The question of what type of computer system is best for SolidWorks come up often; this tech tip compiles a list of criteria to help you get the most out of the software.
The first step is to determine what you need from the software and then use that information to figure out what type of workstation will work best for you. This is dependent on the type of work your company does and the size of the datasets you work with.
CAD software can tax your computer. Time spent waiting for your system to respond equals lost productivity. Your hardware and its configuration play a part in the performance equation. Another issue to consider is that as hardware continues to get faster and cheaper, the system you buy today may be obsolete in a couple of years. It may be more cost-effective to just replace it.
If you're working within a given budget (who isn't), analyze the tradeoffs between spending more on the high-priority items and less on the low-priority ones. Simply buying the most expensive components does not insure a direct correlation to an increase in productivity.
Type of System
The type of system you select should be based on your answers to the following question:
Is the system supported and tested by a major manufacturer? Typically, home-built and non-major manufacturers don't put as much effort into designing, testing, and verifying a computer system.
What type of machine are you working on? Workstation-class machines are a better investment for CAD. Regular business- or personal-class machines aren't built to handle the requirements of CAD software. A workstation-class machine can also have a longer life because it's more expandable with memory, multiple CPUs, and so forth.
What support is available? At what hours?
What’s the computer's lifespan? Prior to buying a system, you should have an idea of the computer's useful life. If you plan to use the system longer, invest more money in your new system and make sure it has some expandability (for example, room for a second processor, additional hard drives, and more RAM).
Is the system vendor a partner of the developer of your CAD application? SolidWorks has a list of computer hardware vendors under its Partner Products section.
RAM (Random-Access Memory)
A common question that always comes up is how much RAM do I need for my computer and should I add more. The answer to this depending on how many applications you run at a time, the size and complexity of your SolidWorks parts, assemblies, and drawings. You need enough RAM to work with your common applications (i.e., Microsoft Office, eMail, etc.) and load your SolidWorks documents without exhausting physical RAM.
Why having enough physical RAM is important:
SolidWorks files are loaded to RAM when you open them. The larger or more complex the model the more RAM required.
If memory resources are completely exhausted the machine can become unstable, crash, and performance can seriously degrade.
Configuring RAM based on minimum requirements, not based on what you actually need is a poor investment looking at lost productivity vs. minimal investment. In other words, make sure you have enough RAM to do your job.
Processor speed is second only to insufficient RAM as the most important factor when selecting a CAD system. Money spent on a faster CPU is money well spent. The harder issue is sorting through all the different options. The ways to determine whether the investment is worth it include real-model testing, SolidWorks Performance Test, or a combination of different benchmarking options.
There are multi core CPUs that add additional processors to each CPU. Many workstation-class computers also let you add a second CPU to your system. SolidWorks and some of the add-ons (PhotoView 360) have some multithreaded capabilities, which means’ the application takes advantage of the second processor or multi cores. But rebuilds are single threaded and therefore rebuilds will not be faster, in general terms, with more multi CPUs or cores.
Buying a more cores (dual, six, quad) is more cost effective that adding an additional CPU.
Buying a system that supports multiple processors gives you more flexibility later, even if you don't initially purchase a second CPU. But, this future capability should be weighed against the extra cost of such a machine.
The advantage gained through a second CPU may not justify the additional cost unless you use other applications (such as Simulation) on a regular basis or you are trying to get that last extra drop of performance out of the system.
When buying storage, there are three primary factors; speed, size, and type:
Hard disk type, spindle speed, and data transfer rate affect the system's overall performance.
Drive size should be based on the disk space you need. Consider your operating system, applications, and local SolidWorks documents if you use a local workspace.
For performance, a low-cost option that performs well in most cases is adding a second disk and controller, if necessary, to include RAID level 0 striping to the system.
You need to buy a good workstation-level graphics card and driver. When working with a limited budget, consider a midrange instead of a high-end card unless you work with non-SolidWorks applications and rendering applications that need high-end power.
Once you set up and configure your system, it's to your advantage to image your computer in case you need to restore it. Imaging software captures a snapshot of your system after it has been set up and configured. Using this software, your system, or one just like it, can be re-imaged in a matter of minutes from the original computer image.
One of the benefits of buying computer platform similar to the one you currently have is that you can create and configure your system and deploy and repair it without using the original CD-ROMs and reloading all of the software. Remember that if the chipsets or components are different on a new machine with different drivers, you need to create a new image for each platform.
Share Your Scores– When you complete the SolidWorks Performance Test you have an option to share your score with others. This gives you, and other community members, a sense of where their system stands relative to others: http://www.solidworks.com/sw/support/shareyourscore.htm
The system you purchase today will stay with you for some time, so the more you can do up front to ensure the longevity of your investment is time and money well spent. The best way to understand the differences in the workstations is to configure the machines and test them in your environment. The problem is that this is rarely possible. This is where the SolidWorks Performance Test and Share Your Scores site can be useful.
Balance your investment with short- and long-term productivity gains or losses to help you determine what system to buy. Understand your hardware's lifecycle and plan to replace, upgrade, or move the machine to another user at some point in the future.
With the release of SolidWorks 2011, a performance test is included to help test your system, compare your score with other users, and share your score on the Share Your Score site. The main problem this benchmark was designed to address was, how fast is my computer compared to other computers? This gives you tangible metrics due to the fact the tests are run in SolidWorks, in a repeatable manners across different computers.
The performance test pushes your computer hard and geared toward the comparison of CPU performance. The I/O is also represented well with the performance test. One area where you will not see significant differentiation is graphics. The reason for this is that the test is run without RealView on due to the fact that some systems cannot run SolidWorks with RealView on. If a system cannot run RealView, the score cannot be viewed/reported in comparison to systems that are running RealView. For this reason, RealView is turned off for all tests.
For more information on benchmarks, visit the Benchmarks page on solidworks.com.
The performance test can be started from the Windows start menu / SolidWorks <version> / SolidWorks Performance Test. Or it can also be started in the Add-In tab for SolidWorks Rx.
The test has three areas; CPU, I/O, and Graphics. Each step of the test (described below) is meant to exercise a specific area of the computer using SolidWorks.
Out of the box, standard settings are used to insure consistent settings are used to run the tests.
The general tasks for the all datasets are as follows. The areas test are listed in  after the test step:
- Open the file [I/O]
- Force a rebuild [CPU]
- Rotate and zoom [Graphics]
- Open drawing [I/O w/Multi-Threading]
- Rotate and zoom [Graphics]
- Add sheet [CPU] & [Graphics]
- Add view [CPU] & [Graphics]
- Render (parts only) [CPU w/Multi-Threading]
Results for the performance test are stored in the My Documents \ SW Log Files directory. The files start with SWPTResults1.txt and new tests have a new filename (SWPTResults2.txt, SWPTResults3.txt, …).
Share Your Score Site
The Share Your Score site lists other machines. You can filter the listing by SolidWorks version, and computer type (laptop or workstation). You also have the option at the end of the performance test to share you score with other on this site.
You cannot have more than one test results for the same computer/SolidWorks version. The most current entry is used.
When you share your score, you will be asked for a name for your system. You can search for this name later, so use something you will remember. Also, note that this is the only item that is displayed that shows anything personally identifiable. All other information is generic system information like CPU type, ram size, OS, SolidWorks version, etc. For more details, see the Terms & Conditions on the Share Your score site for details.
The list is sorted by CPU score. You can sort by other categories by selecting the top column cell.
Filter the results by SolidWorks version or computer type (laptop or workstation) to so only the results that are meaningful to what you are comparing.
Links are also provided to the Administrator section of the SolidWorks Forums. This is a good place to share comments and questions with other users.
The SolidWorks Performance Test is a useful tool that helps you understand, and quantify how fast your computer will generally (in respect to CPU speed) running SolidWorks compared to other systems.
A special thanks to Anna Wood of Auer Precision (www.auerprecision.com) for the dataset and her feedback during the development of the performance test.
System Maintenance- If you aren't doing this today, you should be. The items listed (i.e., temp clean up, defrag, disk errors) are all good, sound practices that help insure your system run efficiently. Also of note here is that system maintenance is not a one time thing. Create a scheduled task (it's Windows feature) that runs these utilities on a regular, scheduled basis. SolidWorks Rx does all of this for you (see next topic).
SolidWorks Rx- There is tab within SolidWorks Rx that performs the valuable tasks described within Microsoft's article and also some additional SolidWorks aware cleanup.
Readyboost- I personally would never recommend using non-volatile flash memory as a replacement for adding more RAM to your system. As a CAD user, you need to insure you have enough RAM, and an operating system that can address it, to do your job. If you need access more than 2GB of RAM for all applications you have running, a 32bit operating system will not need your needs. More on this topic later...
A CAD workstation gets pushed hard and needs proper care. If you aren't doing some this today, check out this article or just open SolidWorks Rx and setup regular system maintenance on your computer.
This article describes the information behind the Graphics Card Drivers page. This page is used to help you find the right graphics card driver for your system to insure system performance and stability. SolidWorks tests and certifies graphics card driver for each version of SolidWorks and supported Operating Systems.
The difficult part of determining the "correct" driver for your system is that it is dependant on whether your graphics card came from a computer system vendor, or if it was purchased separately. The system vendor do not always use the same or latest version from the graphics card manufacturer. The other issue is your system/graphics card/operating system/SolidWorks version combination may not be one the certified list.
Using the Site:
There are two main options for displaying driver results; list system by computer vendor (if your graphics card came with you system), or browse for graphics cards because you purchased your graphics card separately or your system combination is not listed on the pull-down list when browsing by computer vendor.
After you have selected computer vendor, additional selections are displayed and you can either display all valid combinations or continue to filter by selecting computer model, graphics card model, operating system, and SolidWorks version.
If you are just browsing graphics cards, or your system is not listed, select Any System Vendor from the Computer Vendor list and then you can select a graphics card vendor and model.
When the results are displayed, there is a key at the bottom of the results describing the test results. If a card has limitations or notes they will be indicated within the results.
The limitations is with cards which have programmable shader capabilities but are not up to handling all of the features used by RealView. Most often, features are backed off due to performance (i.e., self-shadows and/or reflections). The pre-2008 is for cards which we used prior to SolidWorks 2008 with RealView, but cannot be used for the newer features. These would be limited to only visual effects which can be done with OpenGL environment textures.
One of the features of Windows 7 I originally did not take to was the changes made to the Windows Explorer. I always used to the navigation area on the left side to jump quickly between different areas (directories).
As you can see below, the left side no longer has the tree display for you disk or network drive. I had completely missed the arrow to the right of each item in the top user bar. When this arrow is selected the drives or directories available are displayed. It's an easy and simple means to jump around without having a huge tree display shown in the left navigation. And it also only shows the items at that level to keep the length of the list shorter.
I thought I would share some of my observations and a few additional references for your review. I have been using Windows 7 for day to day use since the RTM (Release to Manufacturing) version was available and also kicked the tires during beta.
Outside of the fact you need to back your data up (always a good thing) and re-install any additional applications, I have never seen a smoother, easier update for a Windows operating system. It all just worked.
I have both 32 and 64 versions installed on my two machines and I have noticed no difference in setting up the systems. This is a stark contrast to my experiences with 64 bit versions of XP and Vista.
All, not some, of the users I know that have swtiched to Windows 7 have had great experiences so far.
The interface looks good without noticable performance overhead. I really do like the Aero themes.
I never had a good appreciation of how many things just didn't work well with Vista. Win 7 has many examples of features I either had issues with in Vista or now have a better appreciation for when they work correctly in Win 7.
UAC (User Access Control) is one of those things where it now works as I would like it to; namely tell me when the computer really needs to, not every time I almost anything. Telling tale here is I have left my UAC setting as-is to date. It took me less than 1/2 hour for Vista.
Desktop gadgets are no longer restricted to a pre-defined area so you can add gadgets to your desktop where ever you want.
Boot process is faster. I can get working faster.
XP mode. If you have old applications that need an older OS to run, use XP mode to run a virtulalized version of XP on your Windows 7 computer.
Better memory management and exception handling. More on both of these items in another post.
Many, many others...
The taskbar takes some getting use to. I ended up turning this features back to a more XP/Vista like experience, but I now have turned this back to the default Windows 7 behavior. It's different and I am stilling trying to find out what ends up being more effective. I often have too many applications and windows open at the same time.
Mapping non-domain drives. Picky, but I spent more time than I wanted to trying to figure this one out (I used the Net Use command).
Overall my experience over the last month with Windows 7 has been great. I have not been, or have seen, this much excitement and positive buzz around a Microsoft operating system since Windows 95.
When choosing between 32 or 64 bit, I believe it still comes down to how much memory do you use. In XP and Vista, I always told users (and the system requirements state the same thing) that if you use more than 2GB or memory for your applications, you should be used a 64 bit version of the operating system. (more one this to come later).
SolidWorks 2010 will officially support Windows 7 at SP1.