Building personal Workstation in 2020

Hardware
October 25, 2020
Over the years of building machines myself I learned to estimate what kind of projects I'd be able to deliver on a machine based on its specs. My baseline is my very first serious workstation that had 4x1080Ti GPUs and 6 core CPU. I delivered quite a few projects on it. Those cards are two generations old and I am desperate to try out new 3000 series. My rough calculations were that 2x3090 will be performing better than my old 4x1080Ti station, not to mention Memory, RT Cores and all the benefits that come with it.

In December 2019 I've switched our studio (Out of Nothing) to Redshift due to the nature of the projects we're mostly doing. However, my love to Octane did not go anywhere and I still use it for my personal projects. The problem I had escalated to the limit where I couldn't keep using it in a busy commercial environment. The problem of VRAM of course. I've gotten to a point where almost every project I do exceeds memory limits. And while Redshift distributes the load on the system quite well, Octane rolls on GPU pretty much exclusively. This is where I bought Titan RTX cards with 24GB of VRAM. This sorted the problem. But only on one station and due to the price, I couldn't replace all the cards in our render farm (we're running 30+ GPUs). All the projects we were doing were causing a lot of issues. Wasted time on troubleshooting, optimisation and crashes, sleepless nights and all the fun that comes with them. Hence why we decided to move to Redshift.


All of this, however, is not relevant  with new generation of Nvidia GPUs and 3090 with 24GB in particular.

Yes, there's a lot going on around these cards and the fact it's EXTREMELY hard to get them right now does not help. Filthy resellers (not distributors) bought out all the cards on the launch day in 1.2 (!) seconds for its original price of £1500 and started to sell them for £2200 and more. I, of course, will not pay Titan price for something that initially was kindly provided to people for cheaper. But the fact that technologies are evolving to this degree and this kind of price point made me consider a new personal build. A workstation for Octane workflow primarily, but also for video production in general. Since BMPCC 6K came out I was shooting 6K RAW exclusively, but 6K BRAW is optimised for Davinci Resolve and works fine even on MacBook Pro. I already received my pre-ordered Sony A7Siii and the codecs on it are not as fun as BRAW, MacBook barely handles it, so this issue have to be addressed and the solution is building a new workstation. This article is exactly about that. But we will divide this project in two parts. First part (This one) is about building a workstation fully ready to take on 3090 cards and expand in the future. I did research what components are best for this kind of rig in 2020, necessary power delivery solution, motherboard, CPU, RAM and all that good stuff. Allow me to walk you through all the components we have here today.

The case

The case of choice for this build is Lian Li O11 Dynamic XL and I will explain why in a moment.

Initially I wanted to get one of the custom made "Nano" cases from my good friends at Renderboxes, but it's too industrial.

My studio build from Renderboxes.com: 4x2080Ti, 256GB Ram, 64 Cores

Despite relatively small size for what it is, Molecule wouldn't fit my interior as nice as Lian Li does. Moreover it would really stick out of the shelf. My hideout (home studio) is usually a very cosy place, with a lot of interesting things in it. Workstation has to fit the colors, lighting and the theme. Have a look yourself.

My first YouTube/Home office space in the UK. Featuring orange wall on the back and Dagobah workstation built specifically for the video "Workstation under £1k"
Second version of the same space was all black
And then we had to move to the new house. This space is all white with new layout of the background, more collectibles and lighting options

Lian Li is half glass case that allows placing components and cooling solutions in various ways. The main feature is that it can hold up to three power supplies on the back.

Yes, three PSUs. Remember, the big ambition here would be multiple 3090 cards, power consumption of CPU, Motherboard and several of these cards will be enormous. Two PSUs will be enough though. Another benefit of this case in my particular situation is the air circulation path. The case will be sucking air from the bottom and pulling it up where it has a lot of space to dissipate. In next articles about this build we will be talking about 3090 Founders Edition, their new cooling solution and why this case works particularly well with these cards. Overal, this Lian Li case is quite compact and fits perfectly in my little office.

PSU

I'm loyal to brands that serve well. For me it was always EVGA, but in my last build I tried Corsairs out and I found them significantly quieter. I tried a lot of things but never managed to bring noise levels close to Corsair on EVGA. As this is my personal build I do care about noise levels. Noise is also very well picked up by microphones when I'm recording my videos, so every decibel is important. This is a rather biefy Corsair AX1600i.

Fans & Cooling

10 quite regular fans with RGB lighting from unknown brand EZDIY-FAB. Simple and does the job. Yes. Oh yes. As we're going for a theme here - we will need some rgb lights.

It's quite tricky to mix aestetics and practicality when it comes to cooling solution of relatively new 3rd gen Threadrippers. Unless it's a custom water loop, you're quite limited in choice. The sTRX4 is absolutely same socket dimensions-wise, the pin layout is different. This means all TR4 coolers out there will work. I went with Asus ROG LC360. It's white and it has 360 rad. With push-pull configuration of fans it should do a good job. After testing I can confirm it's working well. Even if I'd install custom water loop for the whole system I would keep CPU in a separate loop. For now - this works flawlessly.

Motherboard

Gigabyte TRX40 Aorus Extreme was my choice after careful research and advice from my buddy Richard @ Renderboxes. It has evenly spaced PCIe gen 4 slots (not that gen 4 matters a lot), 10G on board which is essential for my storage solutions and sTRX4 socket, which smoothly leads us to processor.

CPU

In studio I run Threadripper 3990X (64 Cores) and oh boy I love it in Houdini. Unfortunately, I have very bad experience with AMD products. My previous 2990WX (32 Core 2nd gen) was only working with 16 cores instead of 32 and was overall very unstable and unreliable - widely known issue with that generation. 3990X went even further and burned down completely in first month of use. It was replaced under RMA though. However, the performance is so impressive that I decided to go ahead with Threadripper 3970X (32 Cores 3rd gen) for my home workstation anyway. I hope this will be a smooth journey. Please.

RAM

High-end AMD processors are quite sensitive to memory, especially under heavy sim loads. Following several recommendations I went with G.Skill Tridents. Total of 128GB of RAM should be enough for almost anything. In studio I'm on 256GBs, but never really noticed any dramatic differences between 256GB and 128GB builds.

Storage

For on-board storage I'm using Samsung EVO 1TB m.2. This will host Windows, software and other system files. There is no other on-board storage. I got used to the workflow I established in the studio where all the work related data is stored on the server. I decided to replicate the same setup I've built there. For this I use two Synology DS1621xs+ populated with six Ironwolf Pros (12TB) each. In total both servers give me 120TB of storage with redundancy. One server is for CG & VFX work, second one is for all video work I do and archives.

One of the features I like in DS1621xs+ is built-in 10G connectivity. Other models require extension cards for that. This is why it was important to have 10G in the motherboard, even though internet speeds in the UK are far away from that mark, server speeds are crucial. With all this I have 120TB of very fast storage to use. I edit my videos from the server, I render to the server, I read all my assets from the server and I connect all the machines in the house to the server to have access to same data. All my variables, scripts, fonts, HDAs, settings etc. in one place, whichever workstation I will use at home. Fantastic stuff. There will be a dedicated article and video about storage. Stay tuned for it.

GPUs

As we already know, this article is part one of the build - the base. For the time being it'll be equipped with two RTX2080Ti. On air, standard configuration. A bit choppy ones as they were used in another build.

The Theme & Workstations name

All stations I've ever built are named after planets in Star Wars Universe (Dagobah, Mustafar, Jakku, Jedha etc.). This build is the first one to break the tradition. I decided to go with medieval topic. Is there anything better than Game of Thrones for this? I want to call it "Snow". White case color suits northern topic. Amazing figure I got for this is no one else than Jon Snow himself.

Stay tuned for next articles regarding this station, I am already expecting RTX3090 FE to arrive and I'll be testing single and dual cards performances. Let's summarise the build:

Case: Lian Li O11 Dynamic XL
PSU: Corsair AX1600i
Fans: 10x Ezdiy-Fab 120mm RGB Fans
CPU: Threadripper 3970X
CPU Cooler: Asus ROG LC360
Motherboard: Gigabyte TRX40 Aorus Extreme
RAM: 8x16GB G.Skill Tridents
Storage: Samsung EVO 1TB m.2 and 2x Synology 1621xs+ NAS
GPUs: 2x Asus RTX2080Ti

P.S. These are affiliate links, if you'd decide to buy something using my links you don't pay more, but I get a small commission. Which is highly appreciated :) 

Hope this article would be useful for someone. Thank you for reading.