Building an AMD Threadripper Workstation

Introduction

Recently, I have had a number of requests for a new AMD Threadripper workstation build list. The 3rd Generation AMD Ryzen Threadripper family is the current HEDT offering from AMD. If we discount the OEM-only Threadripper PRO SKUs, there are only three Threadripper SKUs to choose from. These three offerings absolutely dominate Intel’s current HEDT lineup for workstation-type workloads. This post will walk through the process of selecting components for building an AMD Threadripper workstation.

Component Selection

When you are building a new desktop system, there are certain components that you must have in order to have a basic, functioning system. This list will include these components as a starting point. They include:

  • Processor
  • CPU cooler
  • Motherboard
  • Memory
  • Storage
  • Video card
  • Power supply
  • Case

Processor

The processor is the heart of your system, and your processor selection often drives many of your other component choices. For an AMD Ryzen Threadripper system, this is actually less true than it is with some other processor families.

Building an AMD Threadripper Workstation
AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3970X

You have three possible choices for the exact Threadripper SKU, but all of them will work in the same motherboards with the same feature support. It really comes down to how many cores you want and how much you want to spend on your CPU.

Your choices are between these three SKUs:

AMD Ryzen Threadripper SKUs

The flagship 3990X has a base clock speed of 2.9GHz and a max boost speed of up to 4.3 GHz, with a 256MB L3 cache. It also currently costs between $3400-$3600.

The next step down is the 3970X, with a base clock speed of 3.7GHz and a max boost speed of up to 4.5 GHz, with a 128MB L3 cache. It also currently costs between $1800-$1900.

Finally, the base 3960X has a base clock speed of 3.8GHz and a max boost speed of up to 4.5 GHz, with a 128MB L3 cache. It also currently costs between $1300-$1400.

All of the other major stats (like TDP, max memory support, and number of PCIe lanes) are identical between the three SKUs. At these prices, the 3990X is actually the lowest price per core, but for many people, a $3400 desktop CPU is hard to justify. On the other hand, if you are doing professional work with software that scales to 64 cores, then choosing the 3990X is an easy choice.

For our purposes, I am going to choose the AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3970X, since it will be significant upgrade from a 16C/32T AMD Ryzen 9 3950X mainstream desktop CPU, without breaking the bank.

CPU Cooler

All of these processors have a thermal design power (TDP) rating of 280 watts. That does not mean that they use 280 watts of power (they can use less or more depending on the various settings and current workload). It does mean that you will need (and want) a high quality CPU cooler.

AMD Zen 2 processors are sensitive to their operating temperature. If they are running at a lower temperature, they will be able to boost the clock speed of more cores for a longer period of time. This will improve performance.

These 3rd Generation Ryzen processors are physically quite large, so it is important that the cold plate surface of the CPU cooler heatsink covers the entire integrated heat spreader (IHS) of the Threadripper processor. You will want to get a CPU cooler that was actually designed to be used with a Threadripper processor rather than a model that just happens to be Threadripper compatible.

Air Cooling or Liquid Cooling?

Ryzen Threadripper processors do not come with a stock CPU cooler, so you will need to buy a CPU cooler. Your three main choices are an air cooler, an all-in-one (AIO) liquid cooler, or a custom loop cooler (CLC). Gamer’s Nexus recently did a deep dive comparing the performance some of the best air and AIO liquid coolers.

Cooler Types

Air coolers are less expensive and less complicated, and they tend to be more reliable over time. Because of their size, they can sometimes block access to RAM slots, and they are sometimes too tall to fit in some smaller cases. The thermal performance of the best tower air coolers is pretty close to the best AIO liquid coolers.

AIO liquid coolers are more expensive and more complicated to install. Depending on the radiator size, you may have installation issues with some cases. AIO liquid coolers are less reliable over time, and can eventually fail as the cooling liquid gradually seeps into the hoses over a period of years.

Custom loop coolers are much more expensive and much more complicated than air coolers or AIO liquid coolers. In return, you have complete flexibility and can get as fancy as you like, cooling the CPU, video card, and even other components. I think most people will be better off with the simplicity of a good air cooler, but if you want to take the liquid cooling route, just make sure you pick a good one with a large radiator.

Building an AMD Threadripper Workstation
Noctua NH-U14S TR4-SP3 CPU Cooler

My pick for this build is the Noctua NH-U14S TR4-SP3 cooler. This is a very large air tower cooler with one 140mm fan (but with the parts needed to add a second fan). It is admittedly pretty ugly with the stock brown fan, but the fan can be replaced if that really bothers you.

An AIO alternative is the NZXT Kraken X73 360mm. This is a much nicer looking cooler that does cost more than twice as much as the Noctua.

Motherboard

The next big choice is the motherboard. Fair warning, TRX40 motherboards for 3rd Generation Threadripper processors are significantly more expensive than mainstream AM4 motherboards. TRX40 motherboards typically cost between about $400 and $850.

Building an AMD Threadripper Workstation
AMD TRX40 Platform

This platform has eight memory slots that support up to 256GB of RAM. You also get a total of 72 PCIe 4.0 lanes from the CPU and chipset combined. These can be allocated for things like GPUs, PCIe storage, NICs, SATA ports, USB ports, etc. How this is done varies by motherboard.

If you are considering a 3rd Generation Threadripper system, I think you should be focused on having enough storage performance and enough network bandwidth to support what you want to be doing with your machine. Some use cases may also require lots of GPU performance, but that is less common.

Here are my two favorite motherboard choices:

ASUS ROG Zenith II Extreme Alpha

This flagship motherboard from ASUS has an extensive set of storage and connectivity options. Keep in mind that you will not be able to populate every single slot and socket without having some resource conflicts, so make sure to read the manual first!

Building an AMD Threadripper Workstation
ASUS ROG Zenith II Extreme Alpha

Here are some of the key stats:

  • (4) PCIe 4.0 x16
  • (5) M.2 PCIe 4. x4
  • (8) SATA 3
  • (1) Aquantia AQC107 10GbE LAN
  • (1) Intel I211-AT 1Gbe LAN

Wendel from Level1Techs has a rather glowing review of this motherboard.

Gigabyte TRX40 AORUS Xtreme

This is Gigabyte’s flagship motherboard that also has a plethora of storage and connectivity options. Two of the more interesting ones are an Intel X550AT Dual 10Gbe NIC on the motherboard and an AORUS Gen4 AIC Adaptor PCIe card with four M.2 slots.

Here are some of the key stats:

  • (4) PCIe 4.0 x16
  • (4) M.2 PCIe 4. x4
  • (10) SATA 3
  • (1) Intel X550AT Dual 10GbE LAN

Memory

I think the bare minimum amount of RAM that you should consider for a 3rd Generation Threadripper is 64GB. This would be four 16GB DIMMs, so that you get quad-channel mode. This is the absolute least amount that you should have. If you are thinking that you only need 16GB or 32GB of RAM for the work you do, you probably don’t really need a Threadripper…

Ideally, you would use 32GB DIMMs, so that you would be able to go up to the full 256GB capacity limit without having to replace any DIMMs. You should try to get DIMMs that are all the same capacity, preferably from the same manufacturer using the same SKU (so the timings are the same).

As with all Zen 2 processors, the sweet spot for memory is DDR4-3600 or DDR4-3200, with tight timings. You are less likely to be able to run at DDR4-3600 speeds when you have eight 32GB DIMMs. Having the latest BIOS version and the latest AMD chipset software installed will help with this, but you might have to do some manual memory tuning. The DRAM calculator for Ryzen can help with this.

Personally, I prefer G.SKILL memory, but I have also had pretty good luck with Corsair memory. To be safe, you should check the QVL list from your motherboard vendor to see if your memory is officially supported.

G.SKILL Trident Z Neo DDR4-3600MHz
G.SKILL Trident Z Neo DDR4-3600MHz

For this build, I would choose the G.SKILL Trident Z Neo DDR4-3600MHz CL18-22-22-42 1.35V 256GB (8x32GB) kit (F4-3600C18Q2-256GTZN). An alternative would be the G.SKILL Ripjaws V DDR4-3600MHz CL18-22-22-42 1.35V 256GB (8x32GB) (F4-3600C18Q2-256GVK).

Storage

With this class of machine, I want fast storage! Depending on what you plan on doing (and your budget), you may have different requirements and preferences regarding storage. This sort of workstation should use all flash storage, but remember, not all flash storage is the same.

There is a huge difference between a QLC NAND AHCI SATA SSD and an Optane NVMe PCIe SSD. You should prefer using all NVMe PCIe flash storage rather than obsolescent AHCI SATA flash storage. I would try to use all of your M.2 slots for storage before you start using any SATA ports. I would also try to avoid using any NAND storage that is smaller than 1TB. With NAND flash, you get better performance with larger capacity drives. You also need fewer drives to meet your capacity requirement this way.

Boot Drive

I really like using Intel Optane SSDs for boot drives. These drives use 3D XPoint rather than NAND flash. This gives them much lower latency and better random I/O performance at low queue depths compared to NAND flash storage. This is noticeable in daily usage with faster startup and shutdown, and faster patching (such as Windows Updates) compared to NAND flash storage. They are still much more expensive and they do have lower sequential performance than the fastest NAND flash storage.

Intel Optane SSD 900P
Intel Optane SSD 900P

For this build, I am choosing the 480GB Intel Optane SSD 900P PCIe AIC for the boot drive. A more expensive alternative would be the newer, larger 1.5TB Intel Optane SSD 905P PCIe AIC, which is quite a bit more expensive!

Secondary Storage

What you get here really depends on your needs and your budget. The Threadripper platform supports a large number of PCIe 4.0 lanes, which is one of its main advantages over a mainstream platform. If you don’t have any idea why you would want or need multiple NVMe PCIe NAND flash drives, then you might not really need a Threadripper.

The TRX40 motherboards we are looking at support 4-5 M.2 PCIe 4.0 slots on the motherboard itself, and one has a PCIe card that holds four more M.2 PCIe drives. To be honest, you won’t notice much difference between PCIe 4.0 and PCIe 3.0 for many activities. It will mainly show up for things like large file copies and moves.

For SQL Server, you will see the effect when you perform tasks that rely on sequential throughput. For example, backups, restores, index creation and maintenance, running DBCC CHECKDB, and running queries that do large sequential reads.

PCIe 4.0 NVMe drives are still a little immature, since most of them (so far) are limited by the performance of their controller to about 5,000 MB/sec for sequential reads. A PCIe 4.0 x4 slot should be able to do about 7,000 MB/sec for sequential reads. We should see some “2nd Gen” PCIe 4.0 drives with newer controllers later this year. For example, I am looking forward to the upcoming Samsung 980 PRO.

Using a single brand of SSD makes it a little easier to manage your drives, since they will probably use the same drivers and management tools.

2TB Samsung 970 EVO Plus
2TB Samsung 970 EVO Plus

Here are a few good choices:

Tertiary Storage

I consider any non-NVMe storage and any QLC NAND storage to be “tertiary” storage. You may have some old AHCI SATA SSDs or even old magnetic AHCI SATA hard drives lying around that you want to throw into your system using any available SATA ports.

That is fine, but make sure you are aware that some of your SATA ports might be disabled depending on what is plugged into your M.2 and PCIe slots. You also have to deal with the SATA data and SATA power cables, which complicates your build and can hurt your airflow. Most modern cases also have fewer 3.5″ and 2.5″ drive bays than you might be used to.

One strategy to consider with four identical SATA drives is to create a RAID 10 array using the chipset RAID controller, as I discussed here. This will give you better performance and better redundancy, at the cost of 50% of your space.

If you are going to buy some new AHCI SATA SSDs, here are a couple good choices:

Video Card

Since this is not a gaming machine (I hope) you don’t necessarily have to get an extremely high performance video card. On the other hand, you might be doing work (such as rendering or running Folding@Home) that really uses your GPU.

Another thing to keep in mind is that right now is a terrible time to buy a high-end video card (unless you actually NEED it right now). NVIDIA is going to be announcing/releasing their next generation video cards on August 31, 2020. And, of course, AMD is also due to announce/release their next generation video cards sometime later this year.

This means that the prices on current high-end video cards are likely to fall quite a bit. There also may be next generation, mid-range video cards that match or exceed what current generation high-end video cards can do.

So given all of that, here is what I would do. I would get a modern, but affordable AMD Radeon video card that supports PCIe 4.0. This is because depending on what you do with all of your PCIe and M.2 slots, you might find your primary PCIe 4.0 slot running at x8 speed. This could bottleneck something like an NVIDIA GeForce RTX-2080Ti.

Here are a couple of choices:

Power Supply

A 3rd Generation Ryzen Threadripper system is going to use a decent amount of power, contingent on several factors. These include which CPU you choose, what video card(s), and your storage choices. For example, fans and pumps will also use some power. You can put your component choices into PCPartPicker to get a decent estimate of how much power your system will draw.

Moving on, I would get a high-quality, fully modular power supply with at least an 80 Plus Gold rating. Platinum or Titanium ratings are better. In addition, I would also double check that your power supply has enough EPS cables with the right number of pins, to support your motherboard.

Because of the current human malware situation, there are shortages of PC power supplies, and there is also some price gouging.

ASUS ROG Thor 1200P
ASUS ROG Thor 1200P

Here are some good choices to consider:

Case

You will want a relatively large and well-ventilated case for building a AMD Threadripper workstation. Many TRX40 motherboards are the larger eATX size rather than standard ATX, so you need to check that your motherboard will actually fit inside. Well-ventilated “mesh” cases with an adequate number of good PWM fans will lower your case and component temperatures. This will improve performance and longevity.

Building an AMD Threadripper Workstation
Lian Li Lancool II Mesh

Here are a couple of good choices:

Build List

Here is my component list for building an AMD Threadripper workstation:

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Final Words

Seriously, this post ended up being much longer than I originally intended. If you have read this far, congratulations! If you do end up building an AMD Threadripper workstation, please let me know how it turns out!

You might enjoy my recent YouTube video about Building a B550 Aorus Master System, along with the companion blog post.

If you have any questions about this post, please ask me here in the comments or on Twitter. I am pretty active on Twitter as GlennAlanBerryThanks for reading!

Categories AMD, Build Lists, PC HardwareTags ,

2 thoughts on “Building an AMD Threadripper Workstation

  1. Matt Hillebrand August 14, 2020 — 6:18 pm

    Great article! I’m currently building a new Threadripper deep learning rig. I’ve got everything assembled—except for two Samsung 980 Pro SSDs in a RAID 0 array…and an Ampere video card or two. I went with an XL-ATX Gigabyte mobo, just in case I want four video cards down the road. What I really want is for Nvidia to announce an Ampere equivalent to the Quadro RTX 8000 with 48 GB of memory. The suspense is killing me. Oh, I’m also using two Samsung 870 QVO SSDs in a RAID 1 array for silent, redundant backups. So tired of my noisy NAS.

    1. Thanks for the feedback! I am definitely waiting for those Samsung 980 Pro SSDs to be released.

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