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A fun problem to have...

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January 23, 2003 2:04:47 AM

Hey all – been a while since I’ve posted, so I’m hoping this still acts as the forum for general computer building questions.

I’m working on a car design project at university and our staff advisor has been kind enough to arrange for us to get a new computer, accepting that it will need to be a “pretty powerful and expensive one” to run the types of software we’re using. As of right now there's no cap on the budget (though I doubt he’d be amused if we requested a supercomputer).

We’ll be running CFD, CAD, FEA and other such programs (possibly including, but not limited to, stuff like CFX, Solidworks, Ansys, Nastran, etc.) However, in addition to the heavy number crunching we need to run the conventional stuff like office software and Photoshop. The computer should last at least two years.

While I’ve built systems for home use, I haven’t built anything for this sort of purpose before so I was hoping I could get some input on potential specs. In my experience, a high end workstation based off of conventional parts has been able to run this kind of software, considering which I’ll ask are there benefits to AMD vs. Intel for running engineering programs? Will I run into driver problems choosing ATI over Nvidea? Have LCD monitors improved to the point where the refresh rate of CRT monitors is no longer a factor? Is WinXP Pro compatible with the software we’ll be running, or would Win2K be a better bet? Is upgradability a pipe dream?

We’re probably looking to get the new box within the next few weeks… I’ll be getting a better idea as to exact software we’ll be running over the next few days, but I thought I’d try to field some ideas now. Any general or specific suggestions, or horror stories from personal experience, would be greatly appreciated.


*As the username implies, I'm generally in the dark*

More about : fun problem

January 23, 2003 2:14:28 AM

wait til the GF FX comes out to make sure you get the top of the line (be it Radeon 9700pro or GF FX)
also find out the dates for the release of the springdale chipset (for intel), the 800Mhz fsb chips (prescott?), and the AMD clawhammer
those are technologies that are coming out soon afaik, so maybe something to consider besides just what's out right now

edit: there's a quadro FX that Nvidia has announced, if you're looking at those workstation cards
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<A HREF="http://forumz.tomshardware.com/modules.php?name=Forums&..." target="_new">mubla otohp eht ni ecaf ruoy teg</A><P ID="edit"><FONT SIZE=-1><EM>Edited by LtBlue14 on 01/22/03 11:17 PM.</EM></FONT></P>
January 23, 2003 2:15:21 AM

If you're going to be doing this graphic related programs, you should be thinking of investing your money into a high end vid card, i'm talking about a workstation style card (maybe even AGP pro interface). Options are the Ati Fire GL, Nvidia Quadro, 3D Labs Wildcat/Oxygen, or other such cards.

Instead of Rdram, why not just merge 4 Sdram channels...
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January 23, 2003 3:39:39 AM

I designed a complete chassis as a final project once, it was cool. Oh, I have a degree in that field.

<font color=blue>You're posting in a forum with class. It may be third class, but it's still class!</font color=blue>
January 23, 2003 7:22:12 AM

An Athlon will slaughter any equilivent P4 in those sort of apps for 1 simple reason. Those sort of apps generaly hit pretty hard on the FPU of the CPU. They want number crunching ability not megahertz. I know that Autocad is really FPU dependent and sucks on a P4 just the same as Seti@Home also sucks on a P4 but they both work grea on an Athlon. Those sort of applications you mention are pure basic cold hard number cruching applications where SSE, SSE2, MMX, MMX+, 3DNOW and 3DNOW+ make no difference to those programs. And it just so happens that the FPU on the P4 sucks (Which I have already said) which leaves it at a massive disadvantage. The only way to go for what you want would be either. An Athon MP setup or a Gasp.... mac setup. Or you could wait on the AMD Opteron to arrive and that would slaughter both of those options too.
AREA_51
January 23, 2003 3:09:05 PM

His software won't run on a Mac.

<font color=red>The solution may be obvious, but I can't see it for the smoke coming off my processor.</font color=red>
January 23, 2003 3:49:33 PM

Definitely get a workstation video card. Don't get a consumer card. You aren't going to be playing games on this rig.

If you go P4 get the RDRAM setup. It is still the fastest for that platform. If Athlon get at least 3200 DDR SDRAM CL2. You need at least 512 MB RAM. The more the merrier. That gets into budget though.

Go with quality stable mobo manufacturer. Don't overclock. Stability is more important. You don't want to crash in the middle of a model or analysis.

It's hard to get real specific without a budget. Your video card is going the be the most expensive item. I have used 3DLabs Oxygen cards and have been happy. They are crappy at gaming but are good as work station cards. Depending on how much money you have you can do a lot better though.

I have never worked with dual processors. I am not sure if it would do any good for these programs.

Get a good CRT monitor (19" or larger). How large depends on the complexity of your models. I use Solidworks on a 19" and I am happy with it. But bigger is always better. You can get more of your model and more buttons on the screen. Don't get smaller than a 19" unless you are doing simple stuff.

Be sure to get an Antec or Enermax power supply with a lot of juice. There are other brands but these two are good. Your power supply can have an impact of stability.

You could easily spend $2000 on a system. You could easily spend a lot more. Let us know what you have in mind.

What types of computers do you use now? Do you spend a lot of time waiting on FEA analysis to complete? Does your SolidWorks model jump when you rotate it or does it rotate smoothly? Does it take too much time to open assemblies?

I would probably lean towards the 3.06 P4 and a Asus board right now. Solidworks is supposed to be going to SSE2 and that will benefit you. There are some quirky things going on with the newest AMD boards (nForce2). I have one at home and although I like it alot I have had some unexpected things happen. And my philosophy with work station computers like this is I want the best performance I can get with the best stability I can get. I am not saying that you can not get an nForce2 board to be stable. The bios' needs some work still in my opinion. The RDRAM setup will be fast and stable.

As far as software compatibility you should check with all the software vendors to see if they support XP. I use 2000 Pro at work and I have no problems with Solidworks. At home on XP Pro I haven't had any problems with Solidworks so far. I haven't really tested it. Look around for some forums for the software you are considering using and see what types of issues they may have with different operating systems.

Where I have made recommedations they are the minimums you should use.

<font color=red>The solution may be obvious, but I can't see it for the smoke coming off my processor.</font color=red>
January 23, 2003 6:22:46 PM

I have been lurking for a while but it seems you need my expert advice since what you asked is actually part of my profession. A good place to start is looking at sites like gameoc.com and alienware.com. These are good places to set a benchmark for what you want in your system. If you are going to go Intel you have to get a Xeon paired with at least a 1GB of RDRAM. If you are going to go AMD get a dual processor system. As for mobo makers I usually say Asus, SuperMicro, Tyan or possibly Via. You are going to want the fastest RAM possible (whether DDR or RD) and a big issue will be what type of HD you will get which would normally dictate you choice of mobos. I would suggest going SCSI since there is no cap on the purchase. I would also suggest backing your data up somewhere else and ghosting the initial configuration of the machine incase diaster strikes.

As for video cards. The ATI workstation stuff is the best right now until Nvidia drops the NV30 stuff. There is an exception to that rule if you have NV28 cards with good drivers but for immediate purchase go with ATIs FireGLX1 and make sure you update the drivers regularly. Whatever you do make sure you mobo has AGP Pro capabalities.

OS: You must use W2k if you want all this stuff to work w/o a hitch and if you go Intel screw hyperthreading cause it will mess up your graphics card. Also screw AGP 8x, it is a waste of time and money right now. Tom's people confirm this as well as many others.

In conclusion:
At least 1GB of ram (DDR or RD)
AMD dual processor or Intel Xeon
NVidia 980XGL or ATI FireGLX1
SCSI HDs, multiple if possible

Yes, this config has some serveresque qualities.

Please excuse any bad spelling or grammar as I am not an English teacher.


HULK SMASH!!!
January 27, 2003 4:15:32 AM

Hello again - sorry for the delay between posts: I've had a rather busy week...

Paulj - to answer your questions on pricing, I went to my contact with the person supplying the funding for this and let them know that a really good system could potentially cost in the region of $6-7k CAD (that's in the $4k US range) and the response was not to worry if it were at that price or above. That said, let's set a $6,500US maximum because even that seems ridiculously high. Less is preferred if the performance difference is minimal (I haven't priced a system above $5K US yet).

Now, my understanding is that dual Athlons are probably the fastest solution, but I'm not sure that the shop we're moving to has air conditioning and that will likely resort in an office that's a bit too hot in summer. I know that our current location does not have air con.

The CPU alternatives seem to be T-Bred B, P4 or Xeon, then. I'm leaning towards the Athlon, because of the better FPU, but could happily go for any of the above. No O/Cing in any case. That said, any info on the launch date of the Hammer/Opteron/AMD's name of the week processor would be appreciated.

Graphics wise I'm thinking either ATI 9700 PRO or FireGL X1, because that's a local company that hires a lot of students at the university, and the choice may thus be politically expedient. If NVidia is much better I'm willing to reconsider this too, though.

Monitor should be 21-inch Flat CRT, I think, because bigger is better and CRTs had better refresh rates than LCDs last time I checked.

OS will be Win2k Pro, I think. I use XP Pro at home happily, but still don't fully trust it, somehow...

Power supply-wise, I've been happy with the dual fan Enermax 350W setups in the past, though I'd consider Antec as well.

As for current computer, we have a P3 with far too little RAM and a 32MB geforce 1 graphics card. Solidworks is jerky, but that's hardly surprising, and CFX is a nightmare. It was, needless to say, purchased several years ago and out of our budget.

RAM will be either 1066 Rambus or DDR - prompting the question of whether PC3200 is worth the price over PC2700.

As for hard drives - how big of a performance difference will there be between ATA100 and SCSI? I know the cost difference is large, and that we want two separate drives (linux and win2k - our comp people need linux for the telemetry, as is my understanding).

Oh - and Crashman, don't suppose you have any experience analysing composite chassis designs, do you? I think that FEA modelling of carbon fibre is causing some problems for our aero people... I think it would by definition, being anisotropic and all, but on the off chance that you know something about it...

Thanks All

*As the username implies, I'm generally in the dark*
!