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The Revit Workstation - Hardware Recommendations

2012 - March

“If your computer is not instantaneous, it is too slow and there is an opportunity for improvement that your competition will exploit."
~ Mark Palacios


Having been asked this month 3 times for a recommendation for a Revit workstation, I am writing this highly opinioned guide today to help Revit users make wise choices. However, I have been thinking about writing this for years. I have been building CAD workstations since the mid 1990’s. Every time I build a new computer, it requires a great deal of research because of the ever changing technology. This time is no exception. This system will be designed primarily for Revit but will work as well for 3DS Max Design, Autodesk Ultimate Building Suite, The Adobe Creative Suite Master Collection and V-Ray. It will be suitable for BIM and all of its tangents such as rendering, animation, clash detection and estimating.


Let’s start here. If you don’t do this right, your results will suck. I propose you need Windows 7 Professional 64 bit. You must have Windows Professional to connect to a domain based network. You never know when this is necessary so why fundamentally limit yourself now? You also must have a 64 bit system to address more than 4 Gb of RAM. Revit requires about 8 Gb of RAM for professional level work. However in the near future I can see where Revit models will get larger and require more RAM.
Today a 32bit computer is a toy (a bike with training wheels) and bordering on useless. If you choose a 32 bit system for your Revit installation, stop now and get a new career.


The next piece is the CPU, that tiny chip with billions of transistors that make geeks drool. The faster the CPU, the longer you will be satisfied using your computer. This will add time on the back end of your purchase so you don’t need or want a new one next year. AMD chips while cheaper and give you that feeling of sticking it to the man, are just slower. Don’t even think about an Apple. While it is possible to run Revit on an emulator, the same level of performance will cost 2 to 3 times what you will get with a PC. You have to go with Intel for the CPU choice.
There are 2 directions to go from here, The Core i7’s and the Xeon’s. The Xeon’s totally rock, but they are for multi-CPU systems and are almost three times the cost of an equivalent Core i7. Revit is single CPU software and multiple Xeon’s will not help it at all. (Although it will help with 3DS Max, that is not the purpose of this system.) I propose you choose an i7 for our system. The second generation of i7’s are out now and are getting great benchmarks and reviews. The top of the line i7 is the 3960X Extreme Edition and runs about $1,000. The top of the line Intel desktop CPU has been $1,000 for at least the past 20 years. No surprise there. This is not a difficult choice.


I like Asus as a company. In the past year I bought or recommended 4 of their laptops. One of them was for Revit use. In my experience they make the best motherboards. I propose you select their top of the line motherboard for this CPU selection, the Rampage IV Extreme.
In addition to being a sweet piece of art, it has the fastest SATA ports for your hard disks (6.0 Gb/s) the fastest USB ports (3.0), the latest Intel chipset (X79), supports 64 Gb of 2400MHz DDR3 RAM. Has a Gb LAN connection, the fastest video slots with PCI-Express 3.0, CrossFireX / SLI, Bluetooth, a ton of built-in adjustments for overclocking and 8 Channel surround sound. Another very easy choice.


Although I can install 64 Gb of 2400 MHz RAM in this system, this really is overkill and very expensive at about $4,000. I can get 32 Gb of 1866 MHz RAM for $329,98. The 64 Gb will make a nice upgrade in the future when the price drops. Revit is a memory hog. I currently have 12 Gb and I don’t think I have ever filled it, but I’ve come close when running other programs with Revit. The 32 Gb of RAM and cooling fan from corsair I propose is very inexpensive.


This is something I have studied extensively. I had a Dell 30” 2560x1600 for a few years. What an awesome experience. For a short period of time I had two of them. Architects need three monitors for optimum production. That third monitor makes such a huge difference. Its use is primarily as a digital reference table. Most of the documents I work with are available as PDF’s. Even hand sketches can be easily scanned as PDF or JPG’s. Perhaps we are approaching the paperless office finally? (Oh my, how “green”)
So I propose a using a Dell 30” 2560x1600 LCD monitor as the center monitor for the primary graphics area of the various software. A Dell 23” 1920x1080 LED on the left for the graphics menus as well as email. And an identical Dell 23” 1920x1080 LED on the right for reference and internet. The smaller end monitors shall be LED for razor sharp clarity and shall rotate 90 degrees vertical for long documents and menus. Once again, is there any other choice?


Although the graphics cards don’t have a huge effect on Revit, two are required with two dual link DVI ports each, for the monitors I’ve proposed. In addition, the extra port can be used for an additional monitor or for a projector for client presentations. The two graphics cards I’m proposing each have 512 cores of GPU processing power and 3 Gb or GDDR5 memory. These cores and increased memory allow you to render with iRay (which comes with 3DS Max Design) and also work with V-Ray RT. iRay claims to render perfect lighting using the GPU in a reasonable amount of time. In some cases real-time rendering is possible in the viewports. These graphics cards also get amazing results with the Adobe CS5.5 Master suite and with animation processes.
There is some controversy choosing between the Nvidia Quadro and the Nvidia GeForce with the benchmarks not always favoring the way more expensive Quadro’s I am proposing less expensive GeForce graphics cards. The GFX 580 3Gb is under $600 each. The Quadro 5000 with 2.5 Gb is over $1700. I understand that the GeForce cards run a little hotter when rendering. We can address that with a well designed case.


Of course graphics cards use a lot of power. CrossFireX / SLI support would be good. So an excellent modular power supply with an 80 plus gold rating indicates it is very efficient. Modular indicates that instead of a fat snake of cables tumbling out from the unit, all cables detach and you only use what is needed for your configuration. 1200 watts insures that you have plenty of power at crucial times and in the future. I propose the Corsair CMPSU-1200AX.


I love Logitech products and I really like their illuminated keyboards. USB wired works great for a desktop. I propose the Logitech 920-000914


1000 DPI with hyperfast scrolling, also USB wired. I propose the Logitect 910-001204.


A burner that will burn or play anything including Blu-ray and LightScribe labels is ideal. I propose the Light-On iHBS212-08 drive  


The C:\ drive that contains the operating system and the installed programs should be solid state. These drives are really expensive but they make a huge difference. I see people claiming less than ten seconds for boot / startup time. I propose a Crucial 512 GB solid state drive with SATA 6Gb/s interface.
I propose that all the data in the computer will be stored on a RAID Level 1 consisting of two 2 Terabyte Seagate Barracuda SATA 7200 RPM 64Mb 6GB/s mechanical drives. That will hold a lot of data safely.
I propose that the backup system shall be a portable USB 3.0 three terabyte Western Digital drive.


I imagine that sound playback is mostly a low priority, so I propose a Dell sound bar mounted on the bottom of the center monitor would be inexpensive and ideal.


My philosophy on cases used to be simple. The case did not matter. Cheap with no flashing lights, windows or wild colors. Beige was good, grey perhaps a bit risqué? Now I like the nicer elegant aluminum cases that have excellent cooling engineered right in, wire compartments, removable motherboard tray, smart front ports and controls.
I propose a SilverStone Half Tower, the Temjin TJ09-B in black with a few additional fans and a radiator mounting bracket for the CPU cooler. I now think that if you spend all this money on performance, you can spend a little on aesthetics for a nice package. Hmm… Sounds like architecture.


I propose that you use a Corsair H80 liquid cooler, which will keep the CPU temperature under control.  


There are people and manufacturers that can make a computer so you don’t have to. But assembly of the hardware is actually trivial. I have had my kids build computers just to prove it. There are actually very few parts.
The advantages of self-built are that you get all the documentation for each part for future maintenance. It is less expensive for the exact same system, sometimes by a lot. If you assemble it yourself, you will know it really well. Sometimes manufacturers use odd or custom made parts with no name on them. If you buy the part for your system, you will have access to the part manufacturer’s customer service and these are some of the smartest guys you will ever speak to. If you buy an assembled system, and you call customer service, you will talk to some of the dumbest people you will ever speak to.
One time I acquired a very expensive computer built by a famous Hollywood computer guy totally customized for CAD and 3DS Max. It would shut down for what appeared to be no reason at all. In 6 months half the memory burned up. He offered no help at all. When I opened it up I saw it only had one fan. I ended up punching holes in it and wire tying fans inside it to keep it working. It was very ugly.
At one time when our firm was really busy, I purchased Dell Precision Workstations. They were certified, and the top of the line. Over time some of them would develop weird problems that prevented CAD from working on them at all. When you want a state of the art really fast computer, Dell seems to be lagging behind a year. Their 30” monitor is absolutely the best though.
@XI is one computer maker that seems to know what it is doing.
Boxx is another company I like. They specialize in render farms. Really slick stuff.
 If I know you, like you and live near you, I should build your system. I really enjoy doing it.


So you may have noticed that there is no total cost. As I don’t believe there is really a choice, I haven’t gotten there yet. This is the computer system hardware you need today to do BIM and to have made a smart purchase.
After you are done with this system in 4 years, you can give it to a secretary, clerk, accountant, or construction guy for a completely new life. At my last firm, we bought them the new computers and made the architects wait and hold on to their old junk. For no other reason than simple political pull, whining, and very short term thinking.
Here is the deal. Every year Autodesk comes out with more advanced software for architecture. This software has more capabilities and uses more computer resources. This will continue at an accelerated rate for the foreseeable future. It is primarily for BIM. We are in the middle of a major revolution and most people don’t see it. If you pause too long, don’t keep up with your training, or don’t maintain the right equipment and software, you will be out of a career. BIM is not waiting for anybody.
Let’s say I proposed $7,500 of hardware. An experienced BIM Designer will earn $75,000 per year. So that is 10% of his salary. How much faster will he be with the system I propose? If he is 25% faster, you will make an extra $11,250 the first year and $18,750 each year after for the length of time you use the computer efficiently for BIM. The faster the CPU, the longer the computer will be in service, the more money you make.
How many people have jobs that they can increase their efficiency in a big way with a hardware update? I don’t think your lawyer will create more contracts with a faster computer. Architects are at a unique place in time embedded in this revolution. So to reiterate, you invest $7,750 and over four years make $67,500 back. That would be an average of 73% return per year over 4 years. This could really be a great investment.


Don’t you just love Google? They are a truly amazing company. They have big plans for the future. But they have also implemented so much already. In addition to making a billion dollars in profit every 18 days, they have completely transformed many industries including advertising. Did you know they were the largest computer manufacturer in the world? Ever see a Google computer? They make these computers for their own data centers. They are rumored to have millions of them.
So at Google they believe in data. They are always testing everything. They believe strongly in speed. They are obsessed with speed. Their engineers and founders can discern a 1/10 of a second change in computer speed. They have tested the implications and determined that if their search service drops 1/10 of a second, a measurable amount of searches declines. They say that people become distracted and lose focus.
Wow, do you think with slower hardware, architects can lose focus? I am not suggesting that you upgrade your hardware for a tenth of a second. However if you are using a 32 bit system, it is time to upgrade. The last time I used a 32 bit system (only a month ago) it crashed at least twice a day. Even if I only lose 2 minutes of work, rebooting and getting my focus back just kills productivity. I wonder what the cost of lost focus is?
Perhaps if we empower our BIM designers with better hardware, they will attain flow with less distraction and we will have unimagined productivity benefits?