I’m a Mac!
I’ve been using Apple products since 2005. A friend came over and bought me his Power PC iBook and I fell in love with the thing. It had a real terminal window, I could barely crash the thing no matter what I tried, the user interface was beautiful yet I felt I had all the power of a Linux workstation. Why had I not used one of these before? Unfortunately the lack of x86 processor limited some of the options I wanted to do. About a month later Apple switched to Intel and I didn’t look back. I got rid of the Dell PowerEdge server that was sat under my desk with a 24″ CRT monitor and switched to the first generation of MacBook Pro.
For the last decade I’ve used Apple products, I’ve owned half a dozen MacBook Pros, a MacBook Air, an iMac Retina, a Mac Pro (before they turned them in to rubbish bins) and even an XServe and XServe RAID. I’ve had pretty much every iPhone since 2010, three iPads and an Apple TV. Suffice to say I’ve been part of the Apple ecosystem. I’ve not loved Apple in a while though. As each generation of product comes out I’ve been less wowed and more frustrated for the last five years.
The top specced MacBook Pro I purchased this year have made me decide to leave the Apple world for now. Running VMs (in Parallels or VMware) I found my fans almost always running. Switching to bootcamp for the first time this year I found it more bearable but still found the laptop just not coping as well with the demands I was throwing at it as I would expect for over £2,000. After a few months using Windows as my primary operating system I realised that I didn’t miss Mac OS at all and actually – shock horror – Windows 10 feels like a much more modern operating system than Mac OS X does these days.
With the upcoming changes to my life and need to have a good developer machine I’ve decided that it is time for me to part ways with Apple. Goodbye shiny aluminium, it’s time for me to get my hands dirty once more and build a PC.
Now I’m a PC!
I used to always build computers (in fact I recently found a build log of my first ever PC – check out Project 386 and these stunning 1990s photos:
I’ve built servers over the last few years but the last time I built a computer for my own use was probably in 2002. I used to always build them somewhere around 2003 it became cheaper to buy the ludicrously reduced Dell workstations or servers and then I switched to Apple. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to spec out a machine I really want for myself in a very long time and the last change to buy something that’s well specified before becoming an impoverished student once more.
I had around £1,600 of budget to play with from selling my iPad and MacBook Pro.
Most builds on the internet and most current advice from friends ended up coming along gaming routes. Hugely overclockable 4 core processors that I could get up to 5GHz per core over with some creativity but that didn’t feel right for me. I like cores. I love cores. I love to run virtual servers. I like code that uses as much CPU time as it can – I’ve recently been working on some foreign exchange trading projects and I need to run an awful lot of operations in parallel – ideally whilst running some servers and watching some video.
My workload is unusual. My gaming PCs are designed to max out a few cores and run them as fast as possible. I feel that I benefit better from more cores and that’s just not where consumer chips are at.
Enter the Supercomputer!
Initially I wanted a super quick-to-boot system like the Skylake 6700K that a friend of mine recently built for under £1,000. But with just four cores (let’s forget hyperthreading for now) that’s just not going to cut it. This led me to the Broadwell-E range which ranged from the Broadwell 6800K to the 6950K. The six cores of the 6800K felt it may be a bare minimum but the and a better bet than the 6700K for pretty much the same price, but the 6950X felt much more like what I wanted but at £1,500 for the CPU alone I couldn’t justify it.
A bit of research later and many days of tinkering with specs and I decided to go with the Xeon E5 2620 V4 with 8 2.1GHz cores for the same price as an i7 6800K. This gave me an extra two cores with the potential to add a second chip taking it to 16 cores. Now that’s more like what I wanted. I did some sums and decided I could just about justify going for the dual CPU version so 16 cores at 2.1GHz burstable to 3GHz. Now that feels like the first major CPU improvement I’ve had since buying an 8 core Mac Pro many years ago.
Some more spec tinkering later and I had stumbled across some Xeon E5 2660V4 with a slightly different model number on eBay for the same price. These offered 14 cores at 2.1GHz. It took me a while to track them down but it turns out these were samples for testing or review. With no guarantee that they were going to work I decided to use these in my build giving me a total of 28 cores and 56 threads. Now that’s nuts.
The final build I came up with can be found here but is primarily:
- Dual Xeon 2660 V4 with a total of 28 cores, 56 threads and 70MB L3 cache
- 32GB ECC RAM (maximum of 1TB supported)
- Asus Z10PE-D16 WS motherboard
- Samsung 950 Pro M2 SSD
- A pretty Enthoo Luxe case
The build went incredibly smoothly (check out the video) and I’m over the moon. This thing may take a year to boot (thank you server motherboards) but once I’m booted I have more CPUs than I can shake a stick at and I’ve not managed to max it out once. My SSD has over 2GB/s transfer rates and the setup is almost completely silent even when running at 100% CPU utilisation for hours at a time.
The Asus board is going to be great for future expansion with up to 1TB of RAM, more PCIx16 slots than I know what to do with and support for SLI (which is nice on a Xeon board) but I do just wish it didn’t take a year to boot. Expensive but with very few options in the Dual Xeon workstation space I’m happy with the choice I made. I was frustrated the M.2 socket on the motherboard is only x2 speed rather than x4 which meant I also needed to buy a StarTech PCIe x4 card but that was only an extra £20 at the end of the day and I do have an additional M.2 socket spare at least if I want a less-insane SSD in the future.
I’m glad to be back in the PC world and in many ways wish I’d done this sooner although the time feels right now. It’s hard to imagine me outgrowing this machine any time soon (with the exception of graphics if I start doing GPU-intensive development or RAM which I’ve got plenty of capacity to upgrade).
The total build for the PC itself (excluding peripherals) came in at £1,926.50 delivered. Whilst I definitely went a little over budget I’m more than happy with the results and think it was worth the extra. It’s certainly not a laptop but it is crazy that I can build something this powerful for less than the cost of my last laptop.
One happy geek here – now I just need to get the rest of my office as shiny as my new PC.