Steven Powers (SMP): How to Build and Design a CG Workstation

How to Build and Design a CG Workstation


I believe that every digital artist should have a working knowledge of the tools that they use, which also includes the workstation. In this article I will cover the design options and consideration in building my recent workstation.

Applications and How The Workstation will be Used:
"Workstation" refers to a powerful PC or MAC that can do more than what most people use them for. At one time a system with multiple cores and a lot of memory would be custom made for large companies and would costs 100's of thousands of dollars or more. Now for around $1000 we can do build systems for personal use.

What will we use this workstation for? What must if be able to do? That is the question you need to ask yourself. In this case I needed a system that could be capable rendering 3D sequences with Blender, Photoshop CS5 and desktop records such as CamStudio or Camtasia. Which may all be running at the same time along with multiple tabs in Firefox, word and CeltX. Basically I needed to be able to multitask. So I needed a lot of CPU cores, as much memory as possible and a video card capable doing a lot of the rendering tasks instead of using the CPU. So the GPU needed a large amount of it's own memory and be CUDA or OpenCL compliant.

System Requirements / Options:
With the answer to"What do I need this PC to do?" it is time to look at the specific components available. The realm of digital arts encapsulates 3D graphics, image editing / manipulation, digital painting applications and video. All of which require solid quality components. Keep that in mind when you try to balance cost and quality.
  • Staring with the CPU we have two options. AMD or Intel. We could go with a new 8 Core processor from AMD or 6 Core from Intel. Now Intel processors offer Multi-Threading on their CPU which offers a notable performance increase over AMD's new 8 Core FX CPUs but they come at a much higher price, which is one of the reasons I chose AMD over Intel. Both of these choices dictated a new motherboard. The other issue with Intel is that every couple of years they require a motherboard upgrade in conjunction with new CPU's, which brings us to the two different types of upgrades ...minor and major. Minor upgrades can be done one component at a time and usually involves adding memory, upgrading GPU or CPU. Major upgrades involve also changing motherboards in conjunction with the other components and is done all at once, such is the case with this upgrade. One can save money by minimizing the number of major upgrades, hence another reason for AMD over Intel.
  • Memory is dependent on the motherboard. So I wanted at least 16 gig of DDR3 with the option to add to that. With DDR3 being half the price of DDR2 and faster, I knew I needed a new motherboard.
  • A new motherboard (MoBo) was required for both the CPU and RAM upgrade. With AMD boards being cheaper than their Intel counterparts it was again a factor in my choice for AMD over Intel. Now since I knew which type of motherboard and socket type (each CPU has a specific socket type which dictates the motherboards that are available), I needed to find a quality one with great features such as USB 2 and 3, 6 SATA ports or more, external USB ports, high customer reviews and price.
  • In the end I chose an AMD FX8150, GSkill 32Gb of DDR3 1600mhz RAM and an ASUS Sabertooth 990FX motherboard. The 990FX is the new chipset for AMD boards. The GSkill memory was based on price and reviews. Not all memory is verified for everybody, so check the manufacturer's website for a list of approved memory. Keep in mind that even if it isn't on the list doesn't mean it doesn't work. Quality brand name parts usually are the best route to go. I had issues with a Gigabyte MoBo that I tried based on price and ended up with another Asus board. I have used Asus boards in the past without any issues and they have lasted longer than the workstations did.
Design Considerations:

Motherboard: The primary design concerns that should be considered with the motherboard are options such as socket type, memory type, number of memory slots. The socket type must match the CPU socket and you should have at least 4 slots for memory modules along with DDR3 support. You want to make sure that there are enough internal SATA ports for hard drive and optical drives. Somewhere around 6-8 with no less than 6. The MoBo should support both USB 2.0 and 3.0 along with eSata.

Case: The case will have to accommodate the motherboard type. In this case (and in most workstations) it should be ATA. Check the physical dimensions of the board under specifications. We want to have enough space to maneuver, at least 4 hard drive bays, PSU installation at the bottom of the case instead of the top and good airflow with front, rear, side and top mounts for fans. It is nice if the case comes with fans, but always you good quality fans with long life and good reviews. Since most workstations stay on 24/7, the fans will wear out and need replacement. One last thing, is to consider where the PC will be sitting. If on carpet, make sure that the case has large feet that elevate the bottom of the case of the carpet. This will increase airflow for the PSU if bottom mounted.

GPU (Video Card): Onboard graphics do not work for workstations or any graphic intensive application such as Photoshop, Blender, Maya, 3DMax, video editing software etc. If you use Maya, make sure that you only use certified cards, but keep in mind that they will be much more than consumer cards. Fortunately I stopped using Maya years back due to that limitation. Blender supports GeForce and ATI cards without any issues. Keep in mind you do not need the newest, but it should be as much as you can afford with at least 1Gb of DDR5.
  • A very important feature of newer cards is the support of CUDA or OpenCL. Both allow the GPU's to be used for rendering instead of the CPU, which increase the speed of rendering quite a lot. The use of either is dependent on the software and if it was coded to utilize CUDA or OpenCL. Blender has the option for both, but there seems to be more applications that support CUDA at the moment. CUDA is on nVidia cards and OpenCL is on ATI cards. Even though I am a big fan of AMD who happens to own ATI, I still chose an nVidia 560ti form EVGA which is overclocked and offers 2Gb of DDR5 memory. It works great for Blender's new render engine Cycles.
Hard Drives:  A component that I did not upgrade this time but is slotted for the future were the hard drives. I have had issues with various manufactures until I found Western Digital drives to be very dependable.  There are tow basic types, disc or solid state with either SATA 2 or 6.  The later capable of 6GB/sec transfer speed.  The faster disc drives are 10,000 RPMs but I use the 7200 RPM drives due to higher capacity, but the fastest drives are the solid state drives.  The performance boost will come with running the fast drive as your C drive with the OS and all of the programs.  So using a solid state drive will give an immediate performance boost.  But do your research and check the reviews.  In most cases 120Gig drive is sufficient for an OS and applications. So unless you are thinking of creating a duel-boot system or planning on segmenting a section for production, the higher capacity isn't warranted.

Power Supply (PSU): One component that is usually an after thought is the PSU.  This is something that you should never skimp on.  Buy a brand name power supply with at least 650 watts.  It will have to power your entire system and the new GPU's can drain a lot of that power.  In this case I was able to use my old PSU which was 650 watts.

    Interior of Workstation

    Links of Main Components:
    Hope this Helps,

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