Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A New Personal Workstation or Server in 2016

Every time my workstation boots (which is several times daily) the Copyright notice on the BIOS reminds me that my main computer is now about 6 years old.

Although it has aged better than Marcus in the last years; it is time for more than an upgrade.

Serious Computing
Like all our endeavours for Marcus and Agata, we focus with precision on the task at hand.  For us the choice of a new computer is not based on a whim, or the casual advertisement we saw on the television or the metro.   We will study the alternatives, evaluate the possibilities ad nausea.  We'll make sure we get a good deal and by multiple criteria choose the perfect system for us, not one that some marketeer, perhaps with little to zero knowledge of a computer would encourage to choose.

Build or Buy?
Those who know build, those who can't buy.   This household axiom rings true, although safe to say that if you have large funds you could probably find an Enthusiast like Marcus and Agata and we could custom build for you.  Unfortunately we don't work cheap :-)

Reasons to Wait?
The normal professional rules apply

- Don't buy a new untested technology, it could have bugs.  This applies to Chipsets, CPU, cooler designs, disk drives etc.
- Don't buy an end of life technology unless you are looking for a bargain
- Don't buy any existing product that is shortly to be replaced.  For at that time the price will dip.  If you are cash constrained buy that gen-1 technology at the dip

New Intel Chipsets
The first motherboards using the unannounced consumer Intel Z270 Chipset are leaking out.  They will use the also unannounced desktop 7th generation Consumer Intel Processors.

There is no dramatic new Server based Chipset nor server Based Intel Xeon E5 range predicted, since V4 is now in volume shipment so for server motherboard builds you can build now.

New Apple?
Apple has totally lost interest in the consumer computer market since its majority profit lines are now from Smartphone.   In its consumer space it cares even less for the desktop than for mobile and the shocking facts are:

- My 6 year old Intel Server Workstation with its 24 thread Xeon and matching memory capacity are still faster than the Apple trashcan desktop Mac Pro launched  December 2013.

- Apple is more interested in selling you at high profit margin; an Integrated Computer which is purposefully designed to look great at the expense of upgradability.   The iMac line now typifies this design ethos with expensive, high profit,  mediocre-good performance/spec only, totally non-upgradable product lines.

- For all their talk of re-usability Apple delights in you just buying their latest computer.   If you follow the Apple route, and if you have the money, you will simply be perpetually buying new complete computers, as and when they are available.

Desirable Characteristics

- Uses standard components so I can upgrade in the future
- Adheres to standards.  Example: no stupid motherboard shapes and sizes
- Able to change Memory and CPU for future upgrades
- Able to have Secure Boot and a well manufacturer supported BIOS
- Fast boot from NVMe disk  with PCIe disk support
- Quiet: I am not living in a machine room
- Small-ish:  I don't want an enormous tall tower PC

One or Two Computers?
Currently I have a main Workstation and a Backup computer.  In the future for reasons of economy maybe a single Workstation is adequate.

These days Virtualisation can run the majority of the older 32 bit Operating Systems and even some of the 16 bit ones.

Also for us, Marcus has a whole set of vintage 8/ 16 bit computers that can't be virtualised.  So a Backup 64bit Intel computer does not buy much of anything

On consumer Motherboards it would be an insult not to have full 7.1 sound

example: Gigabyte GA-Z170X-UD5

Server Plus

Many server motherboards have some or all of the following features

+00  Native 10G Ethernet using Copper (not Fibre)

Although Multi Port, and I mean > 2 10G Copper Ethernet switches still don't economically exist, and this is 5 years after I stopped counting, it surely does not harm to buy a Motherboard will onboard 10Gbit Ethernet ports.

They will work in regular 1Gbit mode just fine after all. And you could connect it via a medium priced 2 port 10G switch to a fast NAS.  (4x 1Gbit NAS are commonplace now, so this way you might get upto 400MB/sec thruput back and forth to the NAS)

For Supermicro, which I'll use as example for the rest of this posting all of their motherboards ending in -T are 10Gbit.  Examples

+01  Dual CPU

If you have a requirement for heavy processing, perhaps running multiple virtual machines concurrently, running without swap, any sort of image processing then the more cores and threads the better.  In which case a dual CPU, and this means Xeon not Intel i7 processor is the only way to go.

Personally, after a lot of research whilst Asus, Tyan and Gigabyte do offer Dual processor motherboards, by far the most comprehensive selection comes from Supermicro.  Root here

+02 Huge Memory

Many server Motherboards can have (say) 16 DIMM modules and each module could be as much as 64GB each.  Or larger for non LRDIMM (Load Reduced DIMMs).

But this memory density is pretty expensive. So falling back to 16 x 32GB DIMM would get you to only 512GB memory. 

+03  IPMI Intelligent Platform Management Interface

IPMI allows you to start, shutdown, monitor health of your computer remotely over a LAN or even serial connection. Many server motherboards provide this, no consumer motherboards have it to my knowledge

Server Minus

- 00 Character BIOS

It is practcially a deal breaker but the BIOS to nearly every Server motherboard is an old skool character based one.  Something that is now 20 years old.  In the domestic motherboard market this would not be accepted.  Please catch up server marketplace.

(Of course there is only one thing more antiquated than a character based bios and that is a Command line.   Yes Apple, I mean you!)

- 01 No Overclocking

With the exception of the Supermicro X10DAX motherboard I could not find a single motherboard that would support overclocking.  So server practically speaking means == no overclock.

- 02 E-ATX Motherboard Format usually 305x330 mm

It's almost impossible to cram all the functions you might expect including IPMI or certainly dual CPU's and DIMM capacity onto a standard ATX format motherboard.  So the next size up is E-ATX and other formats IMHO are to be avoided.  Why?  Because finding an E-ATX case is pretty difficult, anything else is into Unicorn territory.   Whilst quality case manufacturers like Lian-Li produce some nice products they don't compare to the functionality of the Corsair cases I outlined elsewhere here.

- 03 Lack of Audio

There are a few Server / Workstation motherboards that support Audio.  That is audio is on the planar itself, else you need to buy a separate PCIe card and obtain it that way.

But when you add audio, normally you lose something else.  Example Supermicro X10 DAL-i.  You gain audio but you get less memory slots and the IPMI is missing

Lastly you can also add Audio using an external USB gizmo, but I'd rather have just leads not dongles coming out of my workstation.  For portability and neatness if nothing else.

- 04 Lack of PCIe x16 or Slots

To drive a 2016 Graphics Card effectively you need at least 1, PCIe x16, Gen 3.0 slot.  And many server motherboards e.g. the X10DRD don't satisfy this criterion.    

- 05 Careful with the Power
In the early days PC's used a 20 pin connector and then that went upto 24 pins years ago.   Now however servers also ask for upto 2 x 8pin 12V connections

Actually each 8 pin connector is only Ground and 12V so in fact you can us 2 x 4pin connectors instead of 2 x 8pin connectors without issue.

NVMe Disk
A modern motherboard must support NVMe disk.  Something like this

Samsung 960 EVO

But pay attention.  Although this will work in any system with a cheap adapter

Like this

Of if you are lucky it is already on your Motherboard.

However, booting from the NVMe disk is only possible if your BIOS supports it.

Amazingly many 2016 server systems don't have bootable EFI disk card support from a PCIe adapter.   Most consumer ATX motherboards et al, and certainly all motherboards with an onboard M.2 slot do have the bootable ability.

One last important note.  Of course you need a M.Key type motherboard connector and and M.Key drive to support PCI speeds else you'll just get plain old slow SATA.  And check the Motherboard, the current state of the art is PCIex4 speed, though current cards max out at a still amazing 2GBytes/second.

Storage Thoughts

For Primary Boot storage and for Temporary and Application working fast storage I'd recommend the above M.2 PCIe storage.

But in 2016 bulk storage is often not on the workstation at all but on a distant NAS.

I would argue to keep a maximum of only 10TB of local storage and this can either be via

a) Multiple 2T or 4T Byte drive (etcetera) bound together with some 'go faster' disk aggregation Operating System product. Example  Microsoft Storage Spaces

b) Perhaps go for the cheap option.   The price point today would be one or mode value 8TB drives.  Example

Seagate Ironwolf 8TB

(NB: Seagate it seems recently changed its Desktop drive lineup)

Case Thoughts

Earlier this year I bought both a Corsair 240 and a 540 case.  These are terribly cheap cases!  Thin metal panels and thumbscrews that don't go in straight.  However, I could not find a more compact and clutter free case.

The basic idea is to split the case vertically into 2 parts.   As you look at the front of the case the motherboard mounts on the left and the power supply, Hard Drives and as many of the unsightly wires can be nested in an enclosed hidden space on the right.  No other manufacturer has yet replicated this great idea well, so your choices today are Air240 Air540 Air740.

Oh and the Air540 can support an E-ATX server motherboard, nudge, nudge,  wink, wink.

So far I only reviewed the similar but much smaller 240 case here

Cooling Thoughts
In 2016 dedicated water cooling is now possible in a plug a play sealed unit.

Once you have decided if your case can support 120mm or 140mm radiators, and if you need 2 (for 2 CPU's), and finally how they will install, then a variety of manufacturers like Corsair have a whole set of products.

Graphics Card Thoughts
After much research I already upgraded the current workstation to a multi screen capable Gigabyte GTX 960 Graphics Card.   Read about it here

Since April I don't easily see a better card which has 2xDVI + 1xHDMI2.0 + 3xDisplayPort outputs.

If money is no object then starting at about twice the price are the Gigabyte 10xx series of adapters.  Example GTX 1070 G1.   All these higher performance cards drop 1 DVI port and like the 960 can drive a maximum of 4 screens concurrently.

USB 31 Support
I tested dedicated USB 3.1 Type 2 i.e. 10Gbps adapters this summer here  and got nowhere near the 10Gbps theoretical rate.  My opinion is that PCIe adapters are relatively cheap.

Your Motherboard may only have USB 3.0  (also known hilariously as USB 3.1 type 1) 5Gbps connectors.  That's fine.  You can add USB 3.1 Type 2 via add on cards instead.  Just make sure you have some spare PCIe slots.

Many modern cases are banishing external 5.25 inch bays and modern motherboards have completely removed IDE hard disk and MFM floppy interfaces, not to mention PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports.

I still feel that having a BlueRay drive which can also read and write DVD and CDROM formats is useful, in only to read drivers that I get on optical format :-)

I do still have many Vintage computers that rather need 5.25" and 3.5" floppy support and this does rather present a problem in directly physically supporting them on a modern server platform.  Some of the workarounds are virtual formats,  USB floppy drives for high level only support, dedicated cards like Kryoflux and Catweasel.  None totally satisfactory.  I'm thinking about it!

OS Choices
I've been studiously working on the new Base OS for the master workstation for over 6 months.  Now that is testing!   The shortlist is shown below and merits another post of its own right.   We have

Windows 10 Professional
Windows 2012 Server Standard
Windows 2016 Server Standard
Linux Mint 18 Sarah with Cinnamon
Centos 7.2-1511
VMware ESX

In this posted I presented some of the choices and considerations that you would face building your home Workstation.  As my actual 2016 build progresses I will write up any gotchas along the way.  I have no illusions there will be some soon.

Supermicro IPMI
Intel E5-2600 V4 chipsets