PC Beats Workstation in Price, Boasts Power

Article excerpt

It used to be that engineering research and computer-aided engineering (CAE) ventures necessitated massive workstations whose costs could range upwards of $40,000. These were the only computers powerful and fast enough to handle extensive computations that, on earlier-model DOS computers, would have users roaming around the room while waiting for a response.

Now, with the advent of very high performance 486-class DOS computers, such as Austin, Texas-based Dell Computer's 50MHz 486 SE Towers, colleges and universities can conduct research on a platform that is more affordable yet nearly as powerful.

Thomas Miller, Jr., the chief engineer at the Georgia Technology Research Institute's Concepts Analysis Lab, has discovered this option and uses two Dell 50MHz 486 SE Towers for CAE purposes. He and fellow research-level engineers contract with the Department of Defense, and Englin Air Force Base in particular, to develop jammer-mode verification instruments (JMVI).

* Dual Uses

The Dell computers are used in two distinct ways. Running SIMULAB, a system-level design aid and simulation package, they simulate input signals, perform time and frequency domain analyses, and compute the results over a series of tests. The software generates both the signals that look as though they came from a signal jammer as well as the responses a detection device should output. In effect, it simulates the hardware and environment needed without Miller's having to design a jammer identification prototype first.

By projecting what data should be output, the software offers a guide useful in designing the JMVI. Engineers take the data and build a hardware system that would produce the same results. The end product is ultimately placed in a lab where waveforms are generated, verifying that jamming signals used are correct and timely.

The second part of the puzzle occurs when the system is completed. A JMVI looks like a computer peripheral, yet inspects signals and performs data reduction in real time. It relies on a Dell 50MHz 486 SE Tower to provide the operator interface and display.

The JMVI also processes data, codes it and graphically displays it in color, all so an engineer can look at the computer screen and see at a glance if a piece of equipment is satisfying specific requirements. The system will also do template matching, displaying the results that should be appearing next to what actually is. Again, this serves to inform the engineer of any differences in expected performance and allows him or her to assimilate important information easier.

* Why Dell

Miller chose the Dell 486 Towers for their speed and reliability. "We have been buying Dell for a couple of years," he says. "We actually had a 486 50MHz computer before the first 100 were available to the public."

As an example of Miller's long-standing relationship with the vendor, he tells of how he and other Georgia Tech engineers were asked by Dell to perform the first benchmark tests on the new computers. Soon after Miller received it, however, Intel discovered that some system vendors experienced heating problems when they incorporated the 50MHz chip into their systems. Intel instructed other companies, including Dell, to hold off on production until the problem could be solved.

Miller says he experienced no problems with the Dell computer due to the fact that the company had redesigned the computer specifically to handle the new, faster processor; many companies relied on the same design used for 33MHz computers to handle 50MHz processors. Some 33MHz designs lacked sufficient air circulation, cauing other companies' products to overheat. Since Dell's 50MHz model's design allowed for increased air flow, it did not suffer from overheating.

Undeniably, Miller maintains that having the power and speed of a 50MHz computer helps keep costs down. "I wouldn't think of using a 33 MHz in either of these applications [design or display] now," he asserts. …