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Building Orac-1

For the last 10 years my creative digital works have been produced on my server class PC (good old HAL) running a pair of original dual core hyperthreading Xeons with 8GB of RAM and a pair of 2TB 7200rpm Seagate Barracuda hard disk drives. It was a blindingly fast machine, 10 years ago, with the Dual-CPUs benchmarking at a relative score of around 1,000. These days a respectably powered PC running on, say, a single i7-8700k CPU will benchmark at a relative score of around 16k; HAL was clearly very long in the tooth...

So it was time for a new machine - the ORAC-1.


I could have goneout and bought pretty much any desktop PC and seen a massive improvement on the venerable HAL, but I wanted a spec that would work for me over the next 7 to 10 years - which meant squeezing as much performance out of a resonably budgetted machine with some room for enhancement as time goes by.

Mid to high-end desktop PCs excel in performance, in so far as they go, but they suffer some severe limits. Most desktops won't take more than 32GB of RAM, and tend to have pretty measly PCI-e expansion capability (typically with a single x16 and a couple of x8 or x4 slots).

32GB of RAM is certainly tasty by today's standards, but then 10 years ago the 8GB I fully populated HAL with was also pretty impressive. I would have been very happy with 32GB right now, but I just don't believe that will certainly be sufficient in 5 or more years' time.

With regards future expansion, the PCI-e bus is critical. This bus provides the fastest possible interface to the CPUs and is pretty much where any future expansion will be added - most obviously nVME drives that operate around 5x the speed of SSDs on SATA III. nVME drives are way too expensive right now, but I expect the prices will come down over the next 3 years - at which point I will want spare PCI-e x16 slots to add 8TB or so of nVME storage.

So my desire to cater for more than 32GB or RAM and to ensure I have plenty of available PCI-e lanes led me back to a dual Xeon architecture - in the last 10 years however markets have matured so now it is not simply a choice between single-CPU desktop or multi-CPU server class machines; we have the option of Workstations too!

I've talked above about the RAM and PCI-e bus limitations that desktop architetcures tend to have - but there are a few over key differences too. Desktops typically don't support ECC (error correcting) RAM, and generally are not built to the same reliability levels as server class machines. Desktops though are, generally much quieter in operation.

I've very much enjoyed how HAL never failed on me. It was a refurb when I bought it and it ran for me for a further 10 years with ne'er a single BSOD (Blue Screen of Death). It was an incredibly loud machine though. Certainly we'd have to turn the telly up to max if we were watching while HAL was busy working away.

So for server class expandability and reliability with Desktop class quiet operation, I elected to buy a Workstation class machine. These are kind of expensive though. A Dell Alienware based around the i7-9800X (benchmarking at 20k) with 64GB of DDR4 RAM and 1TB of M.2 PCI-e SSD storage is around £4k new. I wanted something close to this spec, but at around half the price; of course these machines are so expensive because they're using the very latest technology - but it is quite possible to achieve the similar overall performance by using higher-spec older tech...

The i7-9800X CPU benchmarks at around 20k and costs nigh on £700, cpu only. A pair of E5-2680 v1 Xeon processors benchmark at 18k (~10% less performant) but will cost less than £350 for a pair (in fact you'll find them for less than £100 each if you're happy to self fit them).

A more modern CPU will support more modern RAM of course. Version 1 E5 Xeons support DDR3 whereas the i7 supports DDR4. DDR4 is not in itself a faster RAM technology than DDR3 - so DDR4-2400MHz RAM is the same effective speed as DDR3-2400MHz RAM. DDR4 RAM does consume less power.

So consider that DDR4-2400MHz RAM is pretty much 80% faster than DDR3-1333MHz RAM, but then it's about 2.5x the price... sure it'd be nice to have the fastest RAM possible, but a 80% uplift in speed for a 250% uplift in cost clearly demonstrates the premium that latest tech brings to the game.

The final major concern to take in to account is the speed of the mass storage. However, latest storage technology is hosted on the PCI-e bus which (right now) remains at Gen 3 even in the fastest machines on the market. The real concern here then lies in how many PCI-e lanes the CPU can support, since the more it offers the more PCI-e based storage you'll be able to add. The i7-9800X has a fairly generous 44 lanes, but then each E5-2680 provisions 40 lanes, or 80 in total in a Dual CPU set-up.

So for around £4k you can buy a brand new Alienware PC based a CPU benchmarking at 20k (i7-9800X) with 64GB of 2400MHz RAM and 44 PCI-e Gen.3 lanes (=2 x16, 1 x8 and 1 x4 PCI-e slots)

OR

For under £2K a refurb Workstation with a similarly powered CPU (2xE5-2680), twice the RAM at half the speed (128GB 1333MHz) and twice the number of PCI-e GGen.3 lanes (for super fast future mass storage expansion).

In fact, the final configuration for ORAC-1 came in at around £2k with a specification that would cost something like £8k to buy new - albeit with slightly slower RAM and SSDs (which I can live with for a £6k saving, and I still have the option of switchng to faster SSDs on the PCI-e bus whenever I want to).

So having decided on buying a refurb workstation (in fact a HP Z820) I then had to balance my budget, what would be the exact right chioces of CPUs, RAM and storage options...

Ultimately I bought from Intelligent Servers, who I'm happy to link to from here as they really did give me great service (and they haven't insentivised me to say that!)

Initially I expected to buy a bare bones chassis and cpu combination - adding RAM, graphics card and storage from other suppliers. The bare bones configuration was listed at just over £1k. When I added the RAM, video, and (single) SSD that I needed the price was coming out at around £2.1k. I felt the SSD and Video Cards were certainly over priced and that I should be able to source those significantly cheaper.

However I got into a conversation with their on-line chat team as I wanted to check the precise difference between v1 and v2 Z820 workstations and they ultimately reduced the quoted cost of my full spec from the online configurator by just about 1/3rd; so even though as a geek I'd rather fill in a webform than speak to a human, it was actually worth doing so in this scenario!!!

In order to decide which CPUs I wanted fitting I drew up a table of cpubenchmarks for each option, versus the cost of each - and of course I drew a picture:


I felt if I spent less than half the cost of the i7-9800X for at least 80% of its benchmarked performance I'd be in a good value space. Looking at the chart I could have opted for the much cheaper E5-2660s, but the final price I paid on the CPUs was very much lower than the configurator offered.

I bought the machine with an SSD (primarilly so it could come pre-installed with a Win 10 License). I paired this SSD with that from my old system in a RAID 0 stripe - this gives me 1TB of system disk storage that runs at twice the speed of a regular SATA III SSD (Crystal Disk Mark software has verified this to be the case!). This is still some way from the speeds of nVME disks, but it is significantly faster than a regular set-up at no more expense (since the Z820 comes with an 8 channel RAID controller).

My plan then was to bring my old system's hard disks over and to continue using those as my day-to-data data drives until I could afford some nVMEs in a couple of years. I did bring those disks over, but that still left me with 4 unused 6Gb/s disk channels and 2 free 5.25" drive bays. Plus I'd saved a lot on the base system and was still £400 under budget.

I had the budget for another 4 SSDs and the RAID channel capacity to host them, so a quick search found the HP 4-in-1 SFF 5.25" card cage; so for under £400 I added 2TB of SSD storage running at 3x typical SATA III SSD speeds for my data drive (using 4 x Samsung EVO 860 500GB SSDs in a RAID 0 stripe).

so even though I haven't added any nVME drives as yet I have 3TB of damn fast SSD storage and 4TB of internal on-line HDD archive storage. All in a machine with plentty of fast storage expansion capability (courtesy of 80 PCI-e lanes supplied by Dual Xeon CPUS!) in the future...

If ORAC-1 brings me 7 to 10 years of service then that will be equivalent to a daily cost of between 80ppd and 56ppd, I think between us we can earn that...

I mostly write (MS-Word) and post-process high-res digital photos on my PC, but also sometimes create video, 3D printable objects, or (and moreso) record audio. I wanted to create a permament audio recording set-up so that I would more readilly create audio. The configuration I settled on is shown in the schematic below and in total cost under £400.


Most notably I elected to buy standard Hi-Fi speakers for monitoring rather than 'active' speakers. The lowest price recommended Active speakers I found were KRK RP5 G3 at around £240 for a pair. Since I wanted a budget audio recording solution, and since you can't go wrong listening to any Mordaunt Shorts, I bought M20 bookshelf speakers and an ultra simple £50 amp. The amp has no selector switches (it has one stereo input) and no tone circuitry - so very little that can interfere with the quality of the audio monitor. The budget for the audio set-up broke-down roughly to:

Mic stand including all extra hardware: £100
Audio and Midi interfaces: £90
Speakers and Amp: £140
Switch & Cables £50
TOTAL COST ex-Mic: £370

I already have an SM58, but you can find good condenser mics for under £150 - so a budget home audio recording setup is possible for under £500.

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