Workstations Rebounding on Power, Reliability Demands

HP's Jim Zafarana shows off the company's new ZBook 14 mobile workstation

HP’s Jim Zafarana shows off the company’s new ZBook 14 mobile workstation

While those who have been shouting “The PC is dead!” for years have yet to be proven either right or wrong, there’s no doubt that the traditional computer market is changing very rapidly. Many groups of PC users, particularly consumers and road warriors, have proven more than willing for trading the familiarity and power of a traditional PC for the mobility and convenience of tablets and other devices.

But amongst those who create, the PC remains the tool of choice. And nowhere is that more true than in the market for workstations, the high-end computers used by those who truly value computing horsepower – video design and computer animators, architects, designers, and a variety of other professionals.

The workstation market has had a tough run in the last year and a half, with industry growth rates dipping into the negative by almost ten points by the end of last year. But as the economy has improved around the world, the market has turned it around, registering 6.1 percent growth in the second quarter of 2013. And speaking at a New York City event where his company introduced its newest workstation offerings, Jim Zafarana, vice president and general manager of HP’s commercial solutions business unit, proudly reported that HP’s growth at 7.4 percent was leading the way.

“We’ve been in this business for 30 years, and not many companies have been able to transition and redefine their business through the ebbs and flows of the technology industry. In fact, we’re the only vendor to have made it – and to thrive – on the transition from proprietary Unix workstations to industry-standard systems,” Zafarana told an assembly of international press on hand for the company’s workstation launch.

Closer to home, HP Canada saw growth in its workstation business in the first quarter of 2013, with a “a couple of large deals” driving that up to double-digit growth in the second quarter, according to Ira Weiss, category business manager for workstations at HP Canada.

Unlike the struggles of the PC market, Zafarana said the lagging workstation market was a function of global economic turndowns worldwide, and that typically the workstation market recovers more quickly than does the PC coming out hard times. That’s especially true this time, he suggested, when many of the woes for the PC market have been because of the trend towards mobile devices instead of full-function PCs.

“My personal belief is that the creators of cars and trains and shoes, the purveyors of oil and energy, and the designers of buildings are going to continue to need the very best performance,” Zafarana said. “Their need for horsepower is not going to be cannibalized by a tablet or another device.”

In fact, if anything, with customer expectations increasing, and large parts of the workstation market needing even more horsepower due to the advent of higher-definition video and even better computer-generated special effects, the demand for performance in the workstation market is improving.

And Zafarana sees new opportunities continuing to power the workstation market. Big data and the surrounded analytics are providing an opportunity for beefier workstations, and as video surveillance moves from analogue to digital, there are opportunities there as well. Add to that a very large opportunity with designers building on Autodesk and SolidWorks. Many of those designers have traditionally opted for high-end PCs, but as those offerings move from two-dimensional to three-dimensional design, many will have to look to workstation machines to keep productivity high.

HP’s new mobile workstation an ultrabook

So what’s HP doing to capture these opportunities? The biggest headline from this fall’s launch was the introduction of the ZBook 14 – a14-inch workstation that is the first to qualify under Intel’s thin-and-light Ultrabook specification. Sporting dual-core Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processors at up to 2.1 GHz as well as AMD FirePro graphics with 1 GB of video RAM, the Zbook 14 lacks the pure horsepower of its larger mobile workstation cousins with 15- and 17-inch displays, but HP says finding the right tradeoff between computing power and portability has been a key request of customers, many of whom are looking for a mobile machine as a secondary device to a full-power in-the-office workstation. The packing of workstation power and reliability features, including easy access to replace many key internal components, will also make the ZBook 14 attractive to a lot of customers who have previously opted for higher-performance, but non-workstation, notebooks. Zafarana said he expects ZBook 14 customers to be about half previous mobile workstation customers, and half new to the category.

Weiss adds that he expects to see a number of former mobile workstation customers who had been lured away from their more powerful mobile workstations for the promise of slim and sexy Ultrabooks will come back to the mobile workstation market with the ZBook 14.

HP also updated its 15- and 17-inch mobile workstations, introducing the latest options in terms of CPU and graphics, and also introducing high-speed Thunderbolt connections into mobile workstations for the first time, making the systems more powerful than ever for those who need full performance from a mobile workstation. And not to be left out of the game, the company’s Z420, Z620, and Z820 traditional desktop workstations have been updated to include the latest Intel Xeon processors, and support for Thunderbolt.

Also new is the ZBooks branding. While HP has long used Z prefixes to indicate workstation machines, its mobile workstations previously fell under the EliteBook brand, its top of the line commercial series. The company also recently moved its top-of-the-line professional displays under the Z banner, giving them Z27i and Z30i names that give the company, for the first time, consistent branding and look and feel for its workstation and high-end professional lineup.

Selling the Value Proposition

Weiss said it was key for solution providers to be able to sell the “whole value proposition” of workstations, both the hardware and the applications on which developers, designers, and other workstation customers depend. To support that sales motion, Weiss has a team of two workstation specialists available to educate channel partners on workstations opportunities, and to work with the channel on prospects. The company also makes training available to help solution providers better articulate the workstation value proposition.

“It’s a matter of making sure customers understand and are thinking of the entire value proposition for a workstation,” Weiss said. “It gives them the ability to better position themselves and how they can serve their customers with these products.”