Winter 2014 Workstation Hardware Guide

BOXX-winter-guide

Configuring the ideal workstation for your specific workflow can be daunting task. That’s why our in-house performance specialists are ready to take your call, providing expert advice and consultation. But if you’re more comfortable browsing our website and determining for yourself which BOXX solution is right for you, we’ve prepared this helpful guide.

The Processor – Cores and Threads vs Frequency

Did you know that there are, across our full line of BOXX workstations, approximately one hundred possible processor configurations? That’s a sizable amount to wade through, but aside from budget constraints, the selection process all boils down to one key feature—CPU cores, or more specifically, how fast and how many. Modern workstations feature a range from four to up to eighteen cores, and on top of those cores, many include hyper threading, which theoretically doubles the system’s ability to process threads (but does not double its performance.) In the simplest definition, threads are ordered sequences of instructions that tell a CPU what to do. You undoubtedly recognize speed as measured in GHz (1000 MHz), so understand that typically, lower core count CPUs run at a faster frequency while higher core count CPUs (running lots of threads) will operate at lower frequencies.

Deciding on what you need, beyond budgetary constraints, is actually quite easy based upon what you’re actually doing within your workflow.

  • Frequency-bound applications or actions like the interactive portions of popular professional applications found in SolidWorks or Autodesk 3ds Max, (creating and manipulating 3D objects, etc.) benefit from CPU frequency more than cores. That’s why we offer safe overclocking, which provides up to 25% more performance by unlocking the built-in frequency headroom found inside Intel CPUs. For these interactive activities that are primarily single threaded, we offer overclocked Intel Core i7 processors. The APEXX 2 Model 2401 is our maximum frequency workstation. Read more about BOXX overclocking.

  • Highly-threaded applications or actions, like rendering or simulation, love cores. In fact, their affection for cores is so great that the performance increase is almost linear. You can actually multiply the frequency of a processor by the number of cores (or threads, but be consistent) in order to arrive at its “aggregate” frequency. This enables you to determine which system will be fastest. There are, however, instances where core frequency will matter during rendering or simulation, and we’re happy to discuss your individual workflow in order to determine if that should be a matter of concern. For multi-threaded activities like rendering or simulation, we recommend Intel Xeon processors with high thread counts. The APEXX 4 Model 7901 is our highest core and thread count dual Xeon platform.


 

Single-threaded activities like higher base frequencies, and in the left graph you'll see that frequency decreases as thread count increases. Rendering and simulation activities scale linearly in performance because aggregate frequency matters, as show in the graph on the right.

Getting the best of both worlds

"But wait," you might ask, "what if I my workflow requires both higher frequencies for interactive activities AND high thread counts for rendering or simulation?" We've got you covered. The optimal workflow solution would be to combine our maximum frequency, overclocked APEXX 2 Model 2401 desktop workstation with a BOXX renderPRO, the only desk-side rendering and simulation solution that provides you with dedicated, dual Xeon processors that allow you to offload your rendering and simulation activities from your primary workstation so you can continue creating without waiting.

The GPU

The graphics processing unit (GPU) is primarily responsible for what you see on your screen. GPUs come in all flavors from NVIDIA and AMD. They all include compute units like a CPU, albeit very different in function, as well as other engines and circuitry that set up polygons, create realistic lighting, and apply life-like textures to a 3D image. Many professional applications rely on the GPU instead of a CPU for computationally intensive tasks. Like the CPU, you can break down the type and number of GPUs by usage case.

  • 3D Design/Modeling - The interactive portions of applications like 3ds Max, Maya, Revit, SolidWorks, and others rely on the GPU to keep frame rates up for smooth panning, zooming, and rotating when creating and manipulating 3D objects. However, in most of the cases, these applications are frequency bound as we discussed in the CPU section of this guide. They also don’t take advantage of multiple GPUs. With that in mind, while you can get away with a basic NVIDIA Quadro or AMD FirePro graphics card for passable performance, we typically recommend a mid-range variant. Selecting a high end graphics card may not do much more for you other than drain your wallet, so please contact a BOXX performance specialist if you need further clarification regarding GPU selection.

  • Rendering and Simulation - The GPU can also work in the background as a rendering or simulation device, operating exponentially faster than a CPU in applications where it is supported. Examples include GPU rendering engines like V-Ray RT, Iray, or Octane, and simulation applications CATIA or ANSYS. In most of these cases, multiple GPUs are supported and investing in higher end GPUs will result in linear performance gains, so each dollar spent will yield incremental increases in performance.

  • Large Display Arrays - GPUs can also drive large arrays of high resolution display devices. In this case, it’s not so much the horsepower of a GPU, but rather the GPU memory available. Typically, the memory required to drive six, eight, ten or more 4K panels can only be found on top flight GPUs.

NVIDIA has excellent recommendations for your workflow. Click on your application below for more information:

Don't see your application? Our performance specialists are well versed in your workflow and can tailor a configuration that's right for you.

NVIDIA Quadro vs GeForce and AMD FirePro vs Radeon

NVIDIA and AMD design GPUs primarily for two markets: consumers and professionals. Oftentimes, their professional products are adapted from their consumer products and vice versa. While sometimes you can save money by buying a consumer grade GPU, it is not usually recommended for most cases. The primary reason to purchase a professional GPU would be its drivers. Drivers are the intermediary software that resides between your GPU, the operating system (OS), and the application you’re running. Quadro and FirePro drivers have been tested and certified to work with professional applications, while their consumer counterparts, GeForce and Radeon, have not. Uncertified drivers can lead to rendering errors and will negatively impact your workflow. Professional GPUs are also built to last, designed to operate 24/7 at peak workload without failure. They have stricter quality control and are made with better materials (capacitors, fans, etc.) In addition, they may include specialized features like GPU synchronization or exotic display outputs. However, at BOXXlabs, we’ve found that consumer GPUs can be used for rendering or simulation and that can save you money. We do encourage you to speak with one of our performance specialists to see if it is safe to run a consumer GPU within your workflow.

Hard Drives

Believe it or not, the speed of your storage can make a noticeable impact on your day to day work. There are two types of storage devices: mechanical drives that feature spinning platters, and solid state drives that have no moving parts. To sum up the difference between these two technologies, one merely needs to look at the numbers. Seek times, the latency of a drive when retrieving data, are measured in milliseconds on a mechanical drive, while on a solid state drive, they’re measured in nanoseconds. Additionally, sustained read times can be upwards of four to five times higher on an SSD, with random read speeds reaching exponential differences. So, from booting up your machine, to opening up your application, to loading and closing large data sets, every workstation can benefit from an SSD. The only reason one should not purchase an SSD is if it is not within your budget. SSDs are more expensive and you get less storage for your money. We typically recommend a 240GB SSD or higher for installation of the OS and applications with a mechanical storage drive for archiving data and projects.

For more information on HDD vs SSD speed, watch the video:

The best SSDs we offer at this time are Intel 730 series SSDs, and you can see their specifications below:

Intel 730 series SSDs are the pinnacle of SATA-based SSD technologies offering high performance and enterprise-class reliability.

Intel 730 series SSDs are the pinnacle of SATA-based SSD technologies offering high performance and enterprise-class reliability.[/caption]

RAM

When it comes to memory, overkill is not necessarily a bad thing. And unfortunately, it’s hard to say exactly how much is optimal for your workflow. We recommend you open up your task manager and look at your RAM usage while you’re working. If you find that during your most intensive tasks you’re not coming within 30% of your maximum RAM amount, you’re probably in a safe range in regards to the amount of memory you need. However, more RAM means more room for multitasking, so having more RAM than necessary for a single application can be beneficial to your overall workflow. At a minimum, we recommend 16GB of RAM as a starting point, while large data sets for simulation, complex RAW file editing, large scenes with lots of polygons and textures in 3D applications, and lots of complex parts in engineering applications will all benefit from more RAM. All BOXX desktop workstations can be upgraded to their maximum RAM configuration at a later time in their lifecycle, so be sure to speak with our performance specialists as to your specific configuration’s upgradeability.

We offer two types of memory: DDR3 and DDR4. DDR4 memory is the latest iteration of memory technology, and it provides two immediate benefits to anyone looking to buy a custom workstation: bandwidth and module density. Bandwidth allows the CPU to do more calculations, faster, and module density means that you can fit more memory onto a physical stick of memory, allowing for more overall memory to be installed in a system. Currently, we offer DDR4 memory on the APEXX 2 Models 3201, 3401, and APEXX 4 Models 7201, 7401, and 7901.

ddrbandwidth2

moduledensity

Fill out the form here and BOXX performance specialist will get in touch with you to discuss your specific needs, or call 1-877-877-2699.