Design Hardware: Some Things to Know

Here are items you might want to keep in mind if you’re in the market for a machine to drive your designs.


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If you are looking for some hardware to perform design and analysis, chances are what you don’t want to do is to go to Best Buy and get the most powerful desktop system that one of the Geeks can hook you up with. Nor do you want to go down the logical road that gaming machines have high-end graphics capabilities and are able to render complexities at a blistering speed, so maybe that would be the gear to get (especially as it is a gaming machine and you’re not designing all the time so . . .).


To find out what you should get, we talked with Don Maynard, senior product manager, Dell Precision Power Workstations (dell.com), and Tom Salomone, Mechanical Design Automation segment manager, Global Workstations business unit, HP (hp.com). And given their titles, it should be clear to you that if you’re interested in equipment for design, it really ought to be a workstation, not a PC.


One of the primary considerations when it comes to specing out a workstation is the processor. And in March 2010, Intel (intel.com) came out with its new lineup of processors that had formerly been known as Westmere-EP but are commercially tagged with the Xeon name. This brings us to the issue of cores, because these new chips have six cores per processor, and consequently there are workstations that have single or dual processors, which means there can be as many as 12 cores.


Now the core terminology results from the development in the microprocessor arena, as more and more capability has been packed onto chips. Ten years ago, there was one processor per desktop machine. Or if people used the word back then, it could be said that it was a “single core.” But with chips like the Westmere-EP, there are six processors on a single chip, or processor, so instead of saying something that seems like double-talk (e.g., “six processors per processor”), they’re talking about cores.


The bottom line here is that for tasks requiring a lot of rendering, more cores are better.


Now while computer-aided design—the actual calculation of geometry—is generally single-threaded work, there are other things going on, like data retrieval, which run multithreaded. This is to say that you probably want more than one core. However, if it is just about drawing lines all day (which it probably isn’t nowadays) then more cores won’t necessarily help you.


What you want to do is get a fast processor for performance.


Then there is the question of memory. For a long time, 32-bit operating systems were the norm. But the problem is that given the limitations in memory associated with them, and given that models started becoming bigger and bigger, users were finding it necessary to break up the models, which isn’t the most convenient or productive way to work. What’s more, sometimes, when trying to render the object being designed with all of its pieces and without a whole lot of memory (say 3 or 4 GB), there was a rapid swapping back and forth between the hard drive and the memory, which could either result in a degradation of performance, or the whole thing would simply break. So now a majority of CAD users are running 64-bits, and about 6 GB of memory for those systems. And this number is just going to get higher, probably doubling in the next two years.


Graphics cards selection should be based on what the system is being used to perform. The cards are based on Open GL or Direct X standards, which are fundamental to the performance of the CAD packages being run. (Workstation vendors like Dell and HP vet their systems with the CAD software suppliers: they provide the hardware and have the suppliers run their software on it so as to be sure that it works as it needs to.) The drawing-lines-all-day CAD operator can get away with up to a midrange graphics card. But for those doing more complicated rendering or such things as architectural design, then a high-end card is the ticket. As for trying to use consumer graphics cards, such as those engineered for gaming: chances are if they work at all, there may be pieces missing from the screen—before it crashes.


While hardware vendors like Dell and HP buy components from the same companies (e.g., Intel chips; NVIDIA graphics cards), there are still differences between the way these pieces are architected within the workstations they’ve developed. What’s more, they all add their own packaging and additional functionality which can be valuable to your design tasks.