Workstations

The first time I went to price a "proper" workstation-class computer was in the summer of 1997. This was during my first semester at college and, being a geek in a computer science track, I figured that a Pentium Pro with it's 256KB of L2 cache and better multi-processing capabilities would be ideal for my coursework. The budget was $2500 CAD, which was almost every dime I had saved while working through high school. This was enough to pick up a decently-equipped Dell Dimension with an Intel Pentium 233MHz CPU with MMX, but I wanted a workstation-grade machine. One Saturday morning, I went to a nearby computer shop that was known for building solid machines for reasonable rates and was handed a price list.

Suffice it to say, there would be no Pentium Pro so long as I was in college.

In the end I wound up putting mobility ahead of power and picked up a used IBM ThinkPad 486 DX4/75 with 16MB RAM, a colour screen and no audio card for the small sum of $2000 cash1. The machine did quite well for as long as I had it and, looking back, it was certainly better that I did not invest time in working nights to afford the more powerful Pentium Pro2.

Since the summer of 1997, I've stuck to using consumer-grade equipment for all of my computing needs while looking at the workstation-grade equipment from afar, knowing that investing the amount of money required to obtain one was simply unrealistic even at the best of times.

With the historical context out of the way, I was recently reading Anandtech's "Best CPUs for Workstations: 2020 Q1 article and thinking about what I would do with such a machine. The suggested processors were generally over $1400 USD and would require a motherboard that costs about $500 USD plus another $500 for a good quantity of RAM. Then there's the case, the power supply, cooling, a video card (or two), NVMe storage with some slower spinning disks for less-accessed data. We can't forget a decent keyboard or nor a good pair of colour-synced monitors, either. All in all, the sticker price would start somewhere north of $5000 USD for a decent workstation, which is plenty reasonable for people who spend their days on computers and tax them with a great deal of important tasks.

This had me thinking: What do I do that requires a workstation-grade machine?

In 2020? Nothing.

A couple of years ago a case could have been made that a workstation would be an ideal tool to work with the large sets of data that I was processing, but a solution was found to offload the heavy work to ephemeral virtual machines when required. This worked out to be much cheaper than buying even a Dell Optiplex with a Core i9. Now, however, the most taxing thing I ask of my computers is to transcode online lesson video once or twice a month and compile Java-based Salesforce integrations two or three times per year. Consumer-grade equipment can do this just fine given the frequency that the work needs to be done. Twenty three years have passed since I first contemplated getting a workstation. I've never owned one, nor does it seem necessary given the state of modern computing technology.

As bizarre as it sounds, I'm a little disappointed in myself. Generally when I'm provided the opportunity to use a powerful computer, I try to make good use of it. However, if I'm not even taxing the relatively generic systems3 that I have the good fortune to use, what the heck would I do with a proper workstation? The hardware would sit idle most of the time.

This is an odd thing to complain about as "I can't make full use of a powerful computer" is not something that many people have ever said. It does inject a little more reality into what it is that I find myself doing most of the day, though, which is typing words that result in various pieces of data being collated, sorted, and presented as a rational block of information. Heck, given the state of modern phones, I could probably do 95% of my job from a recent-model iPhone or Samsung Galaxy with the right dongles to connect a keyboard and additional monitors.

So much for thinking about a workstation.


  1. As a 17 year old walking to the computer shop with that kind of money, plus the ATM receipts to show that it was most likely not counterfeit or recently stolen, I was very nervous.

  2. I worked nights loading trucks at a warehouse to pay for rent and food. If I were to buy an entry-level Pentium Pro machine, overtime would have been required. This would have resulted in getting to class late and in even worse condition.

  3. The work-supplied Mac is not a generic system but, for the sake of this line of thought, it is treated as such. The notebook has an Intel Core i7 that can handle tasks with aplomb, but it's no Xeon or AMD ThreadRipper.