[This feature was published in the November 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad]
Buying a workstation is, by its nature, a proposition that prompts careful consideration. No doubt you will have a set of performance requirements in mind and a strict budget.
Perhaps your kit is struggling to run the new game engine you recently forked out for? Or maybe you are bringing new staff on board and require hardware that can be easily tuned to suit their individual needs?
These problems are exactly what new, game development-focused hardware lines from HP and Lenovo aim to solve.
And if you’re the sort who has pushed your hardware to its limits, replacing the fan, upgrading the GPU and generally giving it more tune-ups than your parents’ 1980s Volvo, you’ll want to know what’s on offer should your tower not make it through another winter.
LENOVO: SMART THINKING
The market for workstations has evolved from the days when companies offered a one-size-fits-all box. Nowadays, the hardware comes in a variety of form factors, while still pursing data-crunching muscle.
Lenovo’s software development ThinkStation series aims to provide reliable and rock solid performance.
Ashley Rolfe, workstation technologist at Lenovo, tells Develop: “Before going on sale, all Lenovo ThinkStations go through a rigorous period of testing and certification. We don’t just test each component; we test all components together as a unified solution, to ensure the stability of all our solutions.
“In addition, each ThinkStation goes through an additional round of certification by the various independent software vendors, such as Adobe, to make sure our hardware is fully compatible with their software to certify the best possible results.
“We also use error-correcting code memory, which might not be typically used in a custom setup as it can detect and correct data from corruption, and that’s vital in environments where the integrity of data is everything.”
Lenovo’s workstations come in two main flavours: single-processor, such as the ThinkStation S30 and newly launched E32, and dual-processor, such as the D30 and C30.
The recently launched E32 Small Form Factor (above left) is based on Intel’s Haswell architecture and its slimmer design makes it suitable for studios that are tight on budget and space. Rolfe says whether a studio buys one today or in 12 months time, it will be identical, helping them to simplify “management of the estate”.
Expect to pay in the region of £800 (including VAT) for Lenovo’s ThinkStation series hardware.
HP: TOOLING UP
Unveiled at GDC, HP’s Z series workstations have been engineered especially for games developers, and have the likes of Epic Games and Autodesk to back them up.
Sold in conjunction with Alt Systems, HP provides its Game Developer Edition for Autodesk and Unreal Engine users on three platforms: the HP Z1, the HP Z820 and Z620 (above). Alt Systems will work with you to configure systems to your needs, as well as grant any technical support you require to get the best performance out of it.
Ray Gilmartin, worldwide media and entertainment segment marketing manager at HP, says: “HP’s highly tuned workstations give customers a personal experience – much like having an engineer in the box – with HP’s special Performance Advisor software that automatically tunes the workstation, finding and installing the proper drivers.
“Each HP workstation is passed through HP’s vigorous quality assurance and testing process, which goes well beyond PC industry testing requirements.”
Furthermore, HP’s workstations come pre-loaded with software that allows you and your team to collaborate on projects remotely, all in sync and with next to no loss in performance. Gilmartin says HP’s Z workstations alleviate the concerns that your hardware won’t stand up to the many demands placed on the system on a daily basis.
“HP offers more choices than any other vendor, with the broadest scope of options and the most specialised configurations, ranging from any graphics card and multiple display configurations, to any OS a customer selects.”
Expect to pay in the region of £1,525 (including VAT) for HP’s Z series workstations for games.
APPLE: THE MAC FACTOR
The popularity of mobile games has changed opinions on Apple, and with it attitudes towards gaming at the hardware maker itself.
Many popular game engines and SDKs now support Mac, and makers of software tools, such as Hansoft, have gradually adapted their software to ensure it is available on Apple computers, which have been in demand from iOS and indie devs.
“Gaming is increasingly critical to Apple,” says Adrian Drury, lead analyst at Ovum, who specialises in IT, media and telecoms. “It is central to the iOS ecosystem and with the introduction of 64-bit computing and OpenCL to the just launched iPhone 5S, the boundary between a console and a smartphone gets ever more blurred.”
Apple updated its flagship iMac in September. The super-thin 21.5 and 27-inch computers (above) now come with the latest Nvidia GPUs and the option of adding PCIe-based SSDs for rapid data transfer rates.
Also on the way is the new Mac Pro (below), which has undergone a radical redesign. At just 25.1 centimetres tall and 16.8 centimetres wide, this cylindrical silo of black gloss looks nothing like your average workstation. Equipped with dual GPUs, Flash storage by default and up to 12 cores with the highest spec configuration, the Mac Pro will be a formidable machine, and is due out in December.
As Macs have become a standard feature in enterprise, Drury says support for OS X is now effectively standard. And cost-wise, he says Macs represent an affordable option for games developers: “The price differential between the iMac products and workstations sold as games developer-specific is not so wide. And, for the right users, Macs will generate less support calls or encourage self support.”
The new iMac starts from £1,150 (inc VAT), Mac Pro from £2,500 (inc VAT).
START-UPS: WHAT TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN BUYING A WORKSTATION
BUY AT THE START OF A LIFECYCLE
“The best advice when choosing a workstation is to buy at the beginning of a CPU architecture lifecycle,” says Lenovo’s Ashley Rolfe. “That way as the studio expands you can add additional workstations when needed, without causing complications for the IT team.”
CHECK FOR SUPPORT
The vendors make convincing arguments about software compatibility and whisper-quiet fans and the like. But when you find yourself in a tangle, reliable hardware support is what counts. Speak to fellow developers about vendor support before you make up your mind about who to buy from.
DON’T FORGET YOUR END USER
When buying a set of workstations, Rolfe also recommends that you include at least one entry-level system too, as this will allow you to test games on less powerful machines, which are more aligned to what consumers will use.
Your budget may limit you to a single platform, but scalability is where Ovum’s Adrian Drury argues that Mac gives you an edge: “Depreciation on a Mac is likely to be slower than a custom gaming workstation, so for a start-up studio that may have to scale-up and scale-down the number of workstations, that’s another good reason to look at a Mac environment.”
Workstations for HP, Lenovo and other manufacturers are sold through resellers. You can find a list of nearby sellers via the manufacturer’s website. Many of the resellers do not list prices on their websites, so it is worth searching online for the lowest price comparisons or giving sellers a call directly to see if you can strike a deal.