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Building a compact low power high performance workstation

Feature Not an oxymoron anymore
Wed May 26 2010, 17:07

GRAPHICS WORKSTATIONS are the pinnacle of the individual user system hierarchy, sitting above high-end desktops and usually including higher end hardware than even most dual processor servers. They take the best CPUs, usually in pairs, the largest and fastest ECC memory, expensive OpenGL 3D graphics and matching storage, networking and high resolution monitors. All that means 1,000W and higher PSUs are the norm in such systems as well as large cases and even larger system costs.

Now, in line with green computing initiatives, how about shrinking the powerful workstation's size, power bill as well as by extension cost while keeping most of its performance and expandability? Here I attempted an updated experiment with all the components needed to squeeze a top notch dual CPU 3D workstation into a PC-sized ATX case, a good one at that, with a matching 'green' PC power supply.

The choice of CPU wasn't too hard. As Intel's top of the line 130W Xeon model X5680 is a little too hot for the power saving configurations, and the L-series low power Xeons are more for datacentre blade applications, I decided to stick to the middle, opting to use the Intel 95W 2.8GHz Dual Xeon X5660 six-core Westmere-EP processor chip. It still has all the Hyperthreading and Turbo Boost gadgetry, as well as full speed DDR3-1333 memory support across six channels on the mainboard, three per CPU socket.

For the mainboard, the Asus Z8NA-D6 mainboard was there already, an ATX-sized dual CPU full featured board that we reviewed with the low power L5530 Nehalem Xeon dual processor chips earlier. It has a design different from Intel's reference Nehalem boards with solid capacitors, but unfortunately it doesn't support the 130W CPU models at all.

For the memory, to keep the full performance at DDR3-1333 but with lower power, I used the new kit of six 4GB for a total of 24GB Crucial LV DDR3-1333 ECC Registered 1.35V memory DIMMs made by Micron. The 20 per cent lower power consumption of the modules does help when all six modules are used.

For the case, the compact, well made Xigmatek Asgard chasis was chosen as ATX size mainboards fit it precisely while still leaving room for all the peripherals and decent cooling. Xigmatek's 700W Green PSU here should be more than powerful enough for the whole system including the 160GB Intel X25-M SSD drive as well as the single-slot Nvidia Quadro FX3800 OpenGL 3D graphics card that I used. In fact, I also successfully ran the whole system with an old MGE 500W PSU with a power usage LCD display. Interestingly, the fan-equipped Xigmatek was just as silent, even during 3Dmark benchmarks, as the fanless heat-pipe based MGE PSU.

Now we've got a fully fledged dual processor workstation without any major performance compromises within the body of a normal PC and, in fact, standard Intel Core i7 reference heat sink fans could easily be used without the need for complex cooling since the CPUs run at only 2.93GHz in Turbo mode.

How were the power readings for the full system excluding the DVD drive? At boot in BIOS, we saw 174 watts here. It went down to 149 watts while idle in Windows, but then up to 262 watts when running 3Dmark Vantage. This is comparable to a single CPU six-core Core i7 980X by the way, and here we have a 12-core machine with six memory channels. As for the total cost as per May prices in the US, putting together the system as above would cost you slightly under $4,000 without the Quadro card, and a few hundred more if you get the FX3800 from Ebay - the official price of the card is far more. Talking about the price, the 'branded' versions of such a setup would cost you about a half more at present, if referring to US prices.

In summary, the system design exercise here proved that modern workstations need not be huge, expensive monsters. A small, PC-like good quality case can hold the whole dual CPU shebang with large memory and the rest, including a powerful OpenGL card. I could even have put the upcoming Nvidia Quadro FX5900 graphics card in there - the 6GB GDDR5 OpenGL professional version of the GeForce GTX480 - and the PSU would likely still be able to handle it all nicely.

And as for overclocking? The SoftFSB utility in Windows is the only way, and you can push up the base clock to 138MHz instead of 133MHz easily, resulting in slightly over 3GHz real clock rate after Turbo Boost kicks in, which is of course still well within the power envelope. Nevertheless, a 12-core 3GHz workstation machine in a compact, almost luggable, configuration isn't a bad idea after all, especially when the power and cost budgets match the expectations too. µ


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