Water-Cooled Xeon Mini-ITX Workstation

ASUS H81M-ITX Motherboard

Several weeks ago, I decided that I wanted to do a desktop refresh and update of my primary workstation. If you follow my blog, you will know that I work both as a Cloud Architect and Consultant, and as such, I work 100% from home. That said, I have a very nice setup already, with the primary “wow” factor that most people get when they walk in the office being that I have three 27″ LED monitors on a triple monitor stand. It makes a pretty good impression, with the primary benefit being that it allows me to multitask very well when doing systems administration. My next upgrade for my desktop will be triple 4K screens. But enough of that.

My old desktop was an AMD rig with a FX-8350 with 16GB of RAM in a mid-tower ATX case with a 6GB/sec SSD as the OS drive, and a 2TB data drive. Not a bad setup at all and very responsive, but there were times I could definitely feel the lack of horsepower at the top end. Also, the FX-8350 was starting to get a little long in the tooth, as was my video card. So, time for a solid refresh.

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Build Philosophy

Water-Cooled Xeon Mini-ITX Workstation: Philosophy

For me, responsiveness is everything; quick boots, quick program launches, quick restorations from sleep, and the ability to multitask well. My desktop environment is heavily customized, and I keep a lot of system administration tools running in memory, so that means lots of RAM. This time around, I also wanted to go with a mini-ITX build for size, and to also keep everything as quiet as possible, which is a new direction for me, as I usually build these huge full tower ATX builds with multi-drive RAIDs, RAID cards, and so on. Thus, I want a high performance system, squeezed into a small space, that runs cool and is quiet. Sure, no problem.

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: CPU ChoiceWater-Cooled Xeon: Processing Power

For the CPU, I decided to go with the Xeon line. Although the Haswell line was a tempting refresh, the performance of many of the Haswell chips are simply still not up there in the top 5% of the performers. Passmark keeps a very good database of results for CPUs, and checking through the single thread performance charts, the E3 -1270v3 was ruling the top of the charts at a very attractive price point. Basically, the E3-1270v3 is an i7-477x without the built-in graphics. This brings it down to a lower power cost and still keeps the total cost around $300. Considering that I am driving three monitors, and will be using a discrete graphics card, I do not need the built-in graphics at all. In addition, many of the LGA 1150 boards will support the LGA 1150 Xeons just fine and will even allow them to run with cheaper, non-ECC memory. Since this is just a workstation, and not a sever, I feel fine running normal, non-ECC memory.

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Cooling

Water-Cooled Xeon: Cooling

For the cooling, again, I wanted quiet, and although I could go with air cooling, water cooling, especially with the great all-in-one water cooling systems out there was attractive. Since the case is also caught up in this, I took this into account, and wanted an ITX case that looked good, and also took a full size graphics card. My case of choice was the BitFenix Phenom ITX, and since it would take a full 240mm radiator, I decided on a Corsair H100i water cooler. For air cooling, I chose a SilverStone 180mm Air Penetrator AP182 to put at the front of the case to push real air through the system.

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Video Card

Water-Cooled Xeon: Video Card and Monitors

My graphics card was an easy choice: I’ve been using AMD cards for years, and love their Eyefinity setup. It allows you to combine all three monitors into a single resolution desktop (so my desktop is 5760 x 1080) and you can run six or more monitors per card easily. When you’re using more than two monitors, however, your primary desktop (your “anchor”) must use DisplayPort, and I already knew this and was using an AMD card before my refresh, so I had the monitors covered: three ASUS VS278 27″ LED monitors. Moving up on my graphics card, and having great experiences with MSI cards, I chose a MSI Radeon R9 270X 4GB with two DVI ports, 1 DisplayPort, and an HDMI port.  To manage my desktop more efficiently and give me some cool desktop options, I use Display Fusion Pro and Stardock’s Fences.

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Power Supply

Water-Cooled Xeon: Power Supply

The choice of the case and form factor also restricted my power supply choices, and I ended up going with an SFX form factor power supply: the Silverstone ST45SF-G 450W SFX12V. This is the only modular, gold certified power supply in the SFX form factor at this time. It’s only 100mm long, and 450w is plenty of power, considering what I’m pushing.  The Phenom case has a very small section for a power supply, and you will never get away with a full size power supply in this spot.  To verify this, I tried putting in a Rosewill Capstone 550-M Modular power supply, and couldn’t even come close to jamming it in all the way.

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: SSDs and Storage

Water-Cooled Xeon:  SSDs, Hard Drives and Accessories

The last issue was storage. Now that Intel RAID will pass TRIM through to RAID0 volumes, I chose two Samsung 840 Pro 256GB drives in a RAID0 for my OS drive, and a 3TB Hitachi Ultrastar 6GB/sec drive for my data drive. This worked out well, and gave me blazing speeds. My total boot time from cold to desktop is <10 seconds and I don’t have a program that I open that takes over 1/2 second to completely load (the longest is Photoshop CS6, which takes around 1/2 second).

For accessories, I’ll be reusing my Logitech G710+ Mechanical Keyboard, my Logitech G602 wireless gaming mouse, my Belkin N52te game pad, a set of Logitech Z906 Surround Sound speakers (best speakers I’ve ever owned), a Razer Goliathus Extended Mouse Mat, a Microsoft LifeCam Studio 1080p HD Webcam, a Plantronics GameCom 780 Surround Sound Stereo PC Gaming Headset, and my APC BR1500G BACK-UPS Pro 1500.

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Build List

Water-Cooled Xeon Mini-ITX Workstation: Build List

As always, these prices reflect what I paid for the item, whether it be on sale at the merchant, or through Amazon. These may not reflect current prices, or what you’re able to find. I’m also including the items that are carry-overs from my previous build, but these are separated into the lower block of items.  This will give you an idea of my total system that I use.  Finally, I’ve included a list of some of the programs that I use every day for systems administration and programming that I just could not live without.  This is not an exhaustive list nor is it meant to be.  Just one of those informative lists.

Total Cost of “Refresh” Items: $1,435.68

On-Hand Items From Previous Desktop

Software I Use Daily for Desktop and Systems Administration Use

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Assembly

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Assembly

Water-Cooled Xeon Mini-ITX Workstation: Assembly

Assembly went amazingly easy. The Phenom is an ITX case, but it’s a larger one. Although it can be a pita to work in at times (I have big hands), it went together quickly, and fired up the first time around. The 24 pin connector on the Silverstone SFX power supply was a VERY, VERY tight fit. I thought I was going to break the connector at one point trying to get it attached. So if you do this build, be aware that it WILL fit, but you’re going to have to do some stretching and take the absolute shortest path to the motherboard.

The Phenom case comes with a lot of possibilities and parts that come out to allow you to do different builds. I mounted my radiator fans inside the case, but there is room to put in another two fans above the case, for a push-pull scenario. Be aware that unless you get very thin fans, those top fans will stick out of the case, and you’ll need to put some metal guards on them. I don’t think this would look unattractive though.

My temperatures are very stable. I run 21C idle, which is pretty fantastic, and at full load with Prime95 running for 30 minutes, I didn’t get above 45C. Note that I did not use the stock thermal paste, instead using Arctic Silver 5 in an “X” pattern. I torqued the screws down on the H100i pretty tight to get good contact. This is using the Corsair Link software to control the pump and radiator fans on the “quiet” profile, and the Silverstone AP182 running at about 30% to match the volume of the radiator fans. Overall noise is very quiet. In fact, my office is eerily quiet compared to my old rig. Even my wife and kid notice it.

Storage speeds are amazing with the RAID0 Samsung 840 Pros. IOMeter clocks the workstation pattern right at 30,000 IOPS, while HDTune Pro brings in sequential reads at 1,200MB/s and writes at 800MB/s and 4K Randoms at 622MB/s and 596MB/s respectively. Note that the randoms are very atypical of a workstation pattern, but this shows how devastating this setup would be in an enterprise environment.

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Afterthoughts

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Afterthoughts

Water-Cooled Xeon Mini-ITX Workstation: Afterthoughts

So, after this, would I have done anything different? Not really. I’m very pleased with this build. The only thing I might have done different would have been to have picked a motherboard with wifi, and more USB ports. The GIGABYTE GA-Z87N-WIFI was on my radar for this.

Another thing that lightly irritated me was this motherboard only had a single internal USB header, and I had to use this for the watercooler. I would have liked to have seen a USB 3.0 internal header. Again though, remember that these are ITX builds, and you’re going to lose out somewhere.

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Photos

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Photos

Water-Cooled Xeon Mini-ITX Workstation: Photos

Below, you’ll find some pictures detailing my steps through the build. The only specific ones that I feel need to mention are the last two. The SilverStone Air Penetrator AP182 comes with a fan speed knob mounted on a expansion port cover. Since the Phenom only comes with two expansion ports, which are taken up by my video card, I had to get creative.

The back of the case accepts a 140mm fan, with a 120mm installed. This leaves the 140mm mounting holes free. I disassembled the fan potentiometer off the expansion port cover and drilled out this hole to allow me to stick it through and anchor it with the post screw. Then I stuck the knob back on and I had an instant case mode for my fan speed control switch. Took all of maybe 5 minutes.

Also, I took some pictures with the video card out showing the inside of the case, because once the video card is mounted, you can’t see anything.

 

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: ASRock H81M-ITX Motherboard

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: ASRock H81M-ITX Motherboard

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Corsair H100i Water-Cooling

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Corsair H100i Water-Cooling

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Silverstone Air Penetrator AP182 180mm Fan

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Silverstone Air Penetrator AP182 180mm Fan

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Silverstone Air Penetrator AP182 180mm Fan

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Silverstone Air Penetrator AP182 180mm Fan

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Silverstone SFX 450W Gold Certified Power Supply

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Silverstone SFX 450W Gold Certified Power Supply

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Silverstone SFX 450W Gold Certified Power Supply

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Silverstone SFX 450W Gold Certified Power Supply

 

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Silverstone SFX 450W Gold Certified Power Supply

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Silverstone SFX 450W Gold Certified Power Supply

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Silverstone SFX 450W Gold Certified Power Supply

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Silverstone SFX 450W Gold Certified Power Supply

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Silverstone SFX 450W Gold Certified Power Supply Comparison to Normal Power Supply

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Silverstone SFX 450W Gold Certified Power Supply Comparison to Normal Power Supply

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: ASRock H81M-ITX Motherboard

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: ASRock H81M-ITX Motherboard

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: ASRock H81M-ITX Motherboard w/WaterCooling Mounts

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: ASRock H81M-ITX Motherboard w/WaterCooling Mounts

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Inside Shot

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Inside Shot

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Inside Shot

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Inside Shot

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Inside Shot

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Inside Shot

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Inside Shot

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Inside Shot w/Graphics Card

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Power Supply Mounted

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Power Supply Mounted

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Fan Speed Control Modification

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Fan Speed Control Modification

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Fan Speed Control Modification

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Fan Speed Control Modification

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Power Supply Mounted

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Power Supply Mounted

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Power Supply Outside w/Adapter Bracket

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Power Supply Outside w/Adapter Bracket

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Rear Shot, Final Assembly

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Rear Shot, Final Assembly 

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Triple Monitor Stand (3 x 27" LED) Rear View

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Triple Monitor Stand (3 x 27″ LED) Rear View

 

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Final Shot of the Finished Build

Water-Cooled Mini-ITX Workstation: Final Shot of the Finished Build