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Building or Buying a High Performance, Low Cost Desktop Machine for SQL Server Development and Testing

There was a lengthy discussion on Twitter this morning, where one of my friends, Grant Fritchey (Twitter) was asking the community for suggestions about a good hardware setup that would enable him to run two to three concurrent virtual machines, all running SQL Server. My initial thoughts ran to buying or building either an Intel Socket 1366 or Socket 1155 platform based desktop system that can be used as a development or test server. With a machine based on either one of the platforms, you will have more CPU capacity than many production database servers. You will be limited somewhat by RAM capacity, but your more likely bottleneck will be I/O capacity, compared to a real rack mounted server connected to a good I/O subsystem.

Intel Socket 1366 Platform

This platform is a little older, but it does have six DDR3 memory slots. It supports a maximum of 24GB of RAM, which should be sufficient for a number of concurrent virtual machines. The newer 1366 motherboards usually have two 6Gbps SATA III ports (that unfortunately use a slower Marvell controller), and a couple of USB 3.0 ports. There are two likely processors that I would choose for a 1366 motherboard, the Core i7-970 or the Core i7-960. Either one of these processors would work well in one of the newer Socket 1366 motherboards like the ASUS Sabertooth X58 LGA 1366 Intel X58 SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.0 ATX Intel Motherboard ($184.99 at NewEgg).

The more expensive one is the 3.2GHz 32nm Intel Core i7-970 “Gulftown” ($579.99 at NewEgg).  This CPU has six cores, plus hyper-threading, so it has 12 logical cores. It is relatively affordable for a Gulftown CPU (compared to around $1000 for a Core i7-990X), but it does not offer twice the capacity of the Core i7-960, even though it costs twice as much. It is the desktop equivalent of an Intel Xeon W3670.

The more affordable one is the 3.2GHz 45nm Intel Core i7-960 “Bloomfield” ($284.99 at NewEgg).  This CPU has four cores, plus hyper-threading, so it has 8 logical cores. I would argue that it will give you much more bang for the buck compared to the Core i7-970. It is the desktop equivalent of an Intel Xeon W3570.

Intel Socket 1155 Platform

This is the newer, initial desktop Sandy Bridge platform, with four DDR3 memory slots. It supports a maximum of 32GB of RAM (if you can find and spring for 8GB sticks of DDR3 RAM), but it is more likely you will be using more economical 4GB sticks right now, so you will be limited to 16GB of RAM. This should be plenty of RAM for three or four concurrent virtual machines. The better Socket 1155 motherboards will have two native 6Gbps SATA III ports, plus two more Marvell 6Gbps SATA III ports. They also typically have six 3Gbps SATA II ports, usually with hardware RAID support. A good example is the ASUS P8Z68-V PRO LGA 1155 Intel Z68 HDMI SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.0 ATX Intel Motherboard ($209.99 at NewEgg). The best processor for this platform right now is the Core i7-2600K.

The 3.4GHz 32nm Intel Core i7-2600K “Sandy Bridge” ($314.99 at NewEgg), is the best Sandy Bridge desktop CPU available right now. It has four cores, plus hyper-threading for a total of eight logical cores. It uses the newer Turbo Boost 2.0 to go up to 3.8GHz on individual cores. It is the desktop equivalent of the Intel Xeon E3-1275. A Core i7-2600K processor will have roughly equivalent CPU performance to a Core i7-970, for about half the cost. It will also use less electrical power, and run cooler. The Sandy Bridge processors have pretty decent integrated graphics that are more than sufficient for a desktop “server” machine. Depending on which motherboard chipset you choose (either H67 or Z68 based), you can choose to use the integrated graphics instead of a discrete graphics card. This saves electrical consumption and reduces your hardware cost, but the integrated graphics will use a little bit of your available RAM.

Currently, the DDR3 RAM used by both the 1366 and 1155 platforms is very affordable. For example, you can get a 16GB kit for $139.99. The next big choice is the type and quantity of storage that you decide to get, which depends on your needs and budget. Solid State Drives (SSD) are becoming more affordable, but they are still pretty expensive compared to conventional rotating disk drives. On the other hand, they offer much better I/O performance, which is very important for virtual machines. The new generation 6Gbps SATA III SSDs offer much better throughput performance than the older 3Gbps SATA II SSDs, especially when they are plugged into a 6Gbps SATA III port, but any SSD is going to offer excellent performance compared to a magnetic drive. The larger capacity, (and more expensive) SSDs perform better than the small capacity models in the same line because the use more flash memory chips with more internal I/O channels.

If you have money to burn, you can get a 480GB OCZ Vertex 3 SSD for $1199.00 at NewEgg. A slightly more affordable alternative would be a 240GB OCZ Vertex 3 Max IOPS SSD for $539.99 at NewEgg. Going down in price, you can get a somewhat older 128GB Crucial RealSSD C300 SSD for $231.99 at NewEgg. Depending on your space and performance needs (and your budget), you might want to use a mixture of different storage types, starting with a relatively small and affordable SSD boot drive combined with several large traditional hard drives. I really like the larger Western Digital Black drives, such as the 2TB WD2002FAEX for $149.99 at NewEgg.  When you look at these big WD Black drives, make sure to get the 6Gbps models with the 64MB cache instead of the older 3Gbps models with a 32MB cache.

If you are going to build a system from parts (which is really not very hard), you will also need a case, power supply, and an optical drive. You also might need an inexpensive discrete graphics card. If you don’t want to mess around with building a system yourself, you can either buy a “white box” system that uses similar components,or you could buy a system from a larger vendor, and possibly add more RAM and drives as needed. One way or another, you can have a very powerful system for anywhere from $1000 to $1500.


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