CAD workstation build tips from the trenches
The sun rises; the small mountain of indistinct cardboard packages is illuminated by the morning sun as a glorious monument to technology and engineering. The deliveries have arrived in a steady procession over the last several days, solemnly and reverently brought to your doorstep by sentinels of commerce each demanding firmly that you sign here. With each new box containing carefully selected parts of your future DIY CAD workstation, the means to execute on your plan now lies before you. You've made some important decisions. Maybe you've followed some of our advice, or maybe you're rolled an infallible plan of your own. You're in the pipe, five by five. But now comes the moment of truth, and this machine's not going to assemble itself.
This post is not going to be one of those patronizing articles that shows you five dozen pictures about how to install your motherboard or plug in your video card. We're pretty sure you're fully capable of pushing Tab A into Slot B and can operate a Phillips screwdriver.
And if for some reason you can't, dude, you should have gotten a Dell. What we will offer is some practical advice that will save you some aggravation and optimize your troubleshooting. That's because when you undertake the challenge to DIY your CAD workstation, you proudly accept a harsh reality: you are your own tech support.
That means taking certain precautions in case the build effort goes awry.
While it's always tempting to just go, there's some important groundwork you can do before even the first screw is turned. The following preparatory work can ensure a smooth build process:
- Take inventory: While this seems obvious, you'd be surprised how often you might be missing a cable or mounting rail. Make sure you have all the things.
- Gather drivers and firmware: Whatever is delivered on physical media with your hardware is likely already older than dirt, so toss all those driver CDs to the side. Visit the website of each OEM supplier and download the relevant drivers and firmware for every part in your build and keep them in one place for ease of access (say, a USB stick). Stay clear of beta versions. Some CAD platforms are especially sensitive to GPU driver versions, so check the certification basis (if there is one) to determine which driver versions are supported. Certified drivers are almost always significantly older than the latest available driver, it's best to go with the certified driver until you're more confident that your build is running smoothly.
- Find a suitable spot for the build: Find a decent work surface where you can comfortably work on the rig. Not in the middle of the carpet, in the kitchen sink, or on top of your dog. Clear the area of liquids and other contaminants, such as Mountain Dew and Cheetos. Have your tools readily available, and if you're using a table where you care about the finish, lay down a mat on top so you don't scratch it into oblivion. Finally, make sure your work area is reasonably secure. Finding a large cat or small child curled up on your motherboard just because you took five to grab a hoagie is the last thing you want to deal with.
- RTFM: Yes, I know reading is hard. But at the very least, skim the settings in the mobo manual - and decide how you're going to configure them. You'll thank me later.
Now you're ready to start the exciting stuff, installing hardware and catching the sound of the thing finally roaring to life (Note: it's probably not going to sound like a roar, the days of the FX5800 are long gone). But before you get too caught up in the moment, keep to the systematic approach:
- ESD Precautions: Electrostatic discharge (ESD) can kill your newly acquired toys in an instant, but shockingly, the potential danger of ESD is sometimes overblown. While you could blow $5 on a wrist strap, it's a hassle to be tethered to your rig during the build. And you'll look like a total dork to boot. You're better off blowing that $5 on a zucchini-spice double macchiato with a quarter twist, and simply make sure you keep your arms in contact with exposed metal on the chassis whenever handling PCBs, and carefully handle everything by the edges. Also, just don't do any assembly in your socks on a shag carpet while petting furry animals.
- Build in stages: While you might be tempted to install absolutely everything at once, it really helps to establish some component level testing up front. Get the machine to Power-On Self-Test (POST) with just CPU, minimum memory, and GPU, with no OS installed and use synthetic benchmarks on a bootable USB stick to validate that everything's peachy. Nothing's harder than diagnosing a build issue when anything might be the culprit. This baseline will help you eliminate variables for any bumps down the road.
- BIOS Update: As soon as your machine POSTs, it's the best time to go ahead and flash the BIOS firmware with the latest and greatest that you downloaded earlier. BIOS bugs can cause all kinds of bewildering behavior, so it's best to minimize this potential failure mode. Some of the fancier mobos allow you to carry two different BIOS versions simultaneously and switch between them, but largely this is unnecessary unless you happen to do a lot of tinkering.
- Firmware: As you add additional components like SSDs, make sure to update them with the latest and greatest firmware before you even partition them; sometimes firmware updates are destructive to data.
- Record your settings: Record how you've set your BIOS in case you choose to tweak it down the line. Some BIOS allow saving your settings to nonvolatile RAM or externally.
- A note on hyper-threading: years ago hyper-threading caused some performance issues with software with poor SMP implementation, most CAD included. How hyper-threading has been implemented in recent processor design is more resilient, so it's best to leave this setting on in most cases.
Once you have everything assembled and running, you might think you're in the clear, but there's a few things best accomplished before you get to work on the new rig:
- Clean up your cables: Don't be that guy/gal who leaves their internal power and I/O cables looking like a rat's nest. Take the time to use the case's cable management (if any) and use twist ties to pack up loose ends and service loops. It's better for airflow and you'll be much happier the next time your crack the case open for changes/upgrades.
- Wait to overclock: Before you go to warp speed, make sure the ship holds together at impulse power. Seriously. Develop a baseline before creating problems for yourself.
- Driver updates: Install all your hardware drivers and make sure they're working correctly. Start with the motherboard drivers first, and then move on to graphics and whatever else you may have onboard.
- Install your OS: Now's your chance to choose the network name for the machine. So many LOTR locales, Disney characters, and space marines to choose from.
- Benchmark and backup the clean configuration: Before you load all your favorite resource-hogging, poorly-coded software, take the time to both benchmark and backup your workstation. Never again will the environment be so clean, unless you start from scratch with reformat and a new OS install. It'd be nice to have the option to revert to this clean configuration at any point.
- Burn-in: After you've gone through everything else and have your software installed, considering using a looping benchmark test or software script to run continuously for 24 hours, just to make sure you don't have any transient heat issues, etc.
With everything running in tip-top shape, you've finally laid the right groundwork to your workstation's long, productive life. Now it's time to get to work.
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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.
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