I have received quite a bit of positive feedback about my recent post, Building a Workstation for SQL Server 2012 Development and Testing, so I thought I would write a similar post that goes into some detail about how to select components to build a larger capacity workstation or test server. This is only needed if you really think that eight logical processor cores and 32GB of RAM won’t be enough for your intended workload, and you are willing to spend a little more money.

A desktop, 3rd generation Intel Core i7 Ivy Bridge processor (such as a Core i7-3770K or Core i7-3770) has four physical cores, plus hyper-threading for a total of eight logical cores. Intel desktop processors are single-processor only, so you could not use them in a dual-socket motherboard (if one existed for Socket 1155). The Socket 1155 motherboards that these processors require will have either two or four memory slots that can have 8GB sticks of DDR3 RAM, so you are limited to 16GB or 32GB of RAM.

The next step up (in terms of capacity) from a desktop Socket 1155 motherboard is a desktop Socket 2011 motherboard for either a desktop four-core Core i7-3820 processor,or a six-core Core i7-3930K series processor These are Sandy Bridge-E processors, that have hyper-threading (so you will get either eight or twelve logical cores), and they support up to 64GB of RAM, with eight memory slots each having a 8GB stick of DDR3 RAM. Socket 2011 replaced the older Socket 1366 motherboards that were used with the 1st generation Core i7 processors, such as the classic Intel Core i7-920 (Nehalem) from late-2008.

The six-core Core i7-3930K costs $499.99 at Micro Center, while the four-core, Core i7-3820 costs $229.99 at Micro Center, so you are paying quite a hefty premium for those two extra cores (and also getting a slower 3.2GHz base clock speed with the i7-3930K instead of a 3.6GHz base clock speed with the i7-3820). The six-core Core i7-3930K also does not have VT-d support (which gives you better I/O performance with virtualization), unless you have the C2 stepping of the processor.

If you go down the Socket 2011 road, make sure you avoid the six-core Core i7-3970K Extreme Edition processor, which costs $999.99 at Micro Center. This processor does have 15MB of L3 cache (compared to 12MB of L3 cache in the Core i7-3930K processor), and it does have a slightly higher clock speed (3.5GHz Base and 4.0GHz Turbo), but those differences are not worth a doubling in price. The only extreme thing about the Extreme Edition is your extreme foolishness if you buy one!

The Socket 2011 motherboards (with an Intel X79 chipset) will also cost about $100-$150 more than a mid-range Socket 1155, Z77 chipset motherboard. Your RAM cost will also double as you go from 32GB to 64GB of RAM. You will want to make sure you get a motherboard that supports four 6Gbps SATA III ports (which is more difficult to find without getting a high-end gaming motherboard that is much more expensive). You will also have to buy some sort of discrete video card, since these processors do not have integrated graphics.

Another common issue you may run into is that you may not have Intel NIC driver support for server operating systems such as Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows Server 2012. That is because these are considered desktop motherboards, and the Intel NICs in many of them won’t have driver support for server operating systems, since Intel does not validate them for server usage. One way to avoid this issue if you just want to use Hyper-V 3.0 is to use Windows 8 Professional for your host operating system instead of Windows Server 2012. You could also use Windows 7 along with VMWare Workstation.

Here are a couple of example systems with these two processors.

System 1

  1. Case                    $75.00
  2. Power Supply      $125.00
  3. Motherboard       $260.00
  4. Processor           $230.00    (Intel Core i7-3820 from Micro Center)
  5. RAM                   $340.00    (64GB of DDR3 RAM)
  6. Storage              $660.00    (three 256GB Samsung 840 Pro SSD)
  7. Optical drive          $25.00
  8. Graphics card      $100.00

Total System          $1815.00

 

System 2

  1. Case                     $75.00
  2. Power Supply       $125.00
  3. Motherboard        $260.00
  4. Processor            $500.00    (Intel Core i7-3890K from Micro Center)
  5. RAM                    $340.00   (64GB of DDR3 RAM)
  6. Storage               $660.00   (three 256GB Samsung 840 Pro SSD)
  7. Optical drive          $25.00
  8. Graphics card      $100.00

Total System           $2085.00

For a virtualization workstation, I would prefer System 1, since it has VT-d support, and it leaves me with extra money to buy a fourth 256GB SSD. System 2 would be better if you really think you will need more CPU capacity for your workstation/test server. Honestly, you would probably be better off building two Socket 1155 systems instead of moving up to a desktop Socket 2011 system, especially from a cost perspective.

The next step above a desktop Socket 2011 system would be a single-socket, workstation/server Socket 2011 motherboard that supported an Intel Xeon E5-1600 or Intel Xeon E5-2600 series processor, along with up to 128GB of ECC DDR3 RAM (with 16GB DIMMs). Finally, you could step up to a dual-socket, workstation/server Socket 2011 motherboard that supported two Intel Xeon E5-2600 series processors, along with up to 256GB of ECC DDR3 RAM (with 16GB DIMMs).

Continuing up this capacity ladder is going to cost an increasing amount of money, to the point where you would probably be better off buying a refurbished, actual rack-mount or tower server from someplace like the Dell Outlet. You can very often get amazing bargains by doing that, as long as you know how to select your components wisely, picking from what systems are in their inventory.