Technology & Gadgets

Building a supercomputer

OK, not really, I got put in charge of maps for the BMFPD, and took it as an excuse to buy a new computer. Here’s some details and my screwups.

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First, I went around all the computer retailers, online and brick-and-mortar, to see if I good buy what I wanted in a built-to-order or off-the-shelf computer. I couldn’t.

The criteria were:

  • Silent. I live at 7400′, so fan runs faster up here. A silent computer at sealevel isn’t silent at my house!
  • Fast.
  • Diskless or small hard drive (HDDs come cheap).
  • Dolby Digital Live and/or DTS connect for on-the-fly encoding of game audio.
  • Serial port, just because. (Maybe a new weather station in my future?)
  • Fanless video card.

Here’s what I bought:

  • Dual 22″ monitors from BenQ ($250 each, total $500)
  • Gigabyte Geforce 8600 GT video card ($148)
  • Zalman 9700 NT CPU cooler ($69)
  • Antec Sonata III silent case ($150)
  • Quad 750G Seagate SATA HDDs (???)
  • SIIG combination media card reader/floppy drive ($40)
  • Asus P5B Vista Premium Edition motherboard with included ScreenDuo (Windows Sideshow for desktops), built-in 512 MB readyboost flash, and a remote control. ($229)
  • Quad DDR2 800 1GB memory ($170)
  • Windows Vista Ultimate Edition ($190)
  • Samsung SH-183 SATA DVD burner ($38)
  • Microsoft Wireless Entertainment Desktop 7000 ($126)
  • Intel Core 2 Duo 2.4 GHz ($225) This came with a fan, but I used the Zalman above.

In the interests of full disclosure, I pulled a two DVD writers out of other computers I had (one IDE version of the sames Samsung above, one IDE LiteOn writer). Also, I already owned one of the 22″ BenQs, and this price was AFTER rebate (same goes for memory, Microsoft keyboard). Lastly, I had a spare 120mm Nexus quiet fan that I used for HDD cooling.

So here’s my screwups:

  1. Do not use RAID5. I mean it. Don’t. Use RAID0+1 if you have 4 disks (you’ll lose only 25% of the available disk space for RAID0+1 vs. RAID5). If you have ONE bad shutdown (hard shutdown), it’ll have to rebuild the parity. This slows down your machine for the 15-20 hours this takes on a 2TB volume.
  2. I initially bought the Zalman 9700 LED cooler ($59), but it has a three pin motherboard connector. The newer P965 Intel chipsets use a 4 pin PWM (Pulse width modulation) connector on the motherboard. So I bought the correct one afterwards.
  3. I didn’t know that for all dual-channel memory, the CAS latency on all memory must match, along with the speed (i.e., simply using DDR2 800 is not enough, all four numbers after the CL must match). To be clear, this means not just the memory in each of the pairs must match, all of it must match. I ended up buying memory at a higher price to get matching memory after the first order (would’ve been $140 total for memory)
  4. I don’t think my motherboard can do Dolby Digital Live or DTS connect. I’m not 100% sure yet, but I may end up with a separate audio card. (another $70).
  5. Regardless of what your Vista install says, you MUST install the drivers for whatever RAID system you use (this motherboard has Intel Matrix Storage Manager). This cost me three days of disks failing, etc.
  6. HDD RAID arrays need cooling, especially if they’re doing heavy activity, like when reinitializing RAID5. Put a fan on the HDDs, run it full speed (i.e., don’t let the MB control the speed). The Antec case has only one case fan, at the outlet, and recommend for “most silent” operation, you should not install in the space reserved for the second. Install it. I burnt my hand on a HDD that failed. Moreover, when rebuilding, I pulled the case cover off, and put a clamp fan next to the HDDs.

Other notes:

  • Make sure you buy the right cooler (point 2 above). You have to take EVERYTHING apart to put on a cooler.
  • Don’t activate your Windows Vista/Office for days (if not weeks) until you make sure everything is stable. I didn’t, and had to call Microsoft to reactivate Vista after I screwed up the first install. No big, deal, just a word to the wise.
  • Buy Windows Vista 32, regardless of which processor you have. Trust me. Vista 64 requires signed drivers, which are few and far between, so you’ll be left with plenty of stuff that just won’t work.
  • Buying 4 GB of memory if you have a kickass video card is a waste of your money. Here’s why: Vista 32 supports 4GB of addressable spaces. Device drivers and (wait for it) your video card eat into this space, so of my 4GB, I can only use 3 GB. Might have just bought a total of 3 GB (2x 1 GB +1x512MB with the CAS the same of course).

By Dave

He was born in Canada, but currently lives in Boulder, CO up in Boulder Heights.

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