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Sun SPARCstation 10 with CRT monitor, from the early 1990s Sun SparcStation 10 with CRT.jpg
Sun SPARCstation 10 with CRT monitor, from the early 1990s

A workstation is a special computer designed for technical or scientific applications. [1] Intended primarily to be used by a single user, [1] they are commonly connected to a local area network and run multi-user operating systems. The term workstation has been used loosely to refer to everything from a mainframe computer terminal to a PC connected to a network, but the most common form refers to the class of hardware offered by several current and defunct companies such as Sun Microsystems, [2] Silicon Graphics, Apollo Computer, [3] DEC, HP, NeXT, and IBM which powered the 3D computer graphics revolution of the late 1990s. [4]


Workstations offer higher performance than mainstream personal computers, especially in CPU, graphics, memory, and multitasking. Workstations are optimized for the visualization and manipulation of different types of complex data such as 3D mechanical design, engineering simulations like computational fluid dynamics, animation, medical imaging, image rendering, and mathematical plots. Typically, the form factor is that of a desktop computer, which consists of a high-resolution display, a keyboard, and a mouse at a minimum, but also offers multiple displays, graphics tablets, and 3D mice for manipulating objects and navigating scenes. Workstations were the first segment of the computer market [5] to present advanced accessories, and collaboration tools like videoconferencing. [4]

The increasing capabilities of mainstream PCs since the late 1990s have reduced distinction between the PCs and workstations. [6] Typical 1980s workstations have expensive proprietary hardware and operating systems to categorically distinguish from standardized PCs. From the 1990s and 2000s, IBM's RS/6000 and IntelliStation have RISC-based POWER CPUs running AIX, and its IBM PC Series and Aptiva corporate and consumer PCs have Intel x86 CPUs. However, by the early 2000s, this difference largely disappeared, since workstations use highly commoditized hardware dominated by large PC vendors, such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Fujitsu, selling x86-64 systems running Windows or Linux.


Early Xerox workstation XeroxWorkstation.jpg
Early Xerox workstation
HP 9000 model 425 workstation running HP-UX 9 and Visual User Environment (VUE) HP-HP9000-425-Workstation 26.jpg
HP 9000 model 425 workstation running HP-UX 9 and Visual User Environment (VUE)
HP 9000 model 735 running HP-UX and the Common Desktop Environment (CDE) HP-HP9000-735-99-Workstation 02.jpg
HP 9000 model 735 running HP-UX and the Common Desktop Environment (CDE)

Origins and development

Perhaps the first computer that might qualify as a workstation is the IBM 1620, a small scientific computer designed to be used interactively by a single person sitting at the console. [7] It was introduced in 1959. [8] One peculiar feature of the machine is that it lacks any arithmetic circuitry. [9] To perform addition, it requires a memory-resident table of decimal addition rules. [10] This reduced the cost of logic circuitry, enabling IBM to make it inexpensive. The machine is codenamed CADET and was initially rented for $1000 per month.

In 1965, the IBM 1130 scientific computer became the successor to 1620. Both of these systems run Fortran and other languages. [11] They are built into roughly desk-sized cabinets, with console typewriters. They have optional add-on disk drives, printers, and both paper-tape and punched-card I/O.

Early workstations are generally dedicated minicomputers, a multiuser system reserved for one user. For example, the PDP-8 from Digital Equipment Corporation, is regarded as the first commercial minicomputer. [12]

The Lisp machines developed at MIT in the early 1970s pioneered some workstation principles, as high-performance, networked, single-user systems intended for heavily interactive use. Lisp Machines were commercialized beginning 1980 by companies like Symbolics, Lisp Machines, Texas Instruments (the TI Explorer) and Xerox (the Interlisp-D workstations). The first computer designed for a single user, with high-resolution graphics (and so a workstation in the modern sense of the term), is the Alto developed at Xerox PARC in 1973. [13] Other early workstations include the Terak 8510/a (1977), [14] Three Rivers PERQ (1979), and the later Xerox Star (1981).

1980s rise in popularity

In the early 1980s, with the advent of 32-bit microprocessors such as the Motorola 68000, several new competitors appeared, including Apollo Computer and Sun Microsystems, [15] with workstations based on 68000 and Unix. [16] [17] Meanwhile, DARPA's VLSI Project created several spinoff graphics products, such as the Silicon Graphics 3130. Target markets were differentiated, with Sun and Apollo considered to be network workstations and SGI as graphics workstations. RISC CPUs increased in the mid-1980s, typical of workstation vendors. [18]

Workstations often feature SCSI or Fibre Channel disk storage systems, high-end 3D accelerators, single or multiple 64-bit processors, [19] large amounts of RAM, and well-designed cooling. Additionally, the companies that make the products tend to have comprehensive repair/replacement plans. As the distinction between workstation and PC fades, however, workstation manufacturers have increasingly employed "off-the-shelf" PC components and graphics solutions rather than proprietary hardware or software. Some "low-cost" workstations are still expensive by PC standards but offer binary compatibility with higher-end workstations and servers made by the same vendor. This allows software development to take place on low-cost (relative to the server) desktop machines.

Thin clients

Workstations diversified to the lowest possible price point as opposed to performance, called the thin client or network computer. Dependent upon a network and server, this reduces the machine to having no hard drive, and only the CPU, keyboard, mouse, and screen. Some diskless nodes still run a traditional operating system and perform computations locally, with storage on a remote server. [20] These are intended to reduce the initial system purchase cost, and the total cost of ownership, by reducing the amount of administration required per user. [21]

This approach was first attempted as a replacement for PCs in office productivity applications, with the 3Station by 3Com. In the 1990s, X terminals filled a similar role for technical computing. Sun's thin clients include the Sun Ray product line. [22] However, traditional workstations and PCs continued to drop in price and complexity, undercutting this market.

3M computer

A NeXTstation graphics workstation from 1990 NeXTstation Turbo Color 2.jpeg
A NeXTstation graphics workstation from 1990
Sony NEWS workstation: 2x 68030 at 25 MHz, 1280x1024 pixel and 256-color display Sony news.jpg
Sony NEWS workstation: 2× 68030 at 25 MHz, 1280×1024 pixel and 256-color display
SGI Indy graphics workstation SGI Indy CRT.jpg
SGI Indy graphics workstation
SGI O2 graphics workstation SGI O2 Workstation Desk.jpeg
SGI O2 graphics workstation
HP C8000 workstation running HP-UX 11i with CDE HP-HP9000-C8000-Workstation 33.jpg
HP C8000 workstation running HP-UX 11i with CDE
Six workstations: four HP Z620, one HP Z820, one HP Z420 Six HP workstations.jpg
Six workstations: four HP Z620, one HP Z820, one HP Z420

A high-end workstation of the early 1980s with the three Ms, or a "3M computer" (coined by Raj Reddy and his colleagues at CMU), has one megabyte of RAM, a megapixel display (roughly 1000×1000 pixels), and one "MegaFLOPS" compute performance (at least one million floating-point operations per second). [23] RFC 782 defines the workstation environment more generally as "hardware and software dedicated to serve a single user", and that it provisions additional shared resources. This is at least one order of magnitude beyond the capacity of the personal computer of the time. The original 1981 IBM Personal Computer has 16 KB memory, a text-only display, and floating-point performance around 1  kFLOPS (30 kFLOPS with the optional 8087 math coprocessor. Other features beyond the typical personal computer include networking, graphics acceleration, and high-speed internal and peripheral data buses.

Another goal was to bring the price below one "megapenny", that is, less than $10,000(equivalent to $25,000 in 2021), which was achieved in the late 1980s. Throughout the early to mid-1990s, many workstations cost from $15,000 to $100,000(equivalent to $178,000 in 2021) or more.


The more widespread adoption of these technologies into mainstream PCs was a direct factor in the decline of the workstation as a separate market segment: [24]

Market position

Dell Precision 620MT with dual Pentium III processors Dell Precision 620MT - 2x PIII - Windows 98 - Work.jpeg
Dell Precision 620MT with dual Pentium III processors
Sun Ultra 20 with AMD Opteron processor and Solaris 10 Sun Ultra 20 Workstation (2005).jpeg
Sun Ultra 20 with AMD Opteron processor and Solaris 10

Since the late 1990s, the workstation and consumer markets have further merged. Many low-end workstation components are now the same as the consumer market, and the price differential narrowed. For example, most Macintosh Quadra computers were originally intended for scientific or design work, all with the Motorola 68040 CPU, backward compatible with 68000 Macintoshes. The consumer Macintosh IIcx and Macintosh IIci models can be upgraded to the Quadra 700. "In an era when many professionals preferred Silicon Graphics workstations, the Quadra 700 was an intriguing option at a fraction of the cost" as resource-intensive software such as Infini-D brought "studio-quality 3D rendering and animations to the home desktop". The Quadra 700 can run A/UX 3.0, making it a Unix workstation. [26] Another example is the Nvidia GeForce 256 consumer graphics card, which spawned the Quadro workstation card, which has the same GPU but different driver support and certifications for CAD applications and a much higher price.

Workstations have typically driven advancements in CPU technology. All computers benefit from multi-processor and multicore designs (essentially, multiple processors on a die). The multicore design was pioneered by IBM's POWER4; it and Intel Xeon have multiple CPUs, more on-die cache, and ECC memory.

Some workstations are designed or certified for use with only one specific application such as AutoCAD, Avid Xpress Studio HD, or 3D Studio Max. The certification process increases workstation prices.

Current market

Dell Precision T3500 workstation with Intel Xeon processors Dell Precision T3500 Workstation - IPAS Research.jpeg
Dell Precision T3500 workstation with Intel Xeon processors
Hewlett-Packard Z820, an x86-64-based workstation HP Z820 Workstation.jpg
Hewlett-Packard Z820, an x86-64-based workstation
Inside an HP Z820 workstation HP Z820 inside.jpg
Inside an HP Z820 workstation

Decline of RISC workstations

By January 2009, all RISC-based workstation product lines had been discontinued:

In early 2018, RISC workstations were reintroduced in a series of IBM POWER9-based systems by Raptor Computing Systems. [31] [32] The Mac transition to Apple silicon greatly increased performance, power efficiency, and size efficiency over x86-64 with its ARM-based RISC architecture.[ citation needed ]


Most of the current workstation market uses x86-64 microprocessors. Operating systems include Windows, FreeBSD, Linux distributions, macOS, and Solaris. [33] Some vendors also market commodity mono-socket systems as workstations.

These are three types of workstations:

  1. Workstation blade systems (IBM HC10 or Hewlett-Packard xw460c. Sun Visualization System is akin to these solutions) [34]
  2. Ultra high-end workstation (SGI Virtu VS3xx)
  3. Deskside systems containing server-class CPUs and chipsets on large server-class motherboards with high-end RAM (HP Z-series workstations and Fujitsu CELSIUS workstations)


A high-end desktop market segment includes workstations, with PC operating systems and components. Component product lines may be segmented, with premium components that are functionally similar to the consumer models but with higher robustness or performance. [35]

A workstation-class PC may have some of the following features:

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Motherboard</span> Main printed circuit board (PCB) for a computing device

A motherboard is the main printed circuit board (PCB) in general-purpose computers and other expandable systems. It holds and allows communication between many of the crucial electronic components of a system, such as the central processing unit (CPU) and memory, and provides connectors for other peripherals. Unlike a backplane, a motherboard usually contains significant sub-systems, such as the central processor, the chipset's input/output and memory controllers, interface connectors, and other components integrated for general use.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Power Macintosh</span> Family of personal computers released by Apple Computer

The Power Macintosh, later Power Mac, is a family of personal computers designed, manufactured, and sold by Apple Computer as the core of the Macintosh brand from March 1994 until August 2006.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Reduced instruction set computer</span> Processor executing one instruction in minimal clock cycles

In computer engineering, a reduced instruction set computer (RISC) is a computer designed to simplify the individual instructions given to the computer to accomplish tasks. Compared to the instructions given to a complex instruction set computer (CISC), a RISC computer might require more instructions in order to accomplish a task because the individual instructions are written in simpler code. The goal is to offset the need to process more instructions by increasing the speed of each instruction, in particular by implementing an instruction pipeline, which may be simpler given simpler instructions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Silicon Graphics</span> Former American computing company

Silicon Graphics, Inc. was an American high-performance computing manufacturer, producing computer hardware and software. Founded in Mountain View, California in November 1981 by Jim Clark, its initial market was 3D graphics computer workstations, but its products, strategies and market positions developed significantly over time.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Desktop computer</span> Computer designed to be used at a fixed location

A desktop computer is a personal computer designed for regular use at a single location on or near a desk due to its size and power requirements. The most common configuration has a case that houses the power supply, motherboard, disk storage ; a keyboard and mouse for input; and a computer monitor, speakers, and, often, a printer for output. The case may be oriented horizontally or vertically and placed either underneath, beside, or on top of a desk.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Micro Channel architecture</span>

Micro Channel architecture, or the Micro Channel bus, is a proprietary 16- or 32-bit parallel computer bus introduced by IBM in 1987 which was used on PS/2 and other computers until the mid-1990s. Its name is commonly abbreviated as "MCA", although not by IBM. In IBM products, it superseded the ISA bus and was itself subsequently superseded by the PCI bus architecture.

Apollo/Domain was a range of workstations developed and produced by Apollo Computer from circa 1980 to 1989. The machines were built around the Motorola 68k family of processors, except for the DN10000, which had from one to four of Apollo's RISC processors, named PRISM.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Apollo Computer</span> Manufacturer of Apollo/Domain workstations in the 1980s

Apollo Computer Inc., founded in 1980 in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, by William Poduska and others, developed and produced Apollo/Domain workstations in the 1980s. Along with Symbolics and Sun Microsystems, Apollo was one of the first vendors of graphical workstations in the 1980s. Like computer companies at the time and unlike manufacturers of IBM PC compatibles, Apollo produced much of its own hardware and software.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">SGI Indigo² and Challenge M</span> Workstation computers

The SGI Indigo2 and the SGI Challenge M are Unix workstations which were designed and sold by SGI from 1992 to 1997.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">SGI Indy</span> 1993 graphics workstation computer

The Indy, code-named "Guinness", is a low-end multimedia workstation introduced on July 12, 1993. Silicon Graphics Incorporated (SGI) developed, manufactured, and marketed Indy as the lowest end of its product line, for computer-aided design (CAD), desktop publishing, and multimedia markets. It competed with Intel x86 computers, and with Windows and Macintosh, including using their files and running their applications via software emulation. It is the first computer to come standard with a video camera, called IndyCam. Indy was repackaged as a server model called Challenge S. Indy was discontinued on June 30, 1997 and support ended on December 31, 2011.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">RISC iX</span> Discontinued Unix operating system

RISC iX is a discontinued Unix operating system designed to run on a series of workstations based on the Acorn Archimedes microcomputer. Heavily based on 4.3BSD, it was initially completed in 1988, a year after Arthur but before RISC OS. It was introduced in the ARM2-based R140 workstation in 1989, followed up by the ARM3-based R200-series workstations in 1990.

The Advanced Computing Environment (ACE) was defined by an industry consortium in the early 1990s to be the next generation commodity computing platform, the successor to personal computers based on Intel's 32-bit instruction set architecture. The effort found little support in the market and dissolved due to infighting within the group and a lack of sales.

The MIPS Magnum was a line of computer workstations designed by MIPS Computer Systems, Inc. and based on the MIPS series of RISC microprocessors. The first Magnum was released in March, 1990, and production of various models continued until 1993 when SGI bought MIPS Technologies. SGI cancelled the MIPS Magnum line to promote their own workstations including the entry-level SGI Indy.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">SGI Visual Workstation</span> Series of workstation computers

SGI Visual Workstation is a series of workstation computers that are designed and manufactured by SGI. Unlike its other product lines, which used the 64-bit MIPS RISC architecture, the line used Intel Pentium II and III processors and shipped with Windows NT 4.0 or Windows 2000 as its operating system in lieu of IRIX. However, the Visual Workstation 320 and 540 models deviated from the architecture of IBM-compatible PCs by using SGI's ARCS firmware instead of a traditional BIOS, internal components adapted from its MIPS-based products, and other proprietary components that made them incompatible with internal hardware designed for standard PCs and hence unable to run other versions of Microsoft Windows, especially Windows 9x. By contrast, the remaining models in the line are standard PCs, using VIA Technologies chipsets, Nvidia video cards, and standard components.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">IBM RT PC</span> Early RISC workstation from IBM

The IBM RT PC is a family of workstation computers from IBM introduced in 1986. These were the first commercial computers from IBM that were based on a reduced instruction set computer (RISC) architecture. The RT PC uses IBM's proprietary ROMP microprocessor, which commercialized technologies pioneered by IBM Research's 801 experimental minicomputer. The RT PC runs three operating systems: AIX, the Academic Operating System (AOS), or Pick.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of personal computers</span> History of the consumer personal computer

The history of the personal computer as a mass-market consumer electronic device began with the microcomputer revolution of the 1970s. A personal computer is one intended for interactive individual use, as opposed to a mainframe computer where the end user's requests are filtered through operating staff, or a time-sharing system in which one large processor is shared by many individuals. After the development of the microprocessor, individual personal computers were low enough in cost that they eventually became affordable consumer goods. Early personal computers – generally called microcomputers – were sold often in electronic kit form and in limited numbers, and were of interest mostly to hobbyists and technicians.

IrisVision is an expansion card developed by Silicon Graphics for IBM compatible PCs in 1991 and is one of the first 3D accelerator cards available for the high end PC market. IrisVision is an adaptation of the graphics pipeline from the Personal IRIS workstation to the Micro Channel architecture and consumer ISA buses of most modern PCs of the day. It has the first variant of IRIS GL ported to the PC, predating OpenGL.

The ICL DRS was a range of departmental computers from International Computers Limited (ICL). Standing originally for Distributed Resource System, the full name was later dropped in favour of the abbreviation.

Since 1985, many processors implementing some version of the MIPS architecture have been designed and used widely.


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