Blueprints: Production Computer Design

This week in our blueprints series we are going to talk about production computers and how I go about designing them so that they are both extremely reliable, have plenty of power, and budget friendly.

As we continue to progress into this new age of technology, church and studio technology will continue to progress with it (whether or not you decide to join that trend). Because of that the need for reliable, reasonably priced, computers for production use has risen. Many of us have gone the route of self-designed, self-built machines, but still several of us are still buying pre-made macs/pcs because of a fear of things breaking or money lost from design mistakes, or simply a lack of knowledge to get the job done. This is one area that we all could use some additional knowledge. To that end here is a quick tutorial/video about building computers from a great youtuber Linus TechTips. I don’t like re-inventing the wheel and repeating what’s already been said and he does a great job explaining the entire process and set the tone for our conversation here. Here is that link!

To that end, it has been one of my responsibilities recently to design a framework and hardware direction for our computers at my work. I had a few requirements if I was going to get into building and maintaining not just one computer but several mission-critical machines and several more that are just used in our facility for production support and it’s that idea that I think might apply to most studios/tours/churches etc. The first requirement I wanted to discuss was budget.  For those of us in the non-profit world this is a completely different ballgame than those in the for-profit world but both need the same computer, the computer that gives the most bang for the least amount of money. So the idea is to find the amount of money that allows for the purchase of quality components without spending so much that you haven’t saved any money from buying a pre-built machine from HP or DELL (notice I didn’t once mention Best Buy or Walmart or any big box store, it is my distinct experience that buying computers from any in-person store, barring any amazing sale of last years premo model, is rarely a great choice financially). This number will vary with your budget or expense allowance but a great guideline with any form of electronics is that you get what you pay for with a second guideline being that no matter how great your software is, if it isn’t running on a capable machine, it’s going to not work well. Right now at CCC and for a few of the side gigs I’ve designed for I try to build the basic production machine to be $1000 – $1200.  That sounds like a lot of money but if we think about that computer lasting 4-5 years that’s a reasonable price for a computer. If that machine has a specific purpose like multi-track recording or audio/video editing than we always plan for more. I know I know, you are saying that is more expensive than computers I can buy…this isn’t any cheaper! Well below you will see…

The second requirement was just that whatever computer I end up with needs to be reliably awesome.  Yes, I said reliably awesome.  I want to be able to sit down at whatever computer this is, be able to effectively do whatever I need to do and do whatever it is quickly and efficiently. Also, reliably awesome means that I can do that whenever I want. To put it another way, these computers need to run 24/7 and be distinctly overpowered for today’s ordinary tasks yet strong enough to last 4 or 5 years in order to keep up with the pace of software development and potential hardware upgrades. This means a few things, first is that the power supply purchased needs to be able to power whatever I put in that machine for next 10 years or so and be efficient enough that I’m not paying out the teeth to be running it for 24 hours a day for ten years. This usually means buying 80 Plus Gold certified power supplies (link explaining a few things to look for in computer power supplies). Doing this also usually gets you a better power supply made from better components as the certification process inspects everything from actual output to the quality of power coming from the supply itself. I often buy a power supply capable of 25%-50% more than I need as well so that I have room to expand internally by adding a new GPU, more RAM, more HDDs, etc without worrying about needing to buy a new PSU. Yes you can save a few dollars (it’s really not that much) and buy a weaker PSU but the odds are if you get a good PSU you won’t have to buy another one for as long as you are using the case you put it in….I’m speaking from experience here. Next I make sure to have plenty of RAM. This usually means 16gb of RAM. Yes that is a lot but two 8 GB sticks leaves room for RAM should you need it and gives the OS plenty of breathing room when it comes to running all the applications you’re going to run as well as having plenty of browser windows open and running. Lastly, when it comes to CPU and GPU choice, it’s all about matching them up to your budget but also together. Think of it like your home garden hose. If you have a small spicket, you aren’t going to fit a 4″ hose to it….you are going to fit a small hose. The same applies to your CPU and GPU. Start by figuring out how much of your budget is left for these two items, divide that in half, and that’s how much you have to spend on each.  9 times out of 10, it’ll all work out just fine. The only exception I’d say is if you plan on upgrading quickly than buy a better CPU. GPUs are easy to upgrade, CPUs are not. You get a new CPU and you are likely getting a new motherboard and you have to think about cooling, etc. Just trust me on this one. Believe it or not if you build a PC that is reliable, it will also be awesome. The components you’ll end up with will be better rated, have a history of working well and will help to extend the life of the computer you built to sometimes be twice or three times that of a lesser PC, saving you money. Please don’t cheap out…you’ll regret it.

The last thing I wanted to bring up was my philosophy of interchangeable parts. Yep, computers can be like cars and have interchangeable parts. You accomplish this by spending more time in the beginning picking gear that is universally available.  Don’t buy niche motherboards or used stock on Ebay. Yes these options will likely save you here and there but they will not offer the availability of stuff on Amazon Prime. You won’t be able to get them in two days after something goes bad. Next it’s about designing computers with identical parts.  For me this really comes into play with motherboard and CPU combinations. So far I’ve built around 10 production machines, there is only two kinds of CPU connectors but from the same manufacturer. That means if any of our critical machines goes down, I can take parts from any of our not as critical machines and put it into that critical machine so that regardless of when parts arrive, I can get through the event. That means also that my power supplies are all identical for the most part, they are all overpowered so I can take any power supply from any machine and put it in another one in no time flat. This is also the reason why I load up our computers with RAM so that I don’t have to worry about needing to take some out and put it in another machine, I can just do it. I haven’t had too many failures but when I have, they have been easy fixes and parts came quickly. For me, this is the best way to maintain a fleet of computers, build them all as close to identical as you can.

If you would like me to forward you a list of specs or parts that I use just email me at daniel@studiostagelive.com and I’ll follow up with you as soon as I can. Hopefully the discussion here helped you think differently when it comes to production computers and inspire you to start building your own machines!

 

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