The Wonderful World of Workstations
Kathleen Maher
Issue: Volume 39 Issue 6: (Nov/Dec 2016)

The Wonderful World of Workstations



The workstation market is one of the most important, least volatile, and highest performance-demanding segments of the computer industry. It doesn’t grow fast, and in terms of units, it’s about as large as that of enthusiast gaming machines. However, in terms of revenue, it’s almost an order of magnitude greater.

Although workstations, mainstream PCs, and laptops share the same basic design, workstations have a distinct ecosystem with special requirements. The market is enabled by semiconductors from AMD, Intel, and Nvidia. Those parts find their way to specialized motherboard and add-in board (AIB) builders, which incorporate high-end memory, disc drives or flash memory, heavy-duty power supplies, and so forth. Some of those products get sold to independent system builders, big OEMs like Apple, Dell, Fujitsu, HP, and Lenovo, and also to users who build their own workstations in exactly the configuration they want.

The adjacent market includes display suppliers, and they are pushing the limits on resolution, refresh rate, physical size, and even curved displays. Connecting the displays to the workstation’s AIB are state-of-the-art high-speed cables known as DisplayPort 1.4, HDMI 2.0, Thunderbolt 3, and USB-C. Because Thunderbolt 3 is a superset of DisplayPort, HDMI, and USB-C, it will become a standard I/O on future systems – at least until something else comes along. Increasingly, workstation users will have two or more displays, only limited by desk space.


As the chips get smaller and faster, and miraculously use less power, workstations are being built in notebook form. They come with 17-inch displays and 4K or better resolution.

When AMD and Intel have new CPUs (x86), the workstation builders – customizers, independents, and big-brand OEMs – usually introduce a line of machines, and we just saw that this past summer as computers have been introduced with Intel’s Broad-well and Skylake, and the latest workstation graphics cards in AMD’s FirePro and Nvidia’s Quadro lines.

Although AMD CPUs haven’t had any traction in the workstation space for the past few years, the industry is anxiously awaiting the arrival of AMD’s new CPU, the Zen. AMD recently revealed more details about its forthcoming Zen x86 CPU, which will target the high-end PCs for gaming and workstations, as well as servers. The Zen is expected in early 2017.

During the summer, Intel introduced three new low-power, albeit powerful, processors in the Skylake family, which sparked the announcements of several new workstation laptops (as well as several gaming laptops) usually co-configured with an Nvidia GPU and, to a lesser extent, an AMD GPU.
Intel’s powerhouse workstation and server CPU is the Xeon, and the newer workstations will incorporate them, too.

Likewise, when AMD and Nvidia come out with new GPUs, the workstation builders will either try to sync it up with a new CPU release or do what’s known as a midlife kicker, upgrading the current version of the workstation with more powerful graphics, and we just witnessed that, as well. In August, AMD introduced the Polaris-based Radeon Pro WX – WX 7100, WX 5100, and WX 4100 workstation AIB – and Nvidia introduced the Pascal-based Quadro P6000 and P5000.

AMD’s new Polaris-based WX7100 AIB comes with higher clock speeds and 2,304 cores that offer more than 5 TFLOPS of single-precision (FP32) compute performance.

Nvidia’s new Quadro AIB is based on the Pascal graphics architecture, and it uses a GPU with 3,840 processing cores. It can reach 12 TFLOPS.

And lest we forget, you have to have the latest, fastest memory possible, and a lot of it. So workstation AIBs have 8GB to 16GB in the mainstream, and up to 24GB in the high end of local RAM (random access memory) for the GPU (known as GDDR5), and a sea of system RAM (typically 32GB to 64GB), and the latest version of that is DDR4.


That is all backed up with at least a terabyte of solid state storage (SSD). Sound expensive? It is. Sound fast? It’s killer fast. However, the amount of memory varies depending upon the class of workstation. For example, a main-stream option will typically have 256 SSD and a 1TB HDD.

In that category/realm/segment, AMD announced the Radeon Pro SSG, an AIB with a Polaris GPU and 1TB of SSD on board.


The workstation system builders have been extremely creative and clever with how they package these wondrous machines: from all-in-ones, to tiny boxes that can be hung on the back of a monitor, to Apple’s delightful cylindrical Mac Pro, to monsters like HP’s Z840, Dell’s 7000, Fujitsu’s full-power, small form-factor Celsius machines with J550 and the R940, Lenovo’s P910, or Boxx’s overclocked Apexx 2 2402. You can also get a mobile workstation from the big brands above and several boutique suppliers like Eurocom that makes the biggest, fastest mobile workstation.


HP has taken a bold step with its latest Z workstation aimed at the CAD market. HP says there are approximately 11 million CAD workers but only 42 percent of them use workstations. HP cites factors such as resource-hungry applications, reduced desk space (and under-desk space), and loud work environments with heavy-duty computers as challenges that cause traditional workstations to fall short.

HP hopes to address recalcitrant CAD users with a tiny workstation box called the Z2 Mini. The Mini comes with a VESA bracket to enable it to be attached to the back of an HP monitor, or it can just slip unobtrusively on the bookshelf with all the reports, manuals, and technical books that never get opened. There is a locking option to protect the box from thieves or the I/O slots from unauthorized inputs.


HP has devised a straightforward but clever cooling system that enables the box to be fitted into cramped spaces, with vents placed to provide airflow from the GPU and CPU fans through the system and protected corners around the vents so airflow doesn’t get blocked wherever someone chooses to stuff things around it. In cases where the Mini has been mounted or otherwise hidden out of easy reach, the system can be powered on from the keyboard.

There have been cute boxes before, and Intel’s NUC form factor and the Mac Mini are obvious examples, but neither would be called workstations. HP changes the game with the addition of a specially designed Nvidia Quadro M620 2GB graphics board, a full complement of I/O options including multiple display ports, USB, RJ45 network, and an optional serial port.


Apple has not said whether it has any plans up update its desktop Mac Pro workstation, and as a matter of fact, Apple has never really liked the appellation workstation, but its latest 15-inch MacBook Pro machines equipped with Intel’s 2.6 GHz Core i7, 16GB 2133 MHz memory, and AMD’s low-profile Radeon Pro 450 with 2GB GDDR 5 fits the bill. All of the new Mac-Book Pros have a larger Force touchpad that accommodates more gestures and pressure. The base 15-inch model has 256GB memory and meets the expectations of expandability with four Thunderbolt 3 ports, which means any of the ports can provide power or peripherals.


The displays on these new machines are Apple’s wide-gamut (25 percent more colors than an sRGB display) retina displays with a resolution of 2880x1800, 226 pixels per inch. It boasts a starting price of $2,399.

Apple is also offering a version with 2.7 GHz, a Radeon Pro 455, and 512GB SSD for $2,799. Of course, there are plenty of options including 2.9 GHz Core i7, Thunderbolt 3 monitors from LG in 4K and 5K, and up to a terabyte SSD drive. At its presentation, Apple described a loaded 15-inch MacBook Pro with two LG monitors and two RAID drives as a very worthy base for a professional editing suite using Apple, Adobe, and Avid tools, and that’s exactly what it is going to be used for. In some fields of creative work, one of the most important requirements of a professional computer is that it carries an Apple logo.


The other important aspect of the new Apple machines is the much leaked about OLED touchpad at the top of the keyboard that replaces the function keys. The Touch Bar, as Apple calls it, does all the jobs the functions keys did, such as change lighting, raise/lower volume, and play/pause media buttons, but it can be customized for applications. At the event, representatives from Adobe, Microsoft, and Algoriddm demonstrated Touch Bar optimizations and, of course, Apple’s own Final Cut Pro.

Apple promised widespread support for Touch Bar when the new machines come out later this year, and mentioned several other apps including Black Magic’s DaVinci Resolve and Pixelmator image editing. It’s also user-customizable. What’s not obvious without seeing the Touch Bar demonstrated in conjunction with the Force Touch track-pad is the way it enables true two-handed workflows that put the controls more con-veniently at the users’ fingertips, rather than on the screen.


Presently, there is a great deal of discussion around the post-PC era. Sales of PCs are down. In studies of the workstation market at Jon Peddie Research (JPR), the group has found workstation sales to be remarkably stable. In the latest JPR workstation report (, which covered Q2 2016, analyst Alex Herrera notes that workstation sales hit a new record, with shipments of branded workstations at 1.1 million – a 21.7 percent sequential gain. Even more impressive, sales increased 7 percent year over year, while the PC market is still seeing declines (though the decline seems to be slowing).

Likewise, Nvidia and AMD have shipped 1.3 million professional graphics add-in boards (AIBs), a 20 percent gain sequentially and 12.3 percent year over year. (The reason more AIBs ship than workstations is because some are used for upgrading existing machines, and some users have two AIBs in their systems.)

Moreover, the increasing sophistication of software pipelines is demanding more compute power, not less. At the same time, workers do not want to be tied to their desk, and in many cases their work is enhanced by an ability to go work in the field, interact with customers and colleagues, or stay home and work in peace and quiet.

Business Advantage, a London based research firm, has conducted a series of worldwide surveys asking CAD users about their awareness of trends and their actual usage of applications. In its surveys, the company found a decline in the use of desktop workstations in favor of mobile computers, mobile workstations, tablets, and virtual CAD workstations. JPR has found likewise in its own studies, and the workstation vendors also see these trends. 

Indeed, HP and Dell have fielded a couple of generations of thin workstations. The vendors are required to walk the line between maintaining performance and durability against weight and battery life. Workstation customers are not inclined to compromise.

JPR Graph

The high-end performance offered by workstations is always going to be required, and for really compute-intensive jobs, we are seeing power being distributed to enable professionals to call on processors when they need them. In addition, the ability to collaborate in real time with high-quality visualization and performance is a growing driver in the professional environment of today and will be even more so in the future. Thus, we don’t see the overall demand for workstations declining, and in fact, we find the demand for high-end processing to be a growing trend.

The workstation companies also have been building out their remote computing offerings. Dell has gone to the extreme with the acquisition of EMC, making it the largest private tech company with potential revenues at $80 billion. The company says it will enable companies to build out infrastructures incorporating private, public, and hybrid clouds. Its aim is to lessen the IT burden for companies.

Lenovo has upped its game in the data center with ThinkAgile, pre-integrated infrastructure solutions to enable customers to build on premise and hybrid virtualized systems.


HP, Inc. has been offering Remote Graphics Software (RGS) as a simple way to extend processing power to lower-power clients. The firm has suggested RGS as a solution to firms that prefer Macs for video editing and content creation but crave the power of full workstations.

Nvidia, of course, was early into the remote graphics business with its GRID platform, which enables companies to extend GPU power through vGPU technology that enables the GPU to be extended to a virtual machine (VM) for remote clients. The vGPU technology is flexible and allows multiple guests to take advantage of the GPU as needed. In conjunction with software from VMWare and Citrix, GRID partners enable their customers to share hardware resources from servers.

Boxx Technologies has offered support for GRID with its workstations, but it has found some clients who don’t want to share any of the GPU with anyone. These users are working with applications like Autodesk’s Revit, Autodesk’s Maya, SolidWorks, or Dassault’s Catia, and they need all the resources they can get from the GPU and the CPU. These applications aren’t heavily threaded, so they benefit more from a high-powered, over-clocked CPU than shared-server resources like multi-core Xeons.

Thus, the company has introduced the XDI 8401 R-V, which, like the Apexx 2 2402 mentioned above, takes advantage of an overclocked Intel Core i7 and high-power graphics from the Nvidia Quadro M2220 up to the M6000. Using vDGA technology, remote users can be directly connected to the GPU for a full-powered workstation experience. Boxx says that in its testing, its performance for remote users is very close to the same performance one would get on the equivalent workstation.

Clearly, the demand for performance will not decrease, and the need for ever more powerful processors will always be there, but the power of those processors will be distributed and accessed flexibly, depending on the job requirements and workplace resources or restrictions.


For the people doing work requiring the compute-power of a workstation, there is no post-PC era. The demand is always for more realistic effects and rendering, faster time to a decision, accurate analysis, and more detailed visual information available at once. That adds up to more and faster memory, more processors, better displays, more of everything.

Increasingly, there is a ghost world forming around us as reality is repeated in digital counterparts that can be explored, analyzed, and understood to better manage reality. So, even if much of that power can be transferred and shared via remote compute technologies, we’re always going to want that information in the palm of our hand.

Kathleen Maher ( is a contributing editor to CGW; a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, CA-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia; and editor in chief of JPR’s “TechWatch.”