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 90ā‚¬ 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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42 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 2480ā‚¬ but prepare to spend some more on 2x RTX2080s… šŸ™‚

      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! šŸ˜‰ *protip

  4. rrrr says

    *also: you can install win from an usb stick! šŸ˜‰

  5. 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.

  6. 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 šŸ™‚

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. Rob Wu says

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

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

    cheers!

    • Moritz says

      Hi Paul,

      as most electrical power a computer consumes is dissipated as heat, we could estimate the heating by using a wattmeter. Which I sadly don’t have now šŸ™‚

      So instead let’s look at the component’s TDP (Thermal dissipatio power) as in the spec sheets:

      Threadripper 1920x: 140w
      2x GTX 1070: 2x 150w
      2x RTX 2070: 2x 175w

      That makes for around 790W under full load. Plus a few watts from SSDs and mainboard. So around half a hairdryer. Again – rough estimate, a wattmeter would help. Also in determining how much power it draws when not under full load.

      Cheers,
      Mo

  10. I am planning an upgrade and am asking for an inquiry.
    I presently have a 1950X with 128 GB of ram but my GPU is rather old 680 GTX.

    I am speculating that by forgoing a GPU upgrade AGAIN and moving to a 2990WX would be a better bang for the buck than keeping the 1950X with an RTX2000. The way I see it CPU power helps me at all times and I always have access to my RAM. With a GPU I am expecting to limit my simulation and rendering capabilities due to GPU RAM size.
    I tend to do more simulation and Volume effects than anything.

    • Moritz says

      Totally depends on your typical use case. If you’re doing mainly sims and/or using CPU render engines, there’s little sense in investing into hefty GPUs.

      In my case I’m typically hired to deliver finished projects, so I need to render. Fast. And I’m not yet willing to invest in a farm. So GPU rendering it is. (Currently this workstation is running 2xRTX2070s and 2xGTX1070) But again – it all comes down to use cases.

      Cheers,
      Mo

  11. Bruno Canales says

    Hey Mo!

    Awesome video and came just in time; I was just thinking of upgrading my hardware. I wanted to ask you which RTX 2070s you got? And what you think about them so far. I am a a bit new in the world of custom computers and am wondering if 4 x 2.5 slot wide GPUs can fit in the x399 given how the PCI slots are spaced! Thank you!

    Prost!

  12. Bruno says

    Awesome Video Mo!

    Why did you go for RTX 2070s instead of 2080s? I am building my own setup for Christmas and was wondering what brand/cooling of RTX cards you’re buying! I have read dual fans GPU are not the most efficient thermally when it comes to stacking GPUs…

  13. Matt Brunner says

    Very helpful video you put together. Thoughtful, clear, well shot and edited. Do you do anything special with your rendering pipeline to use Mantra for multiple GPUs? Or do you use a different renderer?

    Thanks for all your work!
    Matt

    • Moritz says

      Hi Matt,

      thanks a lot šŸ™‚ In fact I mainly use Redshift for rendering, which is a GPU only engine and supports multi GPU rendering šŸ™‚

      Cheers,
      Mo

  14. Francis LaRouche says

    I wouldn’t take my beloved workstation to a client. There’s professional solutions for this kind of thing you know.

    https://youtu.be/bbZk8DvpIJI

    http://www.teradici.com/products/desktop-performance-solutions/remote-workstation-card

    A Teradici card in your workstation that allows you 60fps interactivity anywhere in the world with a zero client (a macbook pro 12″ for example with the Teradici software loaded) and a decent internet connection will cost you around $375.00 US more or less depending on the model PCIExpress card you buy.

    Much cheaper than building a new workstation and lugging around to a new site then leaving it there overnight for weeks on end where it could be stolen or vandalized.

    • Francis LaRouche says

      Srry I meant an iPad Pro 12″ with the Teradici zero client software loaded.
      I believe this is the kind of technology that Catia v6 uses for its cloud computing solution for global engineering firms with hundreds of engineers modeling and testing stuff on worldwide projects.
      Also it solves the problems of having to buy additional copies of software you already own.

      You can turn your home workstation on and off from anywhere in the world with a good internet connection and just use it.

  15. Martin Larravide says

    Iā€™m buying a 1950x for houdini of course. Do you have any comment about your experience. So far so good?

    • Moritz says

      Hey Martin,

      so far I’m super happy with this build. Now running two RTX 2070s, one 1070Ti and one 1070, all neatly chugging along.

      Cheers, Mo

  16. John Osgood says

    I am getting into Houdini/Maya for VFX, so I have a build/upgrade going on. Getting the TR x2950. Until this weekend really did not know you could run dift GPUs together on the same board.
    Q: so Houdini makes use of all the CUDA cores of various GPUs?

    I have 1 1070ti at the moment, should I simply add more of them as $ is available to do so?

    Would you recommend Windows 10 Pro Workstation OS or is Win10 Pro basic fine?

    Looking to educate in Houdini. Would you recommend piecing it together w tutorials ie Rebelway and Applied Houdini, or is Gnomon 2 yr program better way to go?

    Thanks for suggestion.

    • Moritz says

      Hi John,

      Houdini per se doesn’t use multiple GPUs. Redshift does though – and as that’s our primary render engine we’re advocating multi-GPU workstations. So if you’re using Redshift, indeed adding another GPU will increase your render performance (to a certain point, at least up to 4 GPUs per system work nicely, beyond that PCIe lane numbers might factor in…).

      I’d personally use Win 10 Pro as I like Bitlocker and occasionally use Remote Desktop. (Which both don’t ship with Win 10 Home.)

      Regarding starting learning Houdini: I cannot comment on the Gnomon program, have no idea about it. I personally pieced it together but there might be quicker ways…

      Cheers, Mo

  17. Matej says

    Hi Moritz,
    thanks for this video! I built perfectly working Houdini workstation! But I have question, is there any problem filling this system with 4x RTX 2070 (you mentioned it earlier)? If yes please send me some references, or describe yourself, I can’t find anything saying that.
    And if yes maybe I’ll change your build (2x 2070, 1070 and 1070ti) to 2x 2070, 2x 2060 concerning redshift 3.0 (I guess 2060 weren’t able when you were building it) ?
    Thanks, and keep going!

  18. Moritz says

    Hey Matej,

    although I cannot guarantee that this system will run four GTX2070s (I’m still running my 2070/1070/1070ti config) it to me seems very likely and nowadays I’d buy four 2070s if I wanted the computational power. The most crucial thing to remember is physical layout: pay attention to buying GPUs that are no more than 2 slots high. Last time I looked up price/performance charts the 2070s were the best bang for the buck. Not too sure about the 2060s – if you find relevant benchmarks it’d be great if you share them šŸ™‚

    Cheers,
    Mo

  19. Matt Rowley says

    Hi Moritz,

    Thanks for the post.. really helpful information and a great comment thread..
    Im currently looking at a build with 4 x 2080ti cards stacked alongside a liquid cooled CPU and a bunch of additional case fans. I noticed you mentioned above your tendency to like hybrid cooled cards. I wondered if you thought it would be ok to stack these 4 GPUs (Blower not hybrid) and still not run at excessive temperature? the liquid cooling or Hybrid card options seem a little too pricey…

    Cheers,

    Matt

    • Moritz says

      Hi Matt,

      think about it this way: If your GPU reaches its max. allowed temperature it’s gonna start throttling down by reducing its core frequency. Thus GPUs that have thermal issues will run slower than properly cooled ones.

      If you’re already thinking of going with highest end GPUs and not necessarily price/performance optimized ones, I’d highly recommend going hybrid cooled as this investment to me wouldn’t make sense if your 2080tis will run throttled in the end. If your budget doesn’t allow for this, start out with three or twp hybrid GPUs and upgrade at a later point.

      If you want to save some some money go for three hybrid cooled GPUs and use an air cooled GPU in the bottom slot where airflow isn’t obstructed.

      That being said if you still want to go all air cooled use blower GPUs like the
      Asus Geforce RTX 2080 Ti Turbo (which also has at least a bit more space to draw in air).

      I guess my main reason to recommend going for hybrid cooling in this case is this: The 2080Ti already isn’t cheap for what it delivers, so why reduce it’s value by risking it throttling down. A concern I wouldn’t have when going with cheaper 2070s.

      Cheers,
      Mo

  20. Helg says

    HI Moritz, thanx for your videos, please tell 64 gb ram still enough for you or you already upgraded to 128? šŸ™‚

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