Each generation of CPU architecture has its limits…so much MHz, so many transistors per mm2 . What if we want more power? Well, according to intel and nVidia, pack more of the same! The recipe seems to be working fine for CG artists, so lets see how much power we can cram in a 1P workstation.
Updated for 4930K and new Kepler Quadros and GTXs
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This build is meant to be a guideline in selecting components that ought to satisfy serious CG artists with an extended budget. CAD users that don’t render their own scenes won’t see an improvement over opting for a fast i5 system with a decent Quadro card, as even the latest versions of Autocad, Revit, ArchiCAD etc, are not multithreaded outside their rendering routines, nor utilize GPU acceleration outside their viewports to care much about extra cores and GPUs.
The “Pro”/professional tag is abused more often than not, but there is one truth behind choosing it for this build: if you don’t plan on making money with it, this build is seriously overpowered, as for most stuff it will cost a lot more yet not payback over a much more affordable 3770K or 4770K system.
Far from cheap, this workstation will provide cutting edge performance, while being cheaper from most even remotely comparable systems available form HP, Dell and Lenovo.
For the enthusiast crowd that want to push their hardware to or near its limits, the components of this workstation can easily and reliably be pushed as far or faster than the workstations available from BOXX or comparable boutiques. The 4.5-4.75GHz mark is relatively easy pushing enough Vcore through the CPU and providing enough cooling, while 5.0+GHz are possible should you opt for great cooling, a great motherboard and some luck with your particular CPU, as some do it better than others.
- CPU: Intel Core i7-4930K or Intel Core i7-3930K Hex (6) core CPUs. The benchmark for modern CPUs while still reasonably priced, the classic 3930K or the newelly introduced 4930K 6C/12T for intel’s socket 2011.
Marketed as an i7, both those CPUs are actually based on the Xeon line of CPUs, with the 49xx line being based on Ivy Bridge EP (IB-EP) architecture, and the 39xx being SandyBridge EP (SB-EP).
The 4930K improves on both base clock and IPC (IB CPUs are faster clock-per-clock than SB CPUs), but the performance difference is not great, and the 3930K remains a “current” option.
Being K series CPUs, we are dealing with “unlocked” processors, where we are free to adjust the multiplier to whatever value we want easily through the BIOS or the Windows overclocking utilities of most decent motherboards with a couple of very easy and almost fool-proof steps.
Still these are 130W rated CPUs, and even without overclocking, it will be pumping some serious heat in your case. For serious overclocking, custom water cooling is almost mandatory. A top-shelf twin-tower air coolers or closed loop AIO water coolers might still support O/Cing around the 4.5GHz mark without an issue, but then heat a thermal “wall”, as the 3930K is known to produce around 250W or more at those speeds (and the required Vcores for stability.
There is no factory cooler included in the box.
The 4930K is still a new product, and the BIOS optimizations haven’t reaced a point of maturily to draw conclusions on how overclockable this chip will be. Most reviews actually show a ceiling around 4.5GHz – where it produces considerably less heat than the 3930K – but the latter was able to reach speeds up to 5GHz or even more given proper cooling and a high-end motherboard.
- CPU Cooler: Depending on how you will treat your system, there are quite a few cooler options to go for:
- Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus. If you want a basic cooler that will do the job, it is hard to beat the value of the 212…it is cheap, and very effective while nearly silent. It is a “cookie-cutter” cross-socket choice that won’t disappoint even over a s2011 beast. Sure, this can act as a good quality “stock” cooler, it won’t be able to keep a 3930K overclocked and overvolted as succesfully as it can with much more efficient i5/i7 quads. Make sure you get a model with s2011 mounts, as there have been quite a few versions out there that don’t include them (still available separately).
- Noctua ND-14. The mother of modern twin tower air-coolers, this huge chunk of metal with dual 140mm fans is here to keep your CPU cool even at high overclocks. Practically you cannot get better noise/performance unless you opt for a custom Water cooling kit. It does have it issues, being heavy and relatively challenging to install, but it does worth it. Costs around 2 times that of a 212, and it is clearly overkill for CPUs that won’t be overclocked. Alternative air coolers of this quality are the Thermalright Silver Arrow SB-E that is a tad better yet a tad pricier than the ND-14. A common for both ND-14 and the Silver Arrow is the undifferent aesthetics. If you plan on getting a case with side window, something like the Phantek PH-TC14PE, comes in a lot of colors and though it is not better than the other two, “looks the part”. All of these three are massive, so certain limitations apply – esspecially with RAM selection. Read below.
- Corsair Hydro H100i. The current benchmark for AIO WC coolers, the H100i is not the best water cooling solution out there, but for the price it is hard to beat. The support from Corsair is also top notch, just like the warranty covering not just the unit, but also damaged components in case of a leak. It won’t impress versus a ND-14, but it is far prettier to look at, and much easier to install / remove. and won’t cause any interference with RAM dimms having large heatsinks. Costs around 3 times that of a 212, and though less of an overkill than it is on a IB i7 that relases around 77W, it is clearly not needed for a stock clocked 3930K.
- Custom WC: there are more ways to put together a custom WC loop than pretty much all of the components below combined (ok, maybe not, but still…). There are good starter kits from XSPC, Swiftech and other that can be expanded in the future to include more radiators and combine the GPU(s) in the loop. Personally I have been using a XSPC Raystorm Extreme Universal CPU Watercooling Kit w/ EX360 Radiator/D5 Pump. A good rule of thumb is adding 120mm of effective radiator area for every 100-150W of expected heat. Most 240mm rads will do a decent job for a single CPU, but plan on adding additional or bigger radiators if you plan on expanding the loop including GPUs.
- Motherboard: Asus P9X79 WS. Baring the “workstation” label, this workstation doesn’t offer much over its P9X79 Pro sibling, other than more PCIe 16x slots that will allow for 4x double slot GPUs, while the Pro would be limited to 3x double slot cards. The WS has enough VRM phases for increased stability under most overclocking conditions, a great BIOS with a plethora of tweaking options.
The Fan controls Asus builds into the motherboard are probably the best available, like the dual Gbit NICs by intel.
USB 3.0 and Sata 6GB/s is natively supported by the X79 chipset.
The WS is a a CEB sized board, that won’t fit in many mid-ATX cases. Make sure your case of choice does has room for it.
Other choices would be the aforementioned Asus P9X79 Pro which will sufice for up to 3x GPU configurations with a standard ATX format, or the Asus Rampage IV Extreme for the absolute in overclocking potential and up to 4x GPUs in the E-ATX form factor and offers the best options as far as watercooling the board itself.
Last but not least, the ASRock X79 Extreme11 is a CEB sized board that includes a LSI™ SAS 2308 8x SAS controller for those requiring a more complicated RAID array in their workstation, and can still utilize 4x GPUs without sacrificing a slot that with other boards would most likely be take by such RAID card. It is very pricey, but for those in actual need of the features (and not just e-peen) that won’t be a deal-breaker.
Both X79 Extreme 11 and P9X79 WS, offer more than 4x slots, but without PCIe risers and a custom case, you won’t be able to use more than 4x double with cards with them, in the same way you cannot use all 4x slots the P9X79 Pro has, or the 5x slots the RIVE has.
- RAM: G.SKILL Ares Series 16GB (2 x 8GB) 240-Pin SDRAM DDR3 1866 x 2.
SB-E processors’ integrate a Quad channel memory controller, that naturally leads opting for multiple of 4x dimm configurations to get maximum performance out of. Most motherboards for intel s2011 have 8x dimm slots, and the maximum the memory controller supports is 64GB. 4 x 8GB sticks will be enough for most users, yet room for growth without parting out your initial investment is still there. Prefer low profile heat-spreaders. Those offer little to no gains in reliability and stability, but might cause installation issues obstructing the use of large CPU heasinks, and even airflow to the CPU in tight situations. G.Skill Ares and Corsair Vengeance LP are good examples. Water cooling kits (both open = custom WC , or “closed” like the H100) usually easily clear larger heatsinks found in the fancier memory kits that want to impress as if performance comes out of the grams of aluminum and copper used on the heat spreader. Just know what you buy.
DDR3 1866 is far from the best out there, but I believe it is a sweetspot of price/performance. I run my X79 board with 2333 RAM and I don’t think I gain any measurable real life benefits.
- Graphics: This is a tough one. Depending on the direction you will move, this is the second most important component after the CPU, and in many ways the most important. I will list 3 options, trying to keep everyone happy:
- The old-style cookie cutter: nVidia Quadro K4000. 3GB of buffer and decent number of Kepler SMX clusters, alond with Quadro optimized drivers will allow this mid-range Quadro to perform up to high stardards under most workloads.
It is fast enough (faster than the CPU that is) for CUDA or OpenGL accelerated previews, yet not the ideal choice for larger, production images. Not a big deal, most of the CG pros out there haven’t adopted GPU renderers fully, as some of the advanced features are not still implemented – thus don’t care much for GPU performance outside their viewports.
You won’t get a better all-around card under the $1700 price range and the nVidia Quadro K5000, with the exception of the offerings by AMD like the FireGL W7000 4GB which forgoes the compatibility with CUDA applications.
Both the Quadro K4000 and the FireGL W7000 workstation cards are single slot wide, so combining them with GTX cards that will act as CUDA accelerators is pretty easy with most motherboards.
- The budget conscious: If all you do is 3D Cad and you don’t care about games or GPU accelerated rendering, then I would recommend considering and opting for a nvidia Quadro K2000. Offers the performance of the older Quadro 4000, in a cheaper, smaller and cooler package. Low to mid range Quadros will do the occasional GPU accelerated task, but limited clocks and buffer sizes will be less impressive. Quadro’s don’t look the part next to the massive GTX cards, but trust me, especially in OpenGL viewports, a Quadro K2000 will be embarrassingly faster than the gaming cards. No surprises, even the Quadro 600 is faster!
- The AIO budget CUDA Renderer: EVGA GeForce GTX 770 SC 4GB. For CUDA optimized applications, and GPU accelerated renderers like iRay, VRay RT GPU* and Octane (among others), you have to opt for nVidia*. 2GB of Vram is enough buffer for most viewport** in anything but extreme applications and scenes, but GPU renderers can ask for more. These cards can be combined for 4-way SLI, but compute tasks don’t care about SLI. As long as more than one compatible card with sufficient memory is detected, it will be utilized regardless of them being identical or physically bridged. 3D Viewports also couldn’t care less about SLI or Crossfire, as those are currently utilized only by gaming engines. The 770 is a rebadged 680 with faster VRam, and the performance increase over the older 680s and 670s is not substantial. Given you can find them for a cheaper price, any 670/680 with 4GB Ram is a direct replacement with marginal loss in performance.
- The fledged CUDA Renderer: EVGA GeForce GTX 770 SC 4GB, but rinse and repeat two or three times. Adding more cards, of course will speed up GPU computed views a lot. Viewports don’t care about SLI or multiple cards, so only the primary card having the monitor connected to it will carry the burden of accelerating your viewports. Unless you will be gaming “on the side” on your PC, make sure that VRay RT GPU, iRay etc renderers can accommodate your needs before you commit to buying more than one card. Also keep in mind that only the version of iRay that comes with 3DS Max 2013 supports the Kepler architecture and 6xx cards.
The GTX 780 is faster, but since you can buy 3x 770 SC 4GBs for the price of 2x GTX 780 3GB boards , and since 2x GTX 770s (or even 2x 670s) are already outperforming a single GTX Titan, the 670 stops being the GPU of choice after your budget is comfortable thinking in the range of multiple Titan boards or a combination of 2-3 Titan boards and a Quadro/FireGL.
- The Hybrid Pro: nVidia Quadro K4000 + 2-3x GeForce GTX 770 SC 4GB. The best of 2 worlds…Some report issues with drivers, but from my experience with 6xx, 7xx and Titan GTX cards, I had no issues adding them as head-less accelerators to systems running with K2000, 2000 and 4000 Quadros as primary cards. Not a single glitch. Don’t expect the gaming power of the GTX cards on demand though. Switching monitor(s) to the GTX and re-installing drivers is a must if you want to game in a PC with both Quadro (or FirePro) and GTX cards co-existing. On the other hand, GPGPU programs and progressive renderers recognize all available compatible cards without issues.
- SSD: Samsung 840 Pro 256GB. Probably the fastest consumer SATA drive at the moment, from the company with the best reliability record for the last couple of years. A 128GB drive is enough for most users wishing to add OS and basic CG apps, but 256GB will allow you for more flexibility + the ability to store most of your current projects without worrying too much about space. The 840 Pro series is based on MLC nand, instead of the “vanilla” 840 and 840 EVO that are based on TLC and will have a relatively shorter lifespan. Recent tests have proven that even TLC drivers offer an operational lifespan that will probably outlast most workstations, and you should feel safe as when SSD controllers sense the cells reaching their limits, they suspend writes. The data inside the drive will be readable and transferable to other devices, unlike HDDs where recovery after failure is a hugely more difficult.
Note: SSDs are offering considerable boost in loading times for all apps and the overall responsiveness of the system. Still the performance benefits for most CG applications as far as rendering speed and viewport performance are negligible or nonexistent, with the slight exception of video editing with multiple streams of HD video. A smaller, or no SSD is the obvious choice for the budget conscious builder that doesn’t want to sacrifice real performance.
- HDD: Western Digital Caviar Black 2 TB. Most >1TB 7200rpm drives are fast, but the WD Black line is at the moment the only one offering 5 years warranty, while competitors (and WD Green/Blues) give 2-3years. I would get the extra coverage over 5% performance any day. Combining two of the above drives in RAID 1 (mirroring) mode, will allow for the much safer storage of critical data in your system.
- Case: Antec P280 Black Midi Case. There is a huge selection of cases available out there, offering a variety of features and aesthetics. The P280 is a simple and elegant design that works, offers some sound-dampening lining, has decent cable management options, can fit most large air coolers and closed loop AIO water coolers up to 240mm like the Corsair H100 without any modifications.
More importantly, it was chosen for the 9 expansion slots, that allow for more flexibility when planning to use 3x double slot GPUs and still fit the single slot Quadro or FireGL in there, as the different arrangements in the PCIe 16x slots in many motherboards make it hard with most 7 or 8 slot cases – usually for the cards being in the far bottom slot. The P280 is one of the few 9-slot Midi ATX cases available that can fit a CEB board, and it is pretty good value. Feel free to substitute with any unit that suits your aesthetics, given it will accommodate your equipment properly.
- PSU: Corsair AX1200i 80+ Platinum. Should you opt for multiple cards and wish to overclock a socket 2011 CPU, a large capacity unit is mandatory. For a Quadro + 2x GTX setup, most likely the Corsair AX860i 80+ Platinum will be more than enough, but if you want to go “all-out”, a large unit is recommended.
People get over-zealous with their PSUs, opting for high capacity units that most likely will be greatly underutilized. It is not wise to get a PSU that you know will be stressed to more than 75% of its capacity for prolonged time, so I would never advocate on “low-balling” to save money, and potentially sacrificing stability or risking down-time due to a blown PSU.
For a stock clock 3930K and a couple of cards, a quality 650W would probably be sufficient, but the 860 gives some room for future growth and will allow the PSU to operate closer to its sweet spot. Most likely the next generation of GPUs will be more power efficient, so you will end up using even less power should you upgrade in a couple of years. The 80+ Gold and above certifications, usually are limited to high quality units, so opting for one nearly ensures longevity ontop of measurable energy savings over time. The digital modulation in these latest Corsair units is promising to be improvement over the already great designs we had seen by Seasonic already.
- Optical Drive: Optical Drives (ODs) are rarely utilized the last few years. Broadband connections, cloud storage and affordable flash drives are replacing them. For most ODs are limited to installing new software and OS. A Lite-On IHAS124-04 or Asus DRW-24B3ST would do the trick.
- Operating System: Windows 7 Professional SP1 64bit (OEM) Windows OS is guaranteeing compatibility with most rendering packages, including 3DS Max. If your distributed rendering will be focused in Maya, you could actually get away with Linux as client packages for VRay are available.
Windows 7 Home editions are limited to 16GB of RAM. Professional and Ultimate versions allow up to 128GB, and offer some additional networking/remote access features that are desirable.
* Latest drivers seem to restore compatibility of 79xx Radeon GPUs and the OpenCL version of Vray RT GPU, but performance is not there yet. In theory the GCN architecture smokes both Fermi and Kepler GTX cards in OpenCL (in most OpenCL benchmarks a $200 or less HD 7950 is notably faster than a GTX Titan), but current performance levels are too low to consider the issues with the drivers resolved.
** GPU memory utilization rarely breaks the 1.3GB barrier in our standardized viewport performance tests, and floats around 1/3 of that when large textures are not displayed or included in a scene.