ALT Systems go: Inside HP's new dev workstations

ALT Systems go: Inside HP's new dev workstations
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

May 10th 2013 at 10:00AM

We look at what a ready-built workstation can offer in contrast to a custom setup

[This feature was published in the May 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]

Owning a workstation is a tempting proposition for any developer. After all, who wouldn’t want a technologically muscular, robust and capacious alternative to an overclocked PC?

As it happens, many shy away from the idea of taking the leap into workstation ownership, intimidated variously by preconceptions about price, concerns about integration with games-specific middleware, and the alternative advantages of building a custom setup.

But HP, that giant of both consumer and industry electronics equipment, has, in collaboration with various software providers and an integration specialist, launched games development-specific versions of some of its most popular workstations, elsewhere found serving the likes of architects and animators.

THE POWER OF SOME

Bringing on board Autodesk, Epic, ‘full service systems integrator’ ALT Systems and electronics specialist PNY Technologies, HP has crafted several offerings that hope to give developers an affordable, cohesive and customisable development solution.

As revealed at GDC, HP offers a trio of options as games development-specific platforms – the all-in-one HP Z1, the powerful Z820 and its more streamlined cousin, the Z620. Each has, with ALT System’s help, been assembled to be optimised for either Unreal Engine or Autodesk users, providing a union of hardware and tools that promises to perfectly serve games makers.

And that, claim the HP team behind the workstations, is vital in offering developers the reliability they need.

“These systems are designed for mission critical environments,” explains Jim Zafarana, HP’s vice president and general manager, speaking with Develop.

“If you’re doing a software compile over multiple days, the worst thing that could happen is it fails on you; perhaps the BIOS goes bad or the graphics card has problems.

“The components in an HP workstation, starting from ECC memory, or ‘error-correcting code memory’, which self-heals as things go on, to hard drives that are enterprise-grade rather than consumer-grade, and the BIOS that have been tested, and the solutions that have been certified; these things are vital, whether you’re a big company or a small company.

“You can’t afford to go down, and our workstations are designed with that in mind. Our workstations are the poster child for performance and reliability.”

That’s all well and good, but can such a solution really offer a platform to rival a custom setup precisely built to the needs of an individual studio? HP’s staff think so. For starters, their games developer offering can be tailoured in conjunction with ALT Systems.

“I would say building your own workstation is still an option for studios, so if they want to build they’re own workstation, I’m happy for them to do that,” explains ALT System’s president Jon Guess.

“But what we’re offering is a value proposition where we integrate all the parts and pieces for them, offering a workstation that is tailoured to work with the Unreal Engine and Autodesk products, and if they don’t have the experience as expected, they have a single point of contact to help them achieve what they want.”

And that single contact point is important here. Those who build their own system will not only have to handle integrating each hardware and middleware option themselves, but, when problems do arise, have to liaise with numerous companies’ support services. For anybody who has found themselves in that situation before, it can make even the most convoluted call to a bank seem like a day well spent.

A TRUMP CARD

The debut of HP and ALT Systems’ latest offering also introduces, for the first time in the games business, the opportunity to integrate PNY Technologies’ new GeForce GTX 680 XLR8 Edition graphics card, which many will see as a significant boon to those eyeing the coming consumer hardware from Sony and Microsoft.

But that doesn’t mean the Z series of workstations isn’t conceived to be the exclusive reserve of the globe’s biggest studios, and HP insists indies and mid-sized teams shouldn’t be too quick to assume that such powerful hardware is beyond their financial reach.

“Even the indie studios out there are using our workstations” states HP’s vice president of worldwide marketing Jeff Wood.

“Probably the most visible out there is the Bandito Brothers, who were instrumental in bringing out Act of Valor last year, and they really relied on the HP studios, even as a small studio, to get their productions done. This is something available to that kind of studio.”

And according to Zafarana, whatever the size of your studio, HP’s games development workstations can offer more or that perennially desirable creative freedom.

“I think the challenge for developers is overcoming the big problems, and getting faster answers,” he says.

“Every industry is trying to do more and design more, creating robust products, and improve graphics, so I’m talking big data and big design.

“A workstation can chew that kind of thing up and spit it out, so you can just sit back and design and develop without hesitation or restriction. It’s about matching the speed of thought; that’s what we’re striving for, and that gives developers freedom to create.”

INSIDES OUT

Under the casing of each of HP’s Z series workstations nestles a tidy example of product design, where components can be swapped in and out with the simplicity a consumer could grasp, and ample space is available for expansion. The machines run quietly, hide in their guts enough DDR3-1600 RAM to satisfy the most demanding projects, and do much to make even the most efficient gaming PC seem rather passé.

Yours might be the studio that is better served by its own hardware setup, but certainly, for those looking for a games development focused powerhouse, HP’s offering is well worth considering.

www.altsystems.com

UNDER THE BONNET

Put simply, there are three games development focused workstations from HP, each available either optimised for Autodesk products, or for Epic’s Unreal Engine.

In each case, ALT Systems has handled integrating the hardware and middleware within each workstation, making sure it all runs in unison, and offering a single point of contact for support. The three workstations are:

HP Z820
• Windows 7 Professional
64-bit as standard
• Dual Intel Xeon E5-2660
• 32 GB DDR3-1600
(8x4 GB) RAM
• PNY GTX 680 2G
• 300 GB 10K RPM SAS
• 2x 600 GB 10K RPM SAS
• 16X SuperMulti DVD+/-RW
• 1125W 90 Efficient Chassis

HP Z620
• Windows 7 Professional
64-bit as standard
• Intel Xeon E5-2620
• 12 GB DDR3-1600
(6x2 GB) 1 CP
• PNY GTX 680 2G
• 500 GB 7200 RPM SATA
first HDD
• 2 TB 7200 RPM SATA
second HDD
• 16X SuperMulti DVD+/-RW
• 800W 90 Efficient Chassis

HP Z1
• Windows 8 Pro Downgrade to Windows 7 Professional
64-bit as standard
• Intel Xeon E3-1245v2
• 4 GB DDR3-1600 ECC
(2x2 GB) RAM
• PNY GTX 680M 4G
• 256GB SATA Solid State Drive
• 8X SuperMulti DVD+/-RW