Configuring a Workstation for AutoCAD
Kyle Maxey posted on May 31, 2016 | 25357 views

After 32 years on the market, Autodesk’s AutoCAD software has become one of the cornerstones of CAD. Though many architects and mechanical designers have moved on to dedicated 3D modelers like Autodesk’s Inventor or Revit, many engineers, particularly those in the civil and electrical engineering industries, still rely on the software. Beyond its use in the industry, AutoCAD is also an important tool in teaching drafting to students and it’s often the first piece of CAD software that budding drafters use.

What’s been most impressive about AutoCAD’s three decades as CAD-standard has been its ability to continue innovating and to compete with 3D modelers. In its latest release, AutoCAD 2017 has improved its graphical stability, fidelity and performance so that it can handle 3D point cloud data, large 3D models and enormous drawing files.

With its abilities to work across a wide range of CAD fields, AutoCAD can be a valuable tool for any organization to have in its back pocket. But the question remains: how should one build a workstation that’ll run AutoCAD?

In this article we’ll review a few configurations that will work now and well into the future. But before we get to those, let’s sort out what separates a workstation from a plain-Jane PC.


What Separates a Workstation from Other PCs?

Look around you. Wherever you may be, it’s likely that people around you are using one form of computer or another. Whether they’re watching videos on their smartphones, drawing on a tablet, typing away on a laptop or building spreadsheets at a desktop, just about everyone is interacting with some form of computing machine.

But what separates the machine sitting under your desk from the devices that most people use (to great effect, I might add) on a regular basis? What makes your machine uniquely a workstation?

Some will say that it’s the golden triad (CPU, RAM and storage) 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.

When it comes down to it, a workstation is a computer where the performance and reliability has been bolstered by enterprise-level hardware.


Enterprise-level Hardware

Computer and electronic components, whether they are designed for the consumer or for 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 deeply 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.

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

MTBF in graphical format. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)
MTBF in graphical format. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)
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 rather arduous: you’d need to compare the MTBF rate for different products by poring over the vast expanses of technical data written about components.

In the end, a workstation has to be capable not only of acing the largest calculations and graphical demands, but also of withstanding 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 five years or so.

With that information in mind, let’s take a look at two scenarios where configuring a workstation will culminate in drastically different results.


Building a Personal AutoCAD Workstation

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

Although I considered a number of vendors, I chose to make the purchase from a company that builds machines for gamers. In the end, that company 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

>USD$1,000

Initially, 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 USD$1,000 before the monitor.

AutoCAD 2017 handling point-cloud data.

AutoCAD 2017 handling point-cloud data.

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. On top of that, I had an ace up my sleeve—an iron-clad three-year warranty on all parts.

Currently, George commands the service of several CAD applications, but I most commonly use Fusion 360, Cinema 4D, AutoCAD 2016 (for laser cutting) and a rendering client that helps network all of the other machines in my house. Four and a half 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 that’s what happens to old machines.

I’ll admit that there’s no way that George could handle the point-cloud data that AutoCAD 2017 can grapple with and he might even have a bit of trouble with larger meshes in Geomagic, but all in all, I still think my “workstation” has done well.

Even if you toss out my subjective assessment, one important and objective fact can be said about George. Ever since he was unboxed, 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 an AutoCAD 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 or renderings.

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

Last December, the college took possession of USD$154,000 in 32 new Dell Precision 5810s.  If you do the math, the price breakdown for each machine topped out at a whopping USD$4810.99 apiece. And we got what we paid for. 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

USD$4,811

On a daily basis, the computers in the department labs handle a number of different CAD packages. By the time the semester ends, AutoCAD is being used to build 3D models that will be exported to 3D MAX, entire multi-story blueprints for houses, IC-layout designs and much more. On top of that, each machine rarely ever gets a break between the hours of 8:00 am and 10:30 pm, Monday to Saturday. 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 the machines was what kind of processors to choose for the 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.

A T-5810 Workstation (Image Courtesy of Dell)

A T-5810 Workstation (Image Courtesy of Dell)

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 helping to administer the department’s labs, I’ve only had two machines crater, 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 still have no complaints.

That being said, machines like the department’s Dells are orders more expensive and powerful than what’s needed to run AutoCAD. However, if AutoCAD isn’t going to be your primary design tool and you’ll be using another 3D modeler to get most of your work done, a machine of our Dells’ quality is in order. If not, then here are a few options that might be a bit more budget-friendly.


Who Else Can Build an AutoCAD Workstation?

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 could handle AutoCAD 2017 and several generations of future AutoCAD updates. To get a good sense of what the workstation world looks like, I’ve canvased Dell, HP and Xi. Here’s what they came up with:

MFG

CPU

RAM

GPU

HD

PRICE

Xi

Intel i7 -6700K @ 4.1 GHz

16 GB DDR4

@ 2666 MHz

NVIDIA Quadro

M2000 8 GB

250 GB Samsung 850 Evo SSD

USD$1,099

HP

Intel i7 -6700K @ 4.1 GHz

8 GB DDR4

@2133 MHz

Intel HD Graphics 530

1 TB 7200 RPM SATA

USD$1,049

Dell

Intel Xeon

E3-1200 @ 3.0 Ghz

16 GB DDR4

@1600 MHz

AMD FirePro W5100 4 GB

256 GB SSD

No Price Included

The machines listed above trounce George. But they also aren’t the Dells that I work with at Austin Community College. So what does that tell you? Well, for about USD$2,000, you can get all of the computational firepower you’ll need to run AutoCAD, especially if you pick one of the configurations above.


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. 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.

On the scale of an individual or a small firm, one could save money by relying on a components 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.

Sure, you may have to suffer through a few days of downtime, but saving a few grand is a decent trade-off. On the other hand, larger enterprises with mission-critical hardware that can ill-afford any downtime at all, will be better served by the enterprise-level hardware of a real workstation.

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