Folding Rig September 2010

If you're seriously considering building an entire PC just for folding, then you're clearly not going to settle for doing it in a half-baked way. While the recommendations for the awesome folding farm can be applied when choosing hardware for an everyday PC, this system is for maximum ppd per pound per watt.

After discovering what graphics card is best for folding, our folding rig offers the best balance between ppd, cost and energy consumption. If you don't know what folding is all about, it's a distributed computing application that aims to model how proteins fold, thus delivering useful simulation data for scientists to use in the fight against several diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. The project is run by Stanford University and has made significant progress, as you can read from Folding@home's peer-reviewed research papers.

The genius of f@h is that it's competitive, with a leaderboard and teams. To help us in our quest to be the most productive folders on the planet, join our team by using the team ID of 35947. Cheers!

 Folding Rig
 ProductUK Price (inc VAT)US Price (ex tax)
Graphics Card(s)4 x 768MB Nvidia GeForce GTX 4604 x £1204 x 170
CoolingAntec Big Boy 200mm fan£20$20
MotherboardMSI 890FXA-GD70£140$200
CPU2.8GHz AMD Athlon II X2 240£45$60
Memory2GB 1,333MHz DDR3£45$50
PSU (UK)Enermax Revolution 85+ ERV1250EWT£260NA
PSU (US)Enermax Revolution 85+ ERV1050EWTNA$290
CPU Cooler (UK)Akasa AK-876£15NA
CPU Cooler (US)Arctic Cooling Freezer 64 Pro(£15)$30
Storage (HDD)160GB SATA 3Gbps£30$40
 Overall Price:£1,035$1,370

New This Month

Very little is new this month in our Folding Rig build. We've yet to test the new Radeon graphics cards for their folding capability, both because we have little hope for them and because of the few GPGPU application that ATI does talk about, folding@home is not one (boo!).

Therefore, the only thing that’s changed is the price, which has unfortunately crept up a little. This is entirely down to the 1.25kW Enermax Revolution 85+ jumping up by 30 quid, which is a fairly significant change. We can only assume that demand for these excellent PSUs is quite high at the moment; hopefully the price will drop back down as supply gets on top of demand.

This only seems to be a problem in the UK though, as we recommend a different PSU in the states - the equally awesome 1.05kW Enermax Revolution 85+ that we used to recommend in the UK while it was available here. Again we’ll mention that if you’re a UK reader and you don’t want to splash out on the 1.25kW version of the Revolution 85+ there is a new 1.02kW version available, we’ve not reviewed this version though, so we cant say whether it’ll be as good a purchase as its siblings.

PC Hardware Buyer's Guide November 2010 Folding Rig November 2010

And The Rest

The GPU’s that our folding rig is built around are four 768MB versions of the Nvidia GTX 460. These are currently retailing for about £120 and this is great value when you consider that these are one of the most power-efficient folders at the moment, delivering 56 points per pound and 46 points per watt. Four GTX 460s should generate around 34,500ppd. These figures put even folding stalwarts such as the GeForce 9600 GSO in the shade. However, these cards also mean that you need a motherboard with space for four dual-slot graphics cards and a PSU that's got eight 6-pin PCI-E power connectors.

The board we've chosen is the MSI 890FXA-GD70, essentially because it works and it has four dual-slot graphics slots. We've gone with a Socket AM3 board because AMD's cheapest current-generation CPU (the Athlon II X2 250) is much cheaper than Intel's cheapest current-generation CPU (the Pentium G6950). If you wanted to run a few of those massive CPU folding cores, you could opt for an LGA1366 board and Core i7 CPU but this will cost you much more.

PC Hardware Buyer's Guide November 2010 Folding Rig November 2010

The Athlon II X2 250 processor is sufficient to drive data to all four cards - the CPU doesn't need to do that much in reality, and if you're looking for something slightly lower wattage (remember it won't be at full load, so not reaching the TDP) then you can pay more for a energy efficient Athlon II X2 240e, or simply experiment with undervolting any Socket AM3 CPU.

We've used 2GB of the cheapest branded memory we could find, as there's no gain from fast and expensive memory when folding. In fact, a single stick of 2GB DIMM of 1,333MHz DDR3 is fine (we'd have opted for 1,066MHz, but couldn't find any in stock). To cut power consumption, you might consider using low voltage memory, such as a Kingston LoVo kit or some 1.35V OCZ Low Voltage memory but weigh the extra cost of the kit against the power savings before ordering, and also check that your motherboard allows you to apply low memory voltages.

We've forgone the case too, because we're not confident how any on the market would cope with this many graphics cards long term. In place of a case, we've opted for just a simple solution: one huge fan.

PC Hardware Buyer's Guide November 2010 Folding Rig November 2010Sit the 200mm Antec Big Boy on top of the graphics cards and it should stop them roasting to an early death.

We've used this setup in our own labs with seven GeForce 9600 GTs in a single Asus X58 WS motherboard and it's worked perfectly and continuously for almost a year now. If you do have a case to recommend us, please let us know.

A cheap 160GB hard drive from a reputable manufacturer will suffice, since not much storage is needed - simply the OS and the small Folding programs are needed. Using an SSD won't cut much from your power bill, so don't bother with one.

Finally, drop on the same Akasa AK-876 or Arctic Cooling Freezer 64 Pro that we also used in the Affordable All Rounder PC for ample cooling. If you want to save a few quid, the reference AMD cooler will suffice.