Building Your Own Houdini Workstation

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It finally happened – here is the long feared hardware episode you’ve not been waiting for! As Mo recently started freelancing, he decided he’d need a new computer. Also he decided to build it himself. Enjoy the resulting chaos.

A word of warning – if you decide to build a PC yourself you do so at your own risk.

Intro

So I’m freelance again. And get asked to bring my own workstation to clients more frequently. However I’m a bit hesitant to schlepp my dear Entagma-computer out to clients. So instead I opted to build a second, newer machine. These were the main things I expected from it:
– should be able to fit 4 GPUs
– at least 64GB RAM
– decent CPU speed for sims / general Houdini madness
– m2 SSD for quick caching/ fast boot
– power supply with ample headroom for power hungry hardware
– no liquid cooling shenanigans

Hardware choices

CPU: amd.com/de/products/cpu/amd-ryzen-threadripper-1920x
Mainboard: msi.com/Motherboard/X399-GAMING-PRO-CARBON-AC.html
Case: fractal-design.com/home/product/cases/define-series/define-xl-r2-black-pearl
Cooler: noctua.at/en/products/cpu-cooler-retail/nh-u14s-tr4-sp3
RAM: crucial.com/usa/en/bls4k16g4d240fsb
SSD: crucial.com/usa/en/ct1000mx500ssd4
GPU: gigabyte.com/Graphics-Card/GV-N1070IXOC-8GD#kf
PSU: enermaxeu.com/products/power-supplies/premium/platimax-1700w/
External DVD: lg.com/de/brenner-laufwerke/lg-GP57EB40
OS: Win 10 Pro 64Bit

I went mostly with components I’d built machines out of previously. Also I was trying to hit something like an optimal price/performance ratio. While during the past years Intel seemed to have an edge ove AMD when it came to multithreading performance, AMD seems to finally have caught up with their new Threadrippers (19xx and second gen 29xx) at a very attractive price point. So I opted for an AMD CPU and mainboard here. Went with the 1920x as it was only 90€ more expensive than the slower 1900x yet reasonably priced in order to not cause bad headaches should I decide to upgrade to a 2950x in the future.

The mainboard I chose was mainly based on its mechanical layout. Four PCIe x16 sots spaced apart two slots can accommodate four full grown GPUs – just what I wanted. It’s got 8 RAM slots which when fitted with 16GB memory modules can be filled to 128GB of RAM. For now I filled half of them totalling 64GB of RAM. (Threadrippers can be picky when it comes to RAM modules. I went with modules which I knew worked.) The only annoying thing are the very colorful (and bright!) LEDs scattered all over the board. But that’s not so much an issue if you’ve got a case without windows.

The case is a Fractal Design Define XL R2 – nothing too fancy, no windows, no excessive LEDs no glaring colors. Just about the most subtle case you can get. I’ve worked with this case before too. It fits four GPUs, lots of cables and some hybrid coolers (if you’re into them) pretty nicely. Also it comes with enough case fans pre-installed. It fits a big CPU cooler well too.

Keeping the CPU cool is a job for the 140mm Noctua cooler. I dislike liquid cooling for most cases. It adds complexity, weight and cost. A decently sized air cooler can keep your components cool without blowing your eardrums too. I like hybrid cooled GPUs thoug – when you stack 4 graphics cards directly on top of each other it makes sense to remove the heat through some sort of tubing.

Hard disk wise I opted for a 1TB m2 SSD which in theory should be a bit quicker than your plain vanilla SATA SSD. Which is nice for caching and quickly booting.

For the power supply I decided to get something hefty – just to be sure that I’ll be able to upgrade to increasingly powerful (and power hungry) GPUs. I found the Enermax Platimax 1700W to fit my specs nicely. Not sure though if it’s available outside of Europe.

Add an external DVD drive and a copy of Win10 Pro and you’ve got all parts needed to start building…

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17 Comments

  1. jdiazsaez says

    The three thing I love the most together, Hardware, Houdini & entagma. Am I dreaming?

  2. I too sorely need to build myself a workstation but I’ve been putting it off because I dread running into precisely the sort of snafus you encountered during this build, so thank you for sharing your experience and paving the way so that others like me have the benefit of not going in blind!

    What may, I ask was the final price for this build? Given you were attempting to maximize cost to performance, this would be an interesting statistic.

    Best of luck to you on your new venture as a freelancer!

    • Moritz says

      Hi Michael and thanks for the encouraging words! I ended up paying 2480€ but prepare to spend some more on 2x RTX2080s… 🙂

      Cheers,
      Mo

      • Just for the sake of chiming in on build pricing, my build was several months prior to this. I opted for the top-line Ryzen Threadripper CPU (AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X 16-Core Processor, 3400 Mhz, 16 Core(s), and two GTX 1080ti’s, which unfortunately for me were at their peak price at the time, at around $1100 US each. I also have 64GB RAM, a 500gb Solid State boot drive, and a 1 terrabite storage drive, in a Phantex (I think) case. All air cooled, with some extra fans packed in. All of this cost approximately 5k US, which is probably less than half of the new iMac pro, for those of you sad fools who still cling to Apple stations, for considerably more power, modularity and affordability.

        As a side-note, I might suggest that the release of the new RTX 2000 series Nvidia GPU’s will drive down further the cost of the already superior cost/performance ratio-superior GTX 1080ti – and that you could do my build, with all four 1080 ti’s, that the motherboard can acomodate, for around the same amount of money, give or take $250-500. I do recommend that option, I love my build.

        Thanks Entagma! you guys are awesome and much appreciated!

  3. rrrr says

    *all you really need to put together a build is a screwdriver! 😉 *protip

  4. This is great tech advice overall. But quite honestly, I would rather purchase a workstation from a large company like Dell, MSI, or HP. If you call and talk to them, they give you amazing business level workstations for an amazing price.

    Their machines have been tested for compatibility and performance for the work we do, and they offer tech support when something goes wonky at 2am when the client wants their work done by 10am. There is way to much risk with a hand built machine.

  5. James says

    I see a lot of folks going with Threadrippers- I haven’t kept up with CPUs lately, is this just a cost/performance ratio decision, or does Houdini perform better with that processor line?

    • Moritz says

      In this case my decision was based on price/performance ratio. Haven’t seen any detailed comparisons between current Intel and AMD CPUs regarding Houdini’s performance. Cheers, Mo 🙂

  6. harry nicholas says

    yep, interesting even though i get mine built for me, nice to be able to see how to upgrade without blowing yourself up. i have the same case, ryzen 16 core, same memory and two 1070Ti’s but i bought mine a while ago.
    thanks!

  7. Robert says

    Hi Moritz!

    I wondering how well 1920x is handling comlex setups and effects over super detailed geometry? Can I benefit from multicore performance in houdini if I will render through GPUs ?

    Thank you for your videos:)

    Rob K.

  8. Rob Wu says

    “The fans are turning… it’s doing something” 😀
    Always that dread of “Did I assemble it right?” the first time you turn it on 😉

    Informative as usual, and maybe you can make a short one about your experiences with the AMD CPU after some use.

    cheers!

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