Home Development Workstation – Part 1

Why

I think that every techie should go through the experience of building up a desktop workstation from the ground level. Maybe it’s because I date back to the days of the PC XT, when computer support duties regularly had us tearing down cases, changing jumper settings and plugging in individual chips for memory expansions. Mainstream p0wnership of the desktop’s guts may also be a dying art form (notwithstanding) – in the days of ubiquitous WiFi, shrinking notebooks, Blackberries and iPods. Cloud computing may liberate us from access to information, but I’m interested in creating and maintaining how that information will be connected, managed, and accessed. In other words – I want to write, not just use, software!

Specifically I have a long list of development projects I’ve been planning (ie. dreaming about and procrastinating), dealing with a wide range of technologies (semantic web, mash-ups, mobile, social networks, SEO, etc.). I also want to take a much deeper dive into platforms other than Windows; it’s clear that Linux, FOSS, and Apple need to be contemplated as part of any organization’s environment. And, since I prefer the comfort of hands-on experience when talking about technology solutions for business issues, I figured it was about time to jump in.

So this will be the story of two things – homebrewing a workstation in the 21st century, and the switch from Windows to Linux. Should be fun …

Prior Art

Of course, step one for most technology projects seems to be find something close, and work it over to meet your needs (techno-jazz, riffing on prior art). It’s not difficult to locate how-to content for building a PC by mail order, and my spec is based on two excellent examples. Tom’s Hardware (TH) is by far the best resource for drilling into details of the components. TH also has an (apparently) annual series on building a PC from scratch using current state-of-the-art components. In addition, I’ve borrowed heavily from a Coding Horror (CH) series from last summer – Atwood’s detailed notes and photos during the build will give me a lot of guidance when doing the actual assembly (yes, I even aped his photo style – sincere flattery, Mr. Atwood!).

As I began to surf and spec the various components, I noticed a trend with these and other “build your own” mavens. The articles are always geared towards the gaming enthusiast, trying to squeeze the quietest performance and the highest power for the least amount of dollars. I remain at a loss to explain why anyone needs two $600 graphics cards, and all the fans required to keep the whole thing from melting down. Most of the changes I made to the specs from my model machines dealt with this; a dual-monitor development workstation is an absolute must, but I wanted multiple windows of Eclipse and Firefox running – not Civ and Doom. (although I nearly changed my mind on the video stuff when I saw this sample of user interface ideas in the works for coming version Ubuntu.)

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wwr-OjVUZRk

Deets

I’ll spare you the details of the mixing and matching – I’ll just give you my shopping list, with some callouts for the important components. Note that I did the “good shopper” bit (TH was good for research, and cNet did a decent job of letting me see the competition), and went to a couple different sources for all these parts. I checked prices at Newegg and Amazon for most of the stuff, but had to search hard for some of the components. Note that all prices are just snapshots from when I placed the orders; I started and stopped this project a week or so ago, and when I came back to some of my shopping carts, availability of some components changed considerably. Suggestion: carve out a long afternoon to research the components, price shop, and make the purchase – all in one sitting.

Case Antec P182 Gun Metal Black Computer Case N82E16811129025 Newegg.com $ 139.99
    Other cases might be better for the game enthusiast looking for ultimate quiet; this is just super functional and flexible
Power Corsair CMPSU-550VX ATX12V V2.2 550W Power Supply N82E16817139004 Newegg.com 124.37
    Learned a ton about

power supplies

    from Tom’s Hardware
Motherboard MSI P6N SLI Platinum LGA 775 NVIDIA nForce 650i SLI ATX Intel Motherboard B000NEFVA2 Amazon 140.71
    I freely admit to not being a motherboard expert. I stuck as close to the examples from TH and CH (ca. 2007), but had to evaluate “state of the art” (ca. 2008) . As such, this component proved the toughest to locate – shows how fast technology changes
Processor Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 2.4GHz LGA 775 Processor Newegg.com 219.99
    I typically go for the second-best processor available. The difference between the 6600 and the current king of the hill was hundreds of dollars; since I’m balancing performance with price, it was an easy decision. Note that I didn’t even consider an AMD processor – no logical technical reason, just that I’ve been an Intel guy all my life … it’s a comfort zone thing
CPU Cooling Thermalright IFX-14 CPU Cooler xoxide.com 79.99
Scythe SY1225SL12M Newegg.com 8.99
    Never knew CPU cooling was such a science – another excellent Tom’s Hardware

write-up

Video Card Scythe SY1225SL12M N82E16814130084 Newegg.com 119.99
    Another component that took a long time to research. I gotta have dual monitor support, but I didn’t need the two-card, super-high-tech video processing that the TH and CH machines would deliver. (This step was a bit more difficult because I’d recently seen

Ironman

    (hhh))
Hard Drives Western Digital Caviar SE WD5000AAJS 500GB 7200 RPM SATA 3.0Gb/s Hard Drive N82E16822136178 Newegg.com 89.99
Western Digital Raptor WD740ADFDRTL 74GB 10000 RPM SATA 1.5Gb/s Hard Drive N82E16822136220 Newegg.com 149.99
    I considered dual drives and mirroring for both the system disk (Raptor) and data disk (Caviar), but decided to (maybe) add that later. It’s so amazingly cheap …
    Coding Horror

raves about the Raptor

    as the boot drive (OS plus common programs). I hope to spoil myself on boot times / startup, since my Windows notebook takes eons …
Memory (2x) CORSAIR XMS2 2GB (2 x 1GB) 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 800 (PC2 6400) Dual Channel Kit Desktop Memory Model TWIN2X2048-6400C4 N82E16820145034 Newegg.com 137.98
Optical Drive (2x) Sony NEC Optiarc 20X DVD±R DVD Burner with LightScribe Black SATA Model AD-7191S N82E16827118004 Newegg.com 55.98
    Taking note of a comment from TH. The optical drives are so inexpensive (I remember when a floppy drive cost me 25 bux!) that I picked up two, to speed up my media projects
Display Dell SP2208WFP 22 inch Widescreen Flat Panel Display with Webcam Dell.com 314.00
    I didn’t do a ton of comparative shopping when picking up the display. I had $100 Dell gift card – a nice “discount” that I couldn’t pass up
Total: $ 1,581.97
HomeDev001
Click to enlarge …

Had to insert a picture of the delivered components – it just felt like the right thing to do. It was kinda like Christmas! (props to Atwood for the idea)

Next up … building the box …

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James MacLennan

... is the Managing Partner at Maker Turtle LLC, a digital consultancy focused on creating value in ways that align with your strategy and drive engagement with employees, customers, and stakeholders. He is an active creator, providing thought leadership through on-line & print publications, and public speaking / keynotes.