What hardware should I get in a workstation?

New Custom Workstation

Preface

The purpose of the article is to take you on my journey in setting up my new workstation and the thought processes that were taken. I have chosen many computers over the years for both CAD and FEA for myself, coworkers and many customers. This, however, isn’t my full time gig and I have no financial incentive. I’m happy to hear your constructive thoughts and questions in the comments.

CYA disclaimer: This is for informational purposes only, don’t install, buy or do anything, ever!

Why a New Workstation Now?

I have a desktop workstation and a laptop for travel. I try to only replace or upgrade when needed because I’m cheap and the required downtime. Here is a brief history of my hardware upgrades to give an idea of the cadence and triggers.

2016: BOXX overclocked workstation: i7-5960x, 32GB RAM, NVIDIA Quadro K1200

At the time I had a DoD project with a huge set of large FEA simulations. Due to project requirements the simulation could not be reduced or simplified. This simulation exceeded my 16GB of RAM and spilled over to the hard drive making the simulation infeasible. I could have upgraded the RAM but as you will see higher computer power was also needed. This BOXX overclocked workstation had the fastest certified clock speed available due to it’s OEM certified overclocking. The 32GB of RAM was sized based on the above simulation. Even with new hardware the simulation took almost 2 weeks to solve!

2018: MSI WS63VR Laptop: i7-7700HQ, 32 GB RAM, NVIDIA Quadro P4000

Project required nearly weekly travel which is abnormal for me. I needed a computer that could handle day to day CAD and FEA. This was spec’d to be 2 tiers below the state of the art which is what I believe is generally the sweet spot for performance and cost. MSI’s gamer roots and newly launched mobile workstation made for a sleek capable rig that I still use. Having a number pad is a huge plus.

2021: BOXX NVIDIA Quadro RTX 4000 upgrade

Due to a project heavily using Freeform Plus and supply chain issues the BOXX’s graphics card was upgraded to be a band aid fix. I upgrade: RAM, video card and hard drives as needed for projects. I usually leave the CPU, motherboard and rest of the hardware as is until the next major upgrade unless there is an acute failure. A second SSD was also added along the way too. The video card and SSD were moved to the new workstation below.

2022: Custom workstation: 12th gen i9-12900K, 32GB RAM DDR5, NVIDIA Quadro RTX 4000

12th gen parts became available to upgrade the workstation. Details to follow below.

Primary Workflows

What primary work flows and to a lesser extent secondary workflows are expected? First start with what were the most demanding tasks over the lifespan of your current system. Your new system should be able to complete these with ease unless there were very unusual circumstances. For example every new computer I can remember has had as much or more RAM and storage than it’s predecessors. I use many programs across the many projects and companies I work for: Abaqus, Isight, Tosca, 3DExperience, Catia, SolidWorks, RhinoCAD, Freeform Plus, MasterCAM, Cura, LycheeSlicer… If I select my most demanding computer intensive tasks FEA drives the processor and CAD the GPU.

Hardware and Why

CPU

CAD is primarily single threaded so it benefits from the highest clock speed. Boost clocks and other methods to drive a higher speed on a single core work very well here. So for CAD GHz is king, cores barely matter but they did when the choice was 1 or 2 cores.

FEA does multi-thread very well. Because of this the licensing cost structure factors this in. Your licenses will dictate how many threads the simulation will used. If you are part of that decision than you may swing budget from software to hardware or the other way. Let’s assume that licenses are a constant. With that higher clock speed with the number of cores you can utilize is the driver.

12th gen i9-12900K was chosen because of the many upgrades and completely new architecture including DDR5 and PCIe 5.0 speeds. It’s also new and shiny. The K variant includes integrated graphics which comes in handy when debugging or if the GPU has been harvested for another build for ~$50 it’s not a big deal either way.

Memory RAM

The 12th gen i9-12900 processors support both DDR4 and 5. If I were harvesting my other computer I may be tempted to go DDR4 but since I wanted to be forward compatible DDR5 was the clear winner with the speeds. For budget reasons DDR4 with an 11th gen processor or equivalent AMD would be my secondary path here. 2 DIMMs of 16GB each were chosen for a total of 32GB. I expect to upgrade this when needed so 4 DIMM slots on the motherboard should be available. At the time of sourcing finding DDR5 was problematic. I compared cost and speed and ended up with 4800MHz.

Motherboard

With 12th gen and DDR5 chosen there are still many brands and boards available. Here is where I feel the least qualified to offer suggestions but any respectable brand should work. Some are budget and some are for extreme over clockers, I looked for the middle ground. I have been very happy with MSI laptops so I focused on them also allowing for a familiar BIOS. The Z690 Carbon had 4 DIMMs, 3 M.2s. It also looked cool with the dragon and carbon theme.

Graphics Card GPU

As noted above the NVIDIA Quadro RTX 4000 was taken from the BOXX. This was selected because it was the latest generation with the smallest VRAM. My workload is focused on complex surfacing and small assemblies. I can’t remember ever running out of VRAM so I save money here. If I were buying today I would go with the NVIDIA RTX A4000 with slight performance improvements and double the VRAM (not that I need it so far) for minimal increase in price. Most important make sure your CAD programs have the graphics card certified. Likely they will still work but good luck getting tech support! Script: ‘Did you reboot, is it turned on, is it supported hardware?’

Storage: Hard Drive, M.2, SDD (Not sure what to call it these days!)

Fastest M.2 drive I could find that had the expected storage needs for installed OS and programs. I do not store files here. Samsung SSD 980 PRO 2TB M.2. Don’t skimp here on speed or size. Upgrading the primary drive is a PITA! Secondary drive is Samsung SSD 870 QVO 2TB harvested from the BOXX which was an upgrade along the way. This is where all my files so no need to transfer them during this upgrade. Once the system was up and running it was swapped over.

Cooling, Case and Power

Liquid cooling is a must for the 12900. The only real economic choice is a 360 AIO. Smaller and you will likely regret it and a custom loop is expensive and quite involved but looks cool. Lian-Li has newish fans that can be linked together to greatly reduce fan cable clutter. They also have a 360 AIO. They also have the most popular mid tower case the Lian-Li Dynamic Evo. Last is to calculate the wattage needed by adding up the components CPU and GPU primarily for the power supply. Remember to include some overhead and expected upgrades. If you under size and have to replace the power supply later it’s not that big of a deal more of a cabling hassle. Rounding up I got to 750W of power and went with be quiet! Dark Power 12. A backup power supply is a life saver too. My APC UPS 1500VA / 900W battery backup power supply has roughly 1 hour of backup when doing light computing. However, while running Cinnebench multi-core, it estimates 12min! This one can put my computer to sleep so that the internet can run because the data must flow or the kids will whine.

Where to Buy?

With scalpers and some companies terrible return policies I chose to go with Amazon for everything. Amazon Smile to support my favorite charity, Prime for free shipping, 5% cash back and the best return policy around and all that without affiliate links! New Egg used to be my go to.

Assembly

Put all the pieces together! Many guides and videos available. For pasting the CPU with thermal paste I went with an X with a blob in the center. I thought about simulating various options using CEL in Abaqus. Other than that, zip ties are your friends and have fun!

Installing and Updating

Install Windows 11. Update BIOS! Windows update everything. Make sure the graphics card has the latest driver too. Install all your programs and license servers.

BIOS

Enter bios by rebooting and showing off your 80’s gamer skills by smashing the Delete key as fast as you can. Each bios is different but you will want to enable overclocking and set your fans and AIO pump to reasonable levels.

In MSI’s MPG BIOS utility enable Game Boost CPU and XMP Profile.

Go to Hardware Monitor to access fan control (no clue why it’s hidden here!). Let’s tame the fan noise. We will be further tweaking these over in Windows so no need to go crazy here.

The AIO pump runs at full tilt by default and it has an annoying whine and is huge overkill for an idle computer. You will need to select PUMP1, DC and smart fan mode. DC means you are driving by voltage not RPM and smart fan mode allows a variable voltage based on a temperature reading. Both PUMP1 and CPU1 directly cool the CPU and should use that as it’s temperature source. Through trial and error the pump was determined to need 4V to run so that’s it’s lower bound and should always be running. The remaining fans are set to system as the temperature source.

Pump

CPU

Back and Bottom Fans (System 5 and 6)

Airflow

The 360 AIO was mounted on the top set to vent. The bottom and back fans were set to inlet. This creates a significant positive pressure system when at full fan. During normal light load operation, I want all the fans to be off for: noise, energy and longevity of the fans. Having the AIO radiator at the top allow the chimney affect to passively cool the CPU and vent the hot air.

I want to direct this flow towards the components that need additional cooling such as the PCH. GPUs peculiarly vent much of the waste heat into the case. For this reason, creating a curtain of cool venting air both cools the GPU and minimizes the case heating effect of the GPU.

With the bottom fans blowing in much of this air exits below the GPU before cooling components. I have electrical taped all the vents on the PCIe slot covers that are below the GPU, not sure if I should remove the one directly below the GPU though. There is a large vent towards the side of the case that also vents cold air from the bottom fans. Lian-Li provides full CAD models of their cases on their web page here. I wish more companies were as cool as Lian-Li is because sharing CAD makes modifying so much easier. Using their CAD model I created a vent cover that matched the hexagon pattern similar to LEGO blocks and 3D Printed it. The files are shared here on Printables.

Be mindful of material shrinkage here. Each peg fits perfectly but they are tough to get them all lined up at once. If I printed again I would scale up after some caliper work.

I also placed another 3D printed cover on the inside that has the MSI dragon on it to further steer the airflow.

Performance Tweaking

Undervolting the CPU

In overclocking a CPU it’s common to overvolt the CPU to increase stability. After watching Jay’s 2 Cents on undervolting the 12900 it’s clear that the motherboard manufacturers have already cranked up the juice! My guess is that high stability was critical for this 12th gen launch, so more voltage means more stability. Unfortunately, higher voltages leads to higher temperature and when under load thermal throttling. To tackle this install Intel Extreme Tuning Utility. Speed optimizer was used to slightly overclock the CPU from 5.00 GHz to 5.10 GHz. Turbo Boost Time Window was maxed out at 128s. I don’t understand why this isn’t limitless if under temperature and voltage limits. (*Note the 13th generation doesn’t have this limit*) From here I incremented Core Voltage Offset from the default of +0.045V from the Speed Optimizer down to -0.150V. I used Cinebench to stress test the under volt creating the plot below.

I did notice instabilities undervolting at 0.150 with BSoD primarily trying to reboot. Through trial and error I’ve settled on a less aggressive -0.110V.

(*Note: XTU has been updated to not allow the speed optimizer with advanced tuning*)

Fans and Pumps

The BIOS fan and pump settings helped a bunch with noise but my OCD can do better. I want to be able to drive the fans, pump and GPU fan based on system temperatures. Fan Control does just this and it’s free, donations are welcome the the creator though! We can thank Jays2Cents and the creator Rem0o for the find and creating this! This software rocks. Here is a snap shot of the GUI and it highlights the power and functionality you get.

I constantly tweak this for fun. When simulating I use the TOP FLAT profile for the TOP CPU fan so that it doesn’t cycle as much between FEA increments.

Benchmarks

SolidWorks Performance Benchmark Test

I believe that there may be an issue with the I/O scores. I reran and checked my settings.

CINEBENCH R23

Cinebench is a CPU intensive rendering test that has both a multi core and single core test.

Wahoo, first place!

Unigine Heaven Benchmark 4.0

Heaven is a GPU intensive test representative of gaming which highlights Frames Per Second FPS.

As expected this GPU doesn’t do great but that’s not what this system is for. This can be used as proof that this system is for work not play!

Intel XTU 2

What’s most notable is the temperature difference. This system is 72°C and the top one is 92°C! I believe this can be attributed to the cooling system and undervolting the CPU.

Conclusions

Generally, I would make the most of the same decisions for the workstation.

Cooling + Case

If trying to save some money without sacrificing performance here are the minor changes I would make. 6 fans probably would suffice. With this change the Lian Li Dynamic Evo case may not be the best choice because the whole back wall would be open and bare. I would start with a requirement to have a 360 AIO as top exhaust. From there it’s primarily personal preference but here are my runners up: Lian Li Dynamic Mini, Fractal Torrent and Fractal Meshify. These each have different sizes and I recommend that it can at least support and ATX sized motherboard. Gamer’s Nexus is a great rabbit hole to go down if case ventilation and cooling is your thing.

Next Gen

Going with a 12th gen Intel CPU and the new architecture means that there are compromises. Cost, thermal and power consumption are biggest. In general, I tend to go with 1 or 2 generations behind on technology to not ride the wave of the early adopters and benefit from their trail blazing. When you are reading this blog the entire balancing act of components will be different. I hope that this article helps you on your journey.

Tuning

I can’t stress enough that tuning your system will make the world of difference. My fans barely run when not running CAD, FEA or opening programs.

Computer Name

I name all of my computers starting with EARL when I was in high school. With that Optimal-Carbon is born!

So cute!

I hope this helps!

Rob

PS: If you have gotten this far this post may be interesting on the peripherals I use.