Der Frankenputer: A Last Hurrah at System Building

Like a modern day Victor von Frankenstein, who digs up bodies in graveyards in order to bring his creature to life, I was going to scour the Internet for component parts to put this monster together: Der Frankenputer.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Several months ago I put up a blog post called "Extreme PCs and Homebrewing: Rest In Peace", which needless to say attracted a great deal of responses on both side of the fence, those that agreed that due to the economy and the factors surrounding the business of homebrewing and component sales, system building is probably in its last days, and others who vehemently oppose the notion that the practice of home-brewing your own computer is going away.

In the article I explained that I am now more of a consumer of PC technology than a tinkerer, at least when it comes to desktop systems. I buy a lot of my computers from big box stores like COSTCO because I can get a very inexpensive -- or shall I say disposable -- computer in the $500-$600 range that addresses pretty much all of my home computing needs for at least a year or two.

I'm not a gamer so a lot of the tweaked-out features of most "extreme" rigs would be pretty wasted on me. However, a situation came up recently that caused me to build for what I think is probably my very last powerful desktop/workstation-class homebrew box.

After upgrading the RAM and processors on two of my servers, I found myself with two spare Opteron Quad-Core model 2384 "Shanghai" CPUs, 8GB of DDR2 667Mhz ECC RAM and a bunch of 500GB SATA hard disks.  Any way you price that, it's about $1500.00-$2000.00 in leftover parts depending on who you source it from.

What to do, what to do.

Naturally, I thought, they would be best utilized in another system.  It occurred to me that I'm probably going to be doing a lot more testing of OSes and various resource-intensive enterprise software products this year and it would be nice to be able to run them on my desk using a quieter system, instead of running them on various loud and power-hungry servers on my makeshift IKEA server rack-cum-home datacenter that sits behind me in my basement.

They're great to have around when I need to test something, but leaving them on all day generates an awful lot of racket and they eat a considerable amount of power.

I gave it some more thought. I can give my current Dell desktop $500.00 COSTCO Special to my wife, use her current system elsewhere, perhaps as a Multimedia PC for the den, and use this thing as my primary desktop.

The problem is that you can't exactly call Dell or HP and ask them to send you a Opteron-class workstation with no RAM and no CPUs. And while I am aware there are custom system builders out there that do that sort of thing, with the level of effort required, I might as well piece together this thing myself.

It's been a while since I have had to piece together a system from components, probably a good two or three years. So I started researching parts. Originally, I tried to see if I could get it all from one vendor. I thought TigerDirect.com, who I've bought a number things from this last year would have everything I needed, but it turned out they didn't.

Bill of materials from TigerDirect. Click to enlarge.

Case, check. Thermal paste? Check. OEM DVD burner? Check. Mainboard? Well, it turns out that most sane people don't choose to use twin $600.00 server/HPC virtualization processors as desktop chips, so their Socket-F/1207 selection was pretty limited, as it was from an number of other vendors I investigated. I really wanted to narrow down the number of vendors that I had to deal with, so I went with the Tyan Thunder N3600B.

Okay, so what about the cooling fans for the CPUs? Well, it turns out Tiger doesn't have them in stock. Apparently, there's not much call for Opteron cooling fans over there. I'll have to go somewhere else. Power Supply? I made a back of the envelope calculation that between the mainboard, CPUs, graphics card and hard disk and other peripherals I'd need a 500 Watt power supply, so I rounded that up another 100 watts just to be safe.

Tiger only has one power supply in the 600-watt range, everything else is super pumped up for the gamer crowd, in the 750-850 watt range or higher and they start at around $120.00, plus shipping costs. I didn't feel like spending more than $100.00 for the power supply, I thought anything above 600 watts was sheer overkill for what I was going to be doing with the box.

I also wanted a quiet unit because this machine was going to be sitting on my desk. I ended up going with the PC Power and Cooling Silencer 610, which although Tigerdirect didn't have (they stock the beefier 750W version) it turns out Amazon did have it, and with my Prime discount and free shipping came to $95.00, right where I wanted to spend. So at the very least I was now committed to sourcing at least one part from Amazon.

Amazon had a bunch of other parts I needed as well. Guess what? They had the Opteron fans!

Amazon bill of materials. Click to enlarge.

Amazon also had the exact graphics card I wanted. I didn't need a super-crazy dual SLI gamer card, but I wanted something that had native HDMI output so I could use the 1080p capabilities of my 25" widescreen and would have no problem rendering HDTV video. Amazon had a GeForce 9800 1GB DDR3 from Sparkle that fit the bill nicely.

As it turns out, I could have ordered all of my components from Amazon, because Tigerdirect has a store presence there and I could have itemized them all on one bill. They still would have charged me shipping on those items though, and Tiger would have still fulfilled that part of the order, so it didn't make much of a difference in the end.

In the last few days, parts have started to arrive -- First, Tigerdirect's. All the parts came within two days except for the mainboard, which as of today I'm still waiting for, even though it was received by their warehouse on the 7th of August.

As it turns out, Tiger doesn't actually keep the higher-end mainboard products from Tyan in stock, they are drop-shipped direct from the manufacturer to Tiger's Naperville, Illinois receiving center and then re-shipped to the customer.

This drop shipping thing appears to be standard practice from a lot of online PC parts vendors, who due to the slowing economy and razor-thin margins have slimmed down their operations considerably and keep their inventory light. 

I got my case, which after examining it I noticed it didn't include the 120mm ventilation fan. So I jumped back on the web and spent another $15.00 on a Thermaltake ball bearing unit.  Amazon's parts all arrived shortly thereafter.

So to make $2000 worth of extra parts fit into a PC, I spent $722.00. Sure, when I'm done, it's going to be a $3000.00+ system and I'm sure it will run very well -- at least as far as I can tell. And however much I will enjoy actually putting the pieces together when my mainboard finally does arrive, I do have to say that I'm not a big fan of sourcing parts piecemeal over the Internet.

No, homebrewing seems to be even less of a joy than it was only a few years ago, when you could just drive around one afternoon collecting pieces from various local retailers and discount whitebox builders. It's certainly not something you want to do if you need a system in short order.

Most importantly, you really need to do a lot of upfront research to make sure that everything will work right together and that you can get the exact parts you need, and that you don't miss out on anything essential -- like my $15.00 case fan.

While my Opteron situation complicated matters more than your average PC enthusiast might face, I can still see a bunch of situations where customers may end up dealing with multiple drop-shipping scenarios and end up waiting for parts to arrive over the course of over a week or two, or even more with stocking delays.

Building a PC from sourced parts may be fun when you get them all in one big pile, but it's sure a pain in the ass having to do all the up front research and waiting around for deliveries.

Have you had any similar frustrating experiences recently when homebrewing a PC? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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