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5 main differences between a workstation and a desktop PC

As applied to the computer world, the term “Workstation” was exploited so mercilessly that over time it lost its essence. Of course, because you do not drive into a narrow framework that falls under the term “Workplace”? Want a small silent computer for the accountant-please, want a two-processor beast for 6 graphics cards-please, both in the understanding of PC manufacturers can be called the word “Workstation”, but this term originated in the world of applications for working with graphics and various scientific software packages. And if the management has set you the task of choosing a “Workstation”, then in order not to spend money twice, be able to distinguish an ordinary office PC from a real workhorse.

1. Really large number of CPU cores

All accurate calculations, whether it’s rendering a movie or calculating molecules, are done on the CPU, and all modern software packages, whether it’s Ansys, Blender, Knime or simple Python frameworks, use multithreading, that is, simultaneously calculate data on several processor cores. Therefore, a typical workstation has 24 or more cores. Prepare for the fact that you will need 48 to 128 physical cores, giving 256 threads in HyperThreading mode.

Keep in mind that as the number of cores on the processor increases, you will have a decrease in the base frequency of each of the cores. Gaming computers easily flaunt frequencies from 3.5 GHz and above, but have 4-8 cores. In multicore processors, it can range 2.1-2.8 GHz, but due to the large volume cache integer operations on such processors are faster, and even though the computer will give the workstation in the speed of loading Windows or in games, the task of rendering a typical gaming PC can get bogged down for weeks, and workstation count the scene in a matter of days or hours.

2. Do a large amount of memory

If you look at the recommended configurations for working with ANSYS 19 packages, the minimum volume is already 192 GB. Programs to work with the calculations of liquids and mechanical stresses, easily eat and 512 GB of RAM.

3D rendering programs are less demanding on RAM, but at current memory prices, any artist wouldn’t understand if his workstation had less than 64 GB of RAM.

3. ECC memory with error protection (as well as LRDIMM)

Large amounts of memory gain a large number of RAM modules, and 256 GB is only 8 modules of 32 GB. It is quite likely that 8 DIMM connectors will not be enough for you, so you will have to buy a 2-processor machine to get 16 slots for RAM modules.

Starting with the second module, each subsequent module doubles the probability of errors in the computer’s memory. In absolute terms, the probability of an error is not so small, about 0.22% per year for each memory module, according to Google statistics. As they say: “Shit Happens”, and most often the operating system of the computer recovers errors, so you do not even notice them, but in order not to rely on software developers, it is better to entrust the ECC Correction mechanism to iron. To do this, each RAM module has a miniature chip that performs the function of protection against failures.

We can say that this chip offloads the processor from unnecessary work, and large amounts of memory without ECC is simply not possible to dial. But sometimes this unloading is not enough, and Load Reduced DIMM modules are used, in which a separate chip controller is used to communicate with the processor, which performs request buffering. LRDIMM modules can have a capacity of 128 GB, so modern workstations can be supplied with 1-2 TB of RAM.

4. Very weak by modern standards video cards

To work in Mathlab, 3D Studio or Premiere powerful graphics card is not needed, so do not be surprised that the video cards in the workstations belong to the generation before last GPU, have a low-profile form factor and look like the cheapest gaming boards. Almost all the needs of professionals working with graphics, Nvidia and AMD covered 10 years ago, so like the sound card, the GPU here is a means of image output, nothing more. For compatibility with 3D graphics packages, preview rendering typically uses special drivers that are only compatible with professional GPU series. This is from Nvidia - the Quadro, the AMD - FireGL.

It is possible that you will have a multi-monitor video card that allows you to build a video wall of LCD panels, but even such a Board is literally lost in the case of the workstation, and gaming boards such as GTX1080 or RTX2080 in workstations and do nothing at all.

5. Large number of expansion slots

Most likely, these slots will be forever empty, but spending 30-40 thousand $$$ for a “computer”, do you allow that there was nowhere to put a Hi-Fi audio Board in it? Or several GPUs like Nvidia Tesla K40 for machine learning?

So generally, a good workstation will have at least 5 free PCI Express 16x/8x slots for your needs. Most likely, one of the slots will go under the 10/40G Ethernet/Infiniband interface. You may need a local RAID array… Everything that has long been abandoned in the desktop world suddenly finds use among workstations.

6. Built-in Web interface for remote monitoring

From the server world to workstations came the fashion to put remote monitoring chips, usually ASpeed AST2500. They open up a separate Web interface through which you can flash the BIOS while the machine is running, monitor the sensors and get KVM access to the operating system. Naturally, you can overload/update/enable/configure the computer remotely, via the Internet.

As a rule, a separate network port is allocated under the BMC, but not necessarily. By the way, the presence of such remote monitoring allows the system administrator to remotely solve problems with the machine.

7. Very weak or missing sound card

Sound interfaces are integrated on motherboards for workstations on the principle of “that Skype worked”. It is believed that the sound engineer does not need such a powerful machine, and if necessary - he will connect an external USB device.

What may or may not be in the workstation?

Now let’s look at those points that are not mandatory for a real workstation. The manufacturer, the assembler or the client can pay attention to them, and can-not.

  • Liquid cooling: so far, it has not proven its advantages for cooling in desktop enclosures either in efficiency, reliability, or noise level.
  • A large number of SATA ports: in the circuitry of modern motherboards SATA is considered to be free, so they are hung like garlands even the cheapest gaming motherboards. On your Board there can be 12 SATA-600 ports, and can be 4-it does not matter: only software and files with which you now work are stored in the workstation, and everything else is on the NAS in the network.
  • SAS interface: has one significant advantage: the dual-controller storage allows the hard drive to connect to two “heads” at the same time. In workstations and on home computers, NVMe / PCI Express gives way.
  • The big expensive case is beautiful and stately, but neither in questions of noise level, nor in questions of cooling the size does not matter.
  • Fault-tolerant power supplies / fans-looks cool, but if the supplier suddenly does not have the right ones for prompt replacement, you will regret that you can not buy conventional fans and power supply in the nearest branch of DNS and restore the operation of your machine in half an hour.

Conclusion

Well, the most important thing is the price. A modern workstation easily passes for 30K$. System requirements of the software are constantly growing, and not everyone can keep up with them, so many 3D artists make a choice in favor of cloud services. But that, as they say, is another story.