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Workstation platforms compared

We get serious about this computer thing
— 12:00 AM on September 15, 2003

THE WORKSTATION COMPUTER is an enigmatic beast. Back in the day when I was young and computing power wasn't so easy to come by, workstations were much easier to define. These particularly powerful computer systems came in sleek, stylish enclosures, and were attached to massive, gorgeous flat-screen displays as large as 19 or 21 inches. What's more, workstation makers packed fast, high-res color graphics and exotic, RISC-inspired processors into those boxes, and they ran advanced multitasking operating systems with slick GUIs manipulated by optical mice.

In other words, they weren't far from your average $1400 personal computer on display at Best Buy, with the obvious exception that today's cheap PCs have gobs more computing power than those dinosaurs. Speaking of dinosaurs, yesterday's workstation makers are now flirting with dinosaur status. SGI bled all its engineering talent to companies like 3dfx, ATI, and NVIDIA, and Sun is, well, not high on my list of stock picks, let's just say. The workstation world ain't what she used to be.

Over time, workstations themselves have been transformed—as have most servers, home computers, and—heh—pocket calculators—from proprietary boxes running proprietary software (various vendor-specific flavors of Unix) to x86-based systems running either the same Windows OS your grandma's PC runs or the latter-day One True Unix, Linux. As a result, workstations are rather difficult to separate from your everyday, run-of-the-mill desktop Pee Cee. Indeed, the "workstation-class PC" has become an appendage of the larger PC market.

Through the magic of different drivers, purpose-engineered physical incompatibilities, and newly dreamed-up marketing names, pedestrian chips like GeForces, Athlons, Pentiums, and Radeons become exotic Quadros, Opterons, Xeons, and Fire GLs. The chips aren't really that different, but the price differences can be rather impressive—and if you want a dual-processor system based on the Pentium 4 "Netburst" architecture, for instance, you're gonna have to pony up the cash for a pair of Xeons.

Because the barriers between desktop- and workstation-class parts are semi-transparent, spotting the boundaries between the two worlds isn't easy. Dell will sell you a Pentium 4-based Precision "workstation" with nearly all the same parts in it as in an Optiplex. In fact, Intel's higher-end 875P chipset, with its exclusive Performance Acceleration Technology to improve memory access latency, is targeted at high-end desktop systems, enthusiasts, and—you guessed it—workstations.

So, you may be asking, what really distinguishes a workstation from a built-to-the-hilt desktop PC? The short answer: premium parts with higher price tags and, one hopes, some tangible benefits in terms of performance, capability, and reliability. For one thing, workstations tend to support ECC memory, in order to keep cosmic rays from scrambling your bits while you work on your CAD drawings. Also, workstations often have SCSI storage subsystems, with smarter drive control logic and higher spindle speeds. Then there are the aforementioned workstation chips. Workstation-class graphics chips tend to differ from their desktop counterparts in terms of drivers; the workstation cards' drivers have optimized OpenGL code certified for use with high-end applications for tasks like design, engineering, and content creation. In CPUs, AMD and Intel have chosen to disable multiprocessing capabilities on their desktop processors, so they can charge premiums for CPUs that work in pairs. Workstation CPUs also sometimes get other enhancements, such as larger caches or wider paths to memory, in order to improve performance.

That's about it, in a nutshell. Workstations are typically deployed where performance, stability, and compatibility are most important. They are also, as you might imagine, very smooth machines to use. Let's take a look at several typical workstation-class PC configurations and see how they compare.