Computer intended for use by one person, but with a much faster processor and more memory than an ordinary personal computer. Workstations are designed for powerful business applications that do large numbers of calculations or require high-speed graphical displays; the requirements of CAD/CAM systems were one reason for their initial development. Because of their need for computing power, they are often based on RISC processors and generally use UNIX as their operating system. An early workstation was introduced in 1987 by Sun Microsystems; workstations introduced in 1988 from Apollo, Ardent, and Stellar were aimed at 3D graphics applications. The term workstation is also sometimes used to mean a personal computer connected to a mainframe computer, to distinguish it from “dumb” display terminals with limited applications.
Learn more about workstation with a free trial on Britannica.com.
A workstation, such as a Unix workstation, RISC workstation or engineering workstation, is a high-end microcomputer designed for technical or scientific applications. Workstations are intended primarily to be used by one person at a time, although they are commonly connected to a local area network and run multi-user operating systems.
Historically, workstations offered higher performance than normally seen on contemporary personal computers, especially with respect to graphics and CPU power, memory capacity and multitasking ability.
Workstations are often optimized for displaying and manipulating complex data such as 3D mechanical design, engineering simulation results such as for computational fluid dynamics, animation and rendering of images, and mathematical plots. Consoles usually consist of a high resolution display, a keyboard and a mouse at a minimum, but often support multiple displays and may often use the fastest available versions of microprocessors. For design and advanced visualization tasks, specialized input hardware such as graphics tablets or a SpaceBall can be used. Workstations have classically been the first part of the computer market to offer advanced accessories and collaboration tools such as videoconferencing capability.
Following the performance trends of computers in general, today's average personal computer is more powerful than the top-of-the-line workstations of one or two generations before. As a result, the workstation market is becoming increasingly specialized, since many complex operations that formerly required high-end systems can now be handled by general-purpose PCs. However, workstations are designed and optimized for situations requiring considerable computing power, where they tend to remain usable while traditional personal computers quickly become unresponsive. Workstations perform work of such value to their owners that they are free of the requirement to run mass-market commodity operating systems. While the technology between workstations and PCs has since become similar, workstations still have many specialized features not found on their PC counterparts.
The term "workstation" has also been used to refer to a terminal or PC connected up to network.
It is instructive to take a detailed look at the history of specific technologies which once differentiated workstations from personal computers. The modern reader might be amused at what was considered the target for a high-end workstation in the early 1980s, the so-called "3M computer": a Megabyte of memory, a Megapixel display (roughly 1000x1000), and a "MegaFLOPS" compute performance (at least one million floating point instructions per second). As limited as this seems today, it was at least an order of magnitude beyond the capacity of the personal computer of the time; the original 1981 IBM PC had 16 KB memory, a text-only display, and floating-point performance around 1 kiloFLOPS (30 kiloFLOPS with the optional 8087 math coprocessor). Other desirable features not found in desktop computers at that time included networking, graphics acceleration, and high-speed internal and peripheral data buses.
Another goal was to bring the price for such a system down under a "Megapenny", that is, less than $10,000; this was not achieved until the late 1980s, although many workstations, particularly mid-range or high-end still cost anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000 and over throughout the early to mid 1990s.
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:
These days, workstations have changed greatly. Since many of the components are now the same as those used in the consumer market, the price differential between the lower end workstation and consumer PCs may be narrower than it once was. For example, some low-end workstations use CISC based processors like the Intel Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon 64 as their CPUs. Higher-end workstations still use more sophisticated CPUs such as the Intel Xeon, AMD Opteron, IBM POWER, or Sun's UltraSPARC, and run a variant of Unix, delivering a truly reliable workhorse for computing-intensive tasks.
Indeed, it is perhaps in the area of the more sophisticated CPU where the true workstation may be found. Although both the consumer desktop and the workstation benefit from CPUs designed around the multicore concept (essentially, multiple processors on a die, of which the POWER4 was a pioneer of this technique), modern (as of 2008) workstations use multiple multicore CPUs, error correcting memory and much larger on-die caches. Such power and reliability are not normally required on a general desktop computer. IBM's POWER-based processor boards and the workstation-level Intel-based Xeon processor boards, for example, have multiple CPUs, more on-die cache and EEC memory, which are features more suited to demanding content-creation, engineering and scientific work than to general desktop computing.
Some workstations are designed for use with only one specific application such as AutoCAD, Avid Xpress Studio HD, 3D Studio Max, etc. To ensure compatibility with the software, purchasers usually ask for a certificate from the software vendor. The certification process makes the workstation's price jump several notches but for professional purposes, reliability is more important than the cost.
Perhaps the first computer that might qualify as a "workstation" was the IBM 1620, a small scientific computer designed to be used interactively by a single person sitting at the console. It was introduced in 1959. One peculiar feature of the machine was that it lacked any actual arithmetic circuitry. To perform addition, it required a memory-resident table of decimal addition rules. This saved on the cost of logic circuitry, enabling IBM to make it inexpensive. The machine was code-named CADET, which some people waggishly claimed meant "Can't Add, Doesn't Even Try". Nonetheless, it rented initially for $1000 a month.
In 1965, IBM introduced the IBM 1130 scientific computer, which was meant as the successor to the 1620. Both of these systems came with the ability to run programs written in Fortran and other languages. Both the 1620 and the 1130 were built into roughly desk-sized cabinets. Both were available with add-on disk drives, printers, and both paper-tape and punched-card I/O. A console typewriter for direct interaction was standard on each.
Early examples of workstations were generally dedicated minicomputers; a system designed to support a number of users would instead be reserved exclusively for one person. A notable example was the PDP-8 from Digital Equipment Corporation, regarded to be the first commercial minicomputer.
The Lisp machines developed at MIT in the early 1970s pioneered some of the principles of the workstation computer, as they were high-performance, single-user systems intended for heavily interactive use. The first computer designed for single-users, with high-resolution graphics facilities (and so a workstation in the modern sense of the term) was the Xerox Alto developed at Xerox PARC in 1973. Other early workstations include the Three Rivers PERQ (1979) and the later Xerox Star (1981).
In the early 1980s, with the advent of 32-bit microprocessors such as the Motorola 68000, a number of new participants in this field appeared, including Apollo Computer and Sun Microsystems, who created Unix-based workstations based on this processor. Meanwhile DARPA's VLSI Project created several spinoff graphics products as well, notably the SGI 3130, and Silicon Graphics' range of machines that followed. It was not uncommon to differentiate the target market for the products, with Sun and Apollo considered to be network workstations, while the SGI machines were graphics workstations. As RISC microprocessors became available in the mid-1980s, these were adopted by many workstation vendors.
Workstations tended to be very expensive, typically several times the cost of a standard PC and sometimes costing as much as a new car. However, minicomputers sometimes cost as much as a house. The high expense usually came from using costlier components that ran faster than those found at the local computer store, as well as the inclusion of features not found in PCs of the time, such as high-speed networking and sophisticated graphics. Workstation manufacturers also tend to take a "balanced" approach to system design, making certain to avoid bottlenecks so that data can flow unimpeded between the many different subsystems within a computer. Additionally, workstations, given their more specialized nature, tend to have higher profit margins than commodity-driven PCs.
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 the demand for fast computers, networking and graphics have become common in the consumer world, allowing workstation manufacturers to use "off the shelf" PC components and graphics solutions as opposed to proprietary in-house developed technology. Some "low-cost" workstations are still expensive by PC standards, but offer binary compatibility with higher-end workstations and servers made by the same vendor. This allows software development to take place on low-cost (relative to the server) desktop machines.
There have been several attempts to produce a workstation-like machine specifically for the lowest possible price point as opposed to performance. One approach is to remove local storage and reduce the machine to the processor, keyboard, mouse and screen. In some cases, these diskless nodes would still run a traditional OS and perform computations locally, with storage on a remote server. These approaches are intended not just to reduce the initial system purchase cost, but lower the total cost of ownership by reducing the amount of administration required per user.
This approach was actually first attempted as a replacement for PCs in office productivity applications, with the 3Station by 3Com as an early example; in the 1990s, X terminals filled a similar role for technical computing. Sun has also introduced "thin clients", most notably its Sun Ray product line. However, traditional workstations and PCs continue to drop in price, which tends to undercut the market for products of this type.
A workstation class PC may have some of the following features:
Three types of products are marketed under the workstation umbrella:
Some vendors also market commodity mono socket systems as workstations.
Workstations and lean: workstations play a critical role in helping manufacturers eliminate waste in their assembly lines.(Workstations)(Cover Story)
Jul 01, 2004; Lean manufacturing is known by a number of names: agile manufacturing, cellular manufacturing, and just-in-time manufacturing....
Workstations banish static, protect electronic parts. (electrostatic discharge modular storage drawer cabinets and workstations by Stanley-Vidmar Inc.)
Oct 10, 1991; workstations banish static, protect electronic parts Stanley-Vidmar has introduced a new line of electrostatic discharge...