Optimizing your Workstation Budget for Design and Engineering Applications

By Emmanuel Kim on

How do I select the right workstation for my design and engineering application needs? Choosing the right platform isn’t too complicated—it mainly gets down to how you’ll be using it and what your budget looks like—but it sure can be confusing. After all, if we had unlimited funds, the answer would be easy! But being a bit more realistic, the goal is to optimize the match between the hardware, system software, applications and workflows that are in use. (Here, when we say “workflow,” we’re talking about the environment defined by things like the nature of work being performed by the application, the problem size, and the type and complexity of graphics that are in use.)

By performing this workstation optimization, we won’t needlessly be spending budget on components that aren’t needed, conversely, we will be emphasizing the components that the application most certainly needs. Basically, we’re searching for the “best bang for the buck.”

Workflows and Workstation Components

Different workflows and applications stress different workstation components. In this blog series we’re going to look at several different workflows:

  • Basic / Advanced CAD
  • General Simulation
  • CFD and Plastics Simulation
  • Visualization
  • eDrawings Pro VR

For each of these we’ll discuss which components of the workstation play an important role in the workflow (and why), and come up with some sample configurations that optimize our spending budget for that particular workflow. The workstation components that we’ll be examining include variations of: CPU(s), GPU(s), RAM, storage size and type and physical attributes (e.g., laptop vs desktop). We also don’t want to overlook the importance of system software, drivers, support and services that make up the total solution.

Workflow: Basic / Advanced CAD

As we explore the aspects of the above workflow scenarios, let’s first look at CAD—basic modeling and design.

CPU – More is not always better

Most CAD applications (including SOLIDWORKS) are “lightly threaded”—meaning the algorithms in use don’t lend themselves to parallelization—so spending dollars on additional CPU cores isn’t all that cost-effective. However, the CPU cores that we do have should be as powerful as possible, so look for processor speeds greater than 3 GHz.

System Memory (RAM)

For system memory, look for a minimum of 16GB of RAM, with 32GB being the sweet spot for most applications sizes. If you work with very large models, 64GB is certainly a cost-effective option to evaluate as memory upgrades can be one of the most cost-effective upgrades you can purchase for your system. Also, if the workstation architecture supports multiple memory channels it’s a performance plus, but that feature needs to be weighed against increased cost and is generally only applicable for bigger models. A desirable (but more costly) option is ECC (Error correction code) memory, which protects against undetected data corruption that can be caused by electrical or magnetic interference. Choosing ECC memory options depend on the criticality of the design work—while data corruption is a real concern, it’s fairly rare and can generally be manually detected in a reasonably simple design.

Storage Drives (Hard Drives and SSDs)

Besides having the capacity to hold your applications and data, the type of interface for your storage drive needs to be considered. Today, most systems will come with a Solid State Drives (SSD) for its primary storage drive. SSDs yield faster read/write speeds than their Hard Disk Drive (HDD) predecessors, since they do not rely on mechanical moving parts. But like their HDD relatives, they may still be using a SATA interface. To maximize throughput and minimize latency, you ideally want to find a system that utilizes SSDs with a NVMe interface. The bandwidth for these interfaces can be much wider which can impact the speed in which your system boots up, large applications like SOLIDWORKS startup, and how quickly large datasets and files open.

We recommend at the very least making sure your primary drive is using a NVMe interface SSD drive and enough capacity to hold your operating systems, applications, and anticipated data!

GPU – More than just fun and games

To ensure good response time and smooth operation of your models, find a certified graphics cards with a sufficient amount of Video Memory (VRAM). Like system memory (RAM), the amount of VRAM dictates the ceiling at which information can be processed at any given time. So, in a crude way of speaking, the more VRAM your system has the more graphics information can be processed and display at any given time. For light to moderately complex designs consider a Graphics Card (GPU) with at least 2GBs of VRAM.

Beyond the specifications and numbers, you also want to find a graphics card that has been optimized and certified to run professional applications like SOLIDWORKS. Just because a card advertises impressive frame rates in a video game does not necessarily mean that same card will perform well or reliably when running a professional application like SOLIDWORKS. Graphics solutions companies like nVidia have workstation class GPUs specially optimized to handle hard-working applications like SOLIDWORKS to not only yield impressive raw performance, but the necessary reliability for demanding professional environments. Consider a card like an NVIDIA RTX A2000 or above.

Putting it all together

Finally, it’s important to select a workstation optimization configuration that the hardware vendor tests and validates for your specific application. For example, Dell and TriMech have worked with SOLIDWORKS to create prepackaged configurations specific to a workflow; these configurations are thoroughly tested combination of hardware components that eliminate incompatibility or performance issues.

To summarize, component suggestions for basic through advanced CAD workflows:

Component Suggestions
CPU Fewer (4-8), higher-clocked cores.
Pay attention to base clock rate, not just “turbo” clock rate

Intel 11ᵗʰ Gen Intel® Core™ i5 or 11ᵗʰ Gen Intel® Core™ i7 recommended

GPU NVIDIA RTX Ampere Graphics RTX A2000 and above. (Increase VRAM for larger models)
RAM Minimum 16 GB, 32 GB preferred. (Increase RAM for larger models)
ECC memory an option for complex and/or mission-critical designs
Storage NVMe interface
Packaging Laptop or Desktop
Application Testing & Validation Select specific CAD workflow configurations at the TriMech Dell Expert Network Portal.

Recommendations

For basic CAD work, the Dell Precision 3561 Mobile Workstation is an excellent choice. It is compact (just over four pounds in a super-thin enclosure) and performs like a classic workstation. It comes with a 6-core processor at 2.9 GHz (4.6 GHz Turbo) with up to 64 GB of memory. The GPU is the entry point for the NVIDIA RTX line with the Quadro T600.

The Dell Precision 3650 Tower Workstation is a small form-factor workstation that is an alternative to a mobile workstation. It supports up to 10-core Intel® Core or Xeon™ CPUs, an NVIDIA RTX 3000 graphics card, and up to 128 GB of RAM. Both systems support ECC memory as an option, and have a variety of upgrade options.

Conclusion

Choosing the “right” workstation for your needs is dependent on a number of variables, not the least of which is your specific applications and workflows. Dell and TriMech have partnered to offer a curated lineup of Precision workstations with NVIDIA GPUs that provide a great starting point for general CAD/modeling applications. Along with flexibility for scaling memory, storage and graphics as needed to support higher complexity designs and models, these workstations are tested and validated with SOLIDWORKS applications.

These workflow-based configurations, along with additional learning resources (and an additional discount!), can be viewed at the www.dell.com/trimech portal. The portal simplifies the selection of an optimized, tested, and validated solution that maximizes every budget dollar.