September 1, 2019
Can you run professional CAD software on a wallet-friendly off-shelf PC? Can you press an affordable consumer-grade gaming virtual or augmented reality (AR/VR) headset into professional service? Like recurring allergies, the tempting question returns whenever economic hardship and tight budgets force firms and people to seek ingenious ways to cut costs.
The simple answer—the one hardware makers like to give you—is, it’s not a good idea. But looking for an explanation and speaking to industry insiders, we found out the answer is not that straightforward. In certain aspects of the design workflow and exploratory AR-VR applications, you may indeed be able to get away with consumer hardware. The key is to make an informed decision with full awareness of the trade-offs.
The Blurred Line
Generally, consumer PCs and professional workstations are regarded as different classes of machines, built for different purposes. But the recent introduction of entry-level workstations began to blur the long-established line. All launched in the last two years, the HP Z Mini (beginning $850), Dell Precision small form factor (beginning $650) and Lenovo ThinkStation P Tiny (beginning $750) were tailor-made to curb budget-conscious enterprise buyers’ temptation to make do with a high-end PC. With these sub-$1,000 workstations, the price difference is no longer a good argument in favor of a high-end PC.
The division is further eroded by the rise of cloud-hosted solutions. Though occurring at a much slower pace compared with the consumer sector, the design and simulation software’s migration toward the browser is a steady and irreversible march. With cloud-hosted software like Onshape, and with designer-focused simulation programs like ANSYS Discovery Live, hardware requirements become more relaxed. But it is a mistake to think the hardware makes no difference.
“Onshape will run on any device with a web browser. That includes iOS and Android devices,” says John McEleney, co-founder of Onshape. “But if you have a better machine, the software gives you better performance. That’s because it’s architected to take advantage of your local GPU [graphics processing unit].”
Formerly, as the development team behind SolidWorks in the mid-90s, McEleney and his colleagues rode the seemingly infinite rise of computing power, dubbed Moore’s law. CPU pioneer Gordon Moore predicted that the number of transistors in the processors would increase two-fold about every two years. The so-called Moore’s law held true for decades, becoming a bankable rule for investors and developers. Ultimately, Moore’s law comes up against the laws of physics: there’s a limit to how small transistors can get; therefore, after a certain period, it becomes impossible to fit more transistors into an integrated circuit to double the horsepower.
“When I was at SolidWorks, we rode the wave of increasing CPU horsepower. But today, it makes more sense to ride the wave of increasing bandwidth,” says McEleney. This was the genesis of the cloud-hosted CAD company Onshape, poised to run on unanimous high-speed connections inside standard browsers.
The GPU Makes a Difference
CAD vendors don’t encourage installing and running their software on consumer PCs. The required or recommended system specs usually point to professional-class hardware. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be installed and run on consumer hardware. Certain operations still work, even in an underpowered system. The lack of reliable, consistent performance is unacceptable for serious engineers and power users, but perhaps tolerable for dabblers and infrequent users.
“The graphics have an undue effect on your perception of performance,” notes McEleney. Most CAD operations involve model rotation, object selection and geometry manipulation. The GPU-driven visuals often affect the perception of responsiveness in these operations, even if the cause of the drag happens to be elsewhere. “The snappiness with which you see these operations executed is directly related to the GPU,” McEleney points out.
Originally developed for workstations, established vendors such as SolidWorks from Dassault Systèmes and Solid Edge from Siemens PLM Software are also revising their code bases and product lines to address the cloud’s appeal.
“One of the biggest differences between consumer hardware and professional hardware is the graphics card and the graphics driver,” says Ian Baxter, VP of worldwide technical services, SolidWorks. “If the customer wants to optimize all of the sophisticated rendering capabilities available in some of our solutions, then they may need the type of graphics card usually found in pro hardware; if they’re using a consumer PC, these functions may not work optimally, or at all in some cases.”
“Our official recommendation is that the PC has a professional graphics card designed for CAD applications. Using these cards typically results in a hassle-free experience with optimal performance,” explains Jeff Walker, director of Solid Edge at Siemens PLM Software. “However, we do not take a hardline approach in our tech support. It is particularly common with students and other users to see gaming and lower performing graphics cards in their machines.”
Faster Simulation on Lighter Hardware
With systems requirements that are higher than CAD, simulation software is a good argument in favor of professional workstations. Yet, the launch of ANSYS Discovery Live, which targets non-experts and promises speedy results, signals a new direction from one of the leading names in this sector.
“Discovery Live runs perfectly well on high-end consumer or gaming PCs. It will load [and] launch, and all features will operate,” says Mark Hindsbo, VP and GM of the design business, ANSYS. “The requirement is a NVIDIA graphics card. Specifically, it runs on either NVIDIA’s GeForce graphics cards (typically found in gaming laptops and desktops or high-end multimedia PCs) and Quadro (standard GPUs for professional workstations). All aspects work on both, but the extra you get on the professional Quadro GPU is more memory and compute power, which translate to solving larger problems faster and with more details.”
It’s not detrimental to run ANSYS software on consumer PCs; the nightmare scenario of your PC suddenly going up in smoke when you click on “solve simulation” is highly unlikely. But the key question is: How time sensitive is your simulation job?
“A small problem could take five minutes to solve on a normal PC, while a large and complex problem could take days on a super computing cluster,” points out Hindsbo. “Many of the high-end problems could possibly be run on a standard PC but might take months to complete the computation.” In other words, it’s not the technical barrier, but the practical needs to complete the simulation in a reasonable time that makes the professional workstation a better alternative.
Testing the Waters in VR
Though rooted in gaming and entertainment, mixed reality (MR), virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) gears are attracting enterprise users. In addition to the affordable units built purely for entertainment and priced for impulse buy, enterprise-targeted AR-VR units have begun to appear. The price difference between the consumer and professional editions is not always significant.
In April, HP launched HP Reverb, a high-res Windows-based VR headset, priced at $649. “When you look at HP’s consumer and commercial variants of the HP Reverb, they only vary in price by approximately US$50,” points out John Ludwig, product manager of consumer and commercial VR, HP. “This is because the core VR experience remains identical. On the commercial end, we have add-ons like a wipeable facemask, a short cord for connecting to a VR backpack and a commercial warranty.”
In May, at the Augmented World Expo (AWE, Santa Clara, CA), Lenovo announced its enterprise-focused ThinkReality A6 AR-VR glasses, set to ship in the third quarter of this year. ThinkReality A6’s price hasn’t been published yet. The company’s consumer-targeted Mirage Solo VR headgear is priced at $399, and the VR-capturing Mirage Camera is $299.
The Next Wave
For early enterprise adopters still testing the waters with no clear usage or return on investment identified, the less expensive consumer units are a legitimate option.
“Around 2015, the decidedly consumer-oriented devices were attractive to certain enterprise buyers whose use cases didn’t benefit from the higher quality afforded by headsets like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift,” says J. C. Kuang, an analyst from Greenlight Insights. “These were usually confined to stationary experiences used in tourism and hospitality, education, healthcare and location-based entertainment. So it comes to pass that mobile VR devices, especially Samsung Gear VR, enjoyed high-unit shipments for a brief period.”
“Today’s VR customers are primarily made up of enthusiasts who are educated on the sector and products. Because of this, HP places a larger focus on value rather than cost,” says Ludwig. “The HP Reverb headset has a higher price tag than others on the market, but we have experienced incredibly high demand from both the consumer and professional markets due to its overall improved value proposition.”
But the debut of higher priced enterprise-focused VR gear, such as Varjo and VRgineers, may be ushering in a new adoption wave. With exploratory use cases whetting the appetite, more serious implementation is expected to follow. This is where the higher end units offering higher quality visuals and more sophisticated interaction such as gesture recognition can outshine the generic consumer units.
“We’ve certainly seen larger enterprises commit to integrating VR into their workflows over the next few years, especially within the automotive and defense industries, where detail and fidelity are critical to avoiding costly mistakes in evaluative processes,” says Kuang.
Design and Simulate in AR
A similar tug of war between consumer and enterprise units is also taking place in AR.
“AR for field service is among the most compelling areas of growth for the industry; as such, buyers are looking for features that help workers conduct tasks more quickly and safely,” says Kuang. “This means they may not necessarily favor features like high resolutions or FOV (field of view) measurements, but things like voice interfaces, modularity and longevity features (like ruggedization and battery hot-swapping). This is what has allowed hardware providers like RealWear [with voice command] to excel where other fully-featured devices, like HoloLens 2, have struggled.”
In anticipation of AR/VR use for design and engineering, CAD software developers like SolidWorks and simulation solution providers like ANSYS have begun to add AR/VR support to their offerings.
“Graphics and visualization intensive software from ANSYS like Ensight, SPEOS, OPTIS VR Suite and VRXPERIENCE already support Enterprise VR through cave-based VR and devices like Canon MREAL and VR services and product providers like TechViz. In addition, some high-end consumer devices like Oculus Rift and hardware and software solutions like zSpace are also supported,” says Dipankar Choudhury, vice president of research at ANSYS.
“Through this support, we enable engineers to get into the virtual cockpit of a vehicle, for example. The engineer can then test the driving experience in various virtual environments. ANSYS is also working to bring support of devices like the HTC Vive and Microsoft HoloLens to the full range of ANSYS simulation products,” adds Choudhury.
“The use of consumer-oriented products is far less common in the AR industry than the VR industry, due to higher overall price points and relatively lower demand, and any convergence between the two is unlikely to materialize within the next decade or so,” says Kuang. More of Kuang’s insights and assessments are in “The Augmented Reality Industry Report” published by Greenlight Insights. It includes a five-year forecast on the AR market and its applications.
Changing Buying Patterns
Assuming software’s move to the cloud and users’ acceptance continue, the hardware buying patterns are bound to change. Though entry-level workstations have cut into the high-end PC domain, powerful GPUs remain an essential component.
“With increasing adoption of engineering simulation on the cloud, we expect enterprise customers to only invest in on-premise hardware sufficient for their steady-state usage. Intermittent workloads and periods of peak demand will be pushed to the cloud,” says Todd McDevitt, director of product management at ANSYS. “For 3D interactive use cases, engineers are gravitating towards high memory instances with capable graphics cards. Interactive performance and addressable memory for their largest models also rank high with engineers’ requirements for using cloud resources.”
Enterprise buyers have distinct hardware refresh cycles—the delay between one enterprise hardware upgrade and the next. Here, too, cloud-hosted software is expected to have a notable impact.
“Hardware refresh cycle for [an] installed user base is typically three years. Quite frankly, after three years, the machine becomes too slow and buggy to run the newer software,” says Onshape’s McEleney. “With browser-based software like Onshape, the hardware refresh cycle gets longer, probably a five-year cycle.”
The consumer market’s continued pressure on professional solution providers doesn’t mean lower-quality products repackaged and sold at a higher price. It means professional hardware vendors will need to offer much more value and features if they plan to charge a premium. “Companies attempting to serve both consumer and enterprise buyers with the same product may find this to be unsustainable over a longer period,” Kuang warns.