Workstation Build (Part III): This is (not) its final form!
24th Nov, 2017
This will be the final blog post about my 2016 workstation build. This computer has been literally a year in the making, and as you can see from the pictures in this post, it does not at all resemble the original conception I had for it. Despite all of this, the build in its final form represents a new design philosophy for me that I hope to carry over into my other personal projects: one of easy serviceability and interchangeability. This is the philosophy that drives the enterprise market, and I think I finally understand why.
In order to fully appreciate how much the deign of these machine has changed, I would like to start by going over the original design goals: I wanted a 100% passively-cooled system that still had the horses to drive any Photoshop workload, as well as light gaming, and still managed a console-sized footprint. Needless to say, these were lofty goals, and if not for the announcement of the HDPlex H5, would have been outright impossible. This case truly is a fantastic piece of engineering.
So what changed? My experience of actually using the HDPlex case was regrettably one of constant frustration. Installing all of my hardware required hours of patience, and after I started having overheating issues caused by the GPU, these frustrations compounded as I was forced to dismantle and re-assemble the system countless times. I realized that by using this case, I was sacrificing serviceability, something I realized I cared about quite a bit. I was also sacrificing expandability, something I started to consider seriously as I began planning for my eventual NAS upgrade, and realized that it would be next to impossible to add a 10GbE NIC to the system in the HDPlex case.
I think that I simply expected too much out of this enclosure. For the intended use case, it is great, minus a few manufacturing and design quibbles. The system looked absolutely gorgeous once I did my own cable sleeving and tucked away the excess wiring under the front drive caddies. Unfortunately, it is simply impractical for a workstation build. This case is a showpiece that you want to display next to your desk, or bring to audio conventions—not something you want to service and upgrade regularly.
What saved me from this enormous mistake was the amazing customer support offered by Lary at HDPlex. He allowed me to return my case, power supply, and other accessories months after purchase, for which I am extremely grateful. With this money, I was able to pivot to a build that offered a better balance of silence, performance, expandability, and serviceability. The parts I ended up getting were:
The Supermicro CSE-732i ATX mid-tower case that has a good airflow pattern (front to back only) and came with vibration dampening on the drive cage, indicating that silence was already one of the design priorities, which is rare in a workstation case. It is also deep enough to accommodate an E-ATX board, which gives me more options going forward.
The Seasonic Platinum Fanless 520w power supply, one of the best-rated fanless units of all time on Silent PC Review. It also offers plenty of power for any CPU or GPU configuration I could possibly want.
The Zalman Cube Fanless CPU cooling tower. This thing is a beast that can passively radiate away up to 130 watts of heat.
Two Noctua NF-S12A PWM fans. These offer by far the best airflow of any fan that produces under 10dbA of noise. With their maximum speed locked to 900rpm, these things are all but inaudible from more than two feet away.
- A kit of Acoustipack Ultimate sound-dampening foam, which I used to line the side panel, roof, and floor of my case. This is the best kit available for DIY sound-dampening, and while no foam lining is going to make a drastic difference, it does help keep high frequency fan noise from the GPU under control.
After these upgrades I am left with an unobtrusive-looking tower that, while not completely silent, is remarkably quiet—so much so that I have trouble hearing it at all over the ambient noise floor of my apartment. There's not a lot else to say about the build itself, because it was fairly straightforward. This Supermicro case has very little space behind the right side panel, so cable management was a challenge. The Zalman Cube uses one of the worst mounting systems I have ever encountered, so installing that was probably the most frustrating part of the whole build. Other than those minor annoyances, everything went well. Here are some pictures of the final build (ignore the dual GPUs—I was testing a theory that ended up not working out):
Going forward, I do plan on upgrading the memory from one DIMM to two, giving me a total of 32GB of RAM. I think that operating in single-channel mode is holding my CPU back. I am also going to be installing an LTO tape drive eventually, which will require a SAS HBA add-in card, and down the road I would like to be able to add 10GbE. With this new configuration, though, I can do all of that easily, and I think that's the big take-away from all of this: boring is sometimes better.
My next big computer project is building a PFSense Router. Expect more on that, and possibly my NAS upgrades soon™.