Workstation vs desktop

The workstation vs desktop distinction can be subtle, but workstations and desktops are distinct classes of computers. Someone designing rockets needs a different type of machine than the average office worker, and that’s OK.

What is a workstation?

workstation vs desktop
These Fujitsu Celsius workstations look like expensive desktop PCs, but they have server-grade components inside to meet the demanding needs of very high-end users.

Traditionally, workstations were powerful computers that cost several thousand dollars, but they sat on someone’s desk, not in the datacenter. And while some people considered really high-end PCs like the Compaq Deskpro 386 workstations in their day, traditionally a workstation ran an operating system like Unix or VMS that could multitask. The systems weren’t that different from servers from the same manufacturer, but they came in a smaller case so they could sit on a desk. They didn’t have as many drive bays or memory slots. But other than that, they used the same chips as a server did.

Microsoft blurred the lines between a PC and a workstation in the early days of Windows NT. They sold a product called Windows NT Workstation, but it ran on ordinary PCs. You could load it onto an entry-level PC from a consumer electronics store.

But the PC ecosystem of the early 1990s couldn’t really deliver five-nines reliability. That required making both the software and the hardware more reliable. Over time, Intel-compatible hardware built for that kind of reliability appeared. When you open up a server and look at the motherboard, you’ll notice there’s more different than just a Xeon processor vs a desktop-class i-series processor. The chips on the motherboard are slightly different too. Servers get no-compromises chips built like tanks. Desktops get chips designed to hit a price point.

Workstations that run Windows get the same no-compromises chips that servers get. That lessens the possibility of an engineer designing a rocket getting a bluescreen in the middle of something important. Between the no-compromises chips and extra testing and certification from the vendors involved, crashes in this world are rather rare. Examples of these machines include the Dell Precision, Fujitsu Celsius, HP Z, and Lenovo Thinkstation lines.

Of course, you don’t have to run Windows on these. You can run Linux or any Unix compiled for Intel processors on them.

Workstation vs desktop components make a difference

I’ve had people marvel to me that their high-end Macintosh runs Windows better than their cubicle neighbor’s PC does. That’s because the Mac has pricier components inside than the average office PC does. Workstations contain components at or above the level of the most expensive Macs, because price isn’t much of a consideration at this level. If you can increase reliability by a fraction of a percentage point by putting $100 worth of additional hardware in it, you do it.

What is a desktop?

In a company with 5,000 employees, usually only a small percentage of those employees need a $5,000 workstation built to chug through the apocalypse. Your $15-an-hour people aren’t going to put the same demands on a system. Over time, technology companies figured out how to build something that can get through a day at the office without crashing while hitting a price point closer to a home PC than a $5,000 workstation.

There are different classes of desktop machines. Consumer-grade machines tend to be lower quality than business-grade machines. And workstations are the best of the best. All are technically desktop computers. But price point comes into play. Think of the Chevy-Buick-Cadillac business model. The cheapest Chevy doesn’t get as much quality as the most expensive Cadillac.

All workstations are desktops. But not all desktops are workstations. I call my work PC a workstation, sometimes affectionately and sometimes sarcastically, but I’ve always had desktop-class PCs, not workstations.

Workstations as enthusiast machines

Most enthusiasts can’t afford to buy $5,000 workstations for home use. But enthusiasts will sometimes buy an off-lease workstation and upgrade it to meet their needs. A previous-generation workstation is no longer a top-end performer, but will still perform in the same league as the current generation Intel i5. But pricing them out, I can get a used workstation for about the same price as the cheapest prebuilt i5 at my local stores. The workstation can probably take more memory, and certainly is a higher quality machine. It will still work in 10 years. It will be a Celeron-class machine by then, but more reliable. A workstation two generations gets into the price range of a used business-class desktop. They’re still good performers, and the next time I need a prebuilt computer, I may very well grab a workstation that’s about five or six years old for the quality.

For home use, you may want to swap in a different graphics card, and if it doesn’t have one or more SSDs, you’ll want to add an SSD. The machine won’t have overclocking ability, but it probably won’t ever bluescreen on you.

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