This week we sat down with James Lupton, Chief Technologist of Exacta Technologies and Proline, and talked to him about how he started with Exacta, what differentiates Proline workstations, and where he sees the future of workstations.
How long have you been working at Exacta?
I have been working at Exacta for 10 years now.
How did you first get involved with Exacta?
After finishing all of my A levels I had the choice of going to University or going directly to work. I applied to some Universities but when it came down to accepting an offer, I was hesitant. I felt like I had the choice of going straight into work to start doing something I definitely enjoyed or going to University without knowing if I would enjoy my job at the end of it.
Luckily a friend of mine, who still works at Exacta, had a job as a build engineer building parts in our production area, and one day he mentioned Exacta were looking for another engineer.
A lot of the people working here don’t just have a shared interest in computers but also in film, TV, games and other things like that. So after having an interview with the production manager Chris, we connected on some of those things and I started soon after that. I knew how to build a PC but I had never built a commercial PC or something like a server for enterprise customers, so it was a fun challenge. I spent just under a year in the build section and really enjoyed that time learning and working alongside my friend, Ben.
What are the key differences between an advanced PC in the home and a high-performance workstation?
If you’re building a PC for yourself, your priorities are going to be different to someone looking for a high-performance workstation. For starters, you might not mind if the final result has poor presentation or if the build quality isn’t robust but, most importantly, you will also not have access to the kind of hardware that we use in our workstations.
One of the things I love most about my job is being able to play with some really expensive and exciting technology. We have built partnerships with companies like Intel, AMD, and Gigabyte and are able to hear information about their new technology before the public - as a hobbyist, building your own PC you just won’t be able to get your hands on that kind of information or equipment.
Is there any function that is more suited to Intel than AMD or vice versa?
When you look inside a computer you start to understand how different parts affect performance in different ways. We have a long list of options for each part of a workstation, and that process of finding the right part for the job can get very complicated.
Taking processors as an example, between AMD and Intel there are likely over 1,000 combinations of different processors for different things. Each CPU has the same basic function, but the way they’re designed and built varies significantly from one to another. With Proline we wanted to make it simpler for a business to get the exact equipment they need, and so we’re the people who need to take all of that information in, understand that process, and how it affects performance.
Are there any examples of technology becoming popular in the home PC market before being used in a professional space?
Overclocking and liquid cooling are good examples of things that were popular in the home PC market before being used in a professional space because of the perceived risks involved.
When working in agile markets like finance, we noticed that clients were often happy taking on some extra risks as long as performance could be improved. When designing our gen2 version of Blackcore, we knew the possibilities of overclocking and wanted to take this technology that gives you more performance, but is seen as unreliable and possibly dangerous, and use that to change the face of the market.
We took what we had, redesigned it with these thoughts in mind, and made it more reliable with better performance. Since then, the perception of overclocking and liquid cooling has changed drastically and organisations who had been hard to talk to in the past about it, have heard of the benefits, and are now seeking us out to discuss the work we can do for them.
Can you give an example of how new workstation technology has changed an industry?
25 years ago, when Pixar was working on the first Toy Story film, they had over 100 computers running 24 hours a day in order for them to render each frame. There are tens of thousands of frames in the film, and each one could take over a day to render depending on how complex it was.
Not only was this a slow part of the process from a technical standpoint, but the animators would also have to wait until the frames came back from rendering at a server farm before being able to see how they looked and being able to make changes which further slowed down the production time of the film.
Over the years, with the way technology has moved on and with the amount you can fit into a workstation, a creative person working in the CGI industry now can work on things directly from the workstation on their desk and do things in a much shorter time.
Are there any non-technical benefits when buying a high-performance workstation?
By removing technical limitations, you are often freeing up time that can be spent on strategic or creative work. In a recent case study, we were able to show that not only has our new system given a client a fourfold increase in productivity, but that increase has also allowed them to unlock new creative avenues by being able to iterate on their work much faster. This increase in performance has not only helped give them more time to focus on the work itself but has also allowed them to increase their capacity for new work too.
There are multiple benefits to a customer and that’s something I find really exciting. It’s not just a chance to increase your computer speeds, but also the knock-on effects such as freeing up a client’s time and helping to increase their levels of productivity or creativity because of that.
How has the growth of the company changed...
Over the last 20 years not only has Exacta grown in size, but the team's collective knowledge and skill has grown alongside that.
That experience and knowledge allows us to understand more than just how to put together a great product, but also helps us know how a customer likes to have a product delivered, supported, maintained and so on. That solid foundation adds to our ability to be more confident, and so when we are designing a new product, we are happy to try new things and see if we can improve on our last attempt. For me, that’s another part of the process I really enjoy. You get to try new things and see what happens.
How does Exacta’s design process compare to larger companies in the market?
As a company, we’ve always been good at creating bespoke products. One of the frustrations that people have when working with large companies is that they are working on such a large scale and so don’t have the ability to create something completely bespoke. Customers will tell us there is something specific about their current products that they find problematic, for example, an issue with the chassis size. Large companies have a standard set of sizes for their chassis but because we build ours ourselves, we’re able to accommodate for any kind of setup.
I think a lot of our long-term customers stay with us for that reason; they know they can come to us and say “we need to change something” or “we’ve got this new crazy idea can you help us”, and we’re always there to have that conversation and to see what can be done.
That ability to be flexible also applies to the technology within our products. Often companies will approach us because they need something specific that, for example, Dell or HP aren’t offering in their products yet.
If you have any questions about our workstations, please get in touch.