Building a monster

Discussion in 'PC Spec Talk' started by vr00mfondel, Sep 11, 2016.

  1. vr00mfondel

    vr00mfondel Moderator Moderator

    The idea
    Can you build a gaming computer with old server parts? Is it cheaper or more expensive than just buying "regular" parts?
    All this started when I found two old servers for sale at a quite reasonable price, and I wondered if something like this, that in theory would perform just as well as, if not better than, my current PC, actually would.
    The servers i got were HP Proliant DL360 G7 servers, 1U servers (which was a misstake, more on this later) equipped with 2x Xeon E5620 @ 2,4Ghz each. A combined 60Gb of DDR3 memory, and 8 146gb SAS harddrives (4 in each). They each have one PCI-E 16x and one PCI-E 8x slot.

    Early trials and builds
    So, the first thing to do was ofcourse to make sure I could run a operating system that would actually let me do something other than server stuff. It took a bit of fiddling in the Bios and configuring the SAS disks for raid, but soon enough Windows 7 was installed (and updating to 10). I now had an extremly powerful PC, running on build in graphics, so the next step was to connect a modern GPU. Since it´s a 1U server the PCI-E ports are mounted horisontally, and there is not really enough space for a big GPU, so I had to get a L shaped PCI-E extender, have the lid off, and since the PSUs are non-standard, use an external PSU to power the GPU. This is where I started to realise that getting 1U servers might not have been such a great idea. The first tests with my old GTX460 went well however, giving good numbers in comparison to how that card had performed with my i7-950. The next step was moving up to testing with my GTX780, and here, I hit a brick wall. It just wouldnt work, it would start up just fine, and then crash just moments after having Windows loaded. I also started to realise that it would become a huge pain in the ass to try and fit all the server parts in a standard ATX case. The motherboard wont fit correctly, the PSUs are a special model, attached directly to the motherboard, and the CPU coolers are just heatsinks, without fans, reliant on the airflow through the case fr cooling. Simply put, I would either have to use the original 1U case, with a modified top to allow for the GPU, and a separate PSU to power the GPU.

    The next step
    So after weeks of not really knowing how to proceed with this project, I came across a ATX standard motherboard on E-bay, which would allow me to move my CPUs and memory from the server, and it was fairly cheap (£70). I decided I might aswell do it properly if doing it at all, and ordered it. My Supermicro X8DTL-3F arrived just days later. I had already decided that my old Cooler Master Stacker case would be the home for this project, and now with a ATX motherboard, it was no problem. ut using another motherboard brought some other problems. I could no longer use the 2 460W PSUs from the HP DL360 and I would need proper CPU coolers that didn´t rely on the airflow through the case.
    So I got to work and ordered a 750W EVGA PSU and 2 Cooler Master TX3 CPU coolers (These were chosen because of their size, the CPUs are relatively close to eachother, and it would be a tight fit even with these). While I was ordering, I decided to make life even simpler for myself and ordered a 1tb SATA disk (so I would not need to transfer the SAS disks), a SATA DVD-ROM, and 2 fans for the case. While I could have used the old SAS disks, hardrrives are so cheap that it simply felt stupid not to get a proper one.
    Supermicro X8DTL-3F

    Dirty CPUs need cleaning

    All cleaned up and ready

    The server moves in to its new home
    When all the stuff had arrived, I felt like all the hardship was now behind me, and it would now be a simple task of assembling all parts, just like any PC I´ve built, well...
    The first step was to move the CPUs over, no problems, then my new fancy CPU coolers, big problems! As it turns out Supermicro has their very own system for CPU coolers, with backplates not only covering the mounting holes for "regular" coolers, but their own fittings there. At this point I honestly thought about just giving up. But I let the project rest for a while, and then went ham on the CPU socket backplates, I had to drill them open, and bend them, trust me, it does not look pretty (I also had to use duct tape on them to make sure all this newly exposed metal would not come into contact with anything and short circuit it). Horrible as it looked, it now meant that I could easily fit my new CPU coolers, and as predicted, it was a tight fit, but worked! Fueled with new vigour and hope, I could quickly install the RAM and mount the motherboard in its new home. Frontpanel LEDs and switches was an easy task, and with the modular EVGA PSU connecting all the power cables was also easy. The new fans, SATA drive and DVD was put in place, and it was now ready for testing.
    PSU, HDD, DVD, CPU coolers and 2 case fans arrive!

    CPUs and coolers installed

    In to the tower it goes

    Memory, PSU, HDD, DVD and case fans installed

    Graphics card and Sound card finishes up the build
    Last edited: Sep 11, 2016
  2. vr00mfondel

    vr00mfondel Moderator Moderator

    The first boot up
    I´ll be honest here. After my massacre of the socket backplates, I never expected it to even boot up, but it did! I never even had to do anything in the BIOS, just insert my Windows disc, and start installing. Windows installed itself without any problems, and it was now GPU time! As with the other system, I first tried it with my GTX460, it went smooth, and inital benchmarking showed the system performing at the levels it should, so now came the time for the thing I had dreaded, would the GTX780 work? Or would it be like with the other setup?
    GPUs switched, and first boot went without any problems, all working fine. Benchmarks indicating that the performance was between my i7-950 and my i7-4770k in most cases, in some cases even surpassing the 4770k (multithread friendly applications no doubt).

    Looks like it's working!

    Since the Supermicro X8DTL-3F is a server motherboard, it has no on-board audio (much like the HP DL360 ), but the X8DTL-3F has a lot more PCI-E slots, and even good old PCI slots, I first used an old PCI sound card I had lying around, but have now invested in a ASUS Xonar DGX PCI-E card.
    Another thing that might be needed in the future is more USB ports, the X8DTL-3F only has 2, so with a mouse and a keyboard connected, you´ve used up both. USB cards for both PCI and PCI-E are cheap however, and if I feel the need for it, I will get a USB card in the future, right now, I don´t need it.
    I also dug out an old 60Gb SSD, for a fresh install of Windows.

    Costs and lessons learned
    While it is important to remember that this has been a project I´ve been doing for fun, it can be interesting to look at what I´ve learned from it, and how well it performs for what I paid for it (and what I could have paid by being smarter).
    The first lesson I learned was that buying a 1U server was really, really stupid, and I urge anyone doing a similar project (or my future self if I do it again) to either look for a ATX standard server, or simply buying parts instead of a complete server. Trying to figure out what my actual, cost for the all the parts is really tricky, but if you were to do a similar build, here's what it would roughly cost. Note that the prices of the used parts (mb/cpu/memory) may vary greatly, and one would have to bide their time to get a good deal)
    Motherboard: Supermicro X8DTL-3F - Ebay - $95
    Processors: 2 x Intel Xeon E5620 - Ebay - $20
    Memory: 32 Gb DDR3 registered ECC - Ebay - $50
    CPU coolers: CM TX-3 x 2 - New - $40
    Graphics Card: GTX780 - Ebay - $100 (Note: Prices seem to vary a lot here, and you may just be better off buying a new RX460/470 GTX1050/1060)
    SSD: Any ~100Gb drive - New - $50 (Just get a cheap drive to keep your OS on)
    HDD: Toshiba 1Tb - New - $50 - (I was originally going for a 500Gb, but the price difference is so small, I went for the 1Tb)
    Optical Drive: ASUS DVD-RW - New - $20 (You could always install from a USB stick, but as mentioned previously, the X8DTL-3F only has 2 USB ports, so you'd have to disconnect mouse or keyboard. A DVD-RW is so cheap, I would get one anyway)
    Sound Card: ASUS Xonar DGX - New - $35 (There might be even cheaper ones out there, so it all depends on what you want/need, this card has 5.1 and optical out, which can be nice to have)
    Case: Any decent ATX case will do - New - $50 (Any case will do really, but I'd recommend one with decent airflow)
    PSU: EVGA Supernova G2 750W - New - $95 (The X8DTL-3F requires 2xCPU power connectors, other than that, just go for a high quality PSU)
    TOTAL: $605

    I haven´t had time to do any real in depth tests, but so far it performs like I thought it would. Applications that make great use of many cores/threads thrive on this machine, while older programs, using few cores/threads ofcourse is the opposite. While the CPUs are only clocked at 2,4Ghz, there is 8 cores/16 threads to play around with. I am also surprised att how cool, and silent it is. Down below you can see all the performance tests I have done, and how it compares to my other systems.

    3DMark Firestrike Score: 8320 (For comparison, my i7-4770k+GTX780 gets 8572 points, and my i7-950+GTX780 gets 7993 points)
    Unigine Valley Extreme: 2427
    Cinebench R15 CPU: 775
    Cinebench R15 OpenGL: 54,59
    Geekbench 3 Single: 1805
    Geekbench 3 Multi: 12881

    So is it worth it?
    That's the big question isn't it? The answer: Probably not, maybe. The thing is, this has been a really fun project, and despite doing "the wrong thing" in the beginning by buying 1U servers instead of just getting a separate MB and CPUs from the start, it has been really fun to figure out what to use, and how to use it.
    Doing this a second time around would make it so much easier, and it really has been a learning experience. When it comes to price/performance, I don't really think it will be worth it unless you already own a bunch of the parts needed. Xeon processors, and DDR3 memory is quite cheap second hand, and they perform really well for their cost, but getting your hands on a decent motherboard at a good price can be tricky (I got quite lucky).
    Last edited: Sep 11, 2016

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