One popular question that many customers ask is, How exactly do I
differentiate between a workstation and a desktop? Or If I plug in a powerful
graphics card inside a desktop, will it be equivalent to a workstation?
The firm answer is, Not at all, you can never convert a desktop into a
workstation just by plugging in a graphics card. They are two different species
of personal computing systems, each tailor-made for doing totally different
kinds of work. A workstation is designed to deliver higher performance
capability than desktop personal computers.
In simple words, if you are a professional a workstation is ideally suited. A
PC is a general-purpose machine designed mainly for running office productivity
suites like Microsoft Office, emails, Power Point presentations, etc.
Workstations are designed for users who work on high-end applications that
require greater graphics capability, processing power, and need multitasking
The key points that differentiate a workstation from a PC being:
- Overall system reliability: Workstations are fitted with higher
reliability technology than PCs. Features such as error checking and
correcting (ECC) memory, larger power supplies, and more sophisticated cooling
mechanisms ensure higher reliability; moreover, workstations are designed for
quick (and often tool-less) upgrades and repairs.
- Application certification and overall stability: Workstations are often
tested and certified by both the hardware vendor and software vendor to run
specific applications, which need high computation and graphics power. Users
are assured that they are using a tried-and-true combination of hardware,
system software, and applications.
- Enhanced performance: Workstations are engineered to provide the best
performance available for a specific set of applications that typically have
large resource requirements (i.e., memory, disk, I/O, and/or graphics
- Wide range of graphics: Workstations provide a more elaborate support such
as professional graphics cards for large and tough 3D visualization, OpenGL
support, and specific application support to maximize on-screen performance.
- Greater expandability: Workstations are designed with more headroom for
additional components. For example, additional (and higher-powered) PCI slots,
higher RAM capacity through increased number of memory slots, higher disk
capacity, and higher capacity power supplies.
To Choose Between
The intended usage pattern and the type of software that a person plans to
use are important factors. If one were using any workstation application, then
the need would be higher levels of performance, reliability, and flexibility as
compared to a personal platform. Further, there is also a need for high level of
support and expertise from hardware vendors.
There are a number of key applications that benefit from the power of a
workstation such as design and simulation in engineering and manufacturing, oil
and gas, digital content creation (DCC) and entertainment, financial
applications and power office users, geographical information systems (GIS),
architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC).
Multi-core Workstations: Multi-core workstations that are quite popular
nowadays can accommodate two numbers of Quad-core processors. In other words,
users can harness the power of 8 processor cores from a workstation which can
sit on your desk.
Thus, a frequently asked question is about the number of processors a person
should use in their workstations. This obviously depends a lot on the type of
software that a person intends to use. For example, for multithreaded
applications whose performance increases as you increase the number of cores, it
is better to buy the maximum number of cores possible. CAE, CFD, rendering, etc
are normally multi-threaded and can get tremendous benefit from running on
But in the case of CAD applications or digital content creation applications
that are not really multi-threaded, simply increasing the number of cores cannot
increase the productivity of the workstations. In this case, the workflow of the
workstation needs to be changed. Scalable Workflow is a concept that is very
relevant for such non-multithreaded applications.
In the Scalable Workflow concept, in order to take advantage of multiple
CPUs and cores, a multi-threaded application or simply more than one application
must be run at the same time. Multi-threaded applications typically show good
performance scaling as more processor cores are added. Using multiple
applications on the other hand can scale much better, as their tasks are
completely separate, and their scaling is only limited by availability of system
In case of making a purchase for a workstation, the desirable features to
look for are:
- Specialized tools that come bundled with workstations to automatically
fine-tune the performance of the workstations and to suit several MCAD, CAE,
DCC, GIS, and AEC software
- Software that enable remote collaboration and visualization of complicated
models over very large distances, connected by a network
- Superior mechanical design of the workstation that ensures quiet
operations and optimal heat dissipation
- Toolless chassis, very wide graphics card offerings high reliability, and
large expandability of systems
- Easy manageability tools to simplify IT management and lower TCO
- Security tools to protect the intellectual property of corporates. Very
high levels of physical, identity, data, and network security are assured with
the help of several hardware and software tools
- Specialized support and personalized after sales service. Multiple-tiers
of support and escalation levels must be clearly defined and offered to
- Standard, comprehensive, onsite 3 years warranty with an option to extend
warranty up to 5 years
- Conformance to very stringent safety and regulatory standards
- Buy-back schemes for your current systems
Green Workstations: Though a workstation may have several good technical
features, it is not really a good workstation, unless it is environmental
friendly. The 80 PLUS efficient power supply is a popular standard. 80 PLUS is a
specification developed by an independent non-governmental organization
An 80 PLUS power supply ensures the same performance while saves money on
energy costs on each workstation installation. Actual savings depend on specific
configurations and the model used. It provides better power supply efficiency
leading to less heat output and, consequently, less fan noise, thus contributing
to a better office environment. The utility company supplying power saves money
on electrical infrastructure if all the energy demand is power factor corrected
(PFC). Using a power factor corrected workstation can help your organization
meet its environmental stewardship goals. Better for the environment, using less
energy, more efficiently in an office environment results in a smaller carbon
Moving a step forward, several of the workstations also conform to a standard
called Energy Star 4, which is an extremely stringent standard. Energy Star is a
joint program of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of
Energy helping save money and protect the environment through energy efficient
products and practices (www.energystar.gov). Electronic Product Environmental
Assessment Tool (EPEAT) rating is yet another standard.
Future Workstations: Blade Workstations is one such new area. Rather than
placing the workstations computing power at the users desk, the computing
power, in the form of blade workstations, is moved to the data center where the
workstations can be easily, securely, and inexpensively managed. Centralizing an
organizations workstations in the data center provides many benefits, including
improved uptime and business continuity, remote management capabilities, fault
tolerant design, re-provisioning capabilities, outstanding uptime, etc.
The blade workstations offer enhanced data security by ensuring that
business-critical data remains in the data center and offer reduced IT costs to
a large extent by centralizing your organizations workstations into the data
center and by taking advantage remote management tools.
The author is country category manager, Workstations, Personal Systems
Group, HP India.