Build or Buy a New Core i7 Supercomputer?

[tweetmeme source="KeithBluestone"]This article is part of a series in 2010 on custom-building a high-performance computer with the latest Intel Core i7 processors:

  1. Build or buy a new Core i7 supercomputer?
  2. Choosing a New CPU: Intel Core i7-920/930 vs. i7-860/870
  3. New Core i7 PC: Selecting the Components
  4. New Core i7 PC: The Build


I’m usually a strong proponent of choosing to “buy” standardized computers (e.g. Dell) rather than “build” a custom server.  But in this case, the stars are aligned in favor of a building a handcrafted system that should be a real screamer – and hopefully a lot of fun in the process.

The Landscape

In a prior post, I discussed the merits of computers based around the latest, greatest CPUs, concluding that the benefits of raw computing power and energy efficiency made it pretty much an open-and-shut case for investing in the latest technology.

image I thought I would seal the deal by simply ordering a Dell PowerEdge server, as I’ve done with great success in the past: I own a PowerEdge 1600SC and a PowerEdge 400SC, both really excellent machines for their time.  But I was curious to see what the latest and greatest advances in mainstream chip technology had brought us.

I followed up with a little research on the Intel Core i7 family of processors with the new Nehalem architecture.  In particular, I looked at the two primary choices at around a $200 price point:  the Core i7-860 and the Core i7-920.   (The i7-860 edged out the i7-920…  read the post if you’re interested in the details.)  These quad-core processors are basically supercomputers on a chip.

Being a software architect, it’s one of my “core” beliefs (no pun intended) that a deep understanding of the target platform is a great way to design the best software solutions.

The Decision…

It’s been roughly ten years since I built a custom PC.   Reading about the latest motherboards and components, I realized that the industry has had ten more years to perfect the art of producing standardized pc hardware components.   Reviews of motherboards on rave about “overclocker’s dream” and “works flawlessly.”

I was intrigued:  how hard could it be, now, to throw a new motherboard into an old computer chassis, plug in a CPU and some memory, and power it up?   The alternative was a pretty tasty Dell system that I could snap my fingers and have delivered.

Which to choose? Let’s back up for a minute and look at what I want out of this system.


I wanted to get the following out of this new computer system:

  • Be future-proofed enough to run well for five years: this includes expandability and performance.
  • Be able to run computationally intensive modeling and pattern detection applications in support of the new stock market analysis platform I’m creating with some folks.  So it has to be fast.
  • Be able to take advantage of new virtualization technologies (VT).  This is nothing short of a revolution for the IT crowd:  the ability to run complete “images” of computers on one physical box.  So for instance, I could have the equivalent of  complete Windows 7 and Windows XP machines running on the same box.    Amazing.


I sketched out a pretty capable system meeting these needs.  The key components looked like this:

  • A Core i7-860 processor. Has four separate physical cores, hyperthreading (which doubles the effective cores to a total of eight), awesome memory bandwidth, and great energy efficiency (95W TDP).  See my post comparing the Core i7-860 vs i7-920.   It’s one of the fastest desktop CPUs available today:  definitely meets the “future-proofed” criterion.
  • 8 GB of RAM, expandable to 12 GB or 16 GB. By simply adding more RAM, I can use virtualization to “host” multiple complete virtual computers on this one “supercomputer” – no need to buy a whole new system.   So RAM expandability is key.
  • Support for SATA RAID on the motherboard. Using redundant arrays of disks  is absolutely a best practice to avoid the headaches that come with a single hard drive failure.   I read a great quote the other day: “The difference between a good hard drive and a bad one is that the good one hasn’t failed yet.

I’m not into video games, so I don’t need anything special in the graphics category like “Crossfire” or “SLI” display technology:  a solid & capable dual-DVI graphics card should do the trick.

Picking a system: the pre-built road

Dell PowerEdge T310My prebuilt system of choice was a Dell PowerEdge T310, configured with a Xeon X3440 @ 2.53 GHz (more or less a slightly slower i7-860), 8 GB RAM, 250 GB hard drive for around $1,050.    Add a graphics card for $150 and the total system cost is $1,200.

I generally choose the PowerEdge servers (vs. consumer desktops like Dell XPS’s) because of their high quality and reliability;  I also install the OS myself so I avoid all the adware/trialware crap that bloats these new machines.

The T310 is a pretty awesome machine for a home server.   The Dell motherboards and bioses are engineered for business server use – which most of the time is fine.

Picking the system: a custom build

I have a spare case, an extra Antec True Power supply lying around, and four enterprise-class 500 GB SATA drives, and I wanted – I as mentioned above Corsair Dominator DDR3– to see what a custom build experience would be like, ten years later.    In addition, it might be fun to play with overclocking the i7-860 processor (in all my spare time!). A lot of folks having fun with this based on the comments in the NewEgg reviews and other forums on the web.

Since I have the spare case, power supply, and the hard drives, I would just need CPU, RAM, motherboard, and a graphics card.  I could put more into the specific components I wanted, specifically a great motherboard and as much high-quality RAM as possible.

A quick breakdown of a custom build looked something like this:

Component Price
Motherboard $200
i7-860 CPU $250
8 GB RAM $250
Graphics card $150
Total: $850

At $850 for a custom build vs. $1,200 for the Dell, this was starting to look like a good deal.  While I would end up with an overclockable, high-performance computer, I would miss the convenience and build quality of a new Dell server.


I love buying standard Dell PowerEdge servers, but in this case it’s hard to resist playing:  I’m going with the custom build this time.

For fun, I’ll hand-pick a quality set of components, including a socket LGA 1156 motherboard, RAM, and a display card.  I’ll post updates here and on Twitter as I look around.

Do you have any advice on i7-860 system components (or any LGA 1156-based), including motherboard, RAM, or video card selections?    Post a comment.

References and more reading…

Virtualization technologies:


9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Lon Pilot on February 25, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    Sounds like a kicking system Keith! Let me know how it turns out.

    I’ve built a number of systems and the one thing I’ve found surprising is the number of DOA components I end up with. Keep that in mind when building. If you run into a strange intermittent problem with some component suspect a defect first!

    Good luck!


    • Hi Lon… Good to know… I did notice a relatively high number of folks on the NewEgg forums complaining about DOAs or premature hardware failures (e.g. after a month), and it made me wonder. It’s a pretty consistent theme across product lines — hard drives, motherboards, memory — so it looks like it’s just the nature of the semiconductor beast?

      Component failure is one risk you typically *won’t* see when you order a prebuilt system like a Dell etc. The systems are assembled and “burned in” as part of the process, which must catch a *huge* proportion of component failures (how huge, I don’t know).


  2. Hi Keith,

    Initially I thought of getting a prebuild computer from Dell too. After clicking and customizing on Dell site, it ends up pretty expensive with all the upgrades I chose. So I decided to self build one where I have full flexibility in customizing and upgrading. Price will be much cheaper in DIY systems too.

    Will be updating my findings and progress on my tech blog until I buy it.



  3. Posted by anon on June 15, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    i was confused as to why you said that a homebuilt lacks build quality – most components in DIY systems are better than those of OEMs like dell.


    • I didn’t say that a homebuilt system lacks quality; I said that my experience with prebuilt Dells, especially the servers, has been excellent. I agree, DIY components are better — if you know what you’re doing — and that’s why I chose to build my own.


  4. Posted by Bdubs on August 6, 2010 at 11:24 am

    Posted by Lon Pilot on February 25, 2010 at 4:47 pm
    “Sounds like a kicking system Keith! Let me know how it turns out.

    I’ve built a number of systems and the one thing I’ve found surprising is the number of DOA components I end up with. Keep that in mind when building. If you run into a strange intermittent problem with some component suspect a defect first!”

    LOL, Many many many ( is that enough? nope one more) MANY people on Newegg et. al. that claim a high level of understanding do not actually possess it. It’s true that there are more claiming DOA’s then before but a great percentage of this is made up by people who stick in the there memory and expect that because that’s always worked in the past that it will work this time. The market is FLOODED with recertified motherboards from self proclaimed TECHS with high levels of experience that sent a Mobo or other item back because they simply didn’t know how to operate it or bought in compatible memory, OR didn’t understand that sometimes you need to boot into the BIOS with a single stick of RAM in order to properly set the Voltage and timings so that the other say 3GB or 5 GB will be detected.

    “…suspect a defect” IS THE LAST THING YOU SHOULD DO!!! RECHECK, Calmly make sure that you installed things correctly. For example common slip ups (already touched on memory), but is the motherboard corretly installed with the grounding stand offs or is it shorting. Is the PSU providing enough clean power, minimalizing the set up to begin with is easier to detect the source of the problem…. Does the Item have a firmware or is there a BIOS update. Did you check the component in another working system…. If you’ve done that, and you’ve asked for a second opinion or two (sometimes the worst thing you can do is over look something small because you panic and loose the ability to think critically and analytically about the build as your emotions cloud your judgement) or contacted whatever crappy support they offer, and posted on active message boards then you might consider the possibility the item is defective…. it’s the VERY LAST Conclusion.


  5. Posted by Bdubs on August 6, 2010 at 11:44 am

    “Has four separate physical cores, hyperthreading (which doubles the effective cores to a total of eight) ”
    – well not really, in fact not even close. Real world on a truly multi-threaded application something like photo editing or rendering you may get a 5 – 15% increase in performance versus not hyperthreading (we’ll take it unless heat dissipation is too much of course) but it’s more like adding the effect of HALF a core and then only sometimes.
    If you’d like to see it in action here’s a nice video showing a Core i7 9## with and without hyperthreading turned on.


    • Good point, I should have mentioned that. While it doubles the apparent number of cores, it’s rare that you’ll see a large performance increase due to hyperthreading.


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