Engineering your own kick-ass CAD workstation build on a budget
An engineer is particular about his/her tools, and there's no more important or personal an engineering tool these days than the CAD workstation. While you could just fork over your hard-earned cash for a turnkey CAD configuration designed for corporate sensibilities, you want a PC engineered your way. You want serious CAD power, but at reasonable prices. We can build it. We have the technology.
Since we're talking DIY builds, we're leaving laptops at the curb and focusing on desktops for now. While it's certainly possible to crank out a custom laptop, it's much like building a Hackintosh or a steam-powered giraffe: intellectually stimulating yes, but also ultimately pointless. We'll hit the highlights today, and can deep dive into your favorite topics in future posts.
Choose your own path in the certification labyrinth
What often causes the most confusion in spec'ing or upgrading a custom CAD rig is defining performance requirements that lead to choosing the right gear. While minimum CPU, RAM, and OS requirements are both easily discovered and rather universal, the moment you bring graphics cards into the mix, you plunge into the confusing quagmire of CAD hardware certifications. CAD software traditionally has been very sensitive to perturbations in the graphics pipeline, and the solution has been rather low-tech: vigorously test specific configurations. You'll discover that vendor certifications are based on specific graphics cards, on specific driver versions, and on specific operating systems (all of which are often not the latest and greatest). Furthermore, some certifications focus only on particular workstation models provided by named hardware partners. Considering how quickly everything changes, it's enough to make you go blind. Need a migraine?
Have a look for yourself:
So what's all this certification brouhaha mean for us DIY chickens? Exactly nothing. No one's necessarily going to certify your particular build, and that's the price of putting together your own rig. In many cases, you'll be <cue dark organ music> unsupported. Meaning if you run into problems with the software, you're likely on your own. Consequently, if you want to feel safe and warm, and make phone calls to tech support 3 times a day, then by all means, go get yourself a certified workstation instead. Last I checked, however, most of you are engineers. Let's not forget signs you're an engineer #3456: Warranties are meaningless. With that in mind, let's get to choosing components.
CPU: clockspeed ain't what it used to be
When it comes to CPUs, there was a time when all you had to do was pile on the Ghz, it was all about the Pentiums, baby. With Moore's Law under assault, and Intel stuttering on their ticks lately, the push toward ever-smaller die sizes and higher clocks are taking a physics beat down. Performance gains are more subtle, the real reason people aren't buying new PCs every year anymore. The good news is this means your wallet will thank you; getting a respectable CPU has never been more affordable.
Microprocessor performance, however, is now a non-obvious fusion of clock speed, process size, and architecture. Take, for example, the Intel i7-5820 which outperforms the i7-4790 on most benchmarks, despite a 700Mhz dearth in clock speed, and the same 22nm process, the difference being the Haswell-E architecture. The current sweet spot for value is around the i5-4690k, with strong single-core performance which matters most in a CAD universe that is still overwhelmingly single-threaded. Poor AMD has been playing second fiddle for the last 3 or 4 songs, and the nearest equivalent, the FX8350, doesn't fare as well. While you'll find most vendor CAD workstations are equipped with Xeon procs, the Xeon's larger memory address space and hyperthreading capability is going to be of marginal value for most of you, unless you're doing hardcore FEA or rendering most of the time.
Graphics card hunger games
So you've heard when it comes to CAD graphics, you must cough up the coin for the professional workstation cards (Nvidia Quadro or AMD Firepro). You can't use gaming cards, it'll unravel space-time, and possibly dissolve your kidney. Do not pass Go, do not collect 200 CUDA cores.
Professional cards are specially binned for enhanced reliability and benefit from dedicated driver support and optimizations for your CAD applications. The gaming cards are exempted from these optimizations, not because the hardware is necessarily incapable, but due to how the driver support has been coded. Truth be told you can run CAD (say AutoCAD or SolidEdge) on a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 with the rather homely Intel HD5000 (which is certified FYI). At that point most of the load is on the software renderer, but today's CPU's make it quite tolerable. You'd have a similar experience with a gaming card. It's not the best experience, mind you, but for most reasonably sized assemblies with the right graphics settings, it works. Going with a pro card is a smoother experience and certainly more costly, not because of hardware superiority, but just how the market's structured. Complicating matters, if you're an engineer, and have a PC, you're also no doubt a member of Gaben's glorious PC Master Race, and want to squeeze in some GTAV, Witcher 3, and Arkham on the side.
Ah, first world problems. What to do? Choose thy path:
- Play it safe: Get the fastest Quadro/FirePro you can afford. Play FTL and Sanctuary RPG
- Combo Breaker: Get two graphics cards. Multiple graphics cards with different drivers coexist just fine in Windows 7 and up. Get a lower end pro card (something like the Nvidia Quadro K620) to ensure stability and use the optimized driver, and supplement with a gaming card to ensure happiness. Yes, you can have your cake and render it too.
- Crazy go nuts: Throw money and cares to the wind, pickup a TitanX with its floating point potential and general disrespect for normalcy, and blame any graphical glitches on solar flares.
Storage: save all the things
In the past SSDs were an optional enhancement if you had the extra loot. These days they're mandatory; anyone not using an SSD for their boot drive ain't right in the head. Early concerns over longevity and reliability of SSD technology are ancient history. They've also become extremely cost competitive, considering the significant speed advantage over magnetic hard drives. SSD's ramp up in cost as size goes up, the sweet spot being 250G.
If you need more space consider buying two identical drives: one for the OS, and one for your programs. It also makes good sense to supplement your SSD with a sizable magnetic drive, to store larger, less performance-sensitive data, like your totally legitimate 200G music collection.
Remembering about memory
Memory is plentiful these days, 8GB should be your minimum entry point for anything CAD related. 1600 Mhz DDR3 is the sweet spot for price to performance. If you have a few extra bucks, don't bother with getting faster RAM, just get more RAM. You'll also notice the vendor workstations come equipped with ECC RAM. Do you need it? Nope.avi
Don't forget the mobo
It's easy to overlook the motherboard, as it won't be responsible for dramatic performance gains. You'll need to pay attention to memory slots (4+), maximum addressable memory (32GB+), number of SATA ports (6+) and available PCI 2.0 and 3.0 slots to accommodate your graphics card(s). I'm partial to Asus, but EVGA and MSI make solid boards too.
You have the power
You need some electric juice for all this PC glory. Typically, a power supply in the 700-1000W range is what you need. Larger PSUs run more efficiently at lower loads, plus it buys you margin for that day when you decide that popping a couple TitanX's isn't nearly as insane as it sounds right this moment.
A place for your gear
Part of the fun of building your own rig is injecting a bit of your own personality. The best place to do so is via the case, a welcome improvement over the lifeless, boring black boxes indicative of a purchased workstation. Personally, I tend to err on the land-a-plane-on-it case size. Because you never know when you'll decide to cram 6 drives, 4 video cards, and a liquid cooling reservoir in it.
So let's lay it all out on the table and compare what we've got to the purchased equivalent:
A reasonable self-build (July 29, 2015):
CPU: Intel Core i5-4690K LGA 1150 $239.99
Mobo: Asus Maximum VII Hero Intel Z97 ATX $209.99
Graphics: Nvidia Quadro K620 $159.99 + EVGA Nvidia GTX 980 Superclocked $487.99 (With $20 Rebate)
SSD: Crucial MX200 6G Sata III $99.19
HDD: Seagate Barracuda 2TB 7200 RPM $76.99
RAM: Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3 1600 $45.99
Case: Cooler Master Cosmos SE $169.99
PSU: EVGA 220-G2-0750XR: $129.99
OS: Windows 7 Pro: $134.95
Keyboard: Use what you got.
Mouse: Use what you got.
Dell Precision Tower 5810:
CPU: Intel Xeon E5-1620
Mobo: A Scooby-Doo mystery
Graphics: Nvidia Quadro K620
SSD: 256G SSD
HDD: 2TB 7200 RPM HD
RAM: 8GB (2x4GB) 2133Mhz DDR2 RDIMM ECC
Case: Generic Dell Sadness
PSU: Whatever they threw in there.
OS: Win 7 Pro / 8.1 Pro
Keyboard: Dell KB212-B Quiet Key
Mouse: Dell MS111 USB Optical
TOTAL: $2004 (After $668 Instant Savings)
Building certainly has its advantages. We built something respectable without breaking the bank, managing to squeeze a bonus GTX 980 in there, and still saved $250 over the turnkey equivalent. Not bad, eh? You're more than welcome to send me the difference in Steam gift cards.
About the author: (Ed Lopategui)
Technology evangelist, entrepreneur, and aerospace engineer specialized in the software tools and technology which enable engineering, design, and product development - PDM, PLM, CAD, CAE, CAM. Any views, opinions, prophecies, and sarcastic remarks are my own and are in no way associated with any current or past employers.
All posts by Ed Lopategui — Follow on Twitter