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7 Key Steps To Building High Performance Systems

We put together our own high-performance computer--here's how it works, and how it can work for your business.

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Then a funny thing happened on the way to the design studio. Companies, including Intel Corp. with Xeon-based offerings, and Microsoft Corp. with 64-bit versions of Windows XP and Windows Vista, and every major component manufacturer from Asus to Nvidia and Supermicro mastered issues of scale and price and performance. Today, the world of high-performance desktop computing is simply a different animal.

Here are seven steps to offering a high-performance system that's easily customizable and upgradable, and will deliver value.

Step 1: Finding where a performance boost can deliver fast return-on-investmentWhether it's the deployment of a map-based tracking system, 3-D analytics for CRM or sales, or even digital document conversion and management, higher levels of performance can deliver efficiency, improve workflow quality and even cut an organization's costs by a quantifiable amount. Converting formats on a video, or imaging a document on a single-CPU PC vs. a dual-Xeon workstation can mean as much as 10 minutes difference per task. Multiply that by six times in a day, for a $20-per-hour employee, and a new PC could pay for itself in no time. And because you're talking about a custom-build, components and design can always be customized for individual needs.

Step 2: Finding the building blocksFor custom workstation builds, we considered two routes: a bare-bones console from Supermicro, San Jose, Calif., that provided a motherboard, video and audio cards, chassis, fans and power supply, among other components. The system is fairly complete, save for two open CPU slots, hard drives and an optical drive. (The Supermicro also ships with a floppy drive, which we considered nice if not superfluous.) It's a nice system, and one that system builders should consider, based on their need for scale and customization for a specific client. We also considered building a workstation with off-the-rack components, piece by piece. Ultimately, we chose the latter because we wanted to mix and match, tweak and optimize to see what we could come up with.

We got started with our new Test Center workstation testbed largely with off-the-shelf components and software using an Antec Titan 650 chassis, 8 GB of DDR2 RAM at 667MHz, an Asus DSEB-DG motherboard, an Nvidia eGeForce 8400 GS video card and Microsoft Vista 64-bit. Individually, we can recommend each component we used—yes, including Windows Vista 64-bit. Primate Labs' Geekbench 2 64-bit version measured performance, and the system rang up a score of 5356—not the highest-performing system we've built but still very high. It drew more power than a standard desktop: 107 watts idling and 196 watts under a decent workload. The internal temperature never rose more than a couple of degrees above room temperature, and the system remained at or below the lab's ambient noise.

Next: Step 3: Making the decision—32-bit vs. 64-bit Step 3: Making the decision—32-bit vs. 64-bitIt wasn't a slam-dunk decision to go with a 64-bit version of Windows Vista. For all the progress that the Windows ecosystem has made in building out driver support, application support and stability for the OS' 64-bit version, it's still supported much, much less than 32-bit Windows Vista. Were we only to require a workstation for tasks like document imaging and light amounts of 3-D mapping and some video rendering, staying with a 32-bit platform would have been fine. However, CAD, robust 3-D design and other HPC applications are often optimized for 64-bit computing, so we opted to move up to Windows Vista 64-bit.

There are several points worth noting. For starters, Microsoft has reported that as many as 20 percent of all new Windows Vista PCs that sign up for Windows Update are 64-bit systems; for another, driver support is, in fact, slowly improving. Windows Vista 64-bit was a quick install. The software we deployed for testing all supported 64-bit computing, so we were able to get a cursory feel for the power of a higher-end workstation solution.

Step 4: One last check. Do we really need a workstation?We've been very impressed this year by both the speed and performance of quad-core PCs built on technology by both Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, as well as the systems' ability to give Windows Vista (32-bit or 64-bit) the head room needed to get real work done. The one limitation we've lamented is that those systems max out with 4 GB of RAM both because the 32-bit versions of the OS as well as the base configurations, including motherboards, usually support only up to 4 GB of memory. Many system builders, solution providers and their customers have found out the hard way the pain of memory limitations. With the ASUS motherboard, which supports up to 16 GB of RAM, that wouldn't be an issue for any workload, big or small. Where hardware limitations can mean time and money, workstations, in fact, could be an effective way to handle it.

Step 5: Building the systemEverything snapped together just fine. But we learned—sort of the hard way—that when building our own dual-CPU workstation, airflow isn't to be taken lightly. Based on other workstations and servers we've put together ourselves, we took a chance that the system would be just fine with two passive heat sinks over the CPUs and a powerful fan built into the chassis with lots of room for airflow. It was a chance that worked against us; within minutes, the CPUs overheated and the system shut down. We took the heat sinks out and replaced them with CPU fans. Since the ASUS board came with integrated Intel graphics and audio, there wasn't much else to worry about. The HDD and optical drives were a snap to install in the Antec case, which came prebuilt with a 650-watt power supply.

Step 6: Fine-TuningTrying to install a couple of simple applications with 3-D rendering threw us a curveball. The integrated video and graphics that came with the ASUS board could not enter into hardware acceleration mode, which was a requirement for an application as simple as Microsoft Virtual Earth in 3-D mode. The problem was solved by adding the Nvidia eGeForce 8400 GS card, downloading and installing the drivers and rebooting. Along the way, we needed to disable the onboard video by shutting off the on-board jumper. It immediately fixed the problem, hiking the Geekbench score to 6097.

Step 7: Mapping an upgrade pathBecause it was a custom-build, this system could be upgraded for such things as memory (it's expandable to 16 GB), hard drive storage and video. As this is a relatively early stage in the ecosystem buildout for Windows Vista 64-bit, there's a good chance that systems can be delivered with enough head room in the hardware asset itself to scale up with the customers for two to three years.

Bottom lineHigher-performing workstations demand a little more TLC during the planning, design and building than a simple office PC. However, given the potential to improve customer productivity, provide scalability and system builder/VAR margin, we believe the building blocks, software and opportunity are there now to begin having the conversation with partners and customers about delivering desktop HPCs in scenarios where they may not have previously provided value for them.

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