First the question, who is using a workstation and what is it used for:
Main areas of usage are CAD (Computer Aided Design), CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing), CAE (Computer Aided Engineering), EDA (Electronical Design Automatisation). Scientists are using worksations for visualizing big data sets or running simulations. Architects are using workstions for constructing new houses, bridges, tunnels and other buildings. Medicals are using workstations for vizualising data they recieve from computer tomograph. Geologists use them for carthography and research for oil and gas deposits explorations. Workstations were the first computers which were capable of processing 3D, which was not only interesting for technical purposes, but also fascinating for artists like Timothy Leary. Financal analysts need them for going through different market scenarios. Workstations are also used for multimedia creation, they are capable of processing high quality audio and video. Software developers are using workstations, if they write software for servers they will find the same environement, so their programs are garanted to run on server, like they do on the workstation. Of course there are lots of other areas where workstations are necessary for everydays work.
What is a workstation:
Till the beginning of the 90th, it was quite an easy task to define a workstation. The cheapest and most spreaded computers were "home computers" from Acorn, Amiga and Atari. IBM-compatible PCs were running MS-DOS, Windows or OS/2 and were used in the offices for text processing or cheat calculations. Apple was used for artist works (at that time multimedia was a spread term, but hardly anyone knew what this is) and DTP. The workstation was one level above. It was a desktop computer for a single user, which had an UNIX-OS and a RISC-CPU. They were expensive beasts (not seldom several ten thousands dollars), so only companies and universities could afford them. The situation changed in the next few years, first Microsoft introduced Windows NT on the market, which was advertised as a workstation OS and second Linux arised from nothere. These both OSes were mainly running on IBM-compatible PCs, which became cheaper but more powerful every year. So at the beginning of the 21th century the border blurred, every big computer maker has offeres workstations which are mostly IBM-compatible PCs with the most recent Windows for Professionals version or RedHat for Workstations, which are better equipped then the average PC customer can buy in computer shops round the corner. They are much more affordable then the workstations a decade ago.
Nevertheless nowadays there still are criterias which separate a workstation from the rest of the computer market. For doing the jobs described above, the computers must be 64-bit capable, OpenGL-capable, the ISVs must provide software for this platform. 64-bitness is necessary because the data volumes a workstation has to handle exceed 4 GB memory space and often 64 bit accuracy is required. OpenGL is still the standart for professional graphics, since DirectX is not available for UNIX-platforms. The third point is very important as well because the software which is used on the workstation is very complex and were developed by the companies for several years so it is not easy to port or rewrite such software for a new platform). The licenses for that kind of software costs usually several thousands dollars ANNUALLY because of quite narrow circle of users (compared to MS Office for example), required support because of its complexity, and demands on this software from the point of its stability (as few crashes as possible even during processing a large amount of data) and accuracy. If we look at the available computers regarding these points, only few platforms are still left:
1. POWER 4+ with AIX5L from IBM:
AIX5L is one of the traditional UNIX-OSes it was certified as UNIX-2003 compliant by the Open Group (in fact it is the only OS which received this brand yet). IBM promotes this platform for CAD, especially because of the Catia software but it is also used for EDA (Cadence or IBM-owned software). POWER is a RISC processor developed by IBM and used in p- and iSeries of their server lines. Currently there are two workstations available:
- IntelliStation POWER 275 This workstation is equipped with single 1.0-1.45 GHz POWER4+ processor, Since this processor is 2-way, the entry edition of this model has one core disabled, which is not always a disadvantage, because the remaining core has access to the whole 8MB 3rd level cache. This model has up to 12 GB of memory and two SCSI harddisks, the graphics adapter has up to 128 MB video RAM.
- p630 Model 6E4: This is mainly a server, which has a better graphics card plugged in, so it became a workstation. Different to the same server it is not certified for Linux usage because of the proprietary graphic card.
The future for this platform is not easy to foresee. On one side IBM is very active Linux supporter, but IBM also is known for supporting old platforms as long as the customer pay for them (like mainframes), so I think AIX will have a long life. More likely the entry server will spend a better graphic card (not necessary from IBM, but from NVidia or ATI or 3D Labs), so it will become Linux-compliant and maybe ISVs will be convinced to port their software to Linux on POWER. AIX is able to execute Linux software, but it still has to be compiled for POWER or at least for PowerPC.