An Entry-Level Workstation That’s Far More Powerful Than “Entry Level”

Should high-end graphics, 64 GB of memory and 27 TB of storage be considered “entry level”?

What makes the Fujitsu CELSIUS W550 an entry-level workstation? It is a single processor micro-ATX based on the Intel C236 chipset. That sets the limits for expansion: 20 PCI Express lanes, four memory slots and no over-clocking.

If you want real entry-level, it’s possible to configure a machine with a Core i3 CPU, a 1-GB graphics board, 4 GB of memory and a 500-GB, 5,400-RPM SATA hard-drive—but why would you do that?

You wouldn’t. You’re interested in getting the best bang for your buck in a professional workstation. This is where the W550 blows away the idea of an “entry-level” workstation.

New Xeon E3 Skylake CPUs and 64 GB of memory add power to the CELSIUS W550. (All images courtesy of the author.)

New Xeon E3 Skylake CPUs and 64 GB of memory add power to the CELSIUS W550. (All images courtesy of the author.)

This entry-level mini-tower can be packed with high-performance technology.

This entry-level mini-tower can be packed with high-performance technology.

The CELSIUS W550’s features are intended to impress. The system came with its maximum graphics power in the form of a Quadro M4000 board with 8 GB of GDDR5 memory. AMD FirePro fans can configure the workstation with the high-end 8-GB graphics of the FirePro W7100 GPU.

The Intel Xeon processor, an E3-1275v5 quad-core CPU clocked at 3.6 GHz, is just one level shy of the maximum configuration. The system had 16 GB of 2133 MHz memory—sufficient for testing—and a 512-GB SSD hard drive, albeit confined to SATA.

That is a pretty decent configuration. If you were going to spice it up for the real world as a CAE engineering workstation or for high-end video editing, you would surely bump up the memory and switch to a larger SSD. You might also want to have the SSD attached to the PCI Express bus for faster throughput compared to SATA.

If you need a lot of local storage, the system can be configured with over 27 TB of storage. Another basic upgrade that delivers good productivity is adding multiple displays. The NVIDIA Quadro M4000 has four DisplayPort outputs and each one can handle a 4K-resolution monitor. Many workstation users already use two displays. Depending on the demands of your workflow, three or more displays could make sense. The added productivity from a $790-$905 investment in a good 4K display pays for itself quickly.

The CELSIUS W550’s Benchmark Performance

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This result is courtesy of the newest generation of GPU, CPU and memory. The performance outdoes a similarly configured workstation with the previous generation of CPU, GPU and memory technology.

When a single product cycle delivers this much additional performance, imagine what it could do for a three-year-old workstation!

The CELSIUS W550 Is Excellent for CAD/CAM/CAE

If you are doing any kind of 3D modeling, the CELSIUS W550 can be tuned to suit your needs. The tested configuration with a Quadro M4000 has far more graphics power than you need, but the quad-core CPU and 16 GB of memory fit perfectly. You can trade in the Quadro M4000 for a Quadro K1200 or a FirePro W4100 and have excellent 3D performance while maintaining good multiple display support. 

3D modeling is more CPU-dependent and doesn’t stress a fast GPU like the Quadro M4000.

3D modeling is more CPU-dependent and doesn’t stress a fast GPU like the Quadro M4000.

Our testing in 3D modeling uses a Ferrari model. One car has 95,000 polygons and 220,000 vertices. A single car of this size is manipulated effortlessly in 3ds Max with 120-130 frames per second (FPS). Autodesk Inventor also manages this model with ease. As we increase the number of instances of this model, the FPS drop. In 3ds Max, a thirty-car model delivers 14 FPS, a 50-car model delivers 9 FPS and a 100-car model runs at 4 FPS.

At each level, the limiting factor is not the GPU. Increasing the visual quality doesn’t impact the FPS performance. Since the GPU is not saturated, image quality settings such as anti-aliasing can be pushed to the highest available settings. Even then, the workload on the GPU stays below 100 percent and the system delivers the same FPS for each size of model.

Autodesk Inventor is not as efficient as 3ds Max and the handling of the larger models deteriorates faster and more dramatically. Unfortunately, the application doesn’t display FPS performance information, which inhibits precise identification of performance fall-off.

The Skylake-based workstation is capable of handling ray-traced image quality.

The Skylake-based workstation is capable of handling ray-traced image quality.

Several modeling applications, including Autodesk Inventor, integrate ray-tracing rendering modes. In the applications I tested, ray tracing used only the CPU, not GPU. This means that the CPU cores ramp up to 100-percent workload saturation to calculate the ray-traced image. The first instances of the model look rough, but the quality of the image converges quickly. In instances where this style of visualization is useful, the CELSIUS W550 and its Intel Xeon CPU deliver good results.

Among the trio of CAD/CAM/CAE, the latter probably places additional demands on your workstation. This will depend on the analysis software used and it is likely that your workstation will need the extra capacity for system memory.

For example, CREO Simulate has many features in which the analysis is completed interactively or extremely rapidly and this workstation won’t break a sweat. On the other hand, using SOLIDWORKS Plastics simulation can consume the full 64 GB and leverage as many cores as this workstation can throw at it.

If you need to run more advanced FEA or CFD simulations on this workstation, then you will want the fastest CPU, the maximum system memory and extremely fast storage. However, more advanced CAE and simulation is an application area better addressed by a decidedly more advanced workstation technology.

The “Insider” Tour

The mini-tower design is compact but expandable. It is a tribute to storage technologies as well as the Fujitsu design team that this workstation can be packed with over 27 TB of storage. The new Intel platform gives the CELSIUS W550 a boost with support of 64 GB of system memory. AMD and NVIDIA provide high-end graphics.

The CELSIUS W550 has a compact but expandable design.

The CELSIUS W550 has a compact but expandable design.

If you want to add that extra storage or high-end GPU, you need to upgrade the standard 300W power supply to 500W.

The interior is a deceptively simple design. With a compact design, there is no need for air baffles to separate storage, CPU and graphics airflow. The Fujitsu engineers designed a front-to-back airflow cooling system with large-diameter, low-noise fans pulling in fresh air where it is needed and exhausting it out the back. The simplicity of this design is proven in the sound specs for the mini-tower. Many  customers view low noise levels as an important feature and the engineers at Fujitsu focused on this problem.

Although the design is not separated with panels and air baffles, it does follow a standard front-to-back and top-to-bottom design. At the top of the mini-tower is storage and power supply. In the middle is processor and memory. At the bottom is graphics, with more storage tucked into the very bottom.

One design decision surprised me: the CELSIUS W550 is not a tool-less design. Maybe the engineers at Fujitsu think that every IT employee has a Phillips-head screwdriver in their back pocket. Maybe tool-less design doesn’t rank high on Fujitsu customer demands. Maybe a tool-less design is not as solid or as reliable as this design. Maybe it is more expensive.

Given the stress that Fujitsu competitors have placed on their own developments in improved industrial designs—including completely tool-less designs—it stands out in 2016 to see a workstation that makes me reach for my screwdriver.

Stefan Grotzke, Fujitsu product manager, introduces the CELSIUS W550 and compares it to the CELSIUS J550.

A Final Perspective

The CELSIUS W550 can be configured as an entry-level workstation, but that would be a waste of a great workstation. The advantage comes if you need to standardize your platform across a broad set of user requirements, from AutoCAD LT to design visualization and simulation. The CELSIUS W550 can do that.

What impresses in this new generation of workstation is just how high the upper limits go. This entry-level system reaches far into the mid-range of the previous generation. As such, the machine can be used across nearly all—or maybe all—of a company’s workstation users. The CELSIUS W550 can be a standard workstation and all that is needed is to adapt the configuration.

This makes the CELSIUS W550 an entry-level workstation that blows away the entry-level.

About the Author

Tom Lansford is an international marketing consultant and manages the sites Professional WorkstationCADplace France and CADplace UK. He has been living in Europe since 1992, and previously managed workstation marketing in Europe at NVIDIA. Lansford is a professional videographer and his interests include design visualization, simulation, graphics and GPU computing.