Product Focus: Workstations

Despite the growing power and performance of PCs, many state and local government applications still require the unique capabilities of a workstation computer.

by / October 31, 1996 0
If most people were to choose one word to sum up workstation computers, it would be "unique." Back in the 1980s, when computers were either mammoth mainframes and minis or low-powered PCs, workstation computers were in a class of their own: high-powered, yet reasonably affordable, using one-of-a-kind RISC microprocessors and the arcane UNIX operating system. The joke was that users needed a Ph.D. to operate a workstation computer and, not surprisingly, the science and academic community became its primary user.

But the power and performance of workstations also helped state and local governments, particularly in the area of geographic information systems (GIS). Only workstations could provide the processing power and multitasking capability needed to analyze large amounts of geo-coded data, as well as
to display and redraw electronic
maps quickly.

Today, however, what made workstations unique no longer matters. RISC technology can be found in Apple and other brands of low-cost desktop computers, while Intel's Pentium Pro microprocessor has boosted the power and performance of PCs to equal that
of low-end workstations. These improvements have allowed software applications that were once the exclusive domain of workstations to migrate over to Windows-based computers. And UNIX, which was once praised for its networking strength, has now been nearly equaled by Windows NT, Microsoft's corporate operating system.

But workstation vendors are not about to throw in the towel. The hardware and UNIX software they produce are still preferred by many organizations for use as servers in applications that require lots of horsepower. Workstations now offer 64-bit processing as well as multiprocessing capabilities. They also have found a new life on the Internet, where the lingua franca is UNIX (just look at those 30- and 40-letter URL addresses), and TCP/IP, the Net's communications protocol, is an inherent part of the UNIX operating system, not an add-on.

State and local governments are also finding that workstations still serve a purpose. Some of the more sophisticated GIS applications require the power and performance of a workstation. Certain kinds of business applications, such as finance, are also relying on workstations for crunching large amounts of numeric data.

But the biggest reason today's state and local government market still needs workstations is the growth in visual computing. Government agencies are creating and manipulating computerized images and graphics as never before. For example, fingerprint matching is no longer just a function of law enforcement. A fast-growing number of state welfare agencies now use fingerprint matching to verify the identity of aid recipients. Computer-aided design, document management, forensic evidence, traffic-flow management, computer-aided dispatch -- the list goes on and on with government applications that have become heavily reliant on the manipulation of data, visual information and, in some cases, three-dimensional graphics.


THE BIG FIVE
Five vendors dominate the workstation market: Sun Microsystems, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Graphics and Digital Equipment Corp. In 1994, they shipped 86 percent of all workstations and earned 87 percent of all revenue, according to Dataquest Inc. Other players include: Intergraph, Motorola, Unisys, Control Data and Data General.

Back in 1992, Digital introduced the first 64-bit microprocessor, the Alpha, for the workstation market. Today, industry leaders Sun and Hewlett-Packard have also unveiled their versions of 64-bit RISC microprocessors. These high-speed machines are helping to expand the realm of visual computing, creating new applications in the field of computer-aided design, science, defense, technical publishing and GIS.

According to Jack Sweeney, marketing manager for Hewlett-Packard's state and local government program, GIS has been the traditional government application for workstation computers. "Today, however, that's changing," he said. For instance, California's Department of Transportation is using HP workstations to redesign bridges and other types of transportation infrastructure to make them earthquake-proof. Los Angeles uses HP workstations to manage traffic on its mammoth system of highways. The workstations process information coming in from thousands of road sensors and then adjust the timing
of traffic lights and freeway ramp
meter systems.

The Arizona Department of Transportation also decided to use workstation technology to run its sophisticated freeway management system that covers 29 miles of freeway within the Phoenix area. The system is built around two Sun servers, using six processors each.

The servers receive information from sensors in the highway every third of a mile and video cameras every mile. Once stoppages are identified by sensors, and verified by video, messages can be relayed to commuters on digital signs along the highway. With this information the computer system can quickly alert fire departments, police and other agencies of problems within their jurisdiction. The same data is being supplied to local TV stations and plans are under way to make traffic information available over the Internet.

In the field of law enforcement, workstations are helping police officers pump up the volume. Redwood City, Calif., moved to the national forefront of high-tech crime fighting when the city council approved a test of a computer-and-microphone system that is supposed to allow police to pinpoint the location of gunshots within seconds (Government Technology, June 1996). The system uses acoustic sensors planted on telephone poles and tall buildings connected to a Sun workstation at police headquarters. Tests of the system are aiming for a 70 percent accuracy rate, pinpointing the location within 10 yards 20 seconds after the shot was fired.

The emergence of the Internet's World Wide Web has created a new need for workstation computers in the government sector, according to Lynne Corddry, director of Silicon Graphics' Federal Business Development. She cited the growth in visually strong Web sites as one reason agencies and departments are using workstations on the Internet.

Another reason has to do with government's need for fault-tolerant computers as they increase their use of the Internet. Both the public and government workers are growing used to the idea of accessing information round-the-clock over the Net. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), under the umbrella of the California Environmental Protection Agency, has created a sophisticated Internet/intranet data warehousing solution in order to disseminate vast amounts of information anywhere, anytime, at low cost (Government Technology, October 1996). The data warehouse provides appropriate data to the two groups served by the system, employees and the public. The data available externally is refreshed nightly from a data warehouse running on a Sun workstation. Using the intranet portion of the system, department employees can find procedures, postings of weekly events, informational bulletins, archives of historical data on the use of pesticides and chemicals -- an all-encompassing information resource that is rapidly replacing the past's entirely too frequent trips to the file cabinets.

The department's Web site is reflective of the elaborate structure of connections to databases upstream from the data warehouses. Using Oracle's relational database management system, the department has provided the user with the capability of seamless navigation through a variety of specialized databases assembled by DPR and the federal government's EPA. GIS technology is also being used to provide pesticide-related information by specific locale.


WORKSTATION SURVIVAL
Some experts say the line of distinction between workstations and PCs is rapidly blurring. Already, vendors are introducing workstation computers that run Windows NT, not UNIX. Digital's Alpha workstations run both, as well as their proprietary VMS. Prices for low-end workstations nearly match those for PCs using a Pentium Pro microprocessor.

But the leading vendors believe the workstation market has distinct needs that PCs and Windows just can't provide. The people at Sun, HP, Silicon Graphics, Digital and others are hard at work building advanced memory architectures, faster system throughput, greater expandability, network connectivity and high-end graphics capabilities. With these features, functions and ever-increasing performance, workstation computers just might become unique once again.
The workstations process information coming in from thousands of road sensors and then adjust the timing
of traffic lights and freeway ramp
meter systems.

The Arizona Department of Transportation also decided to use workstation technology to run its sophisticated freeway management system that covers 29 miles of freeway within the Phoenix area. The system is built around two Sun servers, using six processors each.

The servers receive information from sensors in the highway every third of a mile and video cameras every mile. Once stoppages are identified by sensors, and verified by video, messages can be relayed to commuters on digital signs along the highway. With this information the computer system can quickly alert fire departments, police and other agencies of problems within their jurisdiction. The same data is being supplied to local TV stations and plans are under way to make traffic information available over the Internet.

In the field of law enforcement, workstations are helping police officers pump up the volume. Redwood City, Calif., moved to the national forefront of high-tech crime fighting when the city council approved a test of a computer-and-microphone system that is supposed to allow police to pinpoint the location of gunshots within seconds (Government Technology, June 1996). The system uses acoustic sensors planted on telephone poles and tall buildings connected to a Sun workstation at police headquarters. Tests of the system are aiming for a 70 percent accuracy rate, pinpointing the location within 10 yards 20 seconds after the shot was fired.

The emergence of the Internet's World Wide Web has created a new need for workstation computers in the government sector, according to Lynne Corddry, director of Silicon Graphics' Federal Business Development. She cited the growth in visually strong Web sites as one reason agencies and departments are using workstations on the Internet.

Another reason has to do with government's need for fault-tolerant computers as they increase their use of the Internet. Both the public and government workers are growing used to the idea of accessing information round-the-clock over the Net. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), under the umbrella of the California Environmental Protection Agency, has created a sophisticated Internet/intranet data warehousing solution in order to disseminate vast amounts of information anywhere, anytime, at low cost (Government Technology, October 1996). The data warehouse provides appropriate data to the two groups served by the system, employees and the public. The data available externally is refreshed nightly from a data warehouse running on a Sun workstation. Using the intranet portion of the system, department employees can find procedures, postings of weekly events, informational bulletins, archives of historical data on the use of pesticides and chemicals -- an all-encompassing information resource that is rapidly replacing the past's entirely too frequent trips to the file cabinets.

The department's Web site is reflective of the elaborate structure of connections to databases upstream from the data warehouses. Using Oracle's relational database management system, the department has provided the user with the capability of seamless navigation through a variety of specialized databases assembled by DPR and the federal government's EPA. GIS technology is also being used to provide pesticide-related information by specific locale.


WORKSTATION SURVIVAL
Some experts say the line of distinction between workstations and PCs is rapidly blurring. Already, vendors are introducing workstation computers that run Windows NT, not UNIX. Digital's Alpha workstations run both, as well as their proprietary VMS. Prices for low-end workstations nearly match those for PCs using a Pentium Pro microprocessor.

But the leading vendors believe the workstation market has distinct needs that PCs and Windows just can't provide. The people at Sun, HP, Silicon Graphics, Digital and others are hard at work building advanced memory architectures, faster system throughput, greater expandability, network connectivity and high-end graphics capabilities. With these features, functions and ever-increasing performance, workstation computers just might become unique once again.


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Ten Leading
Workstation Vendors
Rank Company
1994


Revenues


($ mil.)

1. Sun Microsystems
3,262.0

2. IBM
3,206.6

3. Hewlett-Packard
2,880.0

4. Silicon Graphics
1,223.2

5. Digital
1,080.0

6. Intergraph
833.1

7. Motorola
593.1

8. Unisys
435.1

9. Control Data
31.5

10. Data General
22.8



Source: DATAMATION; June 1, 1995


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TECHNICAL INFO
ON THE WEB
All the workstation vendors run comprehensive Web sites with loads of information on their distinctive line of workstations and servers. They include:

Sun Microsystems: .

IBM: .

Hewlett-Packard: .

Silicon Graphics: .

Digital Equipment Corp.: .


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