Videoguys' DIY 3: Double Trouble - Dual Xeon Workstation

diy3glamour.jpgOur DIY3 project is finally complete. "Double Trouble" was our first Dual Processor system. Unlike the previous two projects, this one was far more difficult. It was very hard finding a motherboard that all our vendors liked and that also included the latest PCI Express technology. As you will recall from our DIY2 article, PCI Express (PCIe) is the new high-speed bus that removes the bottlenecks that would happen with the old PCI/AGP bus design.

The first motherboard we selected was the Asus NCD-T. it was loaded with all of the cool new features we were looking for, and it included the great motherboard utilities we have come to love and depend on. Unfortunately the motherboard came with a design choice that would make it unsuitable for our needs. The southbridge is the chipset that controls the main I/O of the motherboard – this includes the hard disk controllers (IDE & SATA), USB, FireWire, on board audio and on board RAID controllers. Unfortunately most of the current dual processor motherboards that include PCIe also use the weak 6300 southbridge.

Do not use motherboards with a 6300 southbridge. This will become a system bottleneck for NLE.

Videoguys' DIY3 Machine - Over $3,000 budget
(prices as of June 1st, 2005)
Part Model Cost
Case Thermaltake Highest Xaser III Super Tower Case, #V2000A


Power Supply Antec TRUE550 #EPS12V


Motherboard SuperMicro X6DAE-G2


Graphics Card PNY Quadro FX1300


Processor 2 x INTEL Xeon 3.4GHz #BX80546KG3400EA


System Drive Western Digital 80GB EIDE 7200 RPM


Video Drive Qty 2 Western Digital160GB SATA 7200RPM


DVD Burner Pioneer DVR-A09




Total: $3,405

The 6300 southbridge was designed as a low cost solution, not a top performance solution. As a result with Video editing (especially HDV or HD footage) you can easily flood the southbridge and the resulting bottlenecks can result in sluggish performance, dropped frames, jittery playback or worst of all – system crashes. Despite all our best tweaks and tricks, we had to face the facts – the 6300 southbridge was a problem and we could not find a way around it. For this reason we do not recommend any motherboards with the 6300 southbridge for video editing. The Intel ICH6R or ICH5R are much better choice and able to handle all the throughput required for HDV & HD editing.

So we scrapped the NCD-T and went looking for a new motherboard. We found two good choices, each available in a couple of flavors. The SuperMicro X6DAE or the Tyan Thunder S2676, both based on the Intel E7525 (Turnwater) chipset design. We decided to go with the SuperMicro X6DAE-G2. It was a little bit more expensive, but it had all of the features we wanted, some very nice optimization utilities and all of our vendors recommended it as well. We also looked at the X6DA8-G2 which is essentially the same motherboard, but with an integrated SCSI U320 controller. For those wanting to go with SCSI storage or an external SCSI tower like a Medea VideoRAID HDV or VideoRAID RTR, this is an excellent choice.

Once we finally settled in on the right motherboard, we ran into a bunch of little issues that kept delaying the project. Dual Xeons create a ton of heat, and you really need to go overboard with the cooling and the power supply. The Xeons rely on a huge heat sink that is really heavy. We had to install special support posts just for the processors.

Our first case looked great, until we fired it up and saw how hot things were running. Removing the motherboard & CPUs from one case and putting into the other proved to be a challenge as well. When we had to change motherboards and then cases, we found that the Xeons became fused to the heat sinks. Intel tech support advises us to use a hair dryer to melt the paste between the heat sink and the processor. While it seemed kind of silly, it worked!


Both Jon & I have been drooling over Thermaltake Xaser cases since our DIY1 article. On a $1,000 budget there was no way we could afford it. With our Double Trouble, we couldn't afford not to. The Thermatake case was the perfect fit for our motherboard. The design of the case is outstanding. Jon really liked how the hard drives mounted in side to side, rather than front to back. They also use these really cool screwless plastic rails for jacks.jpgmounting the harddrives. They just snap right in. It made installing and swapping them out a breeze. In fact, adding and installing everything was super easy because the case doesn't require screws for the drives, drive bays or cards. Very cool!

I also like the top mounted jack panel with 2 USB ports, FireWire port, speaker & mic jacks. Since the full size tower sits on the floor, this is a really nice convenience. Unfortuantely, with our motherboard the only jacks we are able to use are the 2 USBs, but it does make it really easy to plug in my USB thumbdrive & my digital still camera.

guts.jpgPower Supply & Cooling

We have seen that going with an inadequate or cheap power supply can result in system instability and even crashes. When the power supply is at fault, troubleshooting your computer can be a nightmare. We've had customers pulling their hair out trying to get their systems to be stable. In desperation they swap out the power supply for a bigger & better model and their system becomes rock solid. We don't want you to take any chances with your DIY machine, so spend a few extra bucks and go with a bigger and better power supply.

The Thermaltake case is available with an optional 360W or 420W Purepower supply. These are excellent units, but we wanted more power. Our system is going to have the Dual Xeon CPUs, three 7200RPM hard drives, DVD burner, killer graphics card, 7 fans plus the Canopus Edius NX for HDV hardware. I wanted to make sure that we had more than enough power to run everything. So we put in an Antec 550 Watt unit. We like Antec powersupplies becasue they run pretty quiet with exceptional performance.

lcd.jpgWe want this baby to run as cool as possible and the Thermaltake case has plenty of cooling and airflow.. The 7 fans can be controlled from the 4 channel adjustable fan controller with LCD readout. The fan controll unit is top notch and we found that we could keep things cool and manage the fan noise very easily. You can also set it the alarm to notify you if things get too hot. A very nice feature that could end up saving us from potential instability and even component failures due to excess heat.

Xeon Processors

One thing we learned from having to swap out the motherboards was that not all Xeon processors are the same. You need to make sure you get the exact version numbers your motherboard calls for. dualxeons.jpgTurned out that the original pair of 3.4Ghz Xeons #BX80546KG3400EA would not run on the new SuperMicro motherboard. After a phone call to SuperMicro support we learned that we required a more recent verison. Our original processors were revision - SL7HJ, the new ones for the SuperMicro are the - SL7TE


With your dual processor motherboard you must be extra careful in selecting the memory modules that are recommended by the vendor. These motherboards are very particular about certain key components, and memory is one of them. With dual channel memory you want to install matched pairs of identical memory sticks. We wanted 2GB of RAM in this system so we went with 2 x 1GB sticks. We could have saved a few bucks and gone with 4x 512, but we wanted to have the open slots available in case we require more memory down the road. We have seen that with HDV editing, having 2GB of RAM is very important for best results. In the future it would not surprise me to see HDV editing software wanting even more memory for buffers, faster encoding and increased real-time performance. So we're going with 2 x 1GB for now, with plenty of room to grow in the future.


This turned out to be a trickier than we had anticipated. When we tried to set up our SATA RAID0 for our video storage, we ran into a big problems. We had numerous calls to SuperMicro support on this. First they thought it was the hard drives we had selected, so we traded in our Hitachi drives for Western Digital. Same problem. The computer would hang whenever we tried to set up and initiate the RAID0. A few more phone calls and it was looking pretty bad - we would need to replace the motherboard. Then Jon decided to re-format all the drives and install WinXP from scratch again. This time he noticed that on installing the RAID controller software, WinXP was defaulting to the wrong ones! XP kept installing the Intel drivers, and we needed the Adaptec ICH5R HR driver! Both drivers were on the supplied set up disk from SuperMicro. Jon unistalled the Intel driver and forced in the Adaptec driver. EUREKA!! The RAID installed perfectly! It shows up in device manager as the Adaptec Embedded Serial ATA HostRAID.

When Jon was on the phone with SuperMicro support troubleshooting the RAID controller, they told us they recommended Western Digital SATA drives with the on board RAID controller. I don't know if this is really necessary, but we decided to follow their lead. So we have a pair of Western Digital Caviar RE WD1600SD 160GB 7200 RPM with 8MB cache for our video storage.


Once again it came down to the PNY FX540V or the FX1300. Both PCIe cards use the nVidia Quadro FX graphics chips with excellent OpenGL support. For this system we decided to go with the FX1300, because we are going to install the Canopus Edius NX for HDV hardware in it. This hardware will provide us with our real-time video output.

We've been getting lots of emails ever since our DIY2 article when we strongly urged going with a Quadro card over a 3D gaming card. We still stand behind this recommendation. Yes, you can get a good 3D gaming card with twice the RAM for about the same price, but we feel the added OpenGL performance of these cards makes them a better choice with Avid Xpress DV/Pro/HD, Adobe After Effects & Premiere Pro, Canopus Edius, Boris FX/Grafitti/Red and other NLE software.

Videocard Notes:
Sony Vegas software does not see any benefit of OpenGL at this time, or a really fast 3D graphics card. Vegas relies on pure CPU processing power for it's performance.

Pinnacle Liquid Edition will take advantage of OpenGL performance, but for HDV 1080i editing you have to have at least 256 megs of RAM. We have also seen the ATI graphics cards tend to work a little better with Pinnacle software. This is because of the close co-operationt he two companies have shared over the past few years. So if Liquid Edition is your NLE of choice, get an ATI X800/X700 3D card with 256 megs of RAM

Videoguys' DIY3 $3,000 budget
(prices as of June 1st, 2005)

Part Model Cost
Case Thermaltake Highest Xaser III Super Tower Case, #V2000A $170.00
Power Supply Antec TRUE550 #EPS12V $123.00
Motherboard SuperMicro X6DAE-G2 $445.00
Graphics Card PNY Quadro FX540V $279.00
Processor 2 x INTEL Xeon 3.4GHz #BX80546KG3400EA $948.00
RAM 4x512Mb KINGSTON #KVR400D2R3/512 $515.00
System Drive Western Digital 80GB EIDE 7200 RPM $60.00
Video Drive Qty 2 Western Digital160GB SATA 7200RPM $210.00
DVD Burner Pioneer DVR-A09 $99.00
OS Microsoft WINXP PRO OEM $140.00
Total: $2,989

HDV Editing

As I mentioned earlier in this article, we have installed the Canopus Edius NX for HDV card in this machine for our HDV editing. We are also running Sony Vegas 6, Pinnacle Liquid Edition, Adobe Premeire Pro w/ Cineform Aspect HD and Avid Xpress Pro HD PowerPack w/ Mojo. All of the above mentioned software is running great and we are able to edit DV& HDV footage with ease, at 480i, 720p and 1080i resolutions. We don't have any 1080p footage to test, but I am 100% confident that we will have no problems at all.

I will be using this machine for my upcoming HDV editing shootout article. I'm really looking forward to working with and comparing all of the latest and greatest HDV solutions.

Multi Core future

Unfortunatley our DIY3 dual processor article took much longer than we anticipated. While we were working on the machine technology kept marching forward. It is now clear that the future will be Dual Core processors running under Windows 64 bit OS. While these machines are now becoming available, we're urging our customers to use caution here. None of the video editing solutions mentioned above have 64 bit code and we do not know what kind of trouble that may cause. To take full advantage of this next technology leap we are going to need NLE software that is optimized for multicore processors as well. Today Sony Vegas 6 is the only NLE I am aware of that can take full advantage of dual and multicore processing.

We will be compiling tips and tweaks pages for the new 64 bit version of Windows XP over the next few months and we will be putting up a page on our website for them. In addition we hope to have our next DIY article - DIY4 Dual Core - complete and published by year end.

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