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Graphical Workstation configuration (i7 vs Xeon, Unbuffered vs Buffered RAM,.)

Hi everyone,

I am going to make a hardware configuration for a company that uses a lot of graphical applications like Archicad, autocad, etc...

I have a few questions regarding this set-up:
* i7 of intel Xeon: I have read that the maindifference between these CPU's is that Xeon mostly is used in servers and i7 mostly in desktops. The advantage of i7 is that you can overclock them and are actually more suitable for graphical applications?! The advantage of Xeon is that the motherboard supports multiple CPU's on the motherboard. The motherboard then also supports buffered and ecc memory modules?

* RAM: I have read a nice explanation of unbuffered and buffered ram on EE (http://www.experts-exchange.com/Hardware/Components/Q_27210946.html?sfQueryTermInfo=1+10+30+i7+xeon) but is it such a big difference to use buffered RAM to choose for a Xeon CPU? Is ECC supported RAM also needed in workstations? Does anyone have a site which can provide me with all the information about RAM? The clocking speeds, ECC, buffered and what I should be looking at if I would want to buy new RAM?

*GPU: I have read that ATI and NVIDIA have seperate lines of GPUs for graphical applications. NVIDIA has Quadro and ATI has the FirePro line. Is there an overal difference between them and which are the specs on the GPU I should be looking at?

*HDD: Is it safe to say that a normal HDD (SATA-600 or SATA-300) would be enough or does SSD provide such a big difference in running applications or just booting the OS? Is there also a big difference in SATA-300 and SATA-600?

*Hardware manufacturer: I have seen that Dell mostly has Xeon CPU in their workstations. Do they use them so that you can easily add other CPUs or why would this be the reason?

Thank you very much! I want to give my customer the best value for his hardware and would appreciate if you could give me some extra information.
4 Solutions
Since this build is meant for a company I would specific the system using the higher quality hardware. The money they would save going with the lower "quality" hardware could be lost with 1 or 2 system failures.

I would go with the Xeon, the ECC Ram, Nvidia Quadro GPU, SATA III (6 Gbps) 7,200 RPM or 10,000 RPM. I This is essentially the same setup I currently use.
Silencer001Author Commented:
Thanks for the advice silverkorn. Is there actually a lot of difference over Xeon and i7 CPU? I would just use 1 CPU so motherboard doesn"t have to provide dual CPU.

How do you estimate the hardware that will provide with enough power for the applications without going for an overkill?
If the client is going to be using software that will perform advanced rendering the dual CPU is not needed. The quad core Xeon is generally more then enough. The best thing for the CPU is to try and get the highest speed that the budget can afford.

From my experience working with CAD and building systems for CAD, there is no such thing as too much in regards to the computer specs. Even if you were to use all top of the line hardware this would become obsolete within the next 10 years or so. What you really need to keep in mind is budget costs, you want to try and maximize the amount of computer you can get with your "limited" budget. For example, spend more money on the CPU as this is not as cheap to upgrade, while you can get away with 8GB of RAM as upgrading that in the future will be more cost effective.

Also try and find a motherboard that supports Nvidia SLI technology, which will allow you to add a second video card in later on to add to the performance. More info: http://www.nvidia.com/object/quadro_sli.html
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Gary CaseRetiredCommented:
Equivalent architecture Xeons & i7's (e.g. if both are Sandy Bridge based) will have virtually identical performance.     The main difference is that the Xeons support bufferred RAM (a BIG advantage -- especially in intensive rendering where HUGE amounts of RAM are very desirable);  they support SMP (multiple CPUs); and they have more manageability features (useful for headless servers -- not a factor in what you've asked about).

Not all server motherboards have dual sockets, so if you think a 2nd CPU might be desirable at some point be sure you get a dual socket board.    But by FAR the main advantage of a Xeon based system is buffered RAM.     Note that many low-cost "server" motherboards do NOT support buffered RAM ... they're designed to use less expensive unbuffered modules.    Most of the boards in this class at least support ECC, so if you go that route be sure you use ECC modules, which at least provide protection against single-bit errors (the most common type of memory error).     But ECC doesn't do anything to resolve the bus loading issues that unbuffered modules cause, so you'll still likely see degraded performance if you install more than 2 modules.

For CAD applications you want as good a graphics card as your client can afford -- one that's focused on superb OpenGL performance ... not 3D gaming performance.    A high end Quadro or FirePro would be an excellent choice.

r.e. your SSD question:   An SSD will provide a BIG performance gain for any disk-related operations.    Booting;  program loads; database operations; etc. will be MUCH faster.    The smaller the average disk transfer, the greater the advantage, as for small I/O's an SSD will be finished long before a rotating platter drive would have even started the transfer (page file operations are all in this category).    The ONLY disadvantage of an SSD when used with an OS that supports TRIM is cost.

SATA-2 vs. SATA-3 makes virtually no difference with rotating platter drives.    It makes a nominal difference if you're using a SATA-3 SSD that supports transfer rates above the SATA-2 speeds, but in most applications you'll not notice the difference (It's easy measurable with benchmarks, but not very noticeable in real-world use).
A comment on the SSD, as per my reading their life expectancy is smaller that a HD and also they're more expensive and with smaller capacities tha a SAT HD.
Also whith damaged disks some times you may recover partial information  haven't read about that with an SSD.

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