Next Gen Workstations

Monday, 01 February 2021

The professional workstation market for high-end graphics has always required artists to know their tech and evaluate a wide gamut of choices. Guiding the choice between enterprise and consumer technologies – or a mixture of the two – has been a feature of our workstation business for as long as I can remember, but it used to be simpler. 

Next Gen Workstations

Going back several years those decisions tended to be driven by two principal factors: the size of the workstation estate, and its cost. At a certain scale standardisation and the ability to support a large number of workstations became key. Larger studios with artists numbering in the hundreds were best placed to stick with a fully supported configuration for their software applications. Sure, there was a cost argument for using NVIDIA’s consumer range of GeForce graphics cards, but that disappears if you're running hundreds of workstations using Maya when Autodesk only supports Quadro for the application.

Plus, the tangled web of manufacturer OEM relationships often meant a tier one workstation manufacturer wouldn't offer enterprise level warranties on their products carrying a third party GPU. 

The CPU debate was somewhat similar. Fast i7 processors on a single socket machine were all very well, but they didn't scale as well as Xeon in larger rendering environments where workstations may need to join the render farm. That was then.

Workflows influence workstation configuration like never before, determining choices between, say, high clock speed i9 Core-X processors versus ultra-high core count Xeons. Alongside this, creative software is developing more and more ability to leverage powerful GPUs, and with GPU rendering now commonplace the notional ‘one size fits all’ workstation is becoming an anachronism.

In the last eighteen months or so things have advanced considerably. We now have far more choice, but these choices need to be balanced carefully against the pandemic-era requirement for remote working, where to some extent there may be trade-offs between performance and flexibility.

The latest GeForce RTX cards and AMD's new Threadrippers provide a fairytale marriage of ultra-performance and lower pricing, yet the only tier one vendor currently able to offer this in a single solution is Lenovo. The Lenovo P620 Threadripper is a superb option, but undeniably a traditional tower workstation. 

Those studios for whom remote working and rack density is paramount are likely to favour either the Dell 3930R or the newly released HP Z4R. Both of these options present in a 1U rackmount form factor and both have their fit. Brilliantly, Dell does offer the i9 CPU in the 3930R, which is difficult to find elsewhere in a purpose-built rackmount solution (even our 'build it and they will come' friends at Supermicro haven't managed this yet) although it taps out at the eight core option. 

HP, meanwhile, despite huge success last year with their 14 core i9-based Z4 has pivoted toward Xeon for the Z4R, albeit with options up to 18 cores making it a sound workstation for a high-end CG artist. If you want an officially supported solution for remote graphics with either Teradici or HP's Z Central Remote Boost, then once again you're back in professional Quadro card territory.

So what's the holy grail? An AMD Threadripper chip with RTX 3090 in a 1U chassis with support for Teradici? There are rumours but for now it'll have to be two out of four, which ain't bad.