TLDR: I now have a very large PC, within it's spacious interior are four water cooled GTX 980's. It is fast.
Request: Please don't email me any questions about hardware because there's a really good chance I won't know the answer. I will kindly defer you to Tom Glimps; he is very knowledgeable, very friendly, and for some reason absolutely loves this stuff.
As you may have read, I recently moved from Berlin to the UK and will be freelancing here from now on. As such, I needed to upgrade my hardware to accommodate serous rendering. To add some drama, I had a job lined up as soon as I landed so I needed new hardware pretty soon.
As you also probably know I'm a Mac user, and I generally don't know exactly what's inside my machines and I don't particularly care as long as they work and run the programs I use. Recently, that pretty much ceased to be the case. Otoy recently revealed the great news that future versions of Octane would support OpenCL, so the 'new' Mac Pro's can finally join in the fun. This news, alas, would not render my projects between now and the release of Octane 3 so I needed to make a move.
This meant for the first time in over ten years I would have to buy a PC. I'd gotten used to using render machines at the office in Berlin that were basically mid-range gaming machines loaded with 4 GTX Titans, and I knew that the (out of production) 780 6GB was great because I have one stuffed into my 2008 Mac Pro. My first thought was to do something similar: buy a regular PC, find four 780's and stick them in there, but then Tom Glimps posted this article about Sebastien/Smicha's watercooled 4x780 rig..
A lot of it flew over my head, but what stuck in my mind was that by not cooling the cards properly you could potentially lose 40-45% performance. I talked to a few friends and decided that for such a big investment I may as well spend a bit more get something that performs really well. I'll be working on my own with no option to just add more machines to my office, and the possibility to use a farm or cloud solution doesn't exist just yet, so I need to squeeze every last drop from this machine. Paying for four cards and getting the speed of less than three sounded less than ideal, so I decided to go all in and watercool them.
I turned to Scan Computers in Bolton, who are pretty local to me. I have no interest in building machines (the last time I did I was 15 and completing compulsory 'work experience' in a shop via high school) and the back end of Windows confuses terrifies me even more than the front end. Because of warranty/liability implications I would be unable to buy my own 780s, and have the shop build the machine around them, so had to choose cards that were in production. At the time my choice was between the 980 or Titan. Honestly, I didn't feel too great about the 980 because Nvidia pulled the 6GB 780s and replaced them with a kind of similar card but with 2/3 the VRAM. Despite this, after some research I decided to opt for these newer cards rather than the old expensive Titan's. The Titan X was recently released and with 12GB it seems like a really good deal, but I'm kind of glad I tooled up before the announcement. I'm pretty careful with scenes and textures (plus apparently Octane's new out of core rendering doesn't come with too much of a speed hit) and a collection of Titan X would have tipped my machine into REALLY expensive territory.
So without further rambling, here are some photos. More info follows...
As you can see, the case is enormous; It doesn't fit under my desk and it makes my previous 'big machine' Mac Pro look almost like a toy. There are various radiators, fans, tubes, tanks that I don't understand but here are the key components for the curious:
Case: CORSAIR 900D
Motherboard: Asus Z97-WS Workstation S 1150
CPU: Intel Core i7 4790K
GPU: 4x Nvidia GTX 980 with EK-FC980 backplates
Watercooling: Lots of Corsair gear, and more
It will take me a while to take Windows into my every day workflow, for now I'm treating this like an obnoxious render farm that glares at me all day waiting to render something. In order to soften the blow I've managed to make it feel somewhat comfortable by plugging it into the same monitor (LG 34UM95 superwide, if you're interested) and using this nice little USB switch to use my comfy old keyboard and Wacom setup.
I also grabbed a little key remapping app to put Ctrl where my Cmd key is, shift alt to where my thumb thinks it is, and hide the windows key somewhere it's less likely to be accidentally pressed (Microsoft, why would you put the keyboard equivalent of an ejector seat directly between the two most frequently used modifier keys?)
There are a lot of things I already miss from OSX, and because I'm pretty busy I've actually been defaulting to designing on the Mac. Even the fastest machine is slow as hell when the user doesn't feel comfortable, so it will be a learning curve for sure.
As this machine was bought almost exclusively for rendering in Octane, and I've filed this under my Octane blog then you may be interested in the Octane Bench score: 406.19. In practical terms, it's really really fast: It turns a 5-6 minute frame on my single 780 in the Mac into 1 minute or less.
So as I mentioned at the top, if you have any questions... please don't ask me. I can really recommend checking out Tom Glimps' site because he has a lot of news, opinions and general information on GPU based rendering and hardware. He's also a great CG artist!