I am often asked my opinion on 3D workstations and render machines:
- Should people buy or build?
- What CPU should they get?
- What video card should they buy?
- How much RAM, etc?
This time I decided to pool what I can tell people into one article that breaks down my philosophy on the subject and how I go about building a 3D workstation.
First off you need to understand my background. I am a 3D artist, creating massive scenes and doing lots of animation – mainly for architectural and landscape work. My 3D needs can be extreme and even my smallest scenes eclipse the size of most artist’s largest ones. I don’t do photoshop or after effects touchups to my work and everything you see in my showreel is straight off the render farm. If you understand the ramifications of my workflow you will also understand that:
- My time spent setting up a scene is extreme;
- My rendering requirements are also extreme;
- My scenes are huge as I dont rely on compositing in extra detail – all the minute and complex data is within the scene to begin with.
When you consider the above you may also think that I would be buying the largest Xeon based workstations available. You would be justified in your opinion but you would also be wrong. I love to build my own workstations and I have a philosophy of “if I can't run to CompUSA and buy a replacement part then I don’t want it”. It comes down to a desire to reduce complications. My strategy with the massive 3D scenes actually reduces complications for me as I have one process to get an awesome 3D scene, not two or three, so when I make a change to the project I only have one step to produce the new footage therefore fewer headaches, less room for error and less time lost in the long run as EVERY project is changed at some point.
Personally I use my own custom built PC for all workstation tasks and I have my MacBook Pro for everything else, such as writing this article.
Getting to the point of this article, the needs of every 3D artist are primarily:
- A fast CPU coupled with lots of RAM;
- A fast GPU with adequate RAM;
- Fast access to a library of textures and models.
My needs simply extend to “more of the above” with particular emphasis on RAM for both the system and the video card.
I will break this down to key elements:
- The unique needs of 3D rendering and animation,
- Buying premade vs custom build,
- CPU choices, benchmarks, real world performance,
- Motherboard and RAM,
- Video card (GPU),
- Case + power supply,
- Storage (hard drives, SSDs) and
I wont get into operating systems, hackintosh or anything like that as they are a whole other subject and far less critical to this article. I am also not going to get into the details and techniques of assembling a system as that is adequately covered elsewhere.
Also keep in mind that I am not going to rewrite this article every 3 months so you can assume that if it is older than a year then it is going to be out of date with regards to models, specs and prices, but the theory is going to be the same and I will show you how to apply it to the very latest hardware.
The unique needs of 3D rendering and animation
90% of the time the recommendations that system builders give you are heading in the right direction but are still wrong. This is because they relate 3D work to products from Adobe like Photoshop, After effects and Premiere. Some people think that because After Effects has limited 3D abilities a computer capable of that is therefore a good 3D workstation. They also think that since GPU (the equivalent of a CPU but on a video card) manufacturers added 3D capabilities to their chips that they just need the biggest, fastest video card they can stick into a system to make it a 3D workstation – wrong again.
3D gaming and Adobe After Effects have different, lighter requirements than what 3D authoring, content creation, artwork and 3D animation have. Creating 3D is a different process to viewing it and complex 3D scenes are far beyond the ability of After Effects, which is a great tool for compositing video, not hard-core 3D.
Creating and editing in 3D
Creating and editing a 3D scene starts simplistically and gets more complex by the hour. The artist often has to view all of the elements created along the way and each those elements are often complex, memory hungry and sometimes dynamic. There is no time for tuning a 3D scene to run on a slower less capable system while you are designing, formulating and tweaking, especially when what you do one hour may be discarded in the next.
The computer's CPU is spiking up and down while new parts are added and viewports are refreshed – normally just one CPU core. This means that you want the fastest single CPU speed you can have to improve your own productivity from day to day, minute to minute.
As the scene gets more complex so does the load on the video card, and just like the CPU the GPU is spiking up and down. Move around a scene of 300 leafy trees and the card will work to the extreme, but while you select a new texture for those leaves the GPU is almost idle.
So for this part of the job you want fast single core performance on the CPU and fast performance on the GPU with enough RAM on both sides to handle whatever project you may throw at it.
Rendering and previewing the work
To the ire of all 3D artists and impatient clients we have to render out our work. People once again mistakenly relate this to video editing and Adobe but they are incorrect in their assumption. 3D rendering is far more intensive and requires considerably more memory. I have another article that explains this in detail if you want to study up on it.
When you render a scene, either for preview or final, you completely overwhelm the CPU – every core, every cycle and as fast as it will go. There is NOTHING more intensive. What most people don’t understand is while the CPU is working its ass off the GPU has little or nothing to do and sits idle. There are some exceptions to this, which I will explain later.
For rendering you need the fastest overall CPU performance as it uses all of the CPU cores at maximum speed. The more and faster the cores you have the less time you have to wait.
3D artists use a lot of library material. These are image files like JPEG and TIFFs and models that are added to the scene. It is important that the 3D program of choice has fast, if not instant access to this data so as to keep the workflow moving smoothly. Waiting for your system to locate one file out of a million is frustrating, especially when pushing a deadline, which is why most pros now have an SSD or two just for those files.
How does it compare to 3D gaming?
The 3D gamer wants the fastest smoothest playback available and the games are tuned by people like myself to give just that. Unnecessary and unseen data is removed, textures make flat surfaces look more complex than they really are, and subtle lighting effects are baked or faked into a scene to avoid the complex calculations that are needed for realism.
The gamer’s video card takes these significantly smaller scenes and plays them back fast, keeping the GPUs running hot while the CPU only works moderately.
RAM requirements are lower across the board as all the intensive work is already done, pre-calculated and stripped down to basics.
How does it compare to Adobe products
I own the entire Adobe collection of tools from web design to video compositing and editing. While these tools need more power than something like Microsoft Word they are not nearly as intensive as 3D.
After effects uses the CPU heavily and in a similar way to 3D but has less memory requirements. There is one significant difference and that is Adobe can use the GPUs in a system to complement the power of the CPU. This is partially because the memory requirements are lower than in 3D and also because the calculations are less complex, lending themselves useful to the streamlined processors of a video card.
A workstation for Adobe products does not require as much RAM on either the motherboard or video card, takes strong advantage of multiple video cards, and while it benefits from faster CPUs it is not quite as critical as it is for a 3D workstation.
With all of the above taken into consideration, you can build a system that encompasses the needs of all users, but for a price….. and I guess you are reading this article now because price is a factor, right?
Buying pre-made vs custom build
Vendors like Dell have a large range of systems that you can order online now, and you can walk into any CompUSA store and buy something off the shelf. You have to ask why you would choose to build a system (or have one built for you) as opposed to just buying a big company, warranty backed, serviced planned box. I have to be very honest in admitting that initially it is unlikely that you will save any money by building yourself, but there are long term benefits. There are three big reasons why I like to build:
- You cant easily expand upon or upgrade a big company branded box later on,
- You have limited access to better, more suitable components, and
- Building computers is fun!
I was one of those 11 year old kids that had an electronics kit, salvaged parts out of broken radios and would design and create my own devices for whatever need my devious little head could dream up. I could quote transistor model numbers and draw up a circuit diagram in a blink. Today I love to build my own systems and have to admit that I hardly use any of those skills from back then. Building systems now is more about making good choices of parts and careful assembly practices with little more than a screwdriver. The days of soldering irons and needle nosed pliers are long gone.
When you build and maintain yourself you have access to any new stuff that comes out and you can plan for expansion. For example, I have a great big Cooler Master HAF 932 computer case that I can load up with almost anything now and for years to come. I am already eying off a new video card for it and also plan on putting in a new motherboard and CPU later this year – that’s if the rumors on new chips are reliable. The parts I retire from my workstation, which will still be state of the art, will go into my render farm, upgrading an older machine – nothing gets wasted. The modularity that comes with modern components means I never waste anything and can also be on the bleeding edge of technology without dropping a load of cash on a whole new computer each time I want to take advantage of a new CPU.
Now, none of the big-name computer people have any product like my huge HAF case and, honestly, I don’t think they would want you to have one either. They want to sell complete boxes and encourage you to buy the same. If buying boxes is still your thing then just use this article to help configure from the standard items they sell – you will be considerably better informed.
CPU choices, benchmarks, real world 3D performance
Today you have two major CPU manufacturers vying for your business; Intel and AMD. Both manufacturer's chips will run Windows and your software the same way and both are very well supported. Both Intel and AMD have different levels/grades of products to cater from basic home systems to complex servers.
From Intel you have i3/i5/i7 desktop CPUs and the Xeon server grade CPUs. From AMD you have the bottom end A4 chips, to the faster FX models and then the Opteron products for servers. I am going to compare only a few chips in this article, those being two i7s from Intel and an FX series from AMD as they are really the only suitable chips available today (early 2013). I am not going to compare Xeons at this point as while they sport features like multiple socket boards they are not commonly available for anyone looking to build their own system – in fact I could write a whole other article on them.
A 4Ghz, 8-core CPU drawing 125 watts of power. Up to 32 Gb of RAM available to it plus AMD always makes progressions to future CPUs easier.
Intel Core i7 3770k
This chip runs at a stock 3.5Ghz, has 4 cores and “hyperthreading”. It draws 77 watts of power. Up to 32 Gb of RAM.
Intel Core i7 3960X
3.3 Ghz, 6 cores, hyperthreading, 150 watts. Up to 64 Gb of RAM available means you can have many large memory hungry programs open at once.
I will get into this later, but all three of these CPUs are very good at overclocking, especially the FX-8350 and the i7 3960X.
The table below simplifies the comparison of chips for 3D rendering/animation suitability. Cinebench (CB) is what I consider to be the best way to rate them as it actually compares real rendering performance and can extract both single and multiple core data. “CB single core” is the performance on one CPU core only, which is a perfect gauge for how your chip will perform doing basic tasks like creating new objects, moving around, etc. “CB overall” is the whole CPU unleashed at full power and relates to how your CPU will perform when it processes out previews, renderings and hard-core number crunching. I have the provided a “cost per CB” which shows you directly how much that performance is hitting your hip pocket.
What we see above is:
- The AMD CPU is clearly the best value for money but also the slowest;
- The 3770k is good value for money with the fastest single CPU speed and good render speed;
- The 3960 will cost you a lot of money but is clearly the fastest, most capable chip in the fold – in fact it will beat some Dual Xeon systems that cost a lot more.
If you are skint on funds then the AMD could be your saviour but you are going to feel the slower speed all around. If the sky is the limit then you may want to go for the 3960X (or even dual Xeons). Most people lately go for the 3770k as it offers the snappiest editing performance and reasonably good render speed for a fair price. Personally I love everything about the 3960X apart from the price.
Motherboard and RAM
The motherboard is what the CPU sits on, the RAM and video card plugs in to, and the interface for all your peripheral devices like hard drives, USB ports and Ethernet. Being such a critical part that lies at the centre of everything you need to ensure you first and foremost buy quality.
You also need to ensure that it has all the features you need, such as enough ports for your hard drives and enough RAM slots to accommodate your needs. I don’t like showing favouritism but must admit I am partial to Asus or Gigabyte boards both for features and quality.
All three CPUs that I have used as examples require different motherboards (yes, even the two i7s) as each is inherently different. I know that sounds frustrating but it is the price we pay for progress and technical advancements.
My favourite sites for comparing computer hardware is either Newegg or CompUSA, so to describe how I choose a motherboard I will guide you through the process on newegg.com
Drilling down through models
Firstly I browse to computer hardware. Motherboards. A list comes up on the left to help you drill down to what you need. Starting with the AMD 8350 option lets first go to “AMD Motherboards” and choose CPU socket type AM3+, which is what the 8350 uses. You are now presented with a whole list of motherboards, 61 at the time of writing, so now you need to choose how to sort them. For a workstation I stress quality and features, so it makes more sense to sort from the highest price to the lowest as it is going to be almost guaranteed that the motherboards at the top are going to fit the requirements.
Prices today top out at $240 and go down as low as $40. It is no surprise that the $40 board does not have enough features for even a mid-level 3D artist, so lets definitely work from the top.
Topping out the range is the ASUS Crosshair V board at $240. It has all the latest features, comes in cool colours and made “PC Perspective Editors Choice Award”. There is no doubt that it is a very nice motherboard and would be my choice but if I assume you need to save money then lets think about if it is worth paying all that extra. Lets look down the list…..
At $140 there is an ASUS M5A99X board and it seems to have everything I could need: 4 RAM slots, a fast PCI express card slot for my video card, lots of SATA and USB ports – this could be perfect! I don’t need SLI as serious 3D programs don’t support it anyway and if they do in the future then I will probably be ready for a CPU/motherboard upgrade anyway so I will just upgrade to the latest and take care of it then.
From here I would read the reviews, compare others and study hard until I am certain of the choice. As I said, I would have gone straight to the top model for $100 more but you may have different priorities and budgets.
The process is the same for the other CPU types, with the 3770k needing a Socket 1155 board and the 3960X needs a Socket 2011. So marrying the CPU to the socket type is your first concern, and then you look at features and quality.
Fortunately the options, this year at least, are easy for RAM. The prices are down too! All the CPUs mentioned here use DDR3 RAM and all the boards accept a wide variety of speeds and type. You wont need to look at other types of RAM unless you build a Xeon workstation and get the ECC variety.
Drilling down through memory on Newegg is easy and you can just follow your nose there: Memory > Desktop memory. Choose what size modules you want but it is always going to come down to either 16 GB or 32 GB in a machine suitable for this build. Your board should have at least four memory slots and if you choose to go with just 16 GB of RAM you should also choose to do it with two 8 GB sticks, leaving two slots or more empty. It is more than likely if you get serious about your work that you will need or desire additional RAM, so leave space for it.
Motherboards today need sticks of RAM placed in pairs to get the best performance so don’t waste your time buying them as single sticks.
When you research more on RAM you are going to find many other considerations, none of which I am going to get into here but all of which are available for research easily online.
As I have touched on earlier, system builders often poorly choose video cards. This is because they relate 3D work to video editing, graphic design or 3D gaming. They put emphasis on technologies like SLI and Crossfire that are currently irrelevant to professional 3D. What often occurs is that they load up a workstation with 2 or more cards in an SLI array that is terrific for gaming but almost useless for heavy 3D scenes.
There are two things you need to concentrate on; the performance of the video card and the onboard RAM. You can’t put performance ahead of memory because any video card is going to run slow if you exceed its memory capacity.
Now here is the big trap when you look at modern video cards: the memory is split between each GPU on the card and most modern cards have two GPUs. That means a 2Gb card may only have 1Gb per GPU and that is the maximum accessible by your 3D application. The biggest scene that a video can handle in this situation must fit within the 1GB. If you do light work, small scenes and don’t mess around with anything extreme in size then it is likely that most of what you do will fit inside 1Gb. If you exceed it you will start wondering who put their foot on the brake, just as though you exceed the RAM on your motherboard – it can be painfully slow.
Most of the video cards available come in options of 1, 2, 3 and 4Gb models and now there are a few 6Gb models available.
Once you’ve pinned down a card with the capacity you need you then need to balance your budget with speed. You want to be able to move those polygons around as fast as possible.
The image below has over a milion detailed trees, with each tree containing thousands of polygons. No ordinary gaming video card can handle such a scene due to a lack of RAM:
Multiple cards, SLI and Crossfire
This is simple: Pro 3D programs do not use SLI or Crossfire. Multiple video cards are a waste of time unless you need them for multiple monitors. There is one exception with the development of GPU assisted rendering, such as iRay, but my tests to date show that while the idea is excellent the technology is not ready for prime time and not suitable for heavy use on consumer video cards.
SLI and Crossfire work very well for gamers. They harness the power of two or more video cards just like some motherboards can harness two or more CPUs. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, they are very good for gamers, but gamers only.
The saving grace for multiple video cards, in particular those with Nvidia GPUs in them, is that applications such as Adobe After Effects can utilise all the “CUDA” processors in them, giving those application a speed boost. If your motherboard and budget will fit four video cards then they can all be utilised regardless of whether they are in a Crossfire or SLI array.
So the bottom line for now is:
- You need one high-capacity, fast video card for professional 3D,
- Ignore SLI and Crossfire unless you are into gaming.
Case, Cooling, power supply
The simple fact is that almost any ATX sized case will suffice for a basic 3D workstation, and if you are only building a simple system then you may as well think more about aesthetes than anything else. But if you want to consider expansion, enhanced cooling or extra drives then you may want to look at something with room to grow.
As I mentioned earlier, I personally use a monster of a case; the Cooler Master HAF 932. It has many cooling options, air or liquid, lots of drive bays and can take an E-ATX motherboard if I ever decide to get one. As you can see, I have all my options open, but I also have one large box under my desk – a real space hog.
There are other cases that have excellent construction and terrific features that take a lot less space, so it comes down to how much you need to put inside.
For a workstation you want to ensure that your case can at least fit in a full sized ATX motherboard. Micro ATX motherboards don’t compromise quality but they do lack features, so you want to ensure you can fit a board that will handle your needs now and later. If you think you will ever go the whole way to a dual Xeon system in the future then you will want to consider a case that accommodates up to E-ATX.
I will get into the types and number of drives in the next chapter, where you will learn what is available and what you may need. If you decide you need four hard drives then you need space for them.
As you learnt earlier, if you are a 3D artist then you are a CPU power hog. When a CPU works hard it gets hot and it needs to be kept cool. If your case is not designed to accommodate these extreme loads then you may end up with the equivalent of an oven or toaster. Your system could become unreliable and worse still, you may burn out components.
I highly recommend for any kind of extreme CPU usage, regardless of whether you want to try overclocking, that you use one of the new closed loop liquid CPU coolers. They are quiet, efficient, robust and will keep your CPU considerably cooler than the stock standard ones do. 3D loads are extreme compared to regular computing loads, so you should consider more than just regular cooling options. With this in mind, if you choose to go for liquid cooling, you should consider the size of the radiator and the location for its installation.
I used to be a sucker for a cheap power supply unit (PSU), thinking that one could not be that different from another. I was very wrong, as was proven by a trash can of burnt out PSUs. Now I cant stress enough how important it is to spend the money on a high-quality power supply with adequate capacity.
While I am no expert on PSUs I have learnt some very important lessons, those being:
- Go over capacity if you can afford it. If you need a 500 watt PSU then get a 750.
- Ensure that the PSU has at least two of its own cooling fans so as it keeps “breathing”.
Storage (hard drives, SSDs)
This topic does not require much more information other than common sense practice that any professional user should already know, with the exception of just one thing:- library data.
As I mentioned earlier, 3D artists often access a lot of data from a library and the speed at which that happens can affect the day-to-day performance of your work. Fortunately we now have inexpensive Solid State Drives (SSD) that can store, access and retrieve data at blistering rates. You need to add up what you need and allow more for future expansion, so if you currently use 180Gb of data then start with around 240Gb of SSD – more if you can afford it.
It is best to keep your library data away from your startup/system drive and have it purely standalone.
If you need to store your project data on your computer then you will want to allow for that too, as well as any needs like video editing render files.
Of course you are tired of hearing the regular advice of having backup drives, which is a lesson that can only be truly learned from catastrophic failure.
This is such a contentious subject and one that I used to be very polarized on – until I started building my own hardware. Today overclocking is considerably easier and more stable than it used to be. Either way you have to remember something that I have stressed all the way through this article; that 3D stresses a CPU to its limits.
You simply cannot expect to overclock a 3D workstation to the levels bragged about in the forums and have it remain stable. If people say they can get a stock 3.5Ghz i7 3770K to run stable at 4.5Ghz then try it at 4.0Ghz instead and only with an extreme cooling system.
Of the three CPUs mentioned in this article both the AMD 8350 and the Intel i7 3960X are the favorites for overclockers. In fact, the 3960X is often overclocked to such extremes that they surpass all but the fastest dual Xeon workstations, although I am certain that a fair amount of stability is sacrificed.
If you need total reliability then simply don’t overclock. If you like to push things to the limit then enjoy experimenting but don’t push it to the limit.