Building a Home Computer Lab

Introduction

I often get questions on Twitter or email about selecting components for building a home computer lab. Rather than answer each question individually, it makes sense to write a blog post to answer this question. If people are interested, I can write additional posts that talk in more detail about specific components.

Why Are You Building a Home Computer Lab?

In order to come up with a sensible set of hardware components, you need to think about what you actually plan on doing with your home computer lab. Depending on your main use case(s), this will have an effect of what components you will give priority to. It will also affect the basic platform that you select.

For example, you might just want a relatively powerful, bare metal machine for running SQL Server 2019 natively on Windows. If that were the case, then having lots of RAM, good I/O performance (and storage size capacity), and a decent number of processor cores is going to be important.

Another example might be running multiple concurrent VMs, so you can have a domain controller and multiple SQL Server instances so you can experiment with Availability Groups. If this is your use case, then having lots of RAM, and a decent number of processor cores is going to be important. Storage performance would probably not be as important.

Yet another example is doing work that is particularly CPU or GPU dependent, that would cause you to favor that component in your budget. The key idea is to think about what sort of work your machine(s) will be doing and then select components that favor that type of work.

What Are Your Other Preferences and Constraints?

Depending on where your lab will be located and your living situation, you may be very concerned about the noise of your system(s). Generally, there is a trade-off between thermal performance and noise. Cases with the best thermal performance usually have multiple case fans and have very good airflow, which makes them more noisy.

If the system will be located in a basement or garage away from people, noise may not matter as much. If it is going to be under your desk, a noisy system can be very annoying.

You also need to think about whether you have any form factor or size constraints. If you are in an apartment or smaller house, then you will probably want a smaller size footprint. This will limit your capacity and expansion options, and it makes it harder to build your system and keep it cool.

You also need to think about your budget. With modern desktop hardware, you can get a lot more performance and capacity for a relatively low cost compared to a few years ago. If your budget is extremely low, you may need/want to favor used components rather than new components.

Don’t Forget Electrical Usage

Depending on where you live, the cost of electricity might be a major issue. Depending on what type of system you buy or build and what type of workload it has, you could be using a large amount of electricity.

This can get quite expensive if it is always running, especially with a load. If this is an issue, you can do some things during component selection and configuration to minimize it’s electrical usage. For example, you can choose a modern processor that has less power usage, and a more efficient power supply.

I strongly recommend that you use a Kill-A-Watt meter to measure the total electrical usage of your system from the wall. If you add/remove components or make configuration changes, you should measure your usage again, so you understand your power usage.

Kill-A-Watt Meter
Kill-A-Watt Meter

System Form Factors

From a size perspective, you can go from an Intel NUC system, to a desktop tower (of various sizes), to an actual rack mount server.

Intel NUC System
Intel NUC System

Mainstream Intel NUCs are roughly five inches square and two inches tall, and they use very little power. They use low-power mobile CPUs with up to 6C/12T and can support 64GB of RAM. They also have one M.2 NVMe slot and one 2.5″ SATA drive bay, which could give you up to 6TB of SSD storage space.

You do pay a higher price for this small form factor though. For example, an INTEL NUC 10 PERFORMANCE KIT – NUC10I7FNHC is $959.00. You will still have to buy your RAM and storage, which would be about $1500.00 more if you maxed out your capacity. Intel also offers “Extreme” NUCs that let you go up to an 8C/16T processor.

Rack Mount Servers

Rack mount servers can be a great solution if you have the space and can tolerate the noise and power usage. You can often find older model used servers for very little money. You should be cautious though, depending on the age of the server. If it is more than two-three years old, a typical two-socket server may have a LOT less total compute capacity and will certainly has much lower single-threaded CPU performance than a new desktop system would.

Another alternative for a rack mount server is a deal on an “outlet” server from a vendor like Dell. They usually a have a decent inventory of refurbished and returned servers that can be very affordable compared to a brand new server. Even with steep discounts, these systems are usually going to be more expensive than a new desktop system would be.

Fractal Design Meshify C
Fractal Design Meshify C

Finally, you can buy or build some sort of desktop system for your home server lab. This is my favored option for most people. If you are willing to build a system from parts, you can usually save some money compared to a pre-built system that you just buy. You will also have complete flexibility in your parts selection. I like having that flexibility, but I know many people find all of the choices pretty overwhelming.

What Kind of Desktop System Do You Want?

The two main choices are a “mainstream’ desktop system or a high-end desktop system (HEDT). Thanks to AMD, mainstream desktop systems are much more powerful than they were before 2017. Before 2017, mainstream desktop systems topped out at 4C/8T processors with 64GB of RAM and 16 PCIe 3.0 lanes of I/O. Currently, you can get a mainstream AMD desktop system with a 16C/32T processor, 128GB of RAM, and 16 PCIe 4.0 lanes for I/O. This is more than enough compute, RAM and I/O for many scenarios. Compared to this, I really can’t recommend a current Intel mainstream desktop processor for use in a home lab.

Do You Need an HEDT System?

The next step up is an HEDT system. Both Intel and AMD have HEDT offerings that you might consider. AMD has the 7nm 3rd generation Ryzen Threadripper processors that range from the 24C/48T Ryzen Threadripper 3960X to the 64C/128T Ryzen Threadripper 3990X. AMD Ryzen Threadripper systems have 88 PCIe 4.0 lanes and support up to 256GB of DDR4-3200 memory.

In the HEDT segment, Intel has the 14nm Cascade Lake-X series that range from the 10C/20T Core i9-10900X to the 18C/36T Core i9-10980XE. These Intel processors all have 48 PCIe 3.0 lanes and support up to 256GB of DDR4-2933 RAM. In most benchmarks, they don’t compare very well to the AMD HEDT or AMD Mainstream Desktop processors. They are less expensive than the AMD HEDT processors, as you might expect given the difference in core counts.

What Should I Get?

Obviously, this depends on your workload, budget, and other requirements. Despite this, I think most people will be pretty well served by a new 3rd Generation mainstream AMD Ryzen 7 or Ryzen 9 processor. For a home lab, I think the minimum core count should be 8C/16T. This gives you four possible CPU choices:

Frankly, the 3800X is really not going to be noticeably better than the 3700X. If the price difference is only $20-$30, I might spring for the the 3800X, but maybe not. At $399.99, the 3900X is really a bargain that will give you more capacity than an 8C/16T processor. Looking at bang for the buck, the 3950X doesn’t really make sense, especially since you will also need to buy a CPU cooler.

You can use an affordable B450 motherboard (if you don’t need PCIe 4.0 support) or you can spend more on an X570 motherboard. Depending on the B450 motherboard, it may require a BIOS update to support a 3rd Generation processor. I talked more about mainstream AMD processors here.

All of these AMD mainstream processors will require a discrete graphics card. Depending on what you are doing, you may not need an expensive graphics card. Remember, this is not your main workstation or gaming rig!

Building a Home Computer Lab

Here are a few final tips I would like to throw out there:

  • Install your OS on an M.2 NVMe drive that is at least 500GB in size
    • Larger size SSDs perform better than smaller size SSDs
  • Get a decent quality power supply that is 80 Plus Bronze or better
    • Seasonic and Corsair are very good brands
  • Try to get a modular power supply
    • This really helps reduce cable clutter in your case
  • Don’t get a huge capacity power supply (unless you actually need it)
    • 500-700 watts is going to be enough for most systems
    • a 1000-1200 watt power supply is less efficient with a very light load
  • Make sure to have either two or four sticks of RAM (in a mainstream system)
    • This will let you use dual-channel mode
  • For an AMD mainstream system, try to get DDR4-3200 or 3600 memory
    • GSkill and Corsair are good brands

Final Words

Remember, if you do buy/build a new AMD Ryzen AM4 system, make sure to read my previous post “Seven Setup Tips for a New AMD Ryzen 3000 System” so you can hopefully avoid some common build and configuration problems that I see people running into.

If you find this sort of content interesting, please let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!

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