Networks infrastructures can vary greatly in terms of:
- The size of the area covered
- The number of users connected
- The number and types of services available
An individual network usually spans a single geographical area, providing services and applications to people within a common organizational structure, such as a single business, campus or region. This type of network is called a Local Area Network (LAN). A LAN is usually administered by a single organization. The administrative control that governs the security and access control policies are enforced on the network level.
When a company or organization has locations that are separated by large geographical distances, it may be necessary to use a telecommunications service provider (TSP) to interconnect the LANs at the different locations. Telecommunications service providers operate large regional networks that can span long distances. Traditionally, TSPs transported voice and data communications on separate networks. Increasingly, these providers are offering converged information network services to their subscribers.
Individual organizations usually lease connections through a telecommunications service provider network. These networks that connect LANs in geographically separated locations are referred to as Wide Area Networks (WANs). Although the organization maintains all of the policies and administration of the LANs at both ends of the connection, the policies within the communications service provider network are controlled by the TSP.
WANs use specifically designed network devices to make the interconnections between LANs. Because of the importance of these devices to the network, configuring, installing and maintaining these devices are skills that are integral to the function of an organization's network.
LANs and WANs are very useful to individual organizations. They connect the users within the organization. They allow many forms of communication including exchange e-mails, corporate training, and other resource sharing.
Although there are benefits to using a LAN or WAN, most of us need to communicate with a resource on another network, outside of our local organization.
Examples of this type of communication include:
- Sending an e-mail to a friend in another country
- Accessing news or products on a website
- Getting a file from a neighbor's computer
- Instant messaging with a relative in another city
- Following a favorite sporting team's performance on a cell phone
A global mesh of interconnected networks (internetworks) meets these human communication needs. Some of these interconnected networks are owned by large public and private organizations, such as government agencies or industrial enterprises, and are reserved for their exclusive use. The most well-known and widely used publicly-accessible internetwork is the Internet.
The Internet is created by the interconnection of networks belonging to Internet Service Providers (ISPs). These ISP networks connect to each other to provide access for millions of users all over the world. Ensuring effective communication across this diverse infrastructure requires the application of consistent and commonly recognized technologies and protocols as well as the cooperation of many network administration agencies.
The term intranet is often used to refer to a private connection of LANs and WANs that belongs to an organization, and is designed to be accessible only by the organization's members, employees, or others with authorization.
Note: The following terms may be interchangeable: internetwork, data network, and network. A connection of two or more data networks forms an internetwork - a network of networks. It is also common to refer to an internetwork as a data network - or simply as a network - when considering communications at a high level. The usage of terms depends on the context at the time and terms may often be interchanged.
A workstation is a high-end microcomputer designed for technical or scientific applications. Intended primarily to be used by one person at a time, they are commonly connected to a local area network and run multi-user operating systems. The term workstation has also been used to refer to a mainframe computer terminal or a PC connected to a network.
Perhaps the first computer that might qualify as a "workstation" was the IBM 1620, a small scientific computer designed to be used interactively by a single person sitting at the console. It was introduced in 1959. One peculiar feature of the machine was that it lacked any actual arithmetic circuitry. To perform addition, it required a memory-resident table of decimal addition rules. This saved on the cost of logic circuitry, enabling IBM to make it inexpensive. The machine was code-named CADET, which some people waggishly claimed meant "Can't Add, Doesn't Even Try". Nonetheless, it rented initially for $1000 a month.
In 1965, IBM introduced the IBM 1130 scientific computer, which was meant as the successor to the 1620. Both of these systems came with the ability to run programs written in Fortran and other languages. Both the 1620 and the 1130 were built into roughly desk-sized cabinets. Both were available with add-on disk drives, printers, and both paper-tape and punched-card I/O. A console typewriter for direct interaction was standard on each.
Early examples of workstations were generally dedicated minicomputers; a system designed to support a number of users would instead be reserved exclusively for one person. A notable example was the PDP-8 from Digital Equipment Corporation, regarded to be the first commercial minicomputer. The Lisp machines developed at MIT in the early 1970s pioneered some of the principles of the workstation computer, as they were high-performance, single-user systems intended for heavily interactive use.
The first computer designed for single-users, with high-resolution graphics facilities (and so a workstation in the modern sense of the term) was the Xerox Alto developed at Xerox PARC in 1973. Other early workstations include the Three Rivers PERQ (1979) and the later Xerox Star (1981).In the early 1980s, with the advent of 32-bit microprocessors such as the Motorola 68000, a number of new participants in this field appeared, including Apollo Computer and Sun Microsystems, who created Unix-based workstations based on this processor. Meanwhile DARPA's VLSI Project created several spinoff graphics products as well, notably the SGI 3130, and Silicon Graphics' range of machines that followed. It was not uncommon to differentiate the target market for the products, with Sun and Apollo considered to be network workstations, while the SGI machines were graphics workstations. As RISC microprocessors became available in the mid-1980s, these were adopted by many workstation vendors.
Workstations tended to be very expensive, typically several times the cost of a standard PC and sometimes costing as much as a new car. However, minicomputers sometimes cost as much as a house. The high expense usually came from using costlier components that ran faster than those found at the local computer store, as well as the inclusion of features not found in PCs of the time, such as high-speed networking and sophisticated graphics. Workstation manufacturers also tend to take a "balanced" approach to system design, making certain to avoid bottlenecks so that data can flow unimpeded between the many different subsystems within a computer. Additionally, workstations, given their more specialized nature, tend to have higher profit margins than commodity-driven PCs.
The systems that come out of workstation companies often feature SCSI or Fibre Channel disk storage systems, high-end 3D accelerators, single or multiple 64-bit processors, large amounts of RAM, and well-designed cooling. Additionally, the companies that make the products tend to have very good repair/replacement plans. However, the line between workstation and PC is increasingly becoming blurred as the demand for fast computers, networking and graphics have become common in the consumer world, allowing workstation manufacturers to use "off the shelf" PC components and graphics solutions as opposed to proprietary in-house developed technology. 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.
There have been several attempts to produce a workstation-like machine specifically for the lowest possible price point as opposed to performance. One approach is to remove local storage and reduce the machine to the processor, keyboard, mouse and screen. In some cases, these diskless nodes would still run a traditional OS and perform computations locally, with storage on a remote server. These approaches are intended not just to reduce the initial system purchase cost, but lower the total cost of ownership by reducing the amount of administration required per user.
This approach was actually first attempted as a replacement for PCs in office productivity applications, with the 3Station by 3Com as an early example; in the 1990s, X terminals filled a similar role for technical computing. Sun has also introduced "thin clients", most notably its Sun Ray product line. However, traditional workstations and PCs continue to drop in price, which tends to undercut the market for products of this type
Historically, workstations had offered higher performance than personal computers, especially with respect to CPU and graphics, memory capacity and multitasking cability. They are optimized for the visualization and manipulation of different types of complex data such as 3D mechanical design, engineering simulation, rendering and animation of images, as well as mathematical plots. Consoles consist of a high resolution display, a keyboard and a mouse at a minimum, but also offer multiple displays, graphics tablets, 3D mice (devices for manipulating and navigating 3D objects and scenes), etc. Workstations are the first segment of the computer market to present advanced accessories and collaboration tools.
What makes a workstation?
In the early 1980s, a high-end workstation had to meet the three Ms, the so-called "3M computer" had a Megabyte of memory, a Megapixel display (roughly 1000x1000), and a "MegaFLOPS" compute performance (at least one million floating point instructions per second). As limited as this seems today, it was at least an order of magnitude beyond the capacity of the personal computer of the time; the original 1981 IBM PC had 16 KB memory, a text-only display, and floating-point performance around 1 kiloFLOPS (30 kiloFLOPS with the optional 8087 math coprocessor). Other desirable features not found in desktop computers at that time included networking, graphics acceleration, and high-speed internal and peripheral data buses.
Another goal was to bring the price for such a system down under a "Megapenny", that is, less than $10,000; this was not achieved until the late 1980s, although many workstations, particularly mid-range or high-end still cost anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000 and over throughout the early to mid 1990s.
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:
High performance CPUs: while RISC in its early days (early 1980s) offered something like an order-of-magnitude performance improvement over CISC processors of comparable cost, one particular family of CISC processors, Intel's x86, always had the edge in market share and the economies of scale that this implied. By the mid-1990s, some x86 CPUs had achieved performance on a parity with RISC in some areas, such as integer performance (albeit at a cost of greater chip complexity), relegating the latter to even more high-end markets for the most part.
Hardware support for floating-point operations: optional on the original IBM PC; remained on a separate chip for Intel systems until the 80486DX processor. Even then, x86 floating-point performance continued to lag behind other processors due to limitations in its architecture. Today even low-price PCs now have performance in the gigaFLOPS range, but higher-end systems are preferred for floating-point intensive tasks.
Large memory configurations: PCs (i.e. IBM-compatibles) were originally limited to a 640 KB memory capacity (not counting bank-switched "expanded memory") until the 1982 introduction of the 80286 processor; early workstations provided access to several megabytes of memory. Even after PCs broke the 640 KB limit with the 80286, special programming techniques were required to address significant amounts of memory until the 80386, as opposed to other 32-bit processors such as SPARC which provided straightforward access to nearly their entire 4 GB memory address range. 64-bit workstations and servers supporting an address range far beyond 4 GB have been available since the early 1990s, a technology just beginning to appear in the PC desktop and server market in the mid-2000s.
Operating system: early workstations ran the Unix operating system (OS) or a Unix-like variant or equivalent such as VMS. The PC CPUs of the time had limitations in memory capacity and memory access protection, making them unsuitable to run OSes of this sophistication, but this, too, began to change in the late 1980s as PCs with the 32-bit 80386 with integrated paged MMUs became widely affordable.
High-speed networking (10 Mbit/s or better): 10 Mbit/s network interfaces were commonly available for PCs by the early 1990s, although by that time workstations were pursuing even higher networking speeds, moving to 100 Mbit/s, 1 Gbit/s, and 10 Gbit/s. However, economies of scale and the demand for high speed networking in even non-technical areas has dramatically decreased the time it takes for newer networking technologies to reach commodity price points.
Large displays (17" to 21"), high resolutions, high refresh rate were common among PCs by the late 1990s, although in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this was rare.
High-performance 3D graphics hardware: this started to become increasingly popular in the PC market around the mid-to-late 1990s, mostly driven by computer gaming, although workstations featured better quality, sometimes sacrificing performance.
High performance/high capacity data storage: early workstations tended to use proprietary disk interfaces until the emergence of the SCSI standard in the mid-1980s. Although SCSI interfaces soon became available for PCs, they were comparatively expensive and tended to be limited by the speed of the PC's ISA peripheral bus (although SCSI did become standard on the Apple Macintosh). SCSI is an advanced controller interface which is particularly good where the disk has to cope with multiple requests at once. This makes it suited for use in servers, but its benefits to desktop PCs which mostly run single-user operating systems are less clear. These days, with desktop systems acquiring more multi-user capabilities (and the increasing popularity of Linux), the new disk interface of choice is Serial ATA, which has throughput comparable to SCSI but at a lower cost.
Extremely reliable components: together with multiple CPUs with greater cache and error correcting memory, this may remain the distinguishing feature of a workstation today. Although most technologies implemented in modern workstations are also available at lower cost for the consumer market, finding good components and making sure they work compatibly with each other is a great challenge in workstation building. Because workstations are designed for high-end tasks such as weather forecasting, video rendering, and game design, it's taken for granted that these systems must be running under full-load, non-stop for several hours or even days without issue. Any off-the-shelf components can be used to build a workstation, but the lifespans of such components under such rigorous conditions are questionable. For this reason, almost no workstations are built by the customer themselves but rather purchased from a vendor such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Sun Microsystems, SGI or Dell.
Tight integration between the OS and the hardware: Workstation vendors both design the hardware and maintain the Unix operating system variant that runs on it. This allows for much more rigorous testing than is possible with an operating system such as Windows. Windows requires that 3rd party hardware vendors write compliant hardware drivers that are stable and reliable. Also, minor variation in hardware quality such as timing or build quality can affect the reliability of the overall machine. Workstation vendors are able to ensure both the quality of the hardware, and the stability of the operating system drivers by validating these things in-house, and this leads to a generally much more reliable and stable machine.
These days, workstations have changed greatly. Since many of the components are now the same as those used in the consumer market, the price differential between the lower end workstation and consumer PCs may be narrower than it once was. For example, some low-end workstations use CISC based processors like the Intel Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon 64 as their CPUs. Higher-end workstations still use more sophisticated CPUs such as the Intel Xeon, AMD Opteron, IBM POWER, or Sun's UltraSPARC, and run a variant of Unix, delivering a truly reliable workhorse for computing-intensive tasks.
Indeed, it is perhaps in the area of the more sophisticated CPU where the true workstation may be found. Although both the consumer desktop and the workstation benefit from CPUs designed around the multicore concept (essentially, multiple processors on a die, of which the POWER4 was a pioneer of this technique), modern (as of 2008) workstations use multiple multicore CPUs, error correcting memory and much larger on-die caches. Such power and reliability are not normally required on a general desktop computer. IBM's POWER-based processor boards and the workstation-level Intel-based Xeon processor boards, for example, have multiple CPUs, more on-die cache and EEC memory, which are features more suited to demanding content-creation, engineering and scientific work than to general desktop computing