For Day 28 of this series, we are going to talk about some factors to consider if you are thinking about building a desktop SQL Server 2012 system for development or testing use. I get lots of questions about this subject, and I have been thinking about it some anyway, hence today’s topic.

In many organizations, old retired rack-mounted servers are repurposed as development and test servers. Sometimes, old retired workstations are used for this purpose. Quite often, these old machines are three to five years old (or even older). For example, you will often find old Dell PowerEdge 1850, PowerEdge 6850, and PowerEdge 1950 servers being used for this purpose. These vintage machines are about four to seven years old, and long out of warranty. Their performance and scalability is quite miserable by today’s standards, even compared to a modern desktop.

For example, a Dell PowerEdge 1850, with two Intel Xeon Irwindale 3.0GHz processors and 8GB of RAM has a 32-bit Geekbench score of about 2250. A Dell PowerEdge 6800 with four Xeon 7140M 3.4GHz processors and 64GB of RAM has a 32-bit Geekbench score of 5023. A newer Dell PowerEdge 1950 with two Intel Xeon 5440 processors and 32GB of RAM will have a 32-bit Geekbench score of about 7500. For comparison, my current main workstation has a 22nm Intel Core i7-3770K processor with 32GB of RAM and a 512GB OCZ Vertex 4 SSD. This system has a 32-bit Geekbench score of 12713.

My argument is that in many situations, given a very limited hardware budget, it may make more sense (for development and testing) to build or buy a new desktop system based on a modern platform rather that using relatively ancient “real” server hardware. Your main limiting factors with a new desktop system will be I/O capacity (throughput and IOPS) and memory capacity, but there are some ways around that..  You should be able to build or buy a very capable test system for less than $1500.00, perhaps far less, depending on how you configure it.

Your two main good choices right now are a 22nm Core i7 Ivy Bridge (using a Core i7-3770 or i7-3770K processor) with an Z77 chipset-based motherboard, or a slightly less expensive Core i5-3570 or i5-3570K processor. The Core i7 will have four cores plus hyper-threading, while the Core i5 will have four cores, but no hyper-threading. Either one of these systems will support up to 32GB of RAM, which is how much you should get (since desktop DDR3 RAM is so affordable).

You need to look at the motherboard features and specifications closely to make sure you get what you need without paying too much for unnecessary features. You want to get a motherboard that has as many SATA ports as possible (preferably newer 6Gbps SATA III ports) with hardware RAID support if possible. At the same time, you don’t really need the premium gaming (such as SLI or Crossfire support) and over-clocking features in a top-of-the line motherboard. The entry level motherboards will usually have fewer SATA ports, which is a good reason to go a little higher in the lineup. You can also buy inexpensive PCI-e SATA III expansion cards to add even more SATA ports. You also want to make sure to get a motherboard with four memory slots, since some entry-level motherboards will only have two slots.

Depending on your motherboard vendor, you might run into driver issues with Windows Server 2012. The problem is not that there are no drivers, but the fact that the motherboard vendors sometimes wrap the actual driver installation programs in their own installation programs that do OS version checking that fails with Windows Server 2012 (since they assume you will be using Windows 7 or Windows 8).

You can buy a large, full tower case, with lots of internal 3.5” drive bays. Then you can buy a number of 1TB Western Digital Black 6Gbps hard drives and/or some consumer grade SSDs, depending on your needs and budget. This will let you have a pretty decent amount of I/O capacity for a relatively low cost. Very fast consumer SSDs are now available for less than $1/GB of space, so you can probably find a way to afford one or more of them for your system.

If you can wait until early to mid June, the 22nm Intel Haswell processors will be available. These will require a new motherboard, but will give you about 5-10% better single-threaded CPU performance at the same clock speed as Ivy Bridge, along with a few other benefits.