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We've recently put a lot of effort into designing a custom benchmark suite for testing workstation-class hardware. It's a work in progress, first used to test Intel's Xeon 5600-series CPUs. Today we have some results gleaned from HP's Z400 workstation.
The top rung of desktop PCs includes workstation-class systems. These systems are built around Intel Xeon or AMD Opteron processors, using either high-end consumer chipsets or server/workstation-specific core logic. The graphics cards used are also professionally-oriented. Even though they are variants of and related to consumer graphics cards, they are not the same feature- or performance-wise (even though these differences may be primarily implemented in the drivers, and BIOS-based alterations prevent workstation drivers from working on consumer cards). For most workstation applications, onboard audio is sufficient. But for digital audio workstations, better audio subsystems that what you'd find on a consumer card is recommended. Professional audio cards usually have more inputs (as well as outputs), DSP-assisted mixing and effects, and they tend to have lower latencies than consumer cards, due in part to their native ASIO drivers.
Back before workstation hardware was heavily commoditized by companies like Intel, AMD, and Nvidia, the workstation market was dominated by Unix-derived systems built by Silicon Graphics, Sun, and Hewlett-Packard. Silicon Graphics' popularity in the workstation market began to decline in the late ‘90s in favor of Windows NT-based systems. This decline was accelerated by the rise of Linux-based machines in the segment, and SGI declared final bankruptcy on April 1, 2009. Sun suffered a similar fate and was acquired by Oracle on January 27, 2010. At the end of their lifetimes, both companies had largely moved away from the workstation segment and were focused on servers and high performance computing. Unix workstation vendors designing their own graphics systems were hard pressed to keep up with vendors like Nvidia and ATI, whose professional products had their development piggybacked onto the design and sales of millions of consumer-level graphics cards. Even manufacturers of dedicated workstation graphics cards like 3Dlabs and Accelgraphics had trouble competing.
Hewlett-Packard entered the workstation market in 1982 with the HP 9000 Series 200 and Series 500. The Series 200 included various Motorola 68000-based processors, and the Series 500 featured HP's FOCUS microprocessor architecture. These products, billed as "technical computers," ran the HP-developed UNIX operating system named HP-UX. From the mid-1980s onward, HP began the switch to using its own microprocessors based on its proprietary PA-RISC processor architecture. HP also partnered with Intel in developing the IA-64 architecture used in the Itanium processors. HP led the way into the Windows-based workstation market with the introduction of the HP Kayak workstations in 1996. Ever since, the company has been a leader in the workstation market segment.
Workstations were originally intended for engineering, CAD, and scientific visualization. But with the growth of digital content creation on the desktop, they've moved into that sector as well. The system requirements for a good 3D animation workstation are remarkably similar to a good engineering or CAD machine, while the specifications for other tasks like photo and video editing or digital audio work are somewhat different. 3D animation requires a fast processor, lots of memory, a strong GPU, and a significant amount of storage--but that disk space doesn’t necessarily have to be fast. Photo editing requires processor speed, RAM, and reasonably speedy storage. Video editing requires a speedy CPU, a moderate amount of RAM, and a lot of very fast storage.
Up until recently, the graphics card in a system largely dedicated to photo editing or video editing only needed to be powerful enough to drive the monitors, and 3D support was secondary to good quality 2D support. With the evolution of Nvidia's CUDA ecosystem, as well as Adobe’s CS5 suite and OpenCL, we are seeing a shift toward GPU-based processing, though. Tasks that formerly required little in the way of GPU horsepower will greatly benefit from a more powerful card moving forward.