Intel’s Ivy Bridge Processors Hit the CAD Workstation Marketplace

The incessant pace of progress and innovation for workstation technology never slows.

Less than a quarter after every major workstation OEM launched a full trio of models based on Intel’s Sandy Bridge-EP (a.k.a. Xeon E5), the industry leader in CPUs has already released its follow-on processor generation, code-named Ivy Bridge.  And subsequently, we are now seeing the first Ivy Bridge workstations hitting the market, including Dell’s Precision T1650 and HP’s Z220.

How Does Ivy Bridge Affect the CAD Workstation Market?

What benefits can Ivy Bridge offer to those plying their trade in CAD? Well, there’s the usual broad-based boost in performance that any good generational upgrade will provide, as Intel expects a 20 percent performance improvement for general computation from Ivy Bridge (though of course mileage will vary by application). But there’s more appeal for this upcoming product family than just the usual generation-to-generation performance bump. Because while that appeal extends across applications and usage models, there are a few special nuggets of technology in this generation that will pique the interest of workstation-wielding CAD professionals.

Intel’s lead in silicon process manufacturing continues to grow, and the benefits of Ivy Bridge should prove an ideal vehicle to showcase that lead. Just as competitors are getting their 32 nm process, with Ivy Bridge Intel’s jumping a full generation ahead with a 22 nm process that allows for millions more transistors in the same silicon area.

That’s a win for workstation buyers especially, as they represent a professional community that certainly care about CPU performance, but demand a lot more. First off, a shrink buys room for more cores, and we’ll eventually see some Ivy Bridge SKUs with eight or more cores (not at first launch, but later in the product lifecycle). Far from being one-trick-ponies, today’s MCAD professionals have to be jacks-of-all-trades — a competitive market, tight budgets and tighter schedules all demand it. Drawing is just one piece of the daily workflow, complemented by a host of other critical compute tasks, from simulation to styling. And chores like finite element analysis and computational fluid dynamics multi-thread quite well, making 50% more available cores a serious weapon in driving computation time down and achieving the ultimate goal — boosting productivity.

Improved Integrated Graphics

The extra silicon space also allowed Intel to dial up the performance and functionality of its integrated graphics hardware. For example, Ivy Bridge’s P4000 GPU populates more on-chip graphics engines and supports advanced features like  hardware tessellation, a proven tool that can deliver finer, more realistic 3D surfaces in less time. With its range of upgrades, Ivy Bridge can claim full DirectX11 support that its predecessor could not. And with more of those bigger, faster graphics engines, Intel can claim a 30% increase in performance for Ivy Bridge’s graphics over Sandy Bridge’s.  And that means CAD professionals on a budget can now more seriously consider choosing a low-cost CPU-integrated graphics solution like the P400.

Support for Three Monitors

But looking beyond performance, Ivy Bridge’s graphics is going to provide another big draw for the MCAD professional: native support for three monitors. While the mainstream is now just discovering the benefits of dual monitors, many mechanical designers are already using three: for example, one for drawing, one for simulation and one for visualization. Prior to Ivy Bridge, a desktop with three high-resolution monitors mandated at least one discrete add-in graphics card. But with this generation, a cost-conscious MCAD user could go three-wide and stick with base platform graphics.

MCAD Users: Same Performance, 50% Fewer Watts!

With more cores to speed CAD simulation and ultra-realistic rendering, as well as a 30 percent graphics improvement, Ivy Bridge promises to be a tide that raises all boats, as all workstations — deskside or mobile — will benefit. But there’s one unique advancement debuting in Ivy Bridge that’s a particular boon to the MCAD pro on the go. You see, Ivy Bridge’s 22 nm technology introduces a revolutionary new transistor structure called TriGate that offers the same performance at 50% fewer Watts than Sandy Bridge’s 32 nm.

And that’s allowing leading vendors HP, Lenovo, Dell and Fujitsu to introduce new mobile workstation models that dramatically extend battery life at the same performance level, or deliver far more performance, with the same battery life. Either way you look at it, it’s a win when computation demands are high. And few corners of the computing world demand more performance/Watt than mechanical designers trying to accomplish demanding design work on the road.

This post reflects industry analyst Alex Herrera’s views and does not necessarily reflect the opinions, product plans or strategy of either Dell or Intel.

Author: Alex Herrera