On building PCs or buying workstations

I’ve owned and used a pretty wide array of computers over the years.

Started with a BBC Model B at school, access to an Amstrad PCW8256 (Z80, 256k, CPM and Logo, nearly proper computing!), then an old NCR COBOL based batch processing machine with a 9″ text only monitor and seperate dual 8″ floppy drives. Had about 16k of RAM. Used various Sun and SGI machines at university.

My first PC was an IBM 8086 motherboard with 64k RAM. Individual socketed chips, no I/O at all bar keyboard – all on 8 bit expansion cards. If it couldn’t find a boot sector it would load MS BASIC from ROM! Played with that in the early 1990s.

Then usual array of 386, 486, Pentiums etc. Used to assemble PCs from parts and sell them for a decent markup. A complete system with decent specs was at least £1k, so making one up for £600 led to a decent income. Sold about 10 – 15 a month for quite a while. Around the Pentium 4 era it stopped being worthwhile except for friends. Still used to make up my own machines till about the Core 2 era. I used AMD or Intel CPUs depending on price and performancealthough AMD dropped the ball CPU wise after the 64×2 line. Then I discovered the wonders of off lease workstations.

It was a tossup between HP and Dell, I happened to find a good deal on a Dell Precision 690, 2x quad core Xeons, quad channel 32GB ECC RAM, RAID, tons of slots, nice quiet (very heavy) case.

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It was a revelation: a PC that NEVER EVER crashes! Everything just works. Dell Precisions or HP Z series are good bets.

Haven’t built myself a PC since. Workstations seem to be overlooked by the masses so the prices stay low. Between the Xeons, ECC RAM, good thermal and hardware design, and vendor software verification they seem to be indestructible. The cases are huge, tools are not required, the fans are large so run slow and quiet – and the fan control firmware is sanely configured. ECC RAM is much cheaper than desktop, as are the Xeons. They all have serial and LPT ports too, handy if you mess with electronics. As they’re Xeon based they have all the hardware virtualisation CPU instruction so VMs run at close to bare metal speeds. With 8 or more cores you can just use affinity to shunt your VMs off onto the last few cores and not even notice they’re running.

I moved onto a Precision T7400, then my current Precision T7500 (dual quad core i7 Xeons with HT (hex core available but £££), 96GB DDR3 ECC, 240GB PCI-e SSD, etc). 8 cores, 16 threads. Not quite current gen but its amazing how quick it is. The new AES instructions mean that Truecrypt whole disc encryption is essentially free. Assuming you trust Intel that is…

Downsides are size and power consumption. The T7500 is more reasonable power wise. Buying a current model would bankrupt most, decent spec workstations are £10k – £15k new.

Personally I’d rather have a second hand Mercedes than a new Ford. Or, as someone cleverer than me once said: ‘The bitterness of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of low price has gone.’

There are laptop versions, I have a Dell Precision M6400. It only has a Core2Duo era CPU but its fine for everything I use it for. Backlit keyboard with numeric keypad, jog/shuttle mousepad, 4x RAM slots, 1GB Quadro FX 3700M, 2x drive bays with RAID, TONS of I/O, 17″ 1920×1200 EdgeToEdge glass RGBLED screen with wide gamut. Its beautiful but quite heavy. The 230W PSU weighs as much as some netbooks! The case is pretty much completely made of metal, looks great. Cost £4700 new, I paid £220 a couple of years ago.

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I can now just USE my machines. Don’t have to think about them at all, they just work. There’s so much CPU and RAM spare these days you don’t have to get too uptight about some driver or Windows process running in the background.

Windows 7 x64 is stable and fairly lightweight, I will eventually ‘upgrade’ to Windows 10 but I’ll let the early adopters iron out the bugs first. I’d like to use Linux on principle but its just not there yet; I can’t be bothered with the constant fiddling. Fine when you have 3000 identical servers to admin, not such fun with a single desktop. And most engineering software etc only supports Windows and doesn’t like WINE. Eagle PCB is an honorable exception.

I do use LinuxCNC, but thats a topic for a different post.

 

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