes, having multiple cores means that more regions of an image can be calculated simultaneously, speeding up the overall render time. For our largest stills, extra cores can mean an image is processed in a matter of minutes rather than hours. Additionally, having a larger L3 cache means that most applications work more consistently, even when the machine is being maxed out. 

What can I say, the machines that I help run at Austin Community College work day in and day out, churning through calculations that run the gamut from rendering to handling large assemblies. Over the few years that I’ve been administering the department’s labs, I’ve only had a handful of hard drives fail and a single stick of RAM give out—every processor has had an exemplary record of performance.

 Really, I have no complaints. 

Other Workstations to Consider 

Although I’ve mentioned a few companies that can build a workstation to meet your needs, I’ve in no way covered them all. In fairness to them, I’ve reached out and asked them to configure a machine that’s around $5,000 and meets or exceeds the specs that I configured for the T5810s that stand ready in the Austin Community College labs. To get a good sense of what the workstation world looks like, I’ve canvased BOXX, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Xi. Here’s what they came up with:

MFG

CPU

RAM

GPU

HD

Price

BOXX

 

8-Core Intel i7 Overclocked Processor @ 4.125 GHz

16 GB DDR4 @ 2133 MHz

NVIDIA Quadro M4000 8 GB

256-GB Solid-State Drive, M.2 PCIe

$5,304

Dell

 

8 Core Intel Xeon Processor E3-1245 @ 4.0 GHz, Turbo

 

32 GB DDR4

@ 2133 MHz

NVIDIA Quadro M4000 4 GB

 

512-GB Solid-State Drive, PCIE

 

$3,000

HP

 

Intel Xeon E5-1650 v3 @ 3.5 GHz

16 GB DDR4 @ 2,133 MHz

NVIDIA Quadro M4000 8 GB

HP Z Turbo G2 256-GB Solid-State Drive

$2,880

Lenovo

 

Intel Xeon E5-1650 v3 @ 3.8 GHz, Turbo

32 GB DDR4 @ 2133 MHz

NVIDIA Quadro M4000 8 GB

2x 1 TB + 8 GB Hybrid Hard Drive, 3.5" SATA

& 512GB M.2 NVMe drive 

$4,931.10

Xi

 

6-Core Intel Xeon E5-1650 v3 @ 4.2 GHz, Water Cooled

32 GB DDR4 @ 2666 MHz

NVIDIA

Quadro M5000 8 GB

512-GB Solid-State Drive, Samsung SM951

$4,996

All things being equal, the machines listed above trounce George. They also outperform the Dells that I work with at Austin Community College. So what does that tell you? Well, for $5,000, you can get a tremendous amount of computational firepower, especially if you pick one of the configurations above. In fact, if you take Dell’s offer above into account, you’ll see you can get a killer machine for running SOLIDWORKS at a price of $3,000. 

What Kind of Workstation Is Right for You? 

If you need to stay with a more traditional desktop, or if your work demands it, my best advice is to configure your workstation around the golden triad. Max out the number of cores you can fit on your CPU. If you’ve got the budget, make sure you stockpile RAM—it’ll always be there to back you up when programs begin to gobble up more memory. Also, make sure you have an extremely fast hard drive. If you are going mechanical, make sure the disk spins at a rate of no less than 7200 RPM. However, if possible, reach for a 500-GB or larger solid-state drive—that’s a better option. 

Finally, if you are going to build a workstation, ask yourself how long the machine has to last. 

I would advise saving money and relying on a component’s manufacturer warranty only if you’re planning on replacing your machine every couple of years. It’s better to buy an extended warranty from the company that sold you your system. Eschew the enterprise-level hardware. Sure, you may have to suffer through a few days downtime, but that layoff might save you a few grand.

 


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