Workstations are specialised, high performance personal computers designed and configured to run powerful business applications. They are faster, more capable computers than normal desktop PCs and are commonly used for CAD/CAM, software development, desktop publishing, financial/scientific analysis and similar demanding applications that require decent processing power and high quality graphics. Workstations typically include high reliability, enterprise grade components including fast processors, large amounts of RAM and plenty of disk storage. They are often linked to other computers in a network environment but since they are also PCs, workstations can also be used as standalone computers.
Whatever the specialised work you need to complete, there's a workstation with the raw processing required to get done but because of their extensive configurability, picking the right workstation can be tricky. Start by identifying the apps you plan to run on the workstation and identifying the required specs each software needs to run smoothly without freezes or bottlenecks. Based on this, you can formulate a shopping list of the key specs your workstation must have including processor, RAM, graphics card and storage capacity.
Whilst the key components found in a workstation are the same type of components you would evaluate when picking a normal PC, there are some subtle differences to be aware of. Workstation CPUs (especially at the premium end of the market) tend to feature higher core and thread counts, can support higher RAM capacities and more PCI Express lanes. They provide superior performance to conventional desktops, particularly when multitasking or when running continuously intensive tasks such as video rendering.
Workstations generally feature ECC (error correcting code) memory which is a more reliable type of memory that can prevent the tiny data corruption errors that commonly take place with non-ECC memory modules. For most run-rate applications, these errors are irrelevant but if you’re running mission critical programs or complex calculations where any glitch in performance would be detrimental or costly, you need a workstation with ECC RAM installed.
Virtually all workstations will come equipped with a dedicated graphics card or GPU whereas many mainstream PCs use an integrated graphics card. A dedicated graphics card offers vastly superior image processing performance which will be particularly important for demanding creative work such as complex 3D modelling, working with 4K video footage or if you’re setting up a gaming rig. Some workstations can support multiple GPUs but you should ensure your applications can support these before parting with the significant budget these will command.
There are different storage options to pick from when picking a workstation model. Some workstations use the familiar solid state drives (SSDs) found in most PCs nowadays but there are other, more specialised types of storage devices to watch out for as well including smaller U2 SSDs and PCI Express solid state drives which both offer higher capacities and use the PCI Express bus for data transfers. High end workstations may also feature hot swappable drives which can be removed and replaced while the workstation is running without the need to power down first. This is useful for replacing a failed drive in an array or for adding extra capacity without the need for any downtime and loss of productivity.
Finally, weigh up the manufacturer warranty included with the workstation as standard. Most will be protected by a limited hardware warranty that covers hardware faults and failures for a year or more. Given the significant expense a workstation will involve, we’d suggest looking at a minimum warranty period of 3 years, ideally with enhanced cover such as faster response times and on-site support where an engineer will come out to your premises to repair or replace the workstation rather than return to base warranties where you have to ship it back to a regional centre for processing.