The case for desktop workstations

By Neal Leavitt

Jon Peddie Research (JPR) recently reported that the overall workstation market volume in Q1’21 grew about 27.7% YoY, a milestone for workstation sales. The strong rebound in workstation shipments was no surprise, as positive signs regarding the pandemic by mid-quarter (in the US and EMEA particularly), along with successful deployment of vaccines (though geographically varying) clearly improved purchasing outlooks among both consumers and suppliers worldwide.

Workstations are expected to ride the crest of growing IT infrastructures by enhancing IT operations. The increasing demand for graphics, networking, and digital content creation will fuel the growth of global workstations, which play strong roles in design, content development, banking, healthcare, and financial services.

The growth factors

Several factors will contribute to the ongoing growth of workstations, including:

  • Prevalence of 3D animation technology
  • The digitalization of industries including automotive, AEC, aeronautics, etc.
  • Growing model sizes and complexity
  • The growth of visualization, simulation, and analysis
  • Growing capital investments in the Asia Pacific
  • Rising adoption of workstations by SMEs

The major players

Prominent players in the workstation market include, but are not limited to, the following:

Most players will continue to target manufacturing, engineering, and design sectors, which collectively hold approximately 50% market share. Opportunities will exist in engineering simulations and 3D mechanical designs through 2029. JPR has recently released a report on the design and engineering sectors in their latest CAD market report.

The workstation profile

Workstations typically have a high-performance CPU and GPU, large amounts of ECC memory, increased storage, software certification, and they are rugged to withstand heavy usage. Most at least one discrete GPU. Form factors for workstations continue to evolve from Tower, Small Form Factor Desktop, and Mini, as well as mobile workstations.

Workstations are used in mission-critical projects and situations. In many cases, they are expected to run 24/7 for years and use the highest quality parts available. Because they use higher quality components, workstations are more durable than standard business laptops and desktops. Cutting-edge workflows like data science and 3D design evolve constantly, so the typical workstation needs to be expandable. Upgrading to a newer and more powerful memory, hard disk, and GPU is less cumbersome in a workstation. This is critical for many users.

To fully exploit their power, workstation applications continue to center on digital content creation, advanced data modeling, industrial design, and 3D modeling. A workstation “muscled” with the right software can substantially boost workflow productivity. Workstations are also being used in robot design and training.

The applications

Workers who benefit from the power, reliability, and easy upgradability of a workstation include:

  • Data scientists. Those working with massive data sets and complex modeling need robust CPUs and GPUs for deep learning tools like TensorFlow, Keras, and parallel compute tools including CUDA and OpenCL.
  • 3D designers. Artists and designers rendering designs in three dimensions need massive processing power. A workstation’s advanced graphics card ensures accurate rendering and saves time by doing complex renderings in real-time. A larger SSD storage (generally 1TB or more) and RAM can handle big projects internally, which translates to quicker access to work.
  • Engineers. Faster processors with multiple cores and more powerful GPUs let engineers navigate complex CAD models and employ parallel processing for CAE simulation and analysis and rendering. Increasingly, a modern workstation design enables productivity by speeding up tasks and don’t take up additional office space.
  • Computer simulation. Simulation is the process of mathematical modeling, performed on a computer, which is designed to predict the behavior of, or the outcome of, a real-world or physical system. It is being increasingly used in a broad range of applications from finance, to health care, to engineering, and scientific research.
  • Video editing. Today’s high-resolution displays and cameras work with huge files that require the added power of a workstation. Consumer-level 4K video packs over 8 million pixels per frame—20 times more than the SD video of yesteryear.
  • Marketing. Graphic designers, photo editors, and other marketing pros generally work with huge files that need lots of processing power. Workstations dramatically enhance their efficiency. Within the last five years, content creation software vendors have added GPU support to speed imaging and rendering processes.
  • Healthcare. Healthcare professionals who work with big datasets can’t wait for cloud apps or business-level components to crunch numbers. Confining these pros to underpowered standard PCs creates daily bottlenecks that slow them down. Specific applications such as radiology demand specialized monitors and advanced imaging capabilities, but there is a case to be made for more powerful workstations to be used in general hospital settings.

The role of AI in ergonomics

Shawn C. Roll, Ph.D., OTR/L, associate professor of occupational science and occupational therapy in the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, along with a team from USC and ARUP, a global design and engineering firm, was recently tasked to design an ergonomic workstation.

They concluded that tomorrow’s workstations would use artificial intelligence to learn and adjust to worker preferences and patterns. Intelligent workstations will help support behavioral changes in individuals. We may someday see an entire capsulated bubble that’s completely connected to one person and their individual needs.

In some environments—like healthcare—mobile computer carts (or WOWs-Workstations on Wheels) are becoming more robust, lightweight, and simple to use. Designed for clinicians to easily access EMRs (Electronic Medical Records), they save critical steps by carrying what they need most to deliver prompt patient care.

Overall, the workstation will continue to evolve and reinvent itself. Properly equipped and powered with the right software, tomorrow’s workstations will meet the demands of an increasingly data-rich work environment.

Alex Herrera, JPR’s Senior Analyst on workstations, noted the market’s performance is anything but uniform. Herrera offers, “While the overall number is encouraging, what’s interesting is how market dynamics beneath the surface vary widely, by geography and form factor preferences, partly but not wholly due to the progression and subsidence of the pandemic. For example, we’re seeing datacenter resident workstations starting to take meaningful share, displacing some sales of traditional deskbound machines.”