We talk about the Z1, cooling challenges, and thin client computing.
Amidst the glitz of the HP Z1 launch, I sat down with Jeff Wood, VP of Worldwide Marketing for HP to chat in detail about the Z1 and what the company has in store for the rest of the year. While our talk was brief owing to the other journalists clamoring for an interview, it was interesting to hear from Jeff how the Z1 came about and the herculean efforts that were behind this marvelous piece of hardware.
First of all, the Z1 – your “mantra” has been “power without the tower” for this device – why did HP make the decision to produce an all-in-one workstation rather than just continuing to put out killer tower units?
That’s a great question – again it has to do with the environment our customers operate in. We went into one of the major architecture firms and what we saw was just how creative the firm was, and this creativity included their workspace environment. Most of the staff had dual displays with a workstation underneath the desk, and a workspace strewn with papers and technical drawings. If you could get rid of that thing under their desk, mount a Z1 on an arm above the desk and just clean up the desktop environment, the only cable you’d have to absolutely plug in would be the power cable, because you have a wireless keyboard and mouse, as well as wireless networking. So now you have people working in an environment that is far more conducive to their creativity. It wasn’t that we just knew how to do this from the get-go; we’ve had this idea for years, but it’s the technology just wasn’t such that we could create what we wanted to create, and make a nice sleek looking chassis that was totally serviceable. With the Z1, customers who know what workstation performance can do for their company can benefit from the Z1’s unique blend of design and power to really accelerate their workloads.
How critical is the workstation business for HP?
It’s actually very important for our group, even though we represent a niche volume, we still bring in a good amount of revenue to the company at good margins. For us it’s not just good ROI, but it also provides a kind of ‘halo’ effect – if you look at the Z1 launch and how much visibility PSG has gotten because of it, we may not ship a ton of Z1s comparatively, but it’s certainly a door opener towards innovation and allows us talk about our other products as well.
The Z1 saw you teaming up with nVidia to produce a very special range of graphics cards for the Z1 – can you tell us a bit more about this partnership?
It was our engineers who worked on the full mechanical design of the actual graphics unit along with nVidia’s MXM technology. MXM was built for mobile devices, and the Quadro 500M was something we designed with nVidia to reach that required level of display performance. We’ve worked so well with nVidia over the last decade or so, and I think it also has to do with the fact that we used to build graphics cards back in the day, so we were able to bring this knowledge to the table to help nVidia come up with the perfect solutions to something like the Z1.
Now you’ve got some industry-leading companies running their software on this workstation, for example products like Adobe and Autodesk. Taking Autodesk as an example, what was their reaction to the Z1 when you told them about the project?
Well first of all they’re extremely excited about the form factor. I was with the head of R&D at Autodesk a few months back, and he went nuts over the Z1. He’s a guy who doesn’t give praise to other engineers usually, but he just loved all the engineering that went into the Z1 and appreciated the kinds of unique challenges we had to face. For them a majority of their CAD and architecture customers will love the performance that the Z1 provides. The same thing applies to Adobe – they’ve done a great job of utilizing nVidia’s performance engines to optimize their various workflows, so that comes back to why we chose nVidia in the first place – because of the value they provide for those specific applications.
Now obviously there is a lot of impressive tech ‘under the hood’ so to speak – what kind of challenges did the teams face when trying to fit all of it into such a different space?
Cooling was the biggest challenge by far. We wanted the performance of the Xeon processor, the graphics card of course is always a challenge – we looked at using full sized graphics cards but we just couldn’t cool it properly, which is why we looked at the MXM range which was a biggest boost for us. We’ve also got a substantial power supply in the Z1 to power everything without using an external power brick. And of course, making it tool-less and of course making a display that just looks gorgeous. A lot of things came into play that in the end allowed us to make that product what it is today.
How important was it to bring the user-serviceability of the Z800 for example to the Z1?
It’s again driving the Z-DNA message. Our customers have come to expect that class of serviceability, reliability, performance, and certainly the innovation from our Z workstations. If we didn’t, then we’d have all of this innovation but no way for users to get into it if they needed to.
You’ve billed the Z1 as the ‘next generation of workstations’ – is this where you think HP will be heading with future workstation builds…effectively eliminating the tower altogether?
I think that’s going to be a bit of a challenge – some people here will absolutely love the Z1, but those who do high rendering and animation need the performance of those expandable tower workstations. Many of these users can run up to 96Gb of RAM with a very high-end graphics card, sometimes even two. So unless technology can shrink where we can fit everything behind the display, I think we’ll be having tower workstations for a while to come.
Do you think this performance / serviceability element will one day come to your consumer PCs such as the TouchSmart or the Omni? Or maybe even the Z1 getting touchscreen capabilities?
We definitely share a lot of engineering and design concepts with our other divisions, so maybe in time we will see some of the features you recognize in our workstations making their way over the consumer side. With regards to touchscreen capabilities, what’s interesting from a touch perspective is that it’s just not the way designers work on their main screen. Whether it’s an artist, animator, designer – it’s always with a secondary device such as a tablet. We’re really careful about whether we want to take that away and just integrate everything onto the display, because we’re not sure if that’s the way they’d like to work. We do believe there is an opportunity to continue to expand on touch capabilities in the future, but for now it’s going to be a secondary device in concert with your display and other hardware.
Talking a little bit about your thin client base, you’ve really come up with some stellar solutions such as the HP Virtualised Classroom and the HP Multiseat computing model for Education. Do you think that companies underestimate the technology and the possible benefits behind introducing thin client models into their businesses?
I don’t know if I’d necessarily position it that way – I think they understand from a client perspective the value, but it’s more the infrastructure cost. For example we’d love to have thin clients in the financial services sector, but the question remains on investing in datacenter costs, because the cooling and computing power needs to go somewhere. People are thoughtful of that transition, of the Cloud – people aren’t going to move to the Cloud overnight, so it’s the same with thin clients. We’re there with the right products, and in fact what’s great is that the products can last a lot longer, there’s better hardware, it’s more adaptable, and can scale accordingly. Once companies understand thin client computing and how it can relate to their organization, I think the transition will be a lot smoother and clearer for them.