In May HP rolled out its long awaited MCAD-focussed Blade Workstation solution. Drawing inspiration from traditional client/server models HP’s Blades are housed in a densely populated rack locked away in a secure data centre. Each workstation is controlled remotely by a thin client that sits on an engineer’s or designer’s desk, but rather than sending ‘CAD’ data to the client, the Blade transmits live pixel data frame by frame to the client using a high-bandwidth, low latency network. And with mouse and keyboard actions being sent back to the Blade this gives the user a real time experience just as if they had the workstation sat underneath their desk.
Today, Dell unveiled its own Rack mounted workstation, the Precision R5400. This is essentially a standard desktop workstation put into a 2U Rack form factor, and not a Blade server kitted out with workstation graphics as is the case with HP’s solution. The template for the R5400 is the Dell Precision 5400 and features virtually identical components as its desktop counterpart. According to Dell, this meant that certification from all the leading CAD/CAM/CAE vendors was incredibly easy as it had already done it for the Precision 5400.
Just as with HP’s Blade solution, Dell’s R5400 Rack workstation transmits pixel data across a high-bandwidth, low latency network. However, whereas HP uses in-house software compression technology to do this, Dell has opted for third-party hardware acceleration courtesy of Teradici. This is in the form of a dedicated PCIe card that sits inside each Rack Mounted workstation and pixel data is compressed, encrypted, sent out over CAT5 and decompressed client side.
While I say client, Dell says Remote Access Device and was keen to emphasise that its FX100 Remote Access Device, which provides the desktop element to the Rack Workstation solution, does not run an Operating system, and does not require any drivers. It’s simply connected to the Rack Workstation across a network, and unlike HP’s Blade client has no CPU, RAM or solid state memory.
Inside the R5400
Component for component the Precision R5400 is virtually identical to the desktop Precision 5400. Dual socket Dual Core (up to 3.33GHz) or Quad Core (up to 3.0GHz) Xeon processors provide plenty of processing power for CAD, simulation and rendering applications; it can house up to two 7,200RPM SATA 3GB/s hard drives (Raid 1 or 0 for performance or redundancy), and most interestingly it has capacity for two high-performance graphics cards, which it supports in its 2U chassis with riser cards.
Dell offers a full range of professional graphics cards inside the R5400 from the entry-level Nvidia Quadro FX 570, right up to the high-end Quadro FX 4600. This gives the R5400 a serious amount of graphics power, and while two high-performance graphics cards will be of limited benefit to most users, this could be an extremely interesting proposition for the future as momentum grows for offloading highly parallel simulation and rendering compute tasks from CPU to GPGPU (General Purpose Graphic Processing Unit).
Memory inside the R5400 is restricted to 4 DIMM slots. This means a maximum of 32GB of RAM when 8GB DIMMS become available or more importantly affordable, but for now a capacity of 8 or 16GB is more realistic.
A cynic might say that Dell only threw its Rack Mounted workstation together in response to HP’s Blade workstation, but that is probably way off the mark for a solution that is as highly flexible, scalable and powerful as the R5400. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between the two solutions and while Dell loses out to HP in terms of compute density by using a 2U Rack it certainly has a clear advantage when it comes to graphics. Dell’s R5400 not only offers significantly more 3D power than the mobile Quadro FX 1600M inside HP’s Blade but the potential to re-route this power to augment or replace traditional CPU operations should not be underestimated, particularly with simulation and design visualisation growing in all areas of product development.
In terms of the way in which the two solutions transmit their pixel data I’m not going to be drawn into the debate over whether hardware compression is better than software compression, simply because I haven’t tested out both systems alongside each other. But what the Dell may gain in terms of taking some of the load off the CPU with its dedicated PCIe card, it loses in flexibility by having to have dedicated hardware at the client side.
What is clear is that both ‘remote’ workstations offer a compelling solution for those wishing to centralise IT support of their machines, to keep confidential data secure and easier to manage, to make the most of their workstation investment by using it as a ready-made cluster for performing overnight ocompute tasks , and to offer workstation performance in inhospitable areas such as the shop floor where dust ‘kills’ workstations. And now with high-end graphics inside the Dell Precision R5400, as long as you have a capable dedicated network in place there is very little a desktop workstation can do that Remote workstation can’t. It’s going to be an interesting few years to see how things pan out.