Workstations – The One PC Market That Lives Forever

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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HP bets on workstations as the rest of the PC industry goes down the drain

Spirits were high as HP unveiled a new range of workstation desktops, laptops and displays at a press event in New York last week. The company has been making professional PCs for over 30 years and while the rest of the traditional PC industry is slowly being replaced by smartphones and tablets, workstations remain a small but sustainable market which grew 5.5 percent in the second quarter of 2013.

However, the balance of power in this market is shifting. A few years ago creative professionals used to swear by their Apple machines. After years of delay, a fantastic-looking update to Mac Pro is in the pipeline, but it still lacks a release date. Meanwhile, the future of Dell is uncertain, leaving HP as the number one workstation manufacturer worldwide.

Is the professional PC market really safe from the sad fate of the rest of the industry? Are there benefits to having processing power under a table, rather than in the cloud? HP seems to think there are, and it called in the experts to back up this point of view.

The new hope

“We are not distracted, we are not going private, we are not spinning off, we are not changing direction. Today’s announcements are all about re-committing to the high-performance user,” said Jim Zaffarana, HP’s VP and GM of Commercial Solutions, PC Global Business Unit, as he presented the new workstations to the press.

Jim ZaffaranaAnd the beauty of the high-performance user is in the fact that, unlike average consumers, they are really willing to spend up to £10,000 per machine to get their work done faster. They wouldn’t even consider £10,000 that expensive.

According to Henric Larsson, founder and CEO of the Swedish post-production house Chimney, 20 years ago the video effects (VFX) industry had to spend millions on hardware and software. Today, the cost of hardware is almost negligible, and labour has become the main expense.

“Barriers for entry [in the VFX industry] are minimal,” said Larsson, a long-time HP customer. Instead of the price of workstations, the focus is on reliability, innovation and minimised support expenses. That’s right – people who buy workstations do not care how much they cost.

Virtualisation, which is also eating away at the traditional PC market, is not a danger to workstations, and the reason is bandwidth, or the lack of it. According to Roger Beck from StudioDaily, a standard post-production DV50-compressed 1080p25 video stream will require 288 Mbit/sec for only one colour-correction system working in real time. No ISP can guarantee such speeds. But workstations themselves can serve as cloud servers in a pinch, further increasing their value.

And then, there’s the impact on time. New two-socket Xeon chips offer up to a teraflops of compute in a single workstation and new Nvidia K6000 graphics cards are capable of displaying 1.3 billion triangles per second. According to Intel’s Workstation GM Frank Soqui, this allows creative professionals to rely on simulation-based design without any physical prototypes whatsoever, which results in much faster time-to-market.

Meanwhile, mobile workstations have evolved into tools that have the power to change business practices. For example, HP’s EliteBooks have allowed Morgan Motors, a family-owned UK company which has been selling hand-made sports cars for over 100 years, to involve customers in the design process, and show various options as the cars are being built. “We can now not only design on paper, but develop and visualise new ideas in real-time, using these powerful tools. And then, more importantly, we can take these ideas to the craftsmen on the factory floor, and show exactly what we mean,” explained John Wells, who leads the design team at Morgan.

The competition

Mac Pro 2013Moving away form Apple products was something of a theme throughout the New York event. It is not clear just how much market share the company from Cupertino commands – it was notably absent from the slides – but HP customers all seemed to denounce their Mac Pro past – even despite the (still not delivered) redesign, which we can’t resist showing here.

Mark Russel, a visual effects producer who has just finished work on Martin Scorsese’s Wolf Of Wall Street, said his profession involved gathering, tracking and distributing huge amounts of data: ”There’s a great deal of transcoding, colour-processing and just general file organisation that I need to do on a daily basis, and prior to this job, I was exclusively a Mac user. But things are changing.” Russel said that today, he mostly uses his Mac for emails.

Art Thompson form Sage Cheshire Airspace, leader of the team responsible for Felix Baumgartner’s 24 mile skydive last year, also mentioned “transition” from Apple’s Mac Pro.

HP Z820 Workstation,right facing, dual HP ZR2440w, AEC 2.

“The people in professional businesses that bet their livelihood on their tools are feeling, perhaps, abandoned by some of the other vendors. I think the fact that we support industry-standard applications and not proprietary, the fact that we are in a cadence with Intel and Nvidia, not having to wait six or twelve months to deliver their technology, makes a big impact on those businesses. So they are choosing us,” Zafarana told TechWeekEurope.

And it’s not just HP, Intel and Nvidia that appreciate the stability and potential of the workstation market. AMD executives are busy promoting its range of FirePro graphics cards, the same cards enclosed in the black cylindrical body of the new Mac Pro, which is rumoured to appear on sale before the end of the year.

“The people who create content or designs, manage securities or search for oil need a high-performance, robust compute and visualisation environment. You can’t do that on a tablet,” said Zafarana. “It’s not just the horsepower, but the whole environment – the keyboard, the mouse, the application stack, the size of the models. I don’t see that going away. The world needs new shoes, new cars, new bikes. So we believe the workstation market will remain a thriving, growing business.”

HP Workstations

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HP's workstation desktops, laptops and displays

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