Workstations Become Everyone's Tool

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By John Makulowich

When is a workstation not a workstation? Perhaps the instant a major player introduces a card that lets end users run Unix and Windows on the same machine. Or it might be the moment when the price point of a workstation approaches that of a PC.

Used for standard knowledge worker tasks such as modeling, video effects, medical imaging, research and development and analysis, these high-performance machines are unlikely to completely replace PCs any time soon.

However, their power and graphics-handling abilities are making them more-likely candidates for the desktops of power users and World Wide Web designers.

A study (Report #W18997) was completed in May by International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass., titled, "Worldwide Workstation Census, Year End 1998." It is about the United States and worldwide markets for traditional Unix workstations, and branded and nonbranded NT personal workstations for 1998.

Among the data is that growth in worldwide traditional workstation shipments is starting to slow, with only Sun Microsystems Inc., Palo Alto, Calif., recording an increase (10.9 percent) over the 1997-1998 period.

For example, growth for Hewlett-Packard Co., Cupertino, Calif., over the same period was -11.6 percent, while Silicon Graphics Inc., Mountain View, Calif., recorded -29.7 percent. IBM Corp., Armonk N.Y., came in at -7.6 percent.

Sun Microsystems still is the leader in this segment of workstations with 52.5 percent share, or 314,329 shipments in 1998. HP is a distant second with 15.5 percent share and 92,755 shipments.

On the other hand, HP recorded spectacular growth in worldwide personal workstation shipments, showing a 70 percent growth from 1997-1998. Even more impressive were Dell Computer and IBM, which showed 181.1 percent and 111.6 percent growth, respectively.

HP leads the segment with 21.6 percent share (378,160 shipments) followed closely by Dell at 21.2 percent share (370,450 shipments).

Interestingly, a review of overall market share counting both traditional and personal workstations reveals that Sun's share has been eroding steadily, going from 20.7 percent and the market lead in 1996 to 13.4 percent in 1998. It now ranks fourth behind HP (20 percent), Dell (15.8 percent) and Compaq Computer Corp. (13.6 percent). Fifth place in overall share is held by IBM (13.1 percent).

From the view of the IDC study, the messages in the data gathered disclose:

?NT personal workstations are gaining share in the overall worldwide workstation market.

?Growth in the overall workstation market is slowing as NT workstations become more prevalent and exit the startup phase of their life cycle.

?Unit growth in the workstation market still is healthy.

Worth noting is the difficulty IDC expressed in distinguishing between a PC and a personal workstation, especially given the speed at which new products are entering the market. "In effect, the only way to determine a system as one or the other is based on actual use," it concluded.

Blurring the difference even more, Sun earlier this year introduced its SunPCi PC co-processor card, pricing the product at $495. It lets users run Microsoft Windows and DOS alongside Solaris technical applications on Sun's Ultra workstations and is targeted to design engineers working in multiplatform environments.

In its typically aggressive fashion, where no love is lost between the CEOs of their respective companies, the Sun release noted, "Instead of purchasing a separate Windows system, or migrating to Windows NT-based systems in order to run office productivity applications such as Excel, PowerPoint and Word, customers can choose the best system to meet their mission-critical technical computing needs."

In its take-no-prisoners marketing approach, Sun also challenged the ilk of HP, Silicon Graphics and IBM. Noted the same corporate announcement, "In addition to encroaching on the Windows/Intel business, Sun's introduction of the SunPCi card turns up the heat on traditional Unix competitors such as Hewlett-Packard and Silicon Graphics Inc." The company proclaimed itself the only firm delivering productivity, reliability and scalability in "one easy-to-use workstation solution."

So much for the campaign launched a year ago last January for Unix vendors to work together in consortium fashion to fend off the assault of the NT juggernaut.


According to John Leahy, director of marketing for Sun Microsystems Federal and a retired Navy captain, Sun's workstation business is up more than 16 percent in unit volume, based on overall comparisons of the first three quarters of this year and last.

"The PC link product, basically a separate processor board that runs Windows applications, was introduced for the Ultra 10 and Ultra 60. The product attracted a lot of interest because it allowed for a single workstation, a single desk. Whether an analyst or technician who needs processing power, that user can now run personal productivity applications in a separate window, not a separate machine," said Leahy.

Never half-stepping, Sun turned the heat up on competitors again in April with an announcement of new products and services at its fifth annual Executive Alliance Summit held in Palm Springs, Calif.

The inroads made by NT-based systems on its market could not have been more obvious, nor the pitch to the channel more direct: "For the first time, Sun can compete in market spaces previously only addressable by Windows NT system vendors ? opening up lucrative new revenue opportunities for Sun and its channel allies."

What were some of the Sun solutions? They included Solaris PC NetLink software to enable Solaris servers to offer native Windows NT network services "more reliably and on fewer servers than Windows NT systems." Further, the product came with an unlimited client license, which Sun did not hesitate to point out was "unheard of in the PC server space."

While the workstation push by Sun remains at full throttle, Leahy himself said this solution always will tie the user to the workstation. For example, a government researcher will use the system where it is physically. That compares with the mobile user seeking access to the desktop and the network and expecting anytime, anywhere connectivity.

In trying to tighten its grip on the federal workstation market, Sun, the creator of the Java programming language, recently included its Sun 64-bit Solaris 7 operating environment and Java technology version 4.0 of the Defense Information Infrastructure Common Operating Environment (DII COE).

Designed for the Department of Defense developer community and released by the Defense Information Systems Agency, the latest version contains large portions of the DII COE kernel in Java. The COE kernel is a software layer offering a uniform interface for applications accessing lower level services. DII COE provides a common IT architecture and promotes interoperability and crossplatform capabilities for the diverse operations of the Defense Department.
Not far from the workstation fray is HP, the Silicon Valley pioneer that recently introduced a new family of personal workstations named Visualize. Windows NT-based systems, they feature Intel's new Pentium III and Pentium III Xeon processors. With a price point of $3,225 for its HP Visualize P450 and framed by the mass customization model made popular by the Internet, HP seems to be setting its sights on the power users in the PC market and graphics designers sprucing up World Wide Web pages.

The P450 comes with an Intel Pentium III 450 MHz processor, 128 megabyte SDRAM, a 6.2 gigabyte hard drive and ELSA GLoria Synergy graphics. And HP highlights that it makes the family under a build-to-order model, one which "allows customers to select their exact configuration and price point, and have their systems delivered [directly] from HP."

Not to be outdone by the hyperbole of Sun, HP proclaims, "No other workstation vendor can deliver more powerful, manageable and dependable workstation solutions."

What is fact is that HP is focused on those users demanding high-end graphics subsystems, people that they refer to as "advanced professional users who perform simulations, virtual prototyping, complex modeling and high-end visualization tasks and who demand leading-edge graphics performance and processing power." Its literature touts its HP Visualize-fx as faster than Silicon Graphics 320 visual workstation and Dell's 610 Precision GMX2000.

According to Bill Dwyer, chief technologist for HP government and aerospace, the traditional workstation was dominated by the RISC (Reduced Instruction-Set Computer) architecture pioneered by IBM in the 1970s and used by HP and SGI. Over the last few years, with improvements in integer performance, Intel has been catching up. However, the floating point operation remains the weakness, required, for example, for intensive graphics rendering like virtual reality or 3-D.

The next step may be the highly touted IA-64 Instruction Set Architecture, details of which Intel Corp., Santa Clara, Calif., and HP published May 26. The purpose is to let software developers worldwide speed the next generation of server and workstation applications based on forthcoming IA-64 processors beginning with Merced in 2000.

Announced in 1994, the research and development effort between Intel and HP aims to develop a 64-bit instruction set architecture for advanced workstation, server and enterprise-computing systems that is compatible with Intel's IA-32 processors and HP's PA-RISC processors. It is hoped that IA-64 will meet the increasingly large memory and performance requirements of future data warehousing and e-business server and workstation applications.

"As integer performance increases, there is not so much differentiation in the marketplace for PCs. Right now, we can segment workstations into low end, based on price, intermediate, based on price and performance and high end, based solely on performance," Dwyer said.

In fact, based on these processor improvements and the movement of the market, the new family of personal workstations introduced by HP reflect its business decision over the past 18 months to merge its technical PC business with its Unix workstation business.
One of the more exacting, atypical uses of the standard workstation comes at the hands of engineers at the NASA White Sands Test Facility, Las Cruces, N.M.

It serves as a test site for propulsion systems with up to 60,000 pounds of thrust. These computer systems provide test and evaluation data acquisition, automated controls, data analysis and data distribution services for rocket propulsion and related systems testing.

For test firing and data acquisition, the center recently upgraded to real-time computers from MODCOMP Inc., Fort Lauderdale, Fla. A subsidiary of CSP Inc., Billerica, Mass., the company supplies high-performance, real-time systems.

Said Ron Lerdal, computer operations manager at the NASA facility: "We had some interesting criteria for the workstation. First, we had a very expensive interface to the test facility that we did not want to replace. Second, we had a real-time process and had to ensure this computer could go fast, to respond to a command to turn a machine on or off in a millisecond."

One reason for introducing the workstations was to institute a totally new user interface. Lerdal felt the need to reduce the amount of interaction required of a user working with a hazardous environment of rocket engines.

"We wanted to make interaction with the system much easier. And that implies safer. A rocket engine is not like the one under the hood of your car. Our tasks involved controlling the flow of propellant and the firing of engines," said Lerdal.

The leap to advanced workstations took users from the old time alpha numeric, monochrome display to a GUI, color-animated display. For Lerdal, it greatly improved the users comprehension of what the system was doing and what the operator had to do.

It also reduced the amount of training required for operators. With much more room on the screen for specific instructions, it reduced the amount of operator error. It also reduced calls to the computer operator for help.

With this workstation upgrade in place, Lerdal has set his sights on a new goal, one which high speed networks and the Internet have made possible.

"Now I want to provide our data from the rocket engine test directly to the customer wherever he may be a make it available via NASA connectivity to the Internet," said Lerdal.

That goal translates into reducing the amount of travel and expense involved in working with engineers on engine tests. Currently, a test typically requires six engineers and scientists to travel across the country.

Lerdal feels he can cut that figure by 50 percent, requiring only one or two researchers to travel with the remainder staying home at the main plant.

"My goal is to integrate the audio, video and digital data all together. And have engineers at three or four locations collaborating with instrumented video. By that, I mean enhanced video so viewers can visualize the engine temperature using infrared," said Lerdal.

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