Computer workstation

From Academic Kids

A computer workstation, often colloquially referred to as workstation, is a high-end general-purpose microcomputer designed to be used by one person at a time and which offers higher performance than normally found in a personal computer, especially with respect to graphics, processing power and the ability to carry out several tasks at the same time. The 3Station by 3Com was a typical early example. When comparing with some of the old definitions of computing power, some people may consider a workstation to be the equivalent of a one-person minicomputer.

In the early 1980s, pioneers in this field were Apollo Computer and Sun Microsystems who created UNIX-based workstations based on the Motorola 68000 processor.

Workstations tend to be very expensive, typically several times the cost of a standard PC and sometimes costing as much as a new car. The high expense usually comes from using costlier components that (one hopes) run faster than those found at the local computer store. Manufacturers try to take a "balanced" approach to system design, making certain that data can flow unimpeded between the many different subsystems within a computer. Additionally, workstation makers tend to push to sell systems at higher prices in order to maintain somewhat larger profit margins than the commodity-driven PC manufacturers.

The systems that come out of workstation companies often feature SCSI or Fibre Channel disk storage systems, high-end 3D accelerators, single or multiple 64-bit processors, large amounts of RAM, and well-designed cooling. Additionally, the companies that make the products tend to have very good repair/replacement plans. However, the line between workstation and PC is increasingly becoming blurred as trends toward consolidation and cost-cutting have caused workstation manufacturers to use "off the shelf" PC components and graphics solutions as opposed to proprietary in-house developed technology. Some attempts have been made to produce low-cost workstations (which are still expensive by PC standards), but they have often had lackluster performance.

The fact that consumer products of PCs and game consoles are now themselves at the cutting edge of technology makes deciding whether or not to purchase a workstation very difficult for many organizations. Sometimes, these systems are still required, but many places opt for the less-expensive, if more fault-prone, PC-level hardware.

What Makes a Workstation?

It is instructive to look at the history of specific technologies which once differentiated workstations from personal computers. The more widespread adoption of these technologies into mainstream PCs was a direct factor in the decline of the workstation as a separate market segment:

  • RISC CPUs: while RISC in its early days (early 1980s) offered something like an order-of-magnitude performance improvement over CISC processors of comparable cost, one particular family of CISC processors (Intel's x86) always had the edge in market share and the economies of scale that this implied. By about the mid-1990s, Intel CPUs had achieved performance on a parity with RISC (albeit at a cost of greater chip complexity), relegating the latter to niche markets for the most part.
  • Hardware support for floating-point operations: this was standard among higher-end PCs by the late 1980s, but did not become common at the lowest end of the market until the mid 1990s.
  • Some variant of UNIX as the OS: the early 8-bit and 16-bit PC CPUs could not run an operating system as sophisticated as UNIX, but this began to change from about the late 1980s as PCs with 32-bit CPUs and integrated MMUs became widely affordable.
  • High-speed networking (10 Mbit/s or better): common among PCs by the early 1990s.
  • Large displays (17"-21"): common among PCs by the late 1990s.
  • High-performance 3D graphics hardware: this started to become really popular in the PC market around the mid-to-late 1990s, mostly driven by computer gaming.
  • SCSI disk storage: never very popular in the PC market, except for the Apple Macintosh. SCSI was an advanced controller interface which was particularly good where the disk had to cope with multiple requests at once. This made it suited for use in servers, but its benefits to desktop PCs which were mostly running single-user operating systems were less clear. These days, with desktop systems acquiring more multi-user capabilities (and the increasing popularity of Linux), the new disk interface of choice is Serial ATA, which has some SCSI-like capabilities, but at a lower cost.

List of workstations and manufacturers

Note that many of these are extinct.


See also


This article was originally based on material from the Free On-line Dictionary of Computing, which is licensed under the GFDL.
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