Rethinking workstation design

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Dell has completely redesigned its new ‘Sandy Bridge’ Xeon Precision workstation from scratch with serviceability high on the list of priorities.

The launch of a major new Xeon processor almost always goes hand in hand with a wave of new workstations. This is usually just a refresh of an existing product range, but with the Intel Xeon E5-1600/2600 series (Sandy Bridge) processor Dell has gone all out and completely redesigned its Precision workstation from scratch.

Gone is the trademark silver facade — in its place a sleek black honeycomb grill, minimal in terms of its design, but hiding an incredibly functional aluminium chassis with buckets of processing power inside.

Dell Precision T7600 with front panel removed: easy access to all eight hard drives

This is arguably the biggest redesign in the history of Dell Precision workstations. The entire chassis has been developed from a blank slate, driven by a key requirement for increased serviceability; though functionality, styling, improved airflow and reduced fan noise also had a major influence.

There are a number of innovations in the new look Precision — a power supply that can be pulled out from the back, hard drives that can be easily accessed from the front, and a tool-less chassis, all designed to minimise downtime should a key component fail. The new Precision range also features a patented memory technology designed to eliminate errors by extending the capabilities of workstation-class Error Correcting Code (ECC) memory.

The new workstations are built around Intel’s new ‘Sandy Bridge’ Xeon processor with the 8 core Xeon E5-2687W taking centre stage in the dual socket Precision T5600 and Precision T7600. Intel’s new chip can be partnered with up to 64GB, 128GB and 512GB of 1600MHz or 1333MHz ECC RDIMM memory in the T3600, T5600 and T7600 respectively. Most users of CAD/Building Information Modelling (BIM) software will not even get close to filling this amount.

All the new Precision workstations feature a choice of professional Nvidia or AMD graphics cards, with the dual socket Precision T7600 supporting three high-end GPUs, including the Nvidia Quadro 6000 and Nvidia Tesla 2075 GPGPU (General Purpose Graphic Processing Unit) with Nvidia Maximus technology. Nvidia Maximus is designed to enable users to design and simulate or design and render at the same time by carefully managing CPU and GPGPU resources (see AEC Jan/Feb 12).


Having support for three high-end GPUs gives Dell an advantage over the other Tier One workstation vendors, which only support two GPUs. But do not get too excited: In design/engineering workflows, the benefits of having two Tesla cards are likely to be restricted to GPU-enabled rendering applications such as Bunkspeed Shot and 3ds Max. GPU-enabled simulation software, including Abaqus and Ansys, can currently only make use of a single Tesla card, though this is likely to change in the future.

Dell has not scrimped on storage, the Precision T7600 can support a colossal eight drives — SATA, SAS or SSD. This number of drives is really to support users of design viz software, who need high-speed access to huge amounts of video data. The Precision T5600 and T3600 still offer capacity for four, which should be plenty for most design and engineering workflows. All the usual RAID standards are supported for performance or redundancy including 0, 1, 5, 10.

Front loading drives

When a hard drive fails it is important to be able to replace it quickly. With the new Precision T7600 all drives are easily accessible from the front of the machine behind the removable grill. There is no need to take off the side panel, and no wires to worry about; the drives simply clip in and out in a matter of seconds. This is also a great feature for keeping confidential data secure by storing drives overnight in a safe.

Compartmentalised interior of the new Dell Precision T7600: uncluttered, well organised and easy to service – the near side provides access to CPUs, memory and graphics, while the far side houses hard drives and the power supply unit

Sadly, things are not quite as easy in the Precision T5600 and Precision T3600. However, once the side panel is off, the two main 3.5-inch drives are simply pulled out of the side-facing caddie.

Removable power supply

The removable 90% efficient power supply unit (PSU) is a neat feature of all new Precisions. Pulled out directly from the back of the machine, it allows defective units to be replaced in seconds. There are no wires to contend with as these are all connected to the daughter card, which sits in the aluminium PSU cradle. Swapping out a traditional power supply usually requires all the hard drives, graphics cards, motherboard, DVD drive etc, to be disconnected first, which can be extremely time consuming.

Dell has also made it easy to diagnose a problem. Each PSU sports a built in frosted plastic handle, which glows green when functioning correctly and changes colour if there is a failure. When the machine is tucked underneath a dark desk, the glow should be visible from the front.

It is likely that this feature will never be needed by the majority of users, but for IT managers in large design and engineering offices who are likely to keep some backup PSUs on site, it will be a great time saver.

Reliable Memory Technology

Reliable Memory Technology (RMT) is a Dell patented technology that is claimed to “eliminate virtually all memory errors on high-end workstations”.

Swapping out a failed power supply on all new Dell Precision workstations can now be done in seconds thanks to a rear facing aluminium caddy

It works in a similar way to a hard disk drive that has suffered physical damage to a sector on the drive. When it detects a non-repairable memory error, it reboots the machine and at a BIOS level prevents the system from writing to the spot again. Typically such errors can lead to the DIMM being replaced, but with RMT Dell reckons it can correct up to seven errors over the lifetime of the DIMM, minimising downtime, while keeping the machine stable.


Dell’s new family of Precision workstations is a big step up from its previous generation. The predecessor to the Precision T7600, the Precision T7500, was not only significantly bigger but comparatively speaking the layout was chaotic and hard to service.

Everything about the new Precision T7600 is clean, ordered and well considered. It is clear that a great deal of thought has gone into its design, both from a functional and aesthetic perspective. Indeed, for the first time in the history of the Dell Precision, it can certainly be regarded as stylish.

In developing the new chassis Dell sought input from hundreds of firms, but it is hard to believe that the original impetus was not as a response to HP’s Z Series following its launch in 2009. This was HP’s bold move to completely re-design the workstation and its tool-less chassis received many plaudits.

While there are many comparisons between the two designs, it is fair to say that Dell has moved things on a bit with the new Precision. With front and back access to drives and PSU, there is now little need to remove the side panel during the lifetime of the product. There are also some other neat features such as locating four USB ports at the top front, generously spaced for wider USB drives, and a recess on the top of the machine to stop peripherals sliding off.

Dell was also keen to emphasise, with a subtle reference to its competitors, that the aluminium handles are an integral part of the chassis. This makes them incredibly strong — which is important for portability and essential for those wanting to use the Precision T7600 as a rack solution.

In summary, the new Precisions are all about minimising downtime. However much care goes into a workstation design, they do go wrong over time, with hard drives and PSUs among the biggest culprits. By making these components incredibly easy to swap out Dell is not only helping its customers get up and running in the shortest time frame possible, but minimising the need for its own on-site visits — which will in turn save itself money. In the past swapping out a failed PSU would only be attempted by the most experienced of IT users. Now literally anyone can do it.

At a time when Apple is doing its best to make its products impossible to service or upgrade, it’s refreshing to see the workstation market as a whole helping users take control of their machines. Any downtime is bad, but when repairs take longer than necessary they can have a huge impact on project delivery. In saying this, I wonder if IT geeks, somewhat perversely, will now look forward to a power supply failure.


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