CG Workstation – The “Pro” – Overkill edition

“If brute force is not the answer for your problem, you are not using enough”.
This appears to be the way of thinking for both intel and nVidia when they’ve pieced together the leading characters in this theatrical performance  of single CPU, multi GPU overkill!

This build is meant to satisfy the wildest reasonable dreams a CG artist could wish for – or at least take a confident stab at. Far from affordable, this workstation will provide cutting edge performance, hard to be rivaled by anything commercially available in 1P systems today.

CAD users that don’t render their own scenes won’t see an improvement over opting for a fast i5 system with a decent single 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 system, or wait for the upcoming 4770.

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 i7-3970X. The current s2011 flagship from intel, offers 6C/12T with 3.5GHz base speed and up to 4.0GHz Turboboost. The marketed as a 3rd Gen of intel core CPUs, this s2011 is based on the 32nm Sandy Bridge EP architecture seen on E5 Xeons. In the “Extreme i7” line, ( loses a couple of cores and some cache (top of the line SB-EP Xeons are 8C/16T wtih 20MB L3), but gains a significant boost in clock speeds. The resulting “i7” CPUs are bringing to the table some of the fastest single core performance figures (still outperformed by any Ivy Bridge i5 or i7 with similar clocks), a slightly increased TDP and 50% “more” in multithreaded performance in comparison to the best quad core i7 out there.
    The X in the extreme line, just like with the K series indicates an “unlocked” processor, 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 this is a 150W rated CPU, and even without overclocking, it will be pumping some serious heat in your case. For serious overclocking, custom water cooling is almost mandatory: 5.0GHz speeds are more than doable, but recorded to release upwards of 250W of heat. 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.
    The X CPUs are higher clocked to boot, and according to some users are of slightly higher qualit
  • CPU Cooler: Depending on how you will treat your system, there are quite a few cooler options to go for:
  1. Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus. If you want a basic cooler that will do the job not enough, it is hard to beat the value of the 212…it is cheap, and very effective while nearly silent. It is a “cookie-cutter” choice that won’t disappoint.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 39xx CPU.
  4. 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. Any 240mm or larger kit is a good base.
  • 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.
    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  2133MHz RipjawsX  32GB  Quad Channel kit 4x8GB x2.
    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 2133 or faster kits are not available with low profile heatspreaders, so if you want to go with a large air heatsink for your CPU, perhaps you should opt for a 1866 kit, or remove the heatspreaders from a faster kit.
    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:
  1. Viewport GPU: nVidia Quadro K5000 4GB. Yes, I know, the Quadro K6000 12GB is more overkill than that, but I guess the fully unleashed heart of a GTX 680 with 4GB ECC will suffice for most of us. It is a tad faster than the Fermi based Quadro 5000, and it pairs with the rest of the Kepler boys below.
  2. Computation GPUs: EVGA GTX Titan 6GB x3. Won’t beat a GTX 670 in performance/$, but that doesn’t make it anything less than the fastest single GPU for computation tasks before you really blow some cash towards a K20 Tesla board which would set you back more than 3x Titans combined…yeah, think it is not a bad compromise. You still get a huge 6GB buffer (would be ECC with the K20, but…) that should be more than enough for those that hate to compromise (read: optimize their models for GPU renderers). 3x GTX 690s would be faster of course, would cost the same but also run louder, hotter and limited to 2GB per GPU…choices, choices. The GTX Titan reference board is used by all companies supplying it. There are factory overclocked versions, but don’t offer anything really important above the basic model, sharing the same cooling solution which overclocks pretty good out of the box.
  • SSD: 2x Samsung 840 Pro 256GB – RAID 0. The bigger, the better. Right?
    Probably the fastest consumer SATA drive at the moment, from the company with the best reliability record for the last couple of years. 1TB or stripped SSD speeds should be enough for those dealing with multiple HD video streams. E-peen for the rest. Larger capacities are of course fair game for those that need more capacity.
  • 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.
    There are larger capacities available, and depending on the motherboard you might have open the optionfor RAID 5 (3 or more drivers required).
  • Case: Silveright TJ11. Little to be said for this case…it is great looking, offers a well-received interior layout that works well with multiple cards, has enough auxiliary spaces to be re-configured for custom water cooling and cool mods, costs $600. The last is the most important reason you don’t see this one more often. There is a large number of good full-atx towers that can satisfy the needs for airflow, quad SLI etc, starting as low as $100, but few have its “blink”.
  • PSU: Corsair AX1200i 80+ Platinum.  The digital modulation in these latest Corsair units is promising to be improvement over the already great designs we had seen by Seasonic already. A 1500W like the XXXXXXXXXXXXX could leave some more headroom, but most likely the AX1200i will hold its own against the 3x titans, the lean Quadro and the fiery SB-E CPU.
  • Optical Drive: Well, throw in a BD-R in there for the sake of it.

  • 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.

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