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Building a Home Render Farm without Breaking the Bank

Building a Home Render Farm without Breaking the Bank

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Have you ever thought about building your own home render farm? See how guest author Chris Caufield made his happen.

When Bob Dylan wrote the classic song “The Times They Are a-Changin’”, I don’t think he was thinking about how fast computer technology changes, but it certainly applies to today’s fast-changing times. We can now build a small home render farm in one machine, which is really crazy when you think about it. My purpose for this machine is so I can freelance from home, and be able to live anywhere, while keeping costs to a minimum. Let’s get started!

Cost Considerations

One of my main considerations was cost. I am starting my own home studio, and the cost of software and other expenses of starting your own business grows every day. An Entertainment Creative Suite license with Maya from Autodesk costs $5,775. Add in the annual subscription and that brings the total over $6,000. With this in mind, I wanted to keep the cost of this machine to less than $3,500.

I could’ve scrambled around and picked up used pieces here and there, and in one case I did, but everything else in this machine will be new. There are other articles out there about scrounging around to find used computers and parts to build a render farm. This blog is about a new machine to handle my rendering needs.

When reviewing processors, we decided to go with AMD. I have built my last few computers using AMD, and really love the cost/reliability factor. We decided to go with dual AMD Opteron 6348,  2.8GHz, 115 watt, 12-core server processors. Twenty-four cores in one machine is just amazing. To do this, we needed to use a server motherboard which is a huge cost by itself, but lessened by the cost of the processors.

Hardware Selection

Before we go any further, I have to thank my friend, John Vielee. He really knows his way around a motherboard and without his help this would have taken a lot longer!

Here we have all the pieces in their boxes and ready for unpacking.

Here’s a list of the hardware we chose to build this beast:

  • SUPERMICRO MBD-H8DG6-F-O E-ATX Form Server Motherboard
  • 2X AMD Opteron 6348 Abu Dhabi 2.8GHz 12MB L2 Cache 16MB L3 Cache Socket G34 115W 12-Core Server Processor
  • 8X Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3 1600 MHz RAM
  • Corsair RM Series 850 Watt ATX/EPS 80PLUS Gold-Certified Power Supply
  • 4X WD Red 3 TB NAS Hard Drive: 3.5 Inch, SATA III, 64 MB Cache
  • Cooler Master HAF 932 Advanced Blue Edition, Full Tower Computer Case
  • 2X Noctua NH-U9DO A3 AMD Opteron, 4 Dual Heat-pipe SSO Bearing Quiet CPU Cooler
  • iStarUSA BPU-340SATA-BPL 3×5.25″ to 4×3.5″ SAS/SATA 6.0 Gb/s Hot-Swap Cage
  • SAMSUNG 840 Pro Series MZ-7PD256BW 2.5″ 256GB SATA III MLC Internal Solid State Drive (SSD)
  • ASUS DRW-24IBST Internal DVD R/RW Burner
  • GeForce GTX 590 video card (used)

All of the new hardware was purchased at Amazon, Newegg and Microcenter. Shop around for the best prices, as it changes sometimes from week to week. I decided to put a video card in this machine so that if my main machine were to crash and burn for some reason, I would have a backup ready to go. Keep the clients happy, and no excuses.

I decided to use the GeForce GTX 590 for one reason: It’s just reliable! A gaming card is definitely the way to go these days for a CG machine and, for our purposes, it does a great job handling Maya. You can scrub dynamics no problem, run Viewport 2.0 with DirectX 11, anything. I’ve never had an issue using a GeForce GTX card.

Putting It All Together

We unpacked everything, put the motherboard on a nice piece of foam from its box to protect it, and started putting everything into the motherboard. Here we have the AMD processors in place, with the RAM installed. We chose low profile RAM so that the Noctua heat sinks would fit over them. Make sure to put the RAM in before the heat sinks.

You can get the RAM in and out after, but it’s a tight fit. We finished this part off by putting the motherboard in the Cooler Master case. The HAF 932 is a huge case, and a bit heavy. But this case will give you a lot of room to work with and when you are using a server motherboard, trust me, you need it.

Our Opteron 6348 AMD Processors

Next, we put in the Corsair power supply. Pretty straight forward. The great thing about this power supply is that it’s modular, and the flat cable design will really help once we get all the cables in. Another consideration here was the cost to run this machine. An 850 watt power supply isn’t going to kill your electricity bill. After that, we installed the GeForce GTX 590 video card and then the Samsung SSD 840 Pro drive.

Corsair power supplies are modular and ready to go!

Next, we put the four 3TB Red Western Digital drives into the iStar Hot Swap Cage in the front panel of the case for the RAID drives. I felt it was important to have access to the RAID drives and this option worked out great. We set up a RAID 10 on this machine so we’d have our information mirrored across the four drives.

This gives us 6TB of storage with the same 6TB of storage backed up. And by the way, four drives is a minimum you can have in this kind of set up. This left us with a drive bay available for the DVD. All we have to do now is have pizza; it’s lunch time!

Add the convenience of hot swap bays.

Operating System and Software/Render Management

Originally we were going to use Windows Server 2012 R2, but when I decided that this may need to be a back-up machine as well, I decided to go with Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate because you can use up to 192GB of RAM and two CPUs are supported. There are also other aspects of Ultimate that use server features which made Ultimate a good choice for us. Cost is definitely a factor here as well. You may decide to go in a different direction, whatever works for you. Not only is this machine for rendering, but it also could act as a server if I ever have artists working for me.

With this in mind, you’ll need other software to manage all of this. I installed Perforce for file management. This allows you to keep versions of your files on the network. It’s a great tool if you have artists working with you. So one person works on a file at a time and, if they have the file checked out properly, everyone will know who is working on what.

Hansoft is also a good choice for shot assignments. I’ve used this at a few studios and it’s great for tracking shots assignments and for commenting as each artist works on their particular shots.

Benchmark Testing

Finally, we tested the machine on Cinebench to test performance. We tested both CPU and OpenGL. As you can see from the screenshots below, we killed it! We’re in first place in both categories. Run the test on your own machines and see how they compare to this one. I bet you’ll be impressed.

Cinebench testing

Cinebench testing

Final Thoughts

This system was a lot of fun putting this together. We came in under budget at about $3,200, and I wound up using the extra money on more RAM. In the near future, I’ll be building another machine similar to this one, but without the RAID and video card.

Thanks for reading, and I hope this inspired you to build your own render farm!

Tags in this article

Chris Caufield

By
Chris Caufield

Chris is a lead animator in the New York Area. He spent 5 years at Framestore animating the Geico Gecko, freelanced and then went to work on games at EA Sports on Madden 25 and NCAA 2014. Chris was the lead animator at N-Space on a yet to be released AAA game.
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21 Comments

  • Andrew Irvine says:

    I’m about to start my life as a freelance artist, Digital Tutors significantly helped me get from occasional hobbyist to a much better artist. After a lot of research and the limited testing I could do, I decided to go the GPU rendering route. I am confident that I get better performance from VRay 3.0 for Maya, once I get my hands on it, than I can from a CPU based renderer. I think it should also provider a higher degree of scalability too.

    What are your thoughts? As nVidia are pushing their CUDA support at the moment, maybe now is a good time to look in to it?

    • Dan LeFebvre says:

      Hey Andrew! That’s great! I’m happy hear you’ve been able to improve your life and that we’ve been able to do a small part to assist in that! Thank you!

      To answer your question, I think it’s always a good time to look into whether or not you can save time going GPU over CPU. Primarily because it’s always a good time to see if you can save money by doing something a little more efficiently.

      Just keep in mind to look at it with an open mind in that it’s not always going to be a reasonable choice for every situation. For example, rendering with the GPU might save you a little bit of time in each render but if it costs you a whole lot more for the setup then you’ll have to weigh how many renders you’re doing and if that little bit of time saved is worth the extra cost. Or would it be cheaper and just as efficient to buy a few extra CPUs to be able to render just as fast with less up front cost?

      Since GPU rendering is still relatively new (when compared to CPU rendering), sometimes being on that leading edge of technology isn’t always the best business decision for your freelancing. Anytime you’re dealing with technology it almost always boils down to time vs. money.

      I know that’s not an exact answer, but hopefully it gives you some food for thought. Good luck with your freelancing!

      • Andrew Irvine says:

        Actually, I went with the GPU route because I think it will save money. I have GTX Titan Black and will be getting VRay 3.0 soon and will be hopefully comparing some tests to some high end CPU machines like you described here.

        If the difference in IPR speed is anything to go by, it’ll be massive saving. I can let you know what happens, if you’re interested?

  • Daniel Liska says:

    What and awesome coincidence. I just ordered parts for my render farm last Saturday. Since I don’t have the budget and go with multi-processor server board, I am building the multiple Node farm. Starting with two Nodes each housing 8core AMDs. So I’ll have total of 16 cores for just under $600 in hardware and will add more over time. Hoping to have 40 cores rocking at 3.5ghz by the end of a year. Also, It will be great way to heat up the house on cold winter day :D

  • Chris Caufield says:

    I like what you guys are both doing! Not long ago, There are so many ways these days of building high quality, home render machines that suit your needs, Great job!

  • Daniel Liska says:

    Speaking of hardware, I have one question for a Tech- Wizard out here (who ever that might be). My PC has 16 gigs of ram and 6 core i7 processor running windows and C4D @64 bit and I have not yet exceed 20 percent of my ram usage during render (usually no more then 3.3gigs) . So i guess my question is.. What is the rule of thumb, on how much ram you need to match the rest of your system?

  • Vasiliy Komar says:

    Good day. The article is very intresting, but I have a question. Why don’t you compare AMD processor with Intel Xeon. I think that will be fair.

    • Chris Caufield says:

      Hi Vasiliy,
      I created this build for myself and did not have unlimited funds to build two machines to compare. This build is the result of what I researched and what production I could get for the money on a budget. Xeon’s are too expensive for what we were trying to build.

      Chris

  • Oliver Hilbert says:

    mmm I would say 5-6 AMD FX-8350 machines would cost about the same and blow this thing away. This looks better suited as a good workstation that you can nicely render on as well. A great build but misleading to call this a cheap renderfarm :P

  • Paul Garcia says:

    Would you change anything to make it a super primary “workstation”?

    thanks

    • Daniel Liska says:

      Paul, would 64 cores make this super primary “workstation”?
      Because supermicro makes quad CPU version of this mobo and AMD makes 16 core CPU

  • Paul Garcia says:

    Daniel L….thanks for the heads up…I just checked out the Quad mobo and the 16 core AMD cpus on new egg…..pretty cool

  • Ceejay Charles says:

    Hello Chris,
    This is amazing. I have a question though. Can the system take a Corsair Vengeance 8GB (1x8GB) DDR3 1600 MHz as against the (2x4Gig)? and can it take up to 16 diff modules?

  • Wayne Lee says:

    First of all thanks for this great post. I, myself have only built my first computer recently, so I understand how you built the computer but there are somethings not mentioned that I would like to know. First is how is this render farm computer connected to your workstation, is it via a router or a switch? Sorry I haven’t networked computers before, so how would you configure the operating system to network?

    You’ve also mentioned using RAID, are you using a RAID controller? If yes which RAID controller would you suggest?

  • Chris Caufield says:

    Wayne – I am using a NETGEAR 5 Port Gigabit Business-Class Desktop Switch for networking. And the motherboard has a built in RAID controller. A separate RAID controller is expensive, but probably the way to go.

    Ceejay C – Thats a great question! Yeah you can use the 8GB, and it does have 16 slots. Just make sure you use the proper OS to get the most memory for your money.

  • Martin Sutka says:

    Hello, I want start with 3D on professional level, and I want ask somebody skilled what kind of software can render faster MODO or Maya. Or its depend on hardware configuration? I want make build computer with price 3500dollars, my option: Motherboard MSI BigBang, Intel Xeon 8-core or Core i7 4930K six-core, 32Gb Corsair Dominator 2400MHz CL10, GPU AMD FirePro W7000 or W8000, 2x SSD ADATA 256Gb in Raid0. But I don’t know if I get 110percent of power from this build. Internet is full of discusions about this but everybody says diferent things. So whats important? Better CPU or GPU? I read one where somebody said CPU for high end renders. I don’t know. Whats more important? Clock speed or L3 Cache? How much I get from ECC or bigger clock speed of RAM or CL…. And GPU….I saw some threads more than half saying for Maya Nvidia with Cuda advantage, so if I decided GPU how much VRAM, streamprocessors, better two in SLI and CrossFire? I think FirePro offer better value than Quadro, or take Titan or 780Ti for Maya? I want doing vehicle design, consumer products, all to look realistic. Thanks for response, sorry for my bad English.

  • Steven Berry says:

    Chris, did you connect the two additional +12V 8-pin CPU Power Connectors on the mother board? My Corsair RM850 power supply only came with 1 CPU connector.

  • Chris Caufield says:

    @Steven
    You have one 20/24 ATX pin that powers the motherboard (the big long one) and then an EPS for each CPU. so technically for your build you need 3 power cables connecting to the motherboard. Make sure to follow your motherboard and power supply spec sheets for the correct wattage and compatibility.

    Good Luck!!

  • Chris Caufield says:

    Update: GeForce GTX 590 crapped out!! Replaced it with a GTX 760. Back in business…..

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