Lenovo’s Rob Herman on Lenovo Workstations

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Rob Herman, Director of Product and Vertical Marketing for Workstations at Lenovo, shares how Lenovo achieves its mission of maximizing workstation capability for their users. Rob joins Steve Waskul in this interview from SIGGRAPH 2014 to discuss the latest coming out from the Lenovo workstations group, as well as how Lenovo fits into virtualization and other progressive formats for the future.

As the interview begins, Rob jumps right into a brief background of the Lenovo workstation group. Since the IBM/PC Division acquisition in 2005, Lenovo has gained a presence in 160 countries around the globe. Focused more on mobile and desktop workstations, Rob shares that he was actually the Product Manager for the ThinkPad A20P launched in 2000, and has seen major strides since then. For example, he enthuses, the ThinkStation C30 released in 2010 is actually the smallest dual processor workstation in the industry.

So do you have any new designs coming out? Steve inquires. “We’re in our 7th year as a brand,” Rob responds, “so the current portfolio has been around for awhile.” Lenovo’s engineers are passionate about maintaining a high-quality product, he explains, and a lot of that has to do with thermal management. They just re-designed the P- series ThinkStation portfolio to ensure better thermal management of the products, giving the series a new nomenclature in the process. These range from the P300, their entry product, to the P900 premium high performance duel-socket workstation.

“What features do you add in the 900 series to move it up to the high performance level?” Steve asks. Well first, Rob replies, “let me talk a little bit about our design philosophy.” There are 3 tenants they keep in mind when designing the P series: superior reliability, unmatched usability (every component is tool-less and can be taken out), and unparalleled performance. For the P900, he expounds, this means duel Xeon processors, 16 DIMM slots, 512GB of memory and 8 PCIE slots. “We can support 3 NVIDIA Quadro K6000 cards in the P900,” he effuses.

The P900, Rob continues, can also support up to 14 storage devices by utilizing a flex connector, a proprietary feature built into the workstation. The flex connectors enable a user to add ray controller capability, Mdot2 storage, and PCIE storage. “The beauty of these,” Rob clarifies, “is that they don’t burn any of the 8 full length slots.” Essentially, if you require large amounts of PCIE or expansion cards, you don’t get penalized to add improved functionality. They’ve also, he finishes, incorporated something called blind connect that allows users to connect a hard drive to the system without having to cable up.

Now, is there some kind of extra port users could access to trouble shoot with their phones if the workstation didn’t start up? Steve asks. Yes, Rob replies, they’ve created a diagnostic port wired with firmware that will capture an event log if there’s a system failure. “We’ve created an app,” Rob explains, that you can download to your mobile Android or Windows device that will download a user- friendly event log when the device is plugged into the USB diagnostic port. This allows the user to self-diagnose the problem.

“I haven’t heard of something like that before,” Steve remarks. Yes, Rob comments, today we have 4 digit codes that require a manual to figure them out; this app, however, provides an easy-to-read explanation for the error that occurred. And, he shares, the workstation doesn’t even need to be powered on to run the diagnostics.

“Do you have any other performance-tuning features at Lenovo with your workstations?” Steve asks. Nodding, Rob explains that they’re working on an application called Lenovo Performance Tuner that will allow users to set up profiles to maximize performance on a particular application. For example, he continues, if you’re rendering something on Maya, and you want the system to focus on that, you can set up your profile to shut down other working applications during the rendering process. The unique thing about this application, he expounds, is that it’s based on a crowd-sourcing model. Essentially the application is open-source, “so if you come up with a profile that really works for you, you can share that with other people online.”

“I heard from AMD and NVIDIA both that the timing is really interesting right now because there’s a refresh of processors and all these new graphics cards coming onto the market at the same time,” which should enable users to boost their performance and upgrade to something new, right? Steve inquires. Yes, Rob agrees, and they are committed to maximizing the capabilities for their customers. “Whatever the user needs, we’re leaving no stone unturned,” he insists.

“I’d imagine with 3 high-end graphics cards you get some pretty blazing performance!” Steve remarks. “So I know Lenovo also has servers,” he continues, “And I’m really curious because I know a lot of people are thinking about virtualizing the workstation.” Well, Rob replies, while this isn’t their main area of focus at the moment, he does recognize that users are ultimately interested in “getting to a level of density where they can put a lot of the graphics and processing and capabilities behind the glass door.”

In the last minutes of their conversation, Steve inquires, “So is there anything here at SIGGRAPH that caught your eye?” There’s so many things, Rob pauses, but he’s fascinated by how things in the media/entertainment world are being applied to the CAD/CAM world, CAE, and even oil and gas exploration. Yes, Steve agrees, he’s also very excited by the scientific visualization possibilities, especially by what could be achieved when you marry AR/VR with high performance processors.

A lot of times in the headlines, Rob responds, there’s negative language regarding the PC industry. “In the workstation space,” he insists, “we see a lot of opportunity for growth and a great future for all the players in the industry.” Yes, Steve agrees, it’s great to see more tools and technology in the hands of creative developers out there. “Who would have thought ten years ago that gaming would make more revenue than the box office!” Definitely, Rob agrees, and this phenomenon circles back to one of their key tenants- reliability. Workstation users are doing “mission critical work, the next generation of revenue streams for their companies.” These are the people that need the best hardware possible, and Rob is certain their team will deliver that.