Workstation technology in 2005

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So what happened in workstation technology for CAD in 2005? Rob Jamieson reviews what changed our industry this year and how it affected CAD or, in reality, the software vendors who have to write for this new technology.

PCI Express: The first platform change was the adoption of PCI Express bus which is the replacement for AGP and PCI across the board. Try buying a workstation AGP graphics card today and the range is getting very limited. This bus would only work with a new motherboard, which in the Intel space came with DDR2 memory. You couldn’t easily upgrade existing kit as you had to replace so much, so it was a new workstation system all round. PCI Express didn’t force any great changes in software as long as the drivers for the devices were written correctly. It just went faster, which of course CAD packages loved. The full 16 lane PCI Express bus has some overhead so is unlikely to need improving in the short term. I will cover graphics cards later.

64-bit CPUs: The first big change in CPUs was adoption of 64-bit across all full size workstation platforms. This was said to give two benefits; increased memory access above 3GB and faster execution of 64-bit programs. Microsoft launched Windows XP x64 but CAD packages that actually support this were a bit thin on the ground. To recode a complete CAD package into 64-bit code is going to take a long time. The first “64-bit” packages just don’t crash on this platform and give access to the enhanced memory space. When true 64-bit code comes out next year there is going to be an interesting race between AMD and Intel to see who really is faster.

Dual Core: The second big thing that happened to CPUs was Dual Core. Because CPUs couldn’t be made any faster with the current technology base, two slightly slower CPUs were combined on a single piece of silicon and Dual Core was born. As most current CAD packages are single threaded (i.e. run one thing at a time) this was a bit of a backward step for performance. It has, however, woken up the software developers to the idea that to get more speed you have to code better, as Dual Core systems will eventually be the only type of systems in town. Now software developers have to code for 64-bit and dual core at the same time and users will take notice as soon as any software comes out with measurable (not just ‘I’m on the bandwagon’) performance.

" When true 64-bit code comes out next year there is going to be an interesting race between AMD and Intel "

Intel had market dominance for many years in single and dual workstations. AMD with the Opteron (the rebranding worked well from Athlon MP) gained a performance advantage in Dual systems and beat Intel into launching Dual Core, Dual workstations. These are expensive systems and give no real benefit today with standard mid-range CAD systems. But if you’re into analysis or visualisation/rendering they are great. Intel has launched Dual Core Xeons but the real fight starts early next year when Intel launches its new range of systems. Intel’s Dual Core CPUs with shorter pipelines will hot up the competition in the performance area and will lead to better pricing, which can only benefit end users.

Graphics cards: Graphics cards got faster and cheaper for the same performance level. The clock speeds increased and extra geometry engines were added to do more processing faster. Dual link supporting large panels (if you could afford one) became available from the mid range. Anti Aliasing and realtime viewport effects became the normal in visualisation or high end design applications. This support will filter down to most 3D applications as everybody wants to see stuff in realtime. The increasing performance trend will continue but there is a lot more power in GPUs than just graphics. The “A” in ATI means Array and a typical GPU is an array of pipelines that can do more than just process graphics onto a screen. An example of this is transcoding, where the pipelines in a graphics card can convert a video file from a MPEG2 (typical DVD movie) to MPEG 4 for use on a portable device in a quarter of the time that any CPU can today. This is just one of the tricks the next generation of graphics cards can do. With HD and big screens becoming more of the norm, Dual link will become standard but you need a lot of power if you intend to display all this in 3D realtime.

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Software companies need to support these real time effects in general CAD, just as 3ds Max and Maya have already done in the visualisation space. DirectX has more support today for this and is becoming more popular in any 3D sphere. This will only strengthen when Windows Vista arrives next year with a 3D interface and 64-bit etc.

Memory: The rest of a workstation will improve by evolution than revolution. Memory is getting faster supporting DDR2 with lower latencies. So memory today is running at higher speeds (transfer rate) and lower latencies, which is the time it takes to react to a fetch.

Hard drives: SATA has become a lot more dominant in workstations. If it’s connected to a quality RAID controller it’s a quick cheap solution. SCSI sales are dropping and so is the price of these drives. SATA 2 increases the bus speed but without major changes to the hard disk design, so the advantages are going to be about taking data out of the cache memory. Density on platters are increasing so we are getting bigger and bigger disks at cheaper prices. I now have so much “junk” stored on multiple disks I can’t wait for the Vista Virtual Folders searches to sort it all out for me.

Media: DVDs became the norm and software companies are shipping entire products on them now! For the next generation, there is a format war between Blue Ray and HD DVD but whoever wins capacities are going to increase on DVD storage and retrieval is a good thing. The graphics card companies are related to this as you need decent power in the card to decode the H.264 high resolution. The top screen resolution 1080p is 1,920 x 1,200 resolution and is available in a 65inch LCD! Not cheap but this drives the cost down of smaller screens. A year ago a 17inch LCD was ú300; today 19inch models are not far off that. More for less, this is market forces in action, just make sure to buy the right stuff at the right time to get the benefits for you and your company.

Robert Jamieson works for workstation graphics specialist, ATI.

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