Threadripper and Titan: the best workstation you didn’t know about

A workstation solution with a Threadripper processor and an NVIDIA graphics card.

Last week I was hanging out with a bunch of engineers and it was a fun trip that I can’t yet talk about. However, one discussion jumped out at me because it was so orthogonal to how we think of two of the component vendors in the workstation space. We typically think of AMD and NVIDIA (disclosure: both AMD and NVIDIA are clients of the author) and that they are likely pounding on and bad mouthing each other every chance they get. 

Apparently, that isn’t the always the case, when it comes to cooperation on a workstation solution they both seem to agree that a blended AMD/NVIDIA solution is best and the engineers at the event seemed to agree that the hottest workstation you can buy right now has a Threadripper processor and an NVIDIA graphics card. This is anything but a cheap date but given the shortage of engineers and that performance allows fewer engineers to do more work, this configuration is very at the moment. But the two leading workstation vendors, Dell and HP (disclosure: both Dell and HP are clients of the author) don’t make one of these providing a huge opportunity for the second tier to move up, or for one of these two to steal a march on the other. It also suggests that the most powerful workstation (depending on load) in Dell likely comes from Alienware.

Let’s talk about this dynamic. 

Engineers, graphics artists, animators, etc.

Some of the most valuable employees in any company are the engineers that create the products that this company produces. They have a huge multiplier associated with their work because the more time they have working on a project, as opposed to waiting for their workstation to render work they’ve already done, the more complete, timely and high quality the resulting product is.  

Holding on to this critical resource is incredibly important. Back when I was working at Siemens we had workstations that were badly out of date and that was listed as a cause for a 200 percent turnover in engineers annually. This turnover crippled the firm’s ability to create and update products and was highlighted at the end as the reason the entire division eventually failed.

It is critical to give these people the tools they need to execute because their execution drives the success of their firm. Most executives seem to know this and that is why engineers generally pick the hardware they end up using. My rule is that the more critical the engineer the more important it is that they get what they need to do their job.

However, often the vendors that sell workstations seem to think that they behave like PCs and that users will be forced to use industry standards. Often, they discover in accounts that they think they own, and even in their own shop (I can recall a tour of an OEM where their own people were using a competitor’s workstation because it was critical to a bottleneck process in their own product development).

In short, workstation performance is critical to the performance of a firm’s top engineers and these top engineers are critical to the performance of their firm. And, currently, the best performing top-end CPU isn’t from Intel, it is Threadripper from AMD.

Threadripper

Threadripper shouldn’t exist. In firm’s increasingly risk adverse getting the backing to do a breakout project is nearly impossible. Threadripper exists because a core group of employees created a Skunk Works effort and bypassed process to create something amazing. 

I love Skunk Works efforts because they create things that not only wouldn’t otherwise exist, they tend to create insanely good, but very different, products. Some of our best fighter planes, bombers and products came out of Skunk Works efforts.  

As a result, and partially because Intel has been under investing in their processor business as they apparently focused instead on things like “drone swarms,” AMD released in market not only the fastest workstation class processor but one with the most powerful name. Threadripper.

If you get a chance to talk to an engineer/graphics artist/animator or anyone that uses a massively threaded professional that has used Threadripper, you will likely find, as I did, that their appreciation for this product is near religious. It is that much faster (but it does depend on the app).

NVIDIA

Now while AMD has their own graphics architecture called Vega, the most powerful platform is arguably NVIDIA’s. What I think is interesting from a brand perspective is that their Titan card is likely the most desirable but their Quadro professional line is the more powerful. Part of this is that like Threadripper, Titan just sounds cool, and Titan kind of bridges their professional and gaming products where Quadro is solidly focused on professional loads almost exclusively.

This suggests the most attractive workstation may be a blend of Threadripper and Titan, but the most powerful is likely a bend of Threadripper and Quadro. What I also find fascinating this that both NVIDA and AMD seem to be on board with this. While we’ll likely never seen NVIDIA compliment Vega, they do say really nice things about Threadripper and they have been incredibly supportive of the platform. And AMD, has been outspoken in their appreciation of the support and they fully support this configuration as well.

In a world where badmouthing folks that are competitors seems to sadly be common, with regard to AMD/NVIDIA workstations both firms seem to be more partner than competitor. And I must admit I’m lusting for my own Threadripper/Titan workstation and, before the summer is over, I’m going to build one.

Wrapping up

Now Dell does almost make one of these. Their Alienware Area 51 Threadripper box has NVIDIA card choices but the top choice is an NVIDIA 1080 water cooled card not a Titan or Quadro. It is interesting to note that Alienware, known for gaming machines, sells a considerable number of systems to folks that use them as workstations. I don’t know how big this business is today, but before Dell bought the unit it was a surprisingly big business.

So, this suggests the most powerful workstations don’t currently come from Dell or HP, and that the most powerful Dell Workstation may currently come from Alienware. And this is largely because AMD and NVIIDA are cooperating at an unusual level. I find this fascinating.  

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