PC workstations

Challenging the traditional demarcation between PCs and workstations, a growing number of vendors are taking advantage of the latest high-performance PC technology to develop a new class of computers called the PC workstation.

Since Intel Corp. introduced the 80486 processor in 1989, computer buyers have anticipated the day when they could use relatively inexpensive Intel-based PCs to do the hard work of expensive reduced instruction-set computing (RISC) workstations, which usually run a variant of the Unix operating system.

The inadequacy of these PCs fueled skepticism by workstation vendors and customers alike, but that is beginning to change, observers say. Not only has Intel developed progressively faster processors, but industry vendors have beefed up other components as well, including RAM, hard drives and the bus technology that links the central processor with various components and peripherals.

Furthermore, Microsoft Corp. continues to develop its Windows NT operating system, which the company has billed as a Unix alternative.

Given these advances, Intel-based PCs appear poised to dominate at least the low end of the workstation market, some industry analysts believe. "It is not a question of what the result will be but when it will be," said Peter ffoulkes, director of Dataquest's advanced desktop and workstation computing program.

Technology Migration

Traditional RISC workstation vendors have recognized the appeal of Windows NT workstations and developed their own Windows NT workstations as alternatives to their Unix lines.

In the latest case, Silicon Graphics Inc. late last year announced it would develop an Intel/Windows NT-based product line, dubbed Visual PC, that will be designed to run the kind of graphics-intensive applications that have been the exclusive domain of RISC-based Unix systems.

"The federal government is the No. 1 advocate of Windows NT," said Gary Havenstein, manager of SGI's federal business development group. "The Intel/NT solution is on everybody's road map."

SGI will join Digital Equipment Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and Intergraph Corp. in manufacturing a product that offers Unix workstation-like performance at the lower prices associated with Intel/NT systems. Major PC vendors such as Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp. and Gateway 2000 Inc. have developed high-end PC systems to offer similar performance.

In some cases, these vendors are migrating technology from one platform to another.

"The Hewlett-Packard Kayak has some great graphics benchmarks," said Jay Moore, senior analyst of NT workstations at Aberdeen Group, a Boston research and consulting firm. "[Kayak's performance] is Unix workstation technology that has floated down to their NT workstations. You will see other system suppliers do that."

While some parts are shared by PCs and workstations, some workstation components are either better versions of the same technology or are completely different and more expensive devices.

For example, while PCs are usually equipped with Integrated Drive Electronics drives— hard drives that spin at 7,200 rotations per minute— PC workstations use ultrawide SCSI drives that spin at 10,000 RPM for maximum performance, said David Parsons, director of workstation marketing for Compaq.

Also, any workstation should support the use of Redundant Array of Independent Disks technology, regardless of whether the customer uses it, said David Kerr, sales specialist for IBM's personal systems group. RAID employs two or more disk drives in combination as a way of increasing fault tolerance and high performance. "On a standard PC, you don't even think of running RAID," he said.

Because of the often mission-critical nature of work done on workstations, RAM tends to be a higher quality as well, Kerr said. Instead of the Extended Data Out Dynamic RAM chips, PC workstation vendors use synchronous dynamic RAM chips— which run much faster— with Error Correcting Code. ECC tests the integrity of data while it passes through memory, and ECC can correct some problems when they occur.

In many cases, PC workstation users are looking for better graphics performance than is available on the standard PC. A workstation that is used for 2-D graphics work will have a top-of-the-line 2-D video card with 8M of video RAM installed, while a 3-D workstation will have specialized 3-D devices that can cost as much as $5,000 by themselves and contain 20M or more of video RAM, Kerr added.

Video cards have dedicated texture-mapping processors and memory available locally, which keeps large volumes of data off the workstation's Peripheral Component Interconnect or Accelerated Graphics Port bus, ffoulkes said. If the card had to rely wholly on the CPU's resources, the bus would become a bottleneck and hurt graphics performance. "You are reducing the traffic on the bus by doing it on the card," ffoulkes said.

More Changes Ahead

In the next year or so, PC workstations will benefit from improvements to the processors and the operating system.

Intel will soon rev speeds higher, thanks to faster processor clock speeds, higher system bus clock speeds, larger secondary caches and support for more processors, said Sheryl Rigby, Intel's marketing manager.

Next month the company will launch the 440BX chipset, which will provide 100 MHz bus speeds, compared with 66 MHz in the current LX chipset. Intel also will introduce 350 MHz and 400 MHz Slot 1 Pentium II processors. Slot 1 processors on the motherboard are aimed at business and home applications, while Slot 2 processors are geared toward the midrange to high-end server and workstation markets.

Slot 1 processors only support dual processors and have 512K of secondary cache on the processor card. Slot 2 processors, which are scheduled for June, will feature cache as large as 1M and 2M by the end of the year, Rigby said. They also will support four-way processing, making the Slot 2 Pentium II the replacement for the current four-way Pentium Pro processors. By the end of the year, 450 MHz Pentium II chips will be available, Rigby said.

"A very high-end workstation will be able to take advantage of" the prospect of four 450 MHz Pentium II chips in desktop workstations, Rigby said.

Next year, the all-new 64-bit workstation-class processor, code-named Merced, will be available to address such remaining weaknesses in Pentium II workstations as floating-point calculation performance, ffoulkes said.

Near the end of 1998, customers will be able to install Windows NT 5.0, which will have features that will appeal to PC power users who want to upgrade from Windows 95 or Windows 98.

Most significantly, Microsoft has continued to improve the operating system's security. A new file encryption system will lock up sensitive data, while a better smart card infrastructure will establish a standard model for interfacing smart card readers with NT workstations. Windows NT 5.0 will also add support for Kerberos Release 5 security protocol for access to server-based resources. "There are some fairly well-known ways a person can get to files in Windows NT," said Russ Madlener, Windows product manager for Microsoft. "This is going to add a lot of value, especially in the government market, where security is of the utmost importance," he said.

Gaining Ground

PC workstations definitely appear to be gaining ground in the market, according to Dataquest and Aberdeen Group, the latter of which expects Windows NT sales to increase 30 percent annually through 2000.

Several reasons explain why Intel-based Windows NT workstations are increasingly popular, ffoulkes said. The PC-style equipment usually is less expensive to buy because vendors use components available in huge volume due to the size of the PC market.

The Intel-based workstations that the Navy has been buying recently cost one-third the price of the previous RISC workstations, according to Will Fitzgerald, head of hardware design for the Space and Naval Warfare Command's system center. "Definitely there is a cost advantage," he said. The Navy uses computers to process targeting data for Tomahawk cruise missiles.

In more typical configurations, the discount is 30 to 50 percent, said Tom Baybrook, vice president of federal systems for Intergraph. And while RISC/Unix boxes hold the advantage in absolute performance, Intergraph's NT workstations outperform RISC workstations within the same market segment, said Jim Flowers, systems marketing manager for Intergraph.

"We have seen a crossover in performance," he said. "In the past, you have been able to buy an NT workstation that was almost as fast as a Unix workstation but not faster, especially in graphics applications."

According to industry analysts, the price/performance competition continues to shift. "As of maybe nine months ago, Intel workstations easily competed with Unix workstations on the low end, and they had a clear edge in price/performance," Aberdeen Group's Moore said. "Now Intel workstations are really challenging Unix workstations in the midrange too. No longer is it a price/performance story. Now we're looking at pure performance."

Windows NT has won over a number of software vendors with its performance gains, with many computer-aided design and other Unix applications migrating from Unix to Windows NT, analysts said.

"Now we are starting to see a tide of applications moving to NT," Moore said. "In the future, instead of being ported, you are going to see applications developed on NT."

Likewise, agencies such as the Navy that develop some of their own custom applications have found that they can write new Windows NT programs less expensively than the old Unix applications, Fitzgerald said. "Our software development costs have dropped," he said. "The programming tools and compilers are much cheaper."

The Army Corps of Engineers and parts of the Air Force have migrated from RISC/Unix workstations to Windows NT workstations, according to Intergraph. The Corps of Engineers is running mapping applications on its systems, while the Air Force is using Windows NT workstations for modeling and simulation work, Flowers said.

Despite emotional attachment to their old workstations, federal users are embracing their new computers. "They were good workhorses; I miss them," said Greg Kuester, CAD/GIS manager for the directorate of public works at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md., of his RISC-based Intergraph workstations. "I thought I was going to hear [complaints] more often, but [users] really like NT."

Windows NT also wins points for its graphical user interface. Windows NT "is so much easier to operate than Unix," said Fred Sawyers, CAD and drafting system manager for the Corps of Engineers. "You can do so much by just clicking on your mouse button. To me, it is like daylight and dark." The corps uses NT workstations running Intergraph's MicroStation CAD and drafting software to design levees, berms and channels along the Mississippi River.

Of course, the decision to switch from one platform to another is not taken lightly, and the increase in popularity of Intel-based workstations does not mean that RISC/Unix products are undesirable. "If they are already running Unix, to put Windows NT in there will require them to buy a lot more new hardware," said Joe Salgado, Hewlett-Packard configuration specialist at Government Technology Services Inc. "We can help the customer choose which they need."

-- Carney is a free-lance writer based in Herndon, Va.

AT A GLANCE

Status: PC workstations that run Intel chips and Microsoft Windows NT software will not replace all Unix workstations, but the performance gap is closing.

Issues: Vendors give their computers workstation-class performance by beefing up nearly every aspect of the PC, from CPUs and hard drives to memory and video processing.

Outlook: Excellent. During the next year or so, the PC workstation will excel from continued advances in technology, including new Intel chips and a new version of Windows NT.

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