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The Workstation Is Sexy Again

by Addison Snell
for Intersect360 Research
Oct 1, 2009

Oh, Yeah – The Workstation Is Sexy Again (Just Please Don't Call It a Personal Supercomputer)

as published in HPCWire

For over 10 years, from the late 1980s throughout the 1990s, technical workstations were the stunningly sexy starlets of the computing world. Advancements in graphics cards and RISC microprocessors gave engineers and scientists unprecedented performance at their desks, and Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems became the twin-sister darlings of Silicon Valley, based on their come-hither designs and, more importantly, the walk-into-a-pole gorgeous applications that ran on them. They were beautiful, but we fell in love with them for the genius they embodied. Covetous engineers passed product catalogs back and forth, leering at the front covers to goggle at screen shots and the back pages to devour the accompanying stats. The resulting market for them was as large as that of the entire adjacent HPC industry.

But by the turn of the century, the megawatt spotlight on the glamorous technical workstation was fading. PCs and so-called "personal" workstations closed the gap in performance while offering lower prices, standard hardware and operating environments, and the resulting ability to run personal productivity applications (like word processing and email) within the same configurations. By the mid 2000s, technical workstations were considered over-the-hill, and not coincidentally, SGI and Sun had lost their bombshell appeal, having turned over the runway to fresh-faced ingenues that stacked up on datasheet measurements but somehow lacked the sassiness and sex appeal we so admired in our fading pin-up models.

Another decade later, the technical workstation is largely forgotten -- a fascination from a bygone era still celebrated in the memories of experienced UNIX-heads sprouting long gray hair, as they shake their heads at the times we live in and reminisce about the good old days. To be sure, there have been innovations in graphics and in x86 processors, but the workstation -- as it is still sometimes called -- isn't used for work anymore. These personal workstations are glorified PCs that are usually better suited for games than for any serious task. These dolled-up prom queens might be pretty to look at, but we don't love them, and we never will.

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