What Makes a Workstation a Workstation – My visit to HP

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HP invited a bunch of journalists, myself included, out to visit their facility in Fort Collins, CO, the headquarters for workstation design, support and marketing. Beyond the desire to meet and greet friends old and new, I had one goal – to learn what makes a computer a workstation.

To explain, in the bad old days, workstations had proprietary RISC based chips and graphics, and ran funky operating systems like AUX or UNIX. Today, they’re made with standard Intel and NVIDIA components, and run primarily 64-bit versions of Windows. Typically, you can find off brand computers featuring the same CPU and graphics card as an HP Workstation for substantially less money. Why anyone would want to pay extra was a big question that I wanted answered.

Interestingly, HP was one of the few companies who made the transition from proprietary to industry standard workstations. You remember the names – DEC (bought by Compaq who later merged with HP), Apollo (bought by HP), Sun (bought by Oracle), Silicon Graphics (still flying solo) and IBM, who voluntarily exited the business.

At dinner the night before the tour, I was fortunate to sit next to Jim Zafarana, the 49 year old General Manger of the Global Workstation business unit. I forget how the subject came up; I think it started with a mention of how Sun had been recently acquired by Oracle. My initial theory was that Sun’s decline was unavoidable; the high dollar proprietary web server market that they owned in the 90’s had gone away, and there was nothing to be done.

Not surprisingly (in retrospect), Jim disagreed – he saw it as a failure of leadership, and a fundamental lack of understanding of the business that Sun was in. He agreed that the market for $25-$50K proprietary workstations had gone away, and there was nothing Sun could have done about that. Intel’s and NVIDIA’s chips are simply too powerful, and funded by a much broader base of customers than workstations would serve.

That said, however, the market for $5K-$15K workstations built from industry standard components was stronger than ever. Sun had just failed to adjust.

In other words, the buggy whip vendor didn’t go out of business because cars replaced horse and buggies. It went out of business because it didn’t start building automobile components. Sun saw itself as in the business of expensive, proprietary workstations, and didn’t adjust, and now it’s a shadow of the business it once was. HP did adjust, and now it owns 43% of the workstation market.

Jim’s comments were not braggadocio or judgmental; they were matter of fact observations. He went on to describe the painful adjustment process at HP. At one time, they built their CPU, graphics cards, the computers and even monitors themselves, employing hundreds of engineers and assembly workers at their Fort Collins facility. But Intel was able to outpace the power they could build into their own proprietary RISC chips, and NVIDIA did the same with GPUs. HP was left to either bail or adjust, and they chose the latter. The transition was clearly painful, but failing to transition would have meant the end of that division.

As I learned the next day, HP’s proprietary workstation heritage was far from wasted. Intel has an office in Fort Collins, and former CPU engineers at HP work with Intel during CPU development and launch to ensure a good fit with HP’s workstations. NVIDIA has a Fort Collins office, as well, and the engineers who used to build HP’s graphics card work with NVIDIA engineers to accomplish the same purpose.

This obviously makes a lot of sense – when you buy a house, do you want a former homebuilder to inspect your house, or someone who learned home inspection in school?

After a long pleasant night of good food and great company, I went to bed asking myself how I defined myself professionally, and whether that definition would thrive and prosper between now and retirement, whenever and whatever that is. Probably a question we all need to ask ourselves every once in awhile. Not quite the soft pillow I needed, so I broke into the mini-bar, drank a $12.00 shot of scotch, and decided to think about something else.

The Tour

The next morning started with a bang. VP Terry Pilsner was taking apart the HPZ800 and said something like “well, we know Rosie could do this better, but I’ll struggle through.” That drew a polite laugh from the crowd, but I perked right up since Rosie is my daughter.  I’ll explain.

When the Z800 first shipped, HP sent me a unit, and claimed that one of the focuses was field serviceability and ease of access to components. Just for fun, I prepped my then 9-year old daughter Rose on taking apart the unit and putting it back together, and then shot a video that I uploaded to YouTube. Here it is below (with over 21K views).

Not surprisingly, the video was a big hit in Fort Collins, but since I had shot it about 18 months before, it wasn’t on the top of my mind. Turns out that Rosie is now part of the lexicon in the workstation division, a wunderkind known to all. HP even asked Rosie to sign a permissions form so they could use the videos in their sales presentations. I can’t tell you how proud my little quiet, shy Rosie was at that moment – she almost burst out of her skin.

I basked in my derivative celebrity as Rosie’s trainer, producer and director (not to mention father), and HP gave me a bag of goodies to bring to my technical star. Perhaps I exaggerated a bit when I told her she was the legend of Fort Collins, but she got a huge kick out of it all, and of course, so did I.

Anyway, back to HP. The day was not about new products, but a technical walk through of various departments in the workstation group, so we could see how they contributed to the overall product. Kind of mapped well with my “how is a workstation different than a regular computer” quest.

Another journalist – Ryan McLaughlin from JusTechn.com, was at HP as well, and did a much better job capturing and describing the tour than I did – you can see his description and multiple YouTube videos here.

The Cliff Notes version is this. What differentiates an HP workstation from a computer built from similar components is:

A focus on innovation – for example, where other vendors may use Intel or AMD reference designs for their motherboards, HP builds their own, upgrading all components to workstation class specs and investing significant time debugging their designs.

A focus on reliability – this came through in multiple places, including:

  • The Turn On Lab, where all components shipped in all workstations are tested for something like 96 hours. Any customer workstations that fail unexpectedly are also shipped back here for forensic testing.
  • There’s also the Z-SAV, where HP archives all versions of all workstations shipped, so if a problem arises three years after shipment, HP can duplicate the entire configuration.
  • There’s the hardware test lab, where workstations in boxes and without are subjected to drops, shakes, vibrations and the like. This is a fun video that you shouldn’t miss.
  • The Material Science lab, dubbed CSI Fort Collins, with gear like a X-ray spectrometer and electron microscope to get to the bottom of hard to diagnose issues.
  • The Demo Lab, where workstations are tested and demonstrated with key design and content development tools that the ultimate workstation buyers will use, ensuring compatibility. 

A focus on time to market  – Again, multiple stops, including:

  • On-site regulation testing – for FCC emissions and other tests.
  • A model shop that includes several 3D model printers to help speed the design of workstation components.

Also discussed during the day were two other focuses, the first getting in front of the customer to get their input into the product development process, and a focus on value to the customer. This means making hard decisions to meet critical price points, like not adding the cool new case to the Z400 class of workstation.

After the day, it was clear how HP’s workstation heritage contributes to their current product offering, and how their design, quality testing and support practices produce a top performing product with great long term reliability and usability. The value of a workstation should be more than the sum of its parts, and at HP, it most definitely is.

About Jan Ozer

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I help companies train new technical hires in streaming media-related positions; I also help companies optimize their codec selections and encoding stacks and evaluate new encoders and codecs. I am a contributing editor to Streaming Media Magazine, writing about codecs and encoding tools. I have written multiple authoritative books on video encoding, including Video Encoding by the Numbers: Eliminate the Guesswork from your Streaming Video (https://amzn.to/3kV6R1j) and Learn to Produce Video with FFmpeg: In Thirty Minutes or Less (https://amzn.to/3ZJih7e). I have multiple courses relating to streaming media production, all available at https://bit.ly/slc_courses. I currently work as www.netint.com as a Senior Director in Marketing.

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