If you are a professional and use an above average, costly, and powerful computer to run complex applications as part of your work, then you are a user of a Workstation Computer.
In order to understand what is a workstation computer in its entirety, we can breakdown the meaning of a workstation computer to deduce the following.
- 1Workstations are used by professionals.
- 2Workstations are used to carry out specific highly advanced work.
- 3Workstations are much more expensive than the usual computers.
- 4Workstations have far more advanced hardware.
The first 2 points tell us about the users and purpose of Workstation Computers.
The last 2 points tell us about the Workstations themselves; that they are costly and have specific hardware that is advanced and unique.
In particular, point 3 provides us the lead to the answer to our basic question of what is a Workstation Computer.
The Workstations are expensive and contain superior hardware and work using superior software; hence the high cost.
Workstation users are often scientists, engineers, architects and digital media content creators whose work requires much more computing power than the average small business computer user would ever need.
Some workstations are designed for use with only one specific application such as AutoCAD, Avid Xpress Studio HD, 3D Studio Max, etc.
To ensure Workstation Computer compatibility with the software, some manufacturers strive for a certificate of approval from the software devevlopers.
The certification process makes the workstation’s price jump several notches.
Price aside, for professional purposes, reliability is one of the guarantees that these computer offer. This more important than the initial purchase cost.
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What is a Workstation Computer?
From the point of hardware and software used in Workstation Computers, let us discuss it one by one below:
The motherboard designed for Workstation Computers offer the maximum possible options for adding components like CPUs, RAM, Mass Storage Devices and various peripherals.
The supported interfaces are those that offer maximum performance. These motherboards can commonly feature sockets for multiple CPUs a large, capacity to interface with 4 or more GPU, a myriad of SATA slots of connecting a huge array of hard disks, and a large number of DIMM slots.
As far as the sockets go, these motherboard offer larger sockets that can support far large CPU with far more cores than an Intel i7 Processor.
Here is a typical workstation grade motherboard.
It has a huge socket that can handle a 32 core Intel Xeon W-3200 Processor. It can support 4 double decked Nvidia Tesla or Nvidia Quadro graphics cards. Furthermore, it offers 12 DIMM slots with capacity to support 1.5 TB of RAM. And this is just barely scratching the surface.
It offers dual 10G LAN ports which provides server grade robust transfer speeds. Latest USB 3.2 interfaces. Custom designed heat sinks, multiple slots of NVMe SSDs etc
And guest what, this isn’t even the most advanced workstation grade motherboard!
Workstations use CPUs with multiple cores and may even go as far as 32 cores for example.
The CPUs also support multi-threading (Different techniques used by Intel and AMD) so that the logical count of CPU cores doubles the physical count. This means a quad core processor can handle much more threads than usual.
Workstations may use multiple CPUs to take parallel processing even further.
The Workstation CPUs also have much larger on-die caches than usual CPUs.
One point that must be noted here is that the software running on the Workstations has to be programmed to take advantage of the parallel processing offered by the system.
Otherwise, the additional processing resources will remain unused.
CPU typically used by workstation computers are Intel Xeon, Intel Core i9 or AMD Ryzen Threadripper processors.
However, it is not uncommon to find Intel Xeon processors like Intel Xeon W-3275 with 28 cores, a whopping 38.5 MB Cache memory a max speed of 4.40 GHz.
Compare this to high performance commercial Core i7-9700K processor that only has 8 Cores (without hyperthreading), and a 12 MB cache.
The RAM typically used in Workstations is ECC (Error Correcting Code) RAM.
As the name suggests, this type of RAM automatically fixes memory errors before they affect the system and, in this way, prevents system crashes and saves you from downtime.
Besides that, a typical workstation computer can have terabytes of RAM.
A typical high performance computer has a 16, 32 or a maximum of 64 GB of RAM.
4. RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks)
The RAID technologies allow data-loss protection by introducing redundancy in the Mass Storage devices (Hard disks).
RAID combines the space of multiple Hard disks into one and manages the physical storage transparently.
A certain percentage of the overall storage space becomes unusable for storage when using RAID but you are saved from losing data.
In case a hard disk fails, it can be “Hot swapped” or replaced on-the-fly without stopping the application or the system.
This means that the hard disk failure practically goes unnoticed by the application running on the workstation.
There are also many different kinds of RAID configuration.
5. SSD (Solid State Drives)
SSDs are a new major discovery in Mass Storage Devices. Unlike the conventional Hard disks, the SSDs do not have rotating disk arrays and reading heads.
Instead, SSDs store data on solid-state components very similar to RAM.
This means that they do not have any moving parts and also, they have extremely fast reading and writing (access) capability. SSDs have far less capacity that conventional Hard disks as yet, and are very expensive.
Their major trade-offs are their very high performance and low susceptibility of damage by shocks.
The GPU used in Workstations are far superior in terms of performance and precision for fast 2D or 3D graphic image creation and manipulation in particular for CAD applications.
The NVIDIA for example offers its workstation product line named as Quadro and Tesla.
While these may not be as great as GeForce cards for gaming, they are excellent for scientific calculation and therefore are far superior for research based work.
7. Multiple Displays
It is very common for professionals to use multiple displays with the Workstation Computers.
A single screen simply does not serve the purpose. Daisy chaining multiple displays allow the users to have several windows open in full screen mode simultaneously or to extend desktops to create more desktop space.
Each display screen requires a separate connection terminal on the Workstation. The discrete graphic cards usually support multiple connection sockets.
Depending on how many screens are being added, the corresponding number of connection sockets must be made available, even if it means installing multiple Graphics cards.
8. Reliable Operating System
Operating System plays a key role in Workstations.
Professional usage demands extreme system performance and provision of advanced features that are very useful for professional applications.
Operating Systems must have the capacity and capability to fulfill these needs. Microsoft’s Server editions of the Windows operating system provide maximum support for professional and advanced applications of Computers.
Similarly, other operating systems like the many flavors of Linux, Unix, HP-Unix and Mac OS Server offer extremely stable, efficient and powerful operating system environment for Workstations.
Normal Desktop Vs Workstation Desktop Usage
One of the most important thing to note when when learning about what is a workstation desktop is to learn what it is used for.
Normal desktops used at personal or business level require functionality which can allow users to perform the basic and common day-to-day activities.
Workstation grade desktops are used by enterprises and professionals.
Usage Examples of Normal Desktop
Usage Example of Workstation Desktop
Salient Features of a Workstation Computer vs Desktop
Let us now discuss in what ways the Normal Desktops are different from the Workstation Desktops.
We will discuss both kinds of Desktops for each quality or characteristic.
Desktops inherently by virtue of the typical Motherboard architectures, provide a certain level of expandability.
Durability is desired by all but when talking in relative terms, normal desktops are not specifically designed to be extremely durable.
They are used in controlled environmental conditions which do not stress out the computer components.
They are not used for very long in one stretch.
A typical use of a personal or business person is on a need basis and that too for 5 to 8 hours maximum.
Normal desktop applications do not work at peak performance level all the time. In fact, normal usage allows a sizeable amount of idle time for processors and other hardware.
Workstation Desktop components are specifically designed for extreme durability.
Workstations may need to be physically placed close to the users but in a more cooled environment like a server room.
Even if they are setup on or around the user’s table, the operating temperature and conditions are kept into consideration during their designing.
Workstation hardware has to be very durable because it operates under stressful conditions and is expensive.
The construction of the workstation grade hardware components is what makes a workstation highly durable overall.
Even a typical workstation HDD has far better shock absorption capability as compared to a normal desktop HDD.
Normal Desktops are much cheaper than professional Workstation Desktops.
They are the lower-end products targeted towards computer applications which fulfill the needs of personal or business user.
Such usage is not very operationally demanding and is sufficient to meet the purpose and objectives.
Of course here we are talking in relative terms. A gaming desktop is a normal desktop which may seem very expensive for a normal customer, but a typical workstation is easily ten times as expensive as a high grade gaming desktop.
Workstation desktops are very expensive.
The very high cost is because of the time and effort put into their design and manufacturing, as well as the materials used for the manufacturing.
Workstations are required to withstand tough operational conditions but to have high reliability at the same time.
Their products go through much more rigorous testing, they are certified by several companies and these desktop computers are made to last for years of reliable operation.
The normal usage of computers for personal and business purposes uses application that are not very high-end in comparison to the applications used in professional Workstations.
Thus, the Normal Desktops have far lower performance. You can tell this by the clock speed of the processors, the amount of RAM, storage and construction quality.
They are less costly and fulfill the purpose even while providing the comparatively lower performance and quality.
The Workstation Desktops are required to have very high performance-ratings.
They are used to fulfill commercial and scientific objectives whose monetary returns are directly related with the performance of the Workstations.
In other words, they directly affect the business ROI (Return on Investment). Of course, this makes them very expensive.
The uptime is the duration of the time interval during which the computer remains continuously ON.
Every computer has a provision to maintain a running value of the time passed since the computer was turned on.
It is technically called the “Uptime”.
As discussed earlier, Normal desktops are used on need basis. Even if used in a daily routine, they are powered ON when needed and kept ON as long as there is need for them.
Hence the uptime of Normal Desktops is usually 6 to 8 hours.
On certain occasions, the Normal desktops can be kept running over-night or for a few days.
The uptime of Workstation Desktops is dependent of the specific application they are being used for.
It is usual for Workstation Desktops to stay on for days and days on end.
As such, the uptime for Workstation Desktops can be in terms of many multiples of 24 hours.
When we talk about a computer’s accuracy, we basically mean the perfection of computers in maintaining zero mathematical error. For a normal consumer, this may sound alien.
We do know, however, that computer components are prone to errors and certain hardware or software might be introduced to check and fix errors.
The Mass storage devices could contain errors, the RAM could have errors and the graphical processors could produce errors.
Have you ever experience Blue Screen of Death or sudden RAM crashes? IF so you know what random mathematical errors are.
These errors are all caused by something going on with the mathematical calculations.
In case of Normal Desktops, the accuracy is not so mission critical as in the case of Workstation Desktops.
In the worst case the system will crash.
In case of a system crash, the system can simply be rebooted and it again resumes its working as usual.
Various features are available in operating systems and applications to save work and data as time passes.
There are also various techniques of handling working data inside temporary files stored on disks.
In case of system crash, the data in the files still remains stored and the work can simply be resumed by recovering data from these files.
The Workstation Desktops are mission critical and as we discussed earlier, their performance directly impacts the business ROI.
As such, accuracy is an absolute necessity in many applications of the Workstation Desktops.
In CAD software applications, for example, holding very large and at the same time very complex and densely drawn diagrams. Ensuring that such diagrams are always displayed with great accuracy and also printed with great accuracy is extremely important.
In particular when such diagrams are being spatially moved or rotated in real time on the screens, maintaining accuracy is very important.
Basically Accuracy = Reliability
Here we talked about what is a workstation computer and tried to explain its characteristics, purpose and features in the briefest possible way.
There are various configurations ranging from low-end, cheaper, low-performance Normal Desktops, all the way up to high-end, very expensive and top performance mission critical Workstation Desktops. All of these desktops have their own pros and cons.
Their basic composition is, however, very similar; Desktop design have similar components but have different quality, features and applications.
Where Normal Desktops boast productivity and affordability at personal and business level, Workstation Desktops are based on the principles of productivity, reliability, and high performance at a commercial, industrial and scientific level where their performance directly impacts the business ROI.
Workstation are generally used by scientists, engineers, architects and digital media content creators whose work nature is computational-resource hungry and mission critical.
On the other hand Normal Desktops can be used by virtually anyone for any suitable purpose.
Jake Redman is a UK-born-digital nomad & founder of Ultimate Quality Content, a collective of high-end copywriters formed to provide detailed insight into everything technology-related. Jake is the definition of a man-nerd. He gets excited over things like processor architecture, ray-tracing, & is an avid E-Sports fan, specifically League of Legends. When he isn’t writing detailed tech-related articles, Jake can be found performing fire-breathing shows & wields a dragon staff, or on the sofa playing Mario Kart.