Choosing the Right Platform

As me migrate from 1080p video production to 4K, we needed a significant hardware upgrade.

Despite what most people may think, our personal workstations here at the PC Perspective offices aren’t exactly comprised of cutting edge hardware. Just as in every other production environment, we place a real benefit on stability with the machines that we write, photo edit, and in this case, video edit on.

The current video editing workstation for PC Perspective offices is quite old when you look at the generations upon generations of hardware we have reviewed in the years since it was built. In fact, it has hardly been touched since early 2011. Built around the then $1000 Intel Core-i7 990X, 24GB of DDR3, a Fermi-based NVIDIA Quadro 5000, and a single 240gb SandForce 2 based SSD, this machine has edited a lot of 1080p video for us with little problems.

However, after starting to explore the Panasonic GH4 and 4K video a few months ago, the age of this machine became quite apparent. Real-time playback of high bit rate 4K content was choppy at best, and scrubbing through the timeline next to impossible. Transcoding to a lower resolution mezzanine file, or turning down the playback quality in Premiere Pro worked to some extent, but made the visual quality we gained more difficult to deal with. It was clear that we were going to need a new workstation sooner than later.

The main question was what platform to build upon. My initial thought was to build using the 8-core Intel Core i7-5960X and X99 platform. The main application we use, Adobe Premiere Pro (and it’s associated Media Encoder app) are very multithreaded. Going from 6-cores with the i7-990X to 8-cores with the i7-5960S with modest improvement in IPC didn’t seem like a big enough gain nor very future proof.

Luckily, we had a pair of Xeon E5-2680v2’s around from another testbed that had been replaced. These processors each provide 10 cores (Hyperthreading enabled for a resulting 20 threads each) at a base frequency of 2.8GHz, with the ability to boost up to 3.6GHz. By going with two of these processors in a dual CPU configuration, we will be significantly increasing our compute power and hopefully providing some degree of future proofing. Plus, we already use the slightly higher clocked Xeon E5-2690v2’s in our streaming server, so we have some experience with a very similar setup.

Continue reading an overview of our 2015 Editing Workstation Upgrade!!

There are some definite disadvantages to going with these Xeons for a workstation though. Based upon the now aging Ivy Bridge-EP platform, these processors are limited to compatibility with the Intel C600/602 chipset (the server equivalent of X79). That means that a lot of modern features aren’t natively supported by the Intel chipset, USB 3.0 being the biggest example. However, we decided that given the sheer amount of PCIe lanes available from these processors (80 total!), this could largely be corrected by the use of add-in cards if necessary down the road.

Even after deciding what processors we wanted to use, there was still a lot of unanswered questions. Not only did we not have a compatible dual-socket motherboard, we didn’t even have a case that would fit the SSI-EEB form factor that these boards come in. While we didn’t want to deal with a massive consumer-level case like the Cosmos II which our current dual CPU streaming server sits in, nor a loud rackmount case, we were out of ideas.

Not sure which way to go, we contacted our friends over at Supermicro for some advice.

After talking to us about some of our needs, they pointed us towards the SuperWorkstation 7047A-T barebones kit. Even though it’s based around a 4U Server Chassis and the Supermicro Super X9DAi motherboard, the 7047A-T is extremely well suited for workstation use.  

Whereas most 4U chassis are filled to the brim with high RPM and loud fans (for good reason), the 7047A-T aims to strike a balance between optimal cooling and noise. Quiet operation, along with the ability to orient the chassis in a vertical position to fit next to my desk made this option very compelling.

Though we may be PC enthusiasts at heart, the idea of buying a barebones server chassis was too much to pass up. Component compatibility with server platforms can be very sketchy, and Supermicro has a history of using high quality parts so leaving the decisions up to them seemed like a great idea. Not having to worry about physical compatibility between the motherboard, coolers, and chassis, as well as electrical compatibility with the power supply made this build less stressful on us.

As far as the other components, we tried to keep our theme of future proofing going. While we wanted to use a 400GB Intel 750 Series PCIe SSD as our only solid state storage in this workstation, the older C602 chipset does not support NVMe booting. As a work around we installed the operating system to a 128GB ADATA SP610 SATA SSD, and relegated the SSD 750 purely to dealing with video files and active projects. After a project is finished, it is moved over to a RAID 1 array of 3TB Western Digital Red Hard Drives, transitioned over from the old editing machine.

Graphics was a tougher choice. Even though this is a workstation, we don’t really do many actions that are GPU accelerated. GPU accelerated decode and encode in Adobe Premiere Pro via the Mercury Engine is great, but it doesn’t exactly require a lot of compute horsepower. The NVIDIA Quadro K5200 we went with was mostly out of availability. While we could have opted for a Maxwell-based Quadro card like the M5000, the K5200 based off of a slightly cut down GK110 GPU provides more than enough power for what we are doing, and we had it on-hand. Reusing parts is always a positive when it works out well.

64GB of ECC Registered DDR3 memory rounds out our build, and ensures RAM hungry applications like Adobe After Effects will be happy.

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