3D Animation Workshop: Lesson 11: Today's 3-D Workstation | 2
Lesson 11 - Today's 3-D Workstation - Part 2
A Dash of History
The XERT folks trace the beginnings of the revolution to Microsoft's purchase of Softimage in 1994. In those days, the idea of such a fabulously demanding application running on a PC seemed ludicrous, but Microsoft already anticipated the positioning of its developing Windows NT operating system as a true "workstation-quality" platform, and other companies (long comfortable with betting on Microsoft) took the hint.
The revolution broke the surface in the summer of 1996, when developments converged from many different fronts. Window NT appeared with support for multiple microprocessors and for OpenGL. (We'll get to what these two important ideas mean in a minute.) The Pentium Pro microprocessor was introduced by Intel. And 3D Labs introduced the Glint 500TX, a powerful 3-D graphics processing engine that was widely perceived as bringing workstation-quality to the PC. These events, taken together, created a critical momentum and belief in the PC as a realistic and affordable platform for professional 3-D. They created a sense that true industry standards were developing that both manufacturers and customers could rely and build on.
The Hard Questions
When assembling a system, two issues pop out as critical, both as to cost and performance.
1. Which microprocessor should I choose, and how many should I start with?
2. What 3-D graphics hardware should I choose?
Choosing a Microprocessor
As we are limiting our discussion here to systems running the Windows NT operating system, our choices are initially between the Pentium family (produced by Intel) and the Alpha (produced by Digital Equipment Corporation). The Alpha is unquestionably the more powerful choice, much more powerful. It is also considerably more expensive than even the most expensive Pentium at present. But putting cost aside, (and putting aside the fact that Alpha cannot run 3D Studio MAX) there is a very important reason why the XERT folks find themselves selling far more Pentium family systems than Alpha-based ones.
Eric Wiesen at XERT speaks of the emerging concept of the "home studio." In a large professional animation studio or film effects house, it is easy to commit a dedicated system solely to 3-D work. But the developing new customer for 3-D workstations typically requires a system that performs both 3-D animation and all of his or her other work as well--whether it's other graphic arts work, word processing, generating invoices from a database, or surfing the Internet. With a Pentium-based system running Windows NT, the entire universe of applications is available for a single machine. Even all of the standard 2-D graphics applications that were nurtured on the Mac have migrated to Windows. In short, the Intel choice will be the only realistic one for most people.
That said, a new range of choices opens up, but not without some consequent opportunities, at least for the present. The arrival of the Pentium Pro last year was, as already mentioned, critical to 3-D. 3-D applications make very intensive use of floating point computations, and the Pentium Pro incorporated vastly improved floating point capabilities over the original Pentium. The 200Mhz Pentium Pro quickly became the standard for 3-D on Windows NT.
Intel subsequently released the MMX. Its impact on 3-D was tangential. The MMX performs certain integer (as opposed to floating point) operations more efficiently, and these improvements were added mostly with an eye to improving the peformance of video playback and games. Some professional applications can also make use of MMX if they are written for it, as the most recent version of Photoshop has been. But, according to Eric, MMX can actually cost the user in the floating point performance needed for 3-D because of a lag switching back and forth from MMX operations to floating point ones.
A new question, and a new opportunity, has just appeared with the recent introduction of the Pentium II. According to Eric, the Pentium II incorporates MMX, and therefore presents the same questions for the 3-D user as just discussed. The advantage of the Pentium II is higher clock speed than the Pentium Pro--presently 266 Mhz vs. 200 Mhz. But this is offset to some extent by a disadvantage. The reason that the Pentium Pro was limited to a top speed of 200 Mhz was due to a design that placed a large cache (very high speed memory) directly on the chip. The Pentium II moves the cache off the microprocessor to obtain higher clock speed, but loses performance with respect to the cache.In Eric's view, the jury is still out on the Pentium II for 3-D. Many buyers will, understandably, feel comfortable only with the latest technology and XERT is introducing dual Pentium II systems. Yet the arrival of the Pentium II has resulted in drastic price reductions in the price of the older Pentium Pro. Thus the current 3-D oriented purchaser is facing the fortunate situation of building what may still be the best possible system using the previous generation of Intel chip.
One Lump or Two
According to Eric, choosing a dual Pentium motherboard is a no-brainer. You always want the ability to add the second processor, and there is no performance cost to adding it later rather than including it from the start.
The harder question is whether to buy that second Pentium right away. Windows NT made multi-threaded applications possible on the PC. To multi-thread an application means to write it such that it can allocate tasks between different processors, and where this is done completely and correctly, a dual processor machine comes very close to doubling its power. So the question comes down to your choice of application.
3D Studio MAX is completely multi-threaded, and the two processors make a considerable difference in both the interactive use of the program, and while it is rendering an animation. Lightwave 3D 5.0, the present version of the application, is not multi-threaded, but the 5.5 version of Lightwave is coming out very shortly and can exploit dual processors for rendering. The present version of Softimage is not multithreaded, but the upcoming version will multi-thread the main rendering engine.
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Created: June 2, 1997
Revised: June 2, 1997