My Rig(s), Devices and Rendering Workflow

- by

From time to time I get asked what hardware and GPU I’m using for my 3D adventures, including video games. Rather than typing it out every time, I thought I’d make a handy post that I can refer interested parties to, and update as my configuration changes.

This is that post ?

It may contain more information than necessary, but I thought I’d add it all here, including a bit of history on how this setup came to be and what it cost. I keep this page updated as my configuration and workflow changes.

TL;DR

These are the main systems that I use for work and play. They run the Adobe Creative Cloud, games, 3D apps. Most systems are CAT-5 wired with a 1000Mbps connection.

Main Workstation / Presentation PC

  • HP Z800 Workstation
  • 2x Xeon x5675 CPUs at 3.07 GHz (24 threads)
  • 48GB of DDR-3 RAM
  • 2x RTX 2080 GPUs

Streaming PC

  • HP Z600 Workstation (Rev B)
  • 2x Xeon x5675 CPUs (24 threads)
  • 24GB of DDR-3 RAM
  • GTX 970 GPU
  • Elgato HD60 Pro HDMI capture card

Render Node

  • HP Z600 Workstation (Rev A)
  • 2x Xeon x5560 – 2.80 GHz CPUs (16 threads)
  • 20 GB of DDR3 RAM
  • 2x Quadro K4000 GPUs with 3GB or RAM each

Email / Coding / Chat PC

  • Apple MacMini 2012 Server Edition
  • Intel Core i7CPU at 2.3 GHz
  • 16GB of DDR-3 RAM
  • Intel HD 4000 GPU with 1.5GB of RAM

The Long Story

Most visitors are probably content with the info above. However, if you’re interested in how all this equipment came to be, and how I’m using it in my home/office, read on below. I’ll tell you how I acquired most of the parts and how I’ve built them from older technology that still packs quite a punch.

Workflow

I use my main Z800 Workstation for anything from 3D work, Premiere editing, playing video games and anything that requires high processing power. I use my other Z600 workstations as either render nodes or streaming PCs, depending on what’s necessary at any given point. I don’t have email installed on them, so most of the communication stuff I do on my Mac.

I use my Mac for all kinds of text related tasks like email and web administration, video editing and a bit of Photoshop, as well as coding and web development. It’s still running High Sierra due to its compatibility with 32 bit apps. While not suitable for 3D intense tasks, it’s a very reliable source of communication for me. I prefer typing on a Mac, because it’s less laggy than Windows. I also use this machine for editing my bike videos in iMovie and for editing audio books in Premiere Pro.

The monitor situaiton is a little limited, due to the size of my relatively small desk. I only have a single monitor hooked up on my Z800 on the left, and a very large Thunderbolt Display on the right that’s attached to my Mac. Both of them run off the same keyboard/mouse combination, a Logitech Craft / MX Master 2S combination. Thanks to some Logitech magic, I also have full copy/paste functionality between two different operating systems, thanks to a helpful piece of software called Logitech Options. In addition to the mouse, I also have a Magic Trackpad next to my Mac. Sometimes I prefer that when I do Mac things, it depends on the task.

The remote nodes don’t have monitors attached. I administer them using a tool called No Machine. It’s the only one that will let Blender startup in GUI mode from a remote connection. When I render animations, I split them across all systems and have each node render a part of the sequence. The resulting image sequence is saved into a shared folder that is accessible from everywhere, so I can even have cloud machines contribute at times.

While some softwares have a master/slave or “render node” concept, in which one machine takes control of the other computers and makes them render what is necessary, I don’t tend to use those. Some of these features are unreliable, or cost money to activate, and I find it more convenient to keep a list of which node needs to render what frames instead.

Studio A vs Studio C

I used to work in TV for over 20 years, and in my head I refer to each desk setup as a studio. We have three in total:

  • my main desk with the Z800 / MacMini Setup (Studio A)
  • my wife’s desk next to me (Studio B)
  • and an off-shoot in the walk-in closet (Studio C)

The latter came to be when the COVID-19 crisis hit hard. Julia started working from home had often has spontaneous meetings, which means I can’t use my main desk for screen recordings or streams. I ran several long wires across our apartment and built myself a remote island that can access both the Z800 main presentation PC and my streaming PC via NoMachine. So technically it’s the same hardware that I’m using, but I’m accessing it with a different mouse/trackball/keyboard/game controller combination.

How those systems came to be

I’m using a (rather old) HP Z800 workstation for most of what I do. This series was introduced by HP as far back as 2009 for a cost of over $10k, depending on configuration. Back then it would have been unaffordable. There have been several updates to the Z series, the current one being the Z8.

However, as technology goes, I picked mine up for a song (about $180) after my first Z600 appeared to fail, but it wasn’t anything serious and I could fix it. Hence I still have it. In fact, I replaced it in 2019 with another Z600, and liked the idea of a render farm so much that I currently have THREE such HP Z workstations. Although vintage, they’re spectacular bang for your buck.

I first got into this type of hardware in 2016, after a discussion with Jonstark on the Carrara Forums. My Mac Mini was too limiting for anything that required a GPU, and I bought the first Z600 specifically to use with DAZ Studio’s Iray engine, which required a GPU for any meaningful results.

The Z machines take two Intel Xeon CPUs each, which make them ideal for CPU intense tasks too. My main Z800 has two x5675 Xeons, same as my Z601 node. They’re 3 GHz hexacore processors, so I get 24 threads of render magic with these. My original Z600 (Rev A) has two e5560 Xeons, slightly slower quad cores, but still packing a good punch for the price (a pair is about $50 on eBay). Those give me 16 parallel threads.

Those workstations do not come with WiFi or USB3, so I’ve added those options retrospectively where necessary. All my machines are connected via wired LAN through an Apple TimeCapsule router.

GPUs

The fastest GPU I could find that would fit into my original Z600 (vintage 2009) midi tower case was a GeForce GTX 970 graphics card made by ZOTAC, with 4GB of RAM. I bought it specifically for use with DAZ Studio. I didn’t want to spend too much money, because my budget was tight and I wasn’t sure just how good this GPU adventure would turn out. What makes Iray and other engines tick (and render fast) is a metric called CUDA cores. The more of those we have on a compatible GPU, the faster it can render. The GTX 970 has 1664, which at the time was quite impressive. It was $199 when I bought it on Amazon in 2016.

I’ve used this card for many tutorials on YouTube until early 2019, but have since upgraded to an RTX 2080 with 8GB of RAM with 2944 CUDA cores. For a while I had TWO of those in my system, which means that for a while I was rendering with 5888 CUDA cores! I can’t wait to do that again. Perhaps I’ll try the RTX 2080 Super next (as soon as I have the cash). I’ve added a second ZOTAC RTX 2080 Super into my Z800 in June 2020 ?

Since the GTX series, third party manufacturers make NVIDIA cards. Specifically, mine is a ZTOAC Amp Edition. I was attracted to it because of the price point ($749 in early 2019), and because Brian Cramer was kind enough to leave me a comment with his render results. He had this particular card, and after seeing its performance, I bought one myself. I have never regretted it.

With my second Z600 came another NVIDIA card, an old Quadro K4000 with 768 CUDA cores. At its launch in 2013 it had the hefty price tag of $1249, but by the time I got it in 2019 it was thrown in. Later that year I bought another K4000 for only $60.

My plan is to expand the GPUs in my systems gradually, with another RTX in my main workstation, ultimately more RTX cards in my render nodes. This will depend on my cash flow, GPU prices and demand of what I need to render with them. I may even buy another Z workstation if I can find the space.

Operating System

Although my original Z600 came with a Windows Vista Professional license, I’ve installed Windows 10 Pro on it pretty much immediately. It needs the Pro version because it has multiple CPUs, which cannot be addressed by the Home version. All of my Z workstations run on Windows right now. I may try out CentOS 7 on one of them.

You can read more about how I built the Z600 system here.

Other Devices

Aside from the above, I also use the following equipment:

  • a quad Mac Mini 2012 (on my desk)
  • 27″ Thunderbolt Display (on my desk)
  • two quad core Mac Minis 2012 (in Las Vegas)
  • Microsoft Surface Pro (First Generation, often on my desk)
  • 4x GoPro cameras (HERO 4 Silver, 2x HERO 5 Black, 1x HERO 8 Black)
  • Blue Yeti microphone
  • 2x Zaffiro Desktop USB Mics
  • Logitech C930e Web Cam (main)
  • Logitech C922 Pro Stream Web Cam (secondary)
  • 3x Elgato Stream Decks (one physical, two via software)
  • various iOS devices
  • various lapel microphones
  • Bose Soundlink II Speaker
  • 2x 27″ Acer S271HL Monitors (one for me, one for my wife’s desk)
  • a MacBook Pro 2011 when I’m out and about
  • a Samsung NC10 NetBook as internal web server
  • a Samsung Q330 Laptop for CentOS 7 experiments

I will keep this list updated if/when I add new things to this setup. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask below.

Add your voice