We have built or tweaked custom gaming systems -- if you didnít, you wouldnít be reading FiringSquad. Your custom-built gaming system is probably an equally impressive system for your non-gaming tasks, and so if you ever needed to build an office PC for someone else, your experiences will serve you well.
However, what happens when someone asks you to advise them on building a high-performance PC where the focus is not gaming or even office applications, but honest-to-goodness computation? In these cases, you need to throw out everything you know about gaming PCs. Building a workstation PC takes a different mindset. Recently, I had an opportunity to do just that for a medical lab that relies heavily on finite element analysis. The details are unimportant, just think of it as being similar to the crash-test studies a car manufacturer will do, only on a smaller scale.
Our labís current computation system is an SGI Octane2 with dual R12000 400MHz CPUs, 4GB of RAM, and V10 graphics. These systems were around $40,000 when first released. Each R12000 400MHz has a SpecFP2000 of around 350-360 and so itís approximately equal to an Athlon 1.2GHz. The caveat is that the SpecFP2000 benchmark is actually made up of a bunch of other, smaller, tests. For computational fluid dynamics or neural network image recognition, the 400MHz SGI CPU is 2.5 to 5 times faster than the Athlon! For crash test simulations, the Athlon is almost 2 times faster than the MIPS CPU. From the SpecFP alone, itís hard to tell whether a PC or SGI machine would be faster for our own research. You have to recall that thereís the issue of operating system overhead, the crossbar architecture of the SGI, and other little details such as the fact that the MIPS CPU has 2MB of L2 cache. In addition, itís hard to know exactly how close a custom app will be to the synthetic benchmarks.
That said, our lab still needed to move to x86. SGI equipment was too expensive, and although we have some custom written software for IRIX, a good amount of our work involves MATLAB; In January, the developers of MATLAB announced that they were abandoning the SGI platform. That gave me the green light to build a high-end PC.
In this article, Iíll describe the system I built. Along the way, Iíll explain why I picked certain components and why itís different from what Iíd pick in a gaming system.