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December 2014
Issue: April 1, 2009

WORKSTATIONS

By: Ken McGorry
The workstations used by professionals in the DCC and media & entertainment space — video editors, VFX creators, CG animators, game developers and others — sit squarely in the midst of the churning vortex of the industry. You've got your ever-shortening production deadlines; challengingly shrinking budgets; Gordon Moore's Law regarding endlessly increasing computer performance; software programs' growing sophistication; and the burgeoning capacity of data storage products — to name a few factors. Add to this the intense pressure brought to bear by audiences' great expectations for on-screen visual magic.
Face it: If your final product does not look good — very, very good — to audiences of all stripes today, you'd better be kidding or looking for other work.
And there it is, your workstation: riding a treadmill that only increases in speed, with the pressure of millions of eyeballs and a multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry focused on it.
Based on that, you might be interested in what's new in workstations. Herewith Post has spoken with experts at eight computer companies in the thick of it — not just keeping up, but leading in terms of usefulness and productivity.
There are loads of ways today's workstations are being upgraded and optimized for post production work. Even the chassis' exterior cosmetics are getting hotter while the chassis themselves get cooler (literally).
And you'll have a hard time finding anyone who does not acknowledge or in some key way rely upon the products made today by that integrated-circuit company Mr. Moore co-founded.

APPLE
The new Mac Pro, which came out in early March, is "a big update for the product line," says Greg Smelzer, Mac Pro product manager. "It's actually the fastest Mac ever." The new intro is nearly twice as fast as the previously-fastest Mac. The new Mac Pro includes Intel's latest micro-architecture, the next-generation "Nehalem" Quad-Core Intel Xeon 3500 CPU running at speeds up to 2.93GHz with 8MB of shared L3 cache.
"We also have all-new graphics," says Smelzer, including Apple's Motion. The Nvidia GeForce GT 120, with 512MB of GDDR3 memory, promises nearly three times the performance of its predecessor. "As an upgrade option," he adds, "we have the ATI Radeon HD 4870 — that delivers nearly twice the performance over the standard card.
"We see customers doing all sorts of graphics-intensive applications," Smelzer says, "from those in Final Cut Studio, Final Cut Pro and Motion," and other, non-Apple apps. "Adobe CS4, for example, has GPU-enabled features in the new version of Photoshop that will take advantage of the graphics hardware we're delivering on the new Mac Pro.
"Also, 3D rendering," Smelzer says. "If you look at the performance of a renderer called Maxwell [a plug-in used with Maya and Cinema 4D], it's seeing 1.7 times greater application performance. All visualization applications are going to be using the OpenGL accelerated hardware within the graphics cards. A digital content creator running 3D applications would see a similar benefit." 
All in all, users who "wear multiple hats" will be able to do "more at the same time with this system and faster." The new Mac Pro starts at $2,499 — $300 less than its predecessor.
Final Cut Studio's Color — as in color grading — is another application that "greatly benefits from enhanced graphics performance," says Richard Townhill, senior director of video applications product marketing. "You can get really significant realtime performance."
Townhill adds, "Precisely the philosophy behind the acquisition of the technology behind Color was to democratize it. The same could be said of nonlinear editing."
The Mac Pro's interior has been redesigned, making it "even easier" to expand the system and move drives from one editing bay to another. "We have direct-attached, cable-free hard-drive carriers," says Smelzer, "that now have more finger-clearance. PCI expansion is easier as well with a locking mechanism, and the processors and memory slots are on a large tray that slides out and gives you easy access."
The new Mac Pro RAID card, at up to 550MBps, is also faster than the previous generation and is meant for pros who need protected data storage in addition to disk high-performance. The card uses the drives inside the Mac Pro, but larger users can also install the external Promise RAID and tie it to Mac Pro stations via Fiber Channel.
Especially on large productions, Townhill says, "where you've got editors accessing the same content simultaneously, those guys will almost certainly be trending toward a SAN environment using shared storage." 
Indie filmmakers, meanwhile, tend to share the editorial pipeline less. The old Mac Pro "allowed huge quantities of storage in a desktop tower," he says "and the new one, with the extra RAID performance, is even more useful."
Smelzer says this about Intel's new Nehalem processors: "By integrating the memory controller now into the CPU, we see a huge improvement in memory bandwidth — 2.4X. We've also reduced memory latency by 40 percent."
Another Mac Pro boost is that Final Cut is now 50 percent faster encoding ProRes H.264. For the creative, Townhill says, "it means less time with your most powerful machine number-crunching while you're sitting idle."
BOXX
Austin, TX-based Boxx Technology (www.boxxtech.com) positions itself as a premium supplier of workstations to the high-end digital content creation market — about one third of its products go into the media & entertainment space. A case in point is the recent sale of 60 render nodes (with 960 cores) to a major Hollywood production studio (which cannot be named at press time) planning to do a tremendous amount of rendering.
Shoaib Mohammad, Boxx's director of marketing and business development, says that production companies gear up based on the scope of the movie project, which in turn, spurs Boxx sales as projects are green lit or secure financial backing. "When they need to do a lot of rendering or a lot of VFX design work," Mohammad says, "they need the horsepower." Boxx offers complete turnkey systems and bundles appropriate software with its hardware. Workstation prices start around $4,000.
He adds, "Boxx operates in an $8B workstation market, but we focus on the high-end niche where customers are not necessarily looking for the lowest price, but instead, require the ultimate in performance and efficiency. We pride ourselves on being the Lexus of the market." He says that creative professionals who purchase Boxx gear experience an acceleration from standard performance levels to beyond 4GHz. Boxx workstations also accelerate time-to-market and keep talented animators busy doing what they do best.
The newly launched GoBoxx mobile workstation looks like a laptop but is powered by a desktop processor — the Intel Core 2 Quad CPU running at 3GHz. The GoBoxx idea is to deliver the multitasking performance of desktop workstations for location work, while performing tasks like 3D design, compositing and video editing using Autodesk, Adobe CS4 and other software. GoBoxx can work with multiple simultaneous streams of uncompressed HD video, SD video or Red files using Adobe Premiere Pro and After Effects.
Boxx claims bragging rights to the industry's fastest single-processor workstation — the 3DBoxx 4850 Extreme, which bears a conventional workstation form factor while delivering "extreme" speeds of up to 4GHz. The 4850 features an Intel Core i7 processor and liquid cooling.
The recently introduced RedBoxx II is designed for viewing and processing Red One digital camera footage. It features realtime playback in 2K or HD. BoxxLabs engineers worked closely with Assimilate on its design and RedBoxx arrives preconfigured with Scratch Cine software and acts as a "virtual telecine" or "virtual VTR" for Red data.
The 3DBoxx 8450 Special Edition is a dual-processor workstation designed for VFX-heavy projects that require superior speed, quality and performance. This system will soon graduate to the souped-up 8500 line powered by Intel's upcoming Nehalem processor. It offers speeds up to and in excess of 3.46GHz, up to 96GB of DDR3 memory, high-speed RAID-0 storage, and either Nvidia Quadro FX or ATI FirePro graphics cards.
Everyone in Hollywood loves Apple's products, Mohammad acknowledges, but quickly adds, "They call Boxx 'the Apple of the PC industry.'"
DELL
Based in Round Rock, TX, near Austin, but with tens-of-thousands of employees worldwide, Dell Computer has placed an intense focus on the professional/DCC workstation market, particularly with its Dell Precision line.
Rick Perez is a Dell product manager for single-socket Precision workstations and Don Maynard is a product manager for the dual-socket line, and they have new introductions to talk about. Both product lines are getting a "major refresh" that includes Nehalem — Intel's Xeon 5500 platform.
"We're excited by this new architecture from Intel because the number one tenet in the Precision line is performance, and number two is applications," says Maynard. "And customers are very anxious to get the fruits of those labors."
One of the most interesting aspects of Nehalem, Maynard says, is its Turbo-mode — the ability to adjust itself to the demands of the user's applications, such as rendering.
"It allows the processor, or one or more cores within the processor, to scale upwards in clock-speed depending on what's happening in [your] application mix. When the processor senses that the other cores aren't active, it has the potential to scale upwards up to three clock speeds [133MHz] higher than nominal." When the processor is doing jobs like rendering, which scales across multiple cores, it monitors its power consumption and temperature and, if those are below the set threshold, "there's potential for all four cores to increase in clock speed."
Nehalem's Hyper-threading puts unused resources to work. "Think of them as virtual cores," Maynard says. "For certain applications that are highly threaded, having an additional four or eight virtual cores — in addition to the real cores — can provide a performance benefit."
Dell is also incorporating new graphics cards from Nvidia and ATI into its workstations. Dell products are engineered and designed at headquarters outside Austin. That includes motherboards as well as mechanical, thermal and acoustic designs. The workstations' cooling fans react to changes in temperature throughout the system, Maynard says.
"With graphics cards, processors and added memory scalability, the heat in these systems has the potential to increase," says Perez. "But with the robustness of our design we've managed to maintain the same size chassis [dimensions]."
Regarding scalability, the single-socket T3500 will now scale up to 24GB. The mid-range dual-socket T5500 will scale up to 72GB of memory. "We are taking our high-end system [T7500], currently scaling at 128GB, up to 192GB." Maynard says.
Dell also offers a souped-up laptop, the M6400, that's popular with DCC pros. It's powered by a desktop chipset enabling it to scale upwards and exploit a "very large amount of memory."
Intel has integrated the memory controller with the processor. "So you don't have the performance bottlenecks you had in the past," says Perez. "It means lower memory-access latency in terms of connections between [memory and processing]," Maynard says. "Memory hangs right off the processor now, not on a separate chip. Also, [Intel's] QuickPath Architecture connects the major components of the system up to three times faster. Plus, we are offering higher-speed memory — 1066MHz and 1333MHz. Add Turbo and all those things add up to a faster solution and more performance today."
Pricing wasn't available at presstime, please contact Dell directly.
Dell has over 30 ISV partners — Adobe, AJA, Autodesk, Avid etc. — and over 70 apps certified on the Precision platforms.
The new line of workstations now operates at 85 percent, up from the previous generation's 80 percent, is lead-free and Energy Star 5.0 rated.
HEWLETT-PACKARD
HP makes it a point to time its new product introductions to coincide with Intel releases and the debut of the new Nehalem processors is no exception. To wit, Jeff Wood, HP director of product marketing, calls the three new workstations headed for NAB this month "really exciting." HP's high-end "XW" series of workstations is being re-branded as the Nehalem-powered "Z" series.
In addition to what's inside the new workstations, Hewlett-Packard has also worked hard to redesign their chassis — the box itself. Wood says, "Our reliability and serviceability will only get better with the new platforms." For rethinking its chassis, HP — with some urging from Wood himself — called on an established chassis designer for help: BMW. In addition to its exterior esthetics, changes to interior functions focus on key problems raised by users. The result is a design that's become increasingly modular for power supplies, hard drives, optical drives and more.
One improvement is you can mount drives transversely into the side of the chassis (where the mother board resides) without connecting any cables.
Another issue is ease of mobility — the new chassis has handles front and back because animators, for instance, may need to pick up and move their systems two or three times a week as they work with different people in a facility. However, Wood points out, "We have not increased the size of either our mid-range or our high-end product. We've taken space away from the inside. These systems are still fully rack-mountable."
The new systems' power supply is now more efficient — 85 percent over the previous 80 — cooler and easier to access. "The power supply [now] resides — at either the top or the bottom of the chassis — full length," Wood says. "That enables us to draw fresh air from the front of the chassis and drive that through the power supply." The power supply connects directly inside without using cables. It can be easily removed and tested outside the chassis by the user and quickly replaced if need be.
Besides improved airflow, liquid cooling for the CPUs is now also available.
Following HP's original entry-level XW-4600 workstation is the new Z-400, a single-socket, Quad-Core design. (There may be a lower-priced Dual-Core Z workstation coming next year as well.)
"For those folks trying to migrate to a 64-bit environment, it gives them greater expandability in a lower-cost, high-performance system," Wood says. Compared to the Dual-Core XW-4600, "we're seeing 20 to even 40 percent better performance at a very small price premium." 
On the mid-range level, the Z-600 (replacing the XW-6600), with its snazzy chassis design, gets users into dual-socket Nehalem architecture while retaining a 19-inch rack size. The Z-600 expands to 24 GB of system memory and has three internal hard drives totaling 3TB today and 4.5TB of expandability later this year.
The new processor's integrated memory controller reduces memory latency bottlenecks and speeds are clocking up to 2X for large data-sets such as rendering or transcoding, Wood says. "We are seeing extreme performance advantages. CS4 will just scream on this."
On the high end, "the new Z-800 will effectively replace the XW-8600," Wood says. "Customers just fall off their chairs; they can't believe how compelling it is — esthetically, functionally and from a serviceability perspective." The Z-800 will be able to support 7.5TB of internal storage later this year, and support 192GB of memory. Wood adds, "The Z-800 will be the first workstation to natively support the Nvidia SLI architecture. That effectively doubles your graphics performance."
HP is proud of its environmental record, especially its ongoing EPEAT Gold status and meets requirements for the upcoming Energy Star 5.0 revision.
LENOVO
Late last month Lenovo introduced two second-generation ThinkStation workstations built for professional DCC work as well as engineering design, oil & gas, and CAD. Branded as "personal supercomputers" yet reasonably priced, the dual-CPU ThinkStation D20 starts at $2,269 optimized and preconfigured (and in the $1,300 range, plain vanilla). Its lower-cost companion, the single-CPU S20, starts around $1,299 preconfigured from a base price in the $900 to 1,000 range.
One innovative option for the workstations is the Nvidia Tesla C1060 GPU platform which offers 240 additional cores of processing power. Nvidia promises Tesla's energy-efficient parallel computing power can bring the speed and "performance of a small cluster" to a workstation.
Lenovo, with US headquarters in Research Triangle Park, NC, offers a choice of Intel Xeon 45 nanometer 5500 Series processors for increased efficiency and performance, and the optional Intel Turbo Boost technology for extra performance during peak processing. The workstations offer up to 1TB of RAID storage and DDR3 memory, which promises 30 percent reduced power usage over DDR2. The workstations come preloaded with the Windows Vista or XP operating system, or can support Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5.2.
"The S20 is designed for 2D digital content creation, while the D20 workstation's higher processing capabilities specifically address 3D digital content creation," says Ming Xie, worldwide product manager, ThinkStation workstations. He adds, "Video editing is a primary market for the D20."
Game development is one of Lenovo's focus areas within the DCC space, says Ming. "The S20 targets users of applications like Photoshop and Illustrator. The D20 targets 3D applications like 3DS Max and Maya."
Anyone using high-end CG applications on a regular basis could benefit from the new workstations," Ming says. "They deliver performance far beyond that of a desktop PC."
Whatever professional app you have in mind, including video editing, the ThinkStation workstations are fully customizable, Ming says, "with excellent expandability for RAM, CPU and graphics. While each application differs in its hardware requirements, no matter which application you use, your hardware requirements will be within the ThinkStation workstations' range of capabilities."
And they are green. "Both of Lenovo's ThinkStation workstations are GreenGuard certified," Ming says. "Many models are rated EPEAT Gold and meet the criteria for Energy Star 5.0."
Shoppers can now visit Lenovo's online VR shopping experience, the eLounge, at www.lenovo.com. There you can assume your own avatar and browse and test-drive Lenovo products, get support from Lenovo virtual product specialists and share the whole experience with other customers from around the globe.
MAINGEAR
Based in Union, NJ, Maingear recently made a splashy entrance into the professional content-creation market with a new PC workstation called ReMix (www. maingear.com). The company's workstations have been best known among PC gamers and enthusiasts willing to pay a little extra for a high-caliber experience. Now, by building on the Intel i7 platform and Nvidia Quadro CX graphics card, Maingear is making a play for the pro user with a creative workstation designed and optimized for Creative Suite 4.
"We didn't think anyone in the industry was offering a complete [PC] solution that competes with our friends [at Apple] in the pro market," says Wallace Santos, Maingear founder and CEO. "The Remix was a collection of ideas that made it the obvious solution to that problem." The base Remix workstation is about $2,000 and, with the Quadro CX installed, goes for $4,000.
"When we approached Nvidia and Intel about our idea for Remix and what it would do, they had exactly the right tools for the job," Santos says. "The Intel i7 CPU is a very powerful and dynamic piece of engineering, and we based our workstation on that. The Nvidia Quadro CX is also a revolutionary GPU technology with blistering render times that made it the clear choice for our new workstation."
Video and audio editing are fairly new items on the Maingear menu. Besides Premiere Pro, Remix will handle any PC NLE, including Avid. "One of our techs here, Raphael Carvalho, worked in the audio/video industry as a creative professional and brought along with him much knowledge in this regard," says Santos. "Raphael is solely responsible for managing our new team involved with the development and support of our move to video/audio.
"Our new Remix system comes with M-Audio hardware. We've never sold M-Audio before and we understand when it comes to the pros they want the professional components to support their needs." The workstation's new sound insulation also enhances audio editing in the studio.
Remix enables realtime image rotation, zooming and panning. It also accelerates on-screen compositing of both 2D and 3D content, brush resizing and brushstroke preview, 3D movement, high-dynamic-range tone mapping and color conversion.
Quadro CX helps accelerate depth of field, bilateral blur effects, turbulent noise such as flowing water or waving flags and cartoon effects.
Remix can encode H.264 video up to 4X faster with the Nvidia CUDA-enabled plug-in for CS4 and shave hours off encoding and rendering time.
The workstation also promises faster editing of multiple HD video streams and graphic overlays and provides a variety of video output choices for preview, including DisplayPort, component TV and uncompressed 10-bit or 12-bit SDI.
Maingear partnered with CoolIt Systems to equip Remix with a simple but effective liquid cooling unit called Domino Advanced Liquid Coolin. CoolIt's product also works with Boxx computers. Domino is Core i7-compatible and promises to transport damaging heat away from the CPU while reducing overall chassis temperature levels. The unit is intended to help workstation users exploit advances in processor technology and maximize performance. Besides allowing hard-working processors and chips to remain cool, Domino reduces noise levels in the chassis caused by noisy fans, reduces dust and ensures the longevity of the system components.
Users can plug Domino, which sells for $80, into the chassis themselves.
SAFE HARBOR
Waukesha, WI-based reseller/customizer, Safe Harbor Computers is located not far from Milwaukee and Lake Michigan, but far from Silicon Valley. Call them up, tell them what you do for a living and your budget, and they will put together a custom workstation package optimized for HD editing or 3D animation or audio post, CD and DVD authoring or other endeavors.
Safe Harbor also actually tests your new workstation before shipping it to you. "We put every machine through 48 hours of complete testing before it leaves the building," says Tiffani Banaszak, director of sales and marketing at Safe Harbor (www.sharbor.com). "We sell integrated systems. Our real strength is in our knowledge of the video industry. If you have a Red camera and want a workflow for that, we can recommend all the right gear to go with it."
Safe Harbor is an Apple value-added reseller and they configure customers' workstations to their specific needs. "Third-party products are assembled, integrated and tested thoroughly for seamless productivity in the Mac-user's workflow."
Safe Harbor generally will steer a Red head toward a Final Cut Pro with the AJA Kona 3 or Kona LHe.
Most Safe Harbor Mac customers work in Apple's ProRes codec. Mac users make up about 40 percent of Safe Harbor's business. "Most of our clients are working in HD," she adds, "using the new Sony XDCAM or the Panasonic P2.
"We actually build PCs," Banaszak says, and Tsunami is Safe Harbor's workstation brand for PC post work. Users can price a complete system right on the Website. Less confident customers phone for human help, explain their needs, and find the right balance between their budget and their goal.
Safe Harbor is also AJA-certified (and boasts that AJA engineers work on Tsunami systems). A system like the Tsunami Force Xena LHe offers 64-bit quad-core Intel Xeon processors, the AJA Xena LHe video capture card and runs Adobe CS4. Post customers go for Tsunami Riptide workstations running Premiere with the Nvidia Quadro CX graphics card, a solution she says covers the whole Adobe Premiere product line.
Broadcast customers tend to opt for the AJA Xena card which is like a Kona card but for the PC. "The Xena card is very backwards-compatible," Banaszak says. "You can put it into older machines and get everybody into the same workflow.
"Our goal is to deliver a plug-and-play solution, customized for you, right out of the box," Banaszak says. Many Safe Harbor-built systems are approved by Adobe, Matrox or AJA. Trying to save a few dollars by assembling such systems oneself and purchasing all the components individually would be time consuming and could end poorly and even cost more. "There's always that peace of mind there. We use only workstation-class components. They're built to last longer in a heavily-used environment."
XI COMPUTER
OK, want to know how much your PC-based workstation is going to cost for what you do? Call Robert Bragaglia, marketing director at Xi Computer Corporation in San Clemente, CA, and there's almost no waiting. Xi (www.xicomputer.com) bases its sales into the DCC/media & entertainment space on its own workstation — the MTower PCIe. It's a relatively inexpensive (starts at $1,039) single-processor Windows or Red Hat Linux workstation that can be customized in any number of professional incarnations.
Here are some Xi price quotes for video editing. On the high-end $7,529.87, including shipping, gets you: the basic MTower workstation; an Intel Core i7 965 EE 3.40GHz processor; an Nvidia Quadro CX card; and, for storage, six 300GB SATA II VelociRaptor hard drives. Price also includes a Blu-ray DVD burner. You supply the monitor and the NLE software — Xi provides many more goodies, including a t-shirt (size XL).
For video editing on a budget, try $3,340.30 for: the same MTower; an Intel Core i7 920 3.20GHz processor; Nvidia's EVGA/XFX GeForce card; three 150GB VelociRaptors and more.
Here are some prices for workstations optimized for CGI. High-end: $5,907.72, shipped. This includes the Xi MTower workstation and: Intel's Core i7 965 EE 3.2GHz processor; Nvidia Quadro FX card; 300GB VelociRaptor SATA II drive; a 300GB Seagate SAS; and a lot more. Bring your own CG software.
Xi's low-cost animation package comes in at $2,451.70. This deal provides the MTower with: the Intel Core i7 920 2.66GHz processor; Nvidia's EVGA/XFX GeForce card; three 150 GB SATA II drives; and more.
"Xi Computer has been serving the high-end CAD/DCC and 3D CGI markets for over 20 years," Bragaglia says. "Our Xi MTower PCIe is the professional single-processor, Quad Core Intel Core i7-based workstation that can be custom configured to serve the above applications according to the budget and requirements of every single customer. At 3.40GHz it's one of the fastest Quad Core workstations available on the market.
"All our systems are custom built, serviced and supported here in the US. Experienced sales consultants are always available to fine tune the configuration and optimize the investment for the best performance," he says. "Of particular importance is our partnership with Nvidia and the offering of the newest Quadro CX with Cuda capability for maximum graphical performance."
So where's "Nehalem"? Xi will introduce its workstation based on the two-processor Intel Xeon 5500 series shortly. "We will be offering our Xi MTower 2P64X line with dual W5580 clocked at 3.20GHz with 1333MHz DDR3 triple-channel memory," Bragaglia says. "Using Hyper-threading you will be able to see 16 cores on such systems with a tremendous performance improvement over its predecessors — especially for video editing and 3D animation."