What makes a workstation?
Rackmount Workstations, Graphics Servers and AI machines are evolving into a mainstay market here at ServerCase UK. The relatively recent explosion of demand for AI and advanced rendering systems has yielded many a technical pre-sales conversation to help customers to either choose a pre configured NVIDIA VCA (Visual Computing Appliance) system or to design and specify their own custom Quadro based workstation with us.
One of our strengths, along with our expertise, is our ability to offer the option of these NVIDIA Certified & Tested solutions from our partners such as PNY, Asus and Supermicro as well as totally custom systems tailored to your specific requirement. However, there are some key factors and guidelines to consider in order to ensure that our customers purchase "The right tool for the job."
In this blog post I'll aim to briefly cover a few important considerations and differences in systems/ components and their uses as well as talking about some of the misconceptions we regularly encounter when talking about high end workstations, AI systems, Quadro, Tesla and GeForce Gaming cards. Without further ado I'll list below some of the questions, misconceptions and preconceptions we regularly encounter.
Customer: "GeForce cards are just as fast as Quadro and they are WAY cheaper..."
This is one of the most common misconceptions we encounter almost daily. GeForce cards are for playing games. Thats it! That's what they are designed to do. On paper, regurgitating figures about a GeForce card's number of CUDA cores and clock speeds means almost nothing in a professional rendering/ AI environment. Not only are GeForce cards NOT designed for these professional workflows in general, but there is a gigantic void of difference in core components, drivers, BIOS, connectivity, scalability, VRAM size and type, software certification, industry standard certification, up-time and precision levels. The speed of a GeForce card is completely irrelevant in the traditional sense as there are dozens of other factors that contribute to perceived "Speed" in a 100% load 24/7, 365 environment. Put simply, GeForce cards are TOYS. NVIDIA's ranges of Quadro, Tesla and Deep Learning systems are TOOLS. These professional products are designed to laugh at the abuse of around the clock, 100% load total 'THRASHING' for want of a better term. This = UPTIME (or lack of downtime.) High uptime = more work done and THAT is where the "Speed" comes from. Real world workflows in professional certified applications will run faster on Quadro, regardless of uptime, due to exhaustive design and testing with key software partners. Running GeForce GAMING cards like this will not only deprive you in areas such as accuracy and guaranteed compatibility with major pro software packages, but overall, using GeForce in professional workflow systems, you risk putting your business in the hands of equipment you will be running outside of its design remit. Should an issue occur with a GeForce part, you'll be sending it back to your point of purchase and waiting the usual "up to 28 days" for RMA repair/ replacement as you'd expect with pretty much any consumer grade product. No big deal if you play the odd hour of Call Of Duty of an evening....MASSIVE deal if your livelihood depends on that machine. NVIDIA professional products carry enterprise level warranty support from advanced component replacement to full system on-site SLA's.
Customer: "I need a game development workstation with GeForce cards...."
No problem at all. We design and configure workstations for game developers frequently. This is the exception to the first point above. Game developers benefit from developing on the same hardware and drivers that the finished game will be released for and played on by gamers. We custom build these types of workstation to the customers specification using tower or rackmount chassis, 80+ Gold single or dual redundant PSU's, Asus SLi certified gaming motherboards along with the customer's required CPU, GPU, RAM and storage configuration. This is the only type of workstation we will specify and supply with (up to 4) GeForce cards.
Customer: "I want a machine for professional rendering...."
We offer various solutions for high end Pro 3D applications. Our first question is always "What are you using the machine for and what software packages do you need to run on it?" NVIDIA's Quadro range has pro graphics cards for many workflows. From the 'ideal for a photography student' right up to the cards used by the Hollywood post production and visual FX industries. If you've seen a Pixar film or marvelled at the CGI in many a summer blockbuster, you've seen what a Quadro card does to earn it's keep. All are tested and ran on drivers co-created by NVIDIA and the software house in question so you are 100% guaranteed complete and utter compatibility, stability and performance. In addition, industry standard compliance with regard to colour grading, for example, is fully tested, certified and supported.
Our approach to your new system would be to discuss your needs and expectations and then provide you with a spec that works for you and meets those requirements. Following that, we have further options in what the final machine will be. We can offer tower or rackmount configurations as complete solutions from PNY, Asus and Supermicro. In additition to those we can also supply and configure systems from these partners that can be used as either a tower or 4U rackmount. Standard GPU options are available but the real star of these ranges is the "NVIDIA VCA" box range. These systems are available in tower or 4U rackmount too but have been closely co-developed and tested with NVIDIA's VCA standard certification. This is a strictly controlled program for systems usually with more than 4 GPU's where NVIDIA and the system manufacturer have agreed and tested a particular set of components in a particular chassis to guarantee that everything runs as it should. Many of these systems can house 8 double width Quadro or Tesla cards so the VCA standard is a must to ensure that the cards are cooled sufficiently, the PSU(s) are up to the job, the CPU(s) can "feed" all those cards quickly enough, the RAM is fast and plentiful enough and, finally, that the network connectivity hardware can send & receive that HUGE an amount of data being processed. These VCA certified systems generally come as a barebone consisting of Chassis, dual redundant PSU's, Xeon motherboard and cooling system. The beauty of this is scalability. If you are just starting your journey into serious rendering or AI, you have the option of starting with 1 CPU and maybe 1 or 2 Quadro GP/ GV100 cards with the option of upgrading as you progress to more intense work flows, safe in the knowledge that you have a base, certified platform that will happily take another CPU, more RAM and more GPUs as required.
For less intense rendering applications we can custom build your system with upto 4 Quadro cards as well as NVIDIA SyncII and SDI boards. These systems are available in a tower configuration or 4U rackmount. We use Asus workstation boards exclusively in all of our custom workstations.
Customer: "I'm in CCTV and digital signeage, do I really need a big rendering workstation? I just need loads of outputs for loads of screens rather than horsepower..."
There's a whole range of Quadro cards dedicated to multiple outputs and video walls. The range is called Quadro NVS. These cards are designed solely to give multiple monitor connections per card and to deliver clear, sharp high quality images. Again, there are many models in the NVS series of cards with the NVS 810 able to output to 8 screens at 4K in a single PCI-eSlot in a single width card form factor. There are also cards further down the range with less outputs but all the NVS range will have the built in driver tools and hardware support for you to get the job done properly. These features include bezel correction and ability to lock colour/ brightness to uniform levels across the whole video wall and provide the same enterprise level "uptime" ethos as the rest of the Quadro & Tesla range. For this reason, NVS cards are also in high demand in the finance industry due to their high reliability.
So as you can see from this small cross section of typical enquiries and questions, a workstation is not simply just a workstation. There are many different tasks out there all requiring different equipment and there's a huge range of products available to choose from. There are many components making up a workstation and our 'Tools vs Toys' ethos covers them all. We ONLY use workstation/ server grade parts. All our boards are Asus Workstation boards. Pro Graphics means Pro Graphics. Hard drives will be Pro/ Enterprise or Data Centre grade. PSU's used are all 80+rated and we have redundant PSU options. You won't find consumer/ gaming components in our professional machines. Its as simple as that. Our business has grown priding itself on not shying away from lengthy discussions with customers to ensure they get what they need to get their job done. TOOLS FOR THE JOB! That's how we operate. The more we discuss, the better informed our decisions in system spec will be and our customers will almost certainly get what they expect and deserve from one of our systems.