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Building a Workstation – Part 1
December 18, 2009 11:20 PM

Workstation: Empty Board
Whether you’re performing engineering simulations, rendering CG scenes, or you just want a beat all gaming rig, there are times where your average desktop computer just doesn’t cut. For these times there’s the workstation. With similarly specced systems from HP and Dell costing upwards of $6000, we decided to build our own, and Project Colossus was born.

Project Colossus
To meet our needs, The Colossus had to be a versatile powerhouse that could multitask like no other with an emphasis on CPU rendering, all within my budget. I decided to go with a dual-socket Intel e5500 platform, keeping the cost to performance ratio in mind to avoid diminishing returns. Data redundancy was a must and extra scavenged hard drives are used to help keep costs down. After putting a plan together, it was time to do some shopping.
Workstation: The Hardware

The Hardware:

  • Case: Cooler Master ATCS 840 ($199.99)
  • Motherboard: Supermicro X8DA3 ($449.99)
  • CPU: (2x) Intel e5520 80w ($384.99 each)
  • RAM: (2x) 3x2GB Wintec Industries ECC Registered DDR3-1333 ($199.99 each)
  • CPU Heatsink: (2x) Noctua NH-U12DX ($69.99 each)
  • Video Card: XFX ATI HD5870 ($379.99)
  • PSU: OCZ Z Series Gold 1000W modular ($299.99)
  • Optical Drive: Sony Optiarc 24x ($32.99)
  • SSD + HDD:
    • -Intel x25-m G2 160GB ($479.40)
    • -Western Digital 1TB Black Caviar ($99.99)
    • -Western Digital 1TB RE3 Enterprise (2x) ($159.99 each)
    • -Western Digital 320GB Black Caviar (2x) ($64.99 each)
    • -Western Digital 500GB ($69.99)
  • Miscelaneous:
    • Rosewill PCI RAID Controller ($19.99)
    • ICY DOCK 2.5″ to 3.5″ Drive Adapter ($24.99)

Total Cost: $3,835.21

Drive Configuration
To get the most out of our hardware and prevent a performance bottleneck, our operating system main drive will use a solid state drive (SSD). Unlike mechanical hard disk drives (HDD) that use physical platters, SSDs use flash-memory based storage that gives them much faster read and write speeds and incredible random access times, albeit at a premium price–$3.00/GB compared to around $0.10/GB for HDDs. We’re using a 160 GB Intel x25-m G2, the latest iteration of Intel’s MLC flash memory SSDs.
Workstation: Intel x25-m G2
The latest firmware update for x25-m G2 drives enables TRIM support in Windows 7, hopefully without bricking the drive, as the first firmware update did with an unfortunate few. Along with TRIM support for Windows 7, Intel has provided a toolbox suite to execute a manual TRIM operation in XP and Vistato retain optimal drive performance. This will, for the most part, help the drive avoid the inherent performance degradation in all SSDs that occurs over time.

Workstation: Enterprise Drive

Whenever data has significant value, it’s wise to back it up. We’re going to do just that on the fly with data redundancy using two RAID 1 arrays, where the data on each drive is mirrored to another in case of drive failure. Using three 1 TB HDDs in RAID 5 was considered, but the cost of an extra drive and more substantially, the cost of a decent RAID 5 controller made RAID 1 our best option. Our two arrays consisted of a 320GB array, used for personal documents, and a 1TB array using Western Digital RE3 enterprise grade drives, that will store project files accessed by editing, modeling and rendering software. I also wanted plenty of space to store non-vital data, such as movies and music. For that I used a lone 1 TB and 500 GB drives.

Workstation: Hard Drive Configuration

This configuration already presented a problem simply because many of the dual-socket Intel 5500 motherboards only have six SATA ports and once we add a SATA optical drive, it will need eight. To solve this, I used an inexpensive 1.5 GB/s PCI RAID controller with two SATA ports and one IDE port that will also give us backwards compatibility with older drives. Despite its limitations, it’s just what we need for storage drives that won’t require high-speed transfer or complex RAID setups.

Workstation: Heatsink

Building The Colossus
The Supermicro X8DA3 is a large eATX board, sized to accommodate two e5500 series Xeon processors and up to 96GB of ECC Registered memory, you read that right, ninety-six gigabytes. Supermicro had a particularly small list of tested compatible memory for the X8DA3, so we made our best guess with what was easily available. 12GB of Patriot ECC Registered memory was initially used, but ended up being swapped out for 12GB of Wintec Industries ECC Registered RAM due to incompatibility issues.

Taking a look at the board, right away we can see that the location of the 1394 FireWire pinouts is problematic as they get covered by whatever is placed in the secondary PCI-E 16x slot. On the bottom right corner of the board there’s an SAS controller under the green heatsink and ports to support up to eight SCSI drives. Supermicro actually makes an identical board, the X8DAi, that omits the SAS controller. Because of a discount, they just happened to both cost the same at the time of our hardware purchase and who are we to pass up SAS support?

The Noctua NH-U12DX CPU heatsinks we’re using are server variants of the popular Noctua NH-U12P. They’re certainly overkill, but oh so quiet. To have access to the primary PCI-E 16x slot and the CPU1 8pin power slot, we’ve opted for an odd heatsink and fan placement where one fan pushes air through the heatsink and the other pulls air through, both bringing hot air towards the top of the case where it’s exhausted by the Cooler Master ATCS 840′s two massive 23cm fans. That brings up the topic of our choice of case.

Workstation: ATCS Front

A full tower was the only option short of a rackmount that will fit an eATX board. There’s a substantial difference in size between a mid-tower ATX case and the ACTS 840 full tower. This thing could eat a mid-tower and still have room left over. It’s beautifully clean aluminum exterior does away with the plethora of plastic vents, lights and other cheap aesthetics that seems to plague cases these days. Additionally, the ATCS 840 has a removable tray which made life easier when installing the RAM, processors and heatsinks, not to mention the clip-on heatsink fans.

Workstation: Removable Tray Workstation: Assembled Tray

The OCZ Z Series Gold 1000W was chosen for its high efficiency and modular cabling. For a 1 kW PSU, it’s surprisingly small and light. Because The Colossus will also be used as a render rig, it may be at a heavy load 24 hours a day for weeks at a time, that means an efficient PSU is crucial. With an 80 Plus Gold rating, the OCZ ZSeries Gold 1000W has been reported to run at 87% efficiency at low and peak loads and barely surpass 90% during optimal loading conditions. The power savings alone easily justify the higher cost and the modular cable system helped keep the case clean and was easier to work with.

Workstation: PSU

The ATI HD5870
Certainly the most controversial piece of hardware in our rig is the video card, ATI’s new-to-market HD5870, the most powerful single GPU card available and is currently in short supply–which would explain why it’s retail price has raised from $379.99 to $429.99 since we bought it, making it the best hardware investment we ever made.

Workstation: ATR HD5870

Remember that even though Project Colossus is all about building a high performance computer, as a workstation, it should be a stable work platform. Using a brand new piece of hardware (with brand new drivers) as critical as the video card is questionable, traditionally one would use a professional workstation card that’s designed specifically to work with simulation, modeling and rendering software. So, are we crazy or something? While The Colossus is a workstation, our goal was to build an all around power platform for both work and play. For the same price as the HD5870, we would have been able to afford something along the lines of a Quadro FX 1800, which should deliver gaming performance close to the midrange 9600GSO, another G94b GPU based card. All in all, a desktop card is a compromise, trading professional software performance for gaming performance. It’s still a new card with potentially unstable and/or incompatible drivers. We could have gone with a card in the HD4000 or GT200 series that would have had mature drivers. So, why the HD5870? Because we’re crazy.

Now that The Colossus put together, it’s time to test it and offer some juicy benchmark results. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we make your computer look puny.

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