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Custom PC Configurations

There are several custom configurations that you might encounter in the IT field. You should be able to describe what each type of computer is and the hardware that is required for these custom computers to function properly.

Audio/Video Editing Workstation

Multimedia editing, processing, and rendering require a fast computer with high-capacity storage and big displays (usually more than one). Examples of audio/video workstations include

  • Video recording/editing PCs: These run software such as Adobe Premiere Pro, Final Cut, or Sony Vegas.
  • Music recording PCs: These run software such as Logic Pro or Pro Tools.

This just scratches the surface, but you get the idea. These computers need to be designed to easily manipulate video files and music files. So from a hardware standpoint, they need a specialized video or audio card, the fastest hard drive available with a lot of storage space (definitely SSD and perhaps SATA Express or PCI Express-based), and multiple monitors (to view all of the editing windows). Keep in mind that the video cards and specialized storage drives are going to be expensive devices; be sure to employ all antistatic measures before working with those cards.

CAD/CAM Workstation

Computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) workstations are common in electrical engineering, architecture, drafting, and many other engineering arenas. They run software such as AutoCAD. This software is CPU-intensive and images require a lot of space on the screen. Hardware-wise, a CAD/CAM workstation needs a powerful, multicore CPU (or more than one if you are using advanced CAD software or if you are performing 3-D design/rendering), a high-end video card (perhaps a workstation-class video card—much more expensive), and as much RAM as possible. If a program has a minimum RAM requirement of 2 GB of RAM, you should consider quadrupling that amount; plus, the faster the RAM, the better—just make sure your motherboard (and CPU) can support it.

Virtualization Workstation

A virtualization workstation is a computer that runs one or more virtual operating systems (also known as virtual machines or VMs). Did you ever wish that you had another two or three extra computers lying around so that you could test multiple versions of Windows, Linux, and possibly a Windows Server OS all at the same time? Well, with virtual software, you can do this by creating virtual machines for each OS. But if you run those at the same time on your main computer, you are probably going to bring that PC to a standstill. However, if you build a workstation specializing in virtualization, you can run whatever operating systems on it that you need. The virtualization workstation uses what is known as a hypervisor, which allows multiple virtual operating systems (guests) to run at the same time on a single computer. It is also known as a virtual machine manager (VMM). But there are two different kinds:

  • Type 1: Native: This means that the hypervisor runs directly on the host computer’s hardware. Because of this, it is also known as bare metal. Examples of this include VMware vSphere and Microsoft Hyper-V.
  • Type 2: Hosted: This means that the hypervisor runs within (or “on top of”) the operating system. Guest operating systems run within the hypervisor. Compared to Type 1, guests are one level removed from the hardware and therefore run less efficiently. Examples of this include Microsoft Virtual PC and Oracle VirtualBox. Figure 13.2 shows an example of VirtualBox. You will note that it has a variety of virtual machines inside, such as Windows 7, Windows Server, and Linux Ubuntu.

    FIGURE 13.2

    FIGURE 13.2 VirtualBox Manager window

Generally, Type 1 is a much faster and efficient solution than Type 2. Because of this, Type 1 hypervisors are the kind used for virtual servers by web-hosting companies and by companies that offer cloud-computing solutions. It makes sense, too. If you have ever run a powerful operating system such as Windows Server within a Type 2 hypervisor such as Virtual PC, you know that a ton of resources are used and those resources are taken from the hosting operating system. It is not nearly as efficient as running the hosted OS within a Type 1 environment. However, keep in mind that the hardware/software requirements for a Type 1 hypervisor are more stringent and more costly. In addition, you need to make sure your CPU supports virtualization. For example, some CPUs do not support Intel Virtualization Technology (VT). To check whether your CPU can support VT, http://ark.intel.com/Products/VirtualizationTechnology.

Intel CPUs that support x86 virtualization use the VT-x virtualization extension. Intel chipsets use the VT-d and VT-c extensions for input-output memory management and network virtualization, respectively. AMD CPUs that support x86 virtualization use the AMD-V extension. AMD chipsets use the AMD-Vi extension.

Any computer designed to run a hypervisor often has a powerful CPU (or multiple CPUs) with four cores or more and as much RAM as can fit in the system. This means a powerful, compatible motherboard as well. So in essence, the guts—the core of the system—need to be robust. Keep in mind that the motherboard BIOS/UEFI and the CPU should have virtualization support.

In general, the security of a virtual machine operating system is the equivalent to that of a physical machine OS. The VM should have the latest updates, the newest AV definitions, perhaps a personal firewall, strong passwords, and so on. However, there are several things to watch out for that, if not addressed, could cause all your work compartmentalizing operating systems to go down the drain. This includes considerations for the virtual machine OS as well as the controlling virtual machine software. Keep an eye out for network shares and other connections between the virtual machine and the physical machine or connections between two VMs.

Consider disabling any unnecessary hardware from within the virtual machine, such as optical drives, USB ports, and so on. One last comment: A VM should be as secure as possible, but, in general, because the hosting computer is in a controlling position, it is likely more easily exploited. A compromise to the hosting computer probably means a compromise to any guest operating systems. Therefore, if possible, the host should be even more secure than the VMs it controls.

Thin Client

A thin client (also known as a slim, lean, or cloud client) is a computer that has few resources compared to a typical PC. Usually, it depends heavily on a server. It is often a small device integrated directly into the display or could be a stand-alone device using an ultra-small form factor (about the size of a cable modem or gaming console). Some thin clients are also known as diskless workstations because they have no hard drive or optical discs. They do have a CPU, RAM, and ports for the display, keyboard, mouse, and network; they can connect wirelessly as well. They are also known simply as computer terminals which might provide only a basic GUI and possibly a web browser. There is a bit of a gray area when it comes to thin clients due to the different models and types over the years, but the following gives a somewhat mainstream scenario.

Other examples of thin clients include point-of-sale (POS) systems such as the self-checkout systems used at stores or touchscreen menus used at restaurants. They serve a single purpose and require minimum hardware resources and minimum OS requirements.

When a typical thin client is turned on, it loads the OS and applications from an image stored (embedded) on flash memory or from a server. The OS and apps are loaded into RAM; when the thin client is turned off, all memory is cleared.

So, the thin client is dependent on the server for a lot of resources. Thin clients can connect to an in-house server that runs specially configured software or they can connect to a cloud infrastructure to obtain their applications (and possibly their entire operating system).

The whole idea behind thin clients is to transfer a lot of the responsibilities and resources to the server. With thin-client computing, an organization purchases more powerful and expensive servers but possibly saves money overall by spending less on each thin client (for example, Lenovo thin clients) while benefitting from a secure design. The typical thin client might have one of several operating systems embedded into the flash memory, depending on the model purchased. This method of centralizing resources, data, and user profiles is considered to be a more organized and secure solution than the typical PC-based, client/server network, but it isn’t nearly as common.

Standard Thick Client

A standard thick client, or fat client, is effectively a PC. Unlike a thin client, a thick client performs the bulk of data processing operations by itself and uses a drive to store the OS, files, user profile, and so on. In comparison to thin clients and the somewhat centralized computing, with a thick client, a typical local area network of PCs would be known as distributed computing, where the processing load is dispersed more evenly among all the computers. There are still servers, of course, but the thick client has more power and capabilities compared to the thin client. Distributed computing is by far the more common method today. When using a thick client, it’s important to verify that the thick client meets the recommended requirements for the selected OS.

An example of a standard thick client is a desktop computer running Windows 8 and Microsoft Office, and offers web browsing and the ability to easily install software. This standard thick client should meet (or exceed) the recommended requirements for Window 8, including a 1 GHz 64-bit CPU, 2 GB of RAM, and 20 GB of free hard drive space.

Home Server PC

A real server runs software such as Windows Server or Red Hat Enterprise Linux. But this software is expensive and requires a lot of know-how. For the average home user, a server OS is not usually necessary. It requires too much money and hardware resources and takes too much time to configure. However, if you want to have a home server PC, you can do so with any Windows OS that can start a HomeGroup, a Mac with OS X, or with most desktop variants of Linux. Once that computer is configured properly, information can be stored centrally on that system. Files and printers can be shared to the rest of the devices on the network, and media can be streamed to the other systems as well. To configure media streaming in Windows, go to Control Panel > HomeGroup, and then click the Change advanced sharing settings link. Open the appropriate network type and then click the Choose media streaming options link. Turn on media streaming and then click Customize for any particular device. From these last two locations, you can choose what is to be streamed, and you can select parental ratings if you want.

To make this server function quickly and recover from faults, we would equip it with a gigabit network adapter minimum (wired, for best results) and set up a RAID array. The RAID array could be RAID 0 (striping), but to incorporate fault tolerance, we would want RAID 1 (mirroring, 2 drives) or RAID 5 (striping with parity, 3 drives or more). To do this on a Windows system, we might need a RAID controller either embedded on the motherboard or installed as a separate adapter card. Or an external RAID array could be connected to the computer or connected to the network directly (NAS box) and controlled by the computer. Then we would need to configure file sharing and possibly print sharing, discussed in Chapters 16 and 14, respectively.

Home Theater PC (HTPC)

A home theater PC (HTPC) can take the place of a Blu-ray player, DVD player, CD player, and various audio equipment. In some cases, it can also take the place of a set-top box (STB) as well. However, this depends on the area you live in. It has become more difficult (but not impossible) to use the HTPC for television reception due to cablecards and encryption techniques.

The requirements for an HTPC include a small form factor (micro-ATX or mini-ITX), a quiet desktop case with a silent video card, and an HDMI output for connectivity to big-screen televisions or projectors. To keep the rest of the computer quiet, a liquid-cooled CPU (instead of fan-based) and solid-state hard drive would complete the equation. Surround sound audio is desired as well, whether it comes from a sound card on the computer or from an external source. Finally, if you want to get TV reception, you would need a TV tuner and possibly an antenna.

Home entertainment enthusiasts often have computers hooked up to their home theaters. If this is the case, they might install TV tuner cards. These cards can accept the signal from a cable or satellite provider or an over-the-air (OTA) antenna and then send it back out to the TV or other devices in the home theater. Some TV tuners also act as capture cards, meaning that they can capture the signal and record TV programs. Many come with a remote control (and IR blaster) so that the computer can be controlled in the same manner as a TV.

The purpose of all this is to record shows onto the computer and basically use the computer as a digital video recorder (DVR), among other things. By using programs such as Windows Media Center (WMC) and Kodi, users can control their TV experience. However, according to Microsoft, Windows 8.1 is the last OS that will support WMC.

TV tuner cards are available with PCI Express, PCI, ExpressCard and Mini PCIe (for laptops), and USB interfaces. TV tuners often have RG-6 connectors for cable in and antenna. Make sure you connect to the right one!

An HTPC is often also used as a home server PC because most of the requirements are the same.

Gaming PC

Now we get to the core of it: Custom computing is taken to extremes when it comes to gaming. Gaming PCs require almost all the resources mentioned previously: a powerful, multicore CPU; lots of fast RAM; one or more SSDs (SATA Express or PCI Express); advanced cooling methods (liquid cooling if you want to be serious); a high-end video card and specialized GPU; an above average, high-definition sound card; a big monitor that supports high resolutions and refresh rates; plus a fast network adapter and strong Internet connection (and mad skills). This all creates a computer that is expensive and requires care and maintenance to keep it running in perfect form. For the person who is not satisfied with gaming consoles, this is the path to take.

Games are some of the most powerful applications available. If even just one of these elements is missing from a gaming system, it could easily ruin the experience. The video card is a huge component of this equation. Gamers are always looking to push the envelope for video performance by increasing the number of frames per second (frames/s or fps) that the video card sends to the monitor. One of the ways to improve the video subsystem is to employ multiple video cards. It’s possible to take video to the next level by incorporating Nvidia’s Scalable Link Interface, known simply as SLI (previously Scan Line Interleave) or AMD’s CrossFire. A computer that uses one of these technologies has two (or more) identical video cards that work together for greater performance and higher resolution. The compatible cards are bridged together to essentially work as one unit. It is important to have a compatible motherboard and ample cooling when attempting this type of configuration. Currently, this is done with two or more PCI Express video cards (x16/version 3) and is most commonly found in gaming rigs, but you might find it in other PCs as well (such as video editing or CAD/CAM workstations). Because some motherboards come with only one PCIe x16 slot for video, a gaming system needs a more advanced motherboard: one with at least two PCIe x16 slots to accomplish SLI.

Cram Quiz

Answer these questions. The answers follow the last question. If you cannot answer these questions correctly, consider reading this section again until you can.

220-901 Questions

  1. Which of the following is the best type of custom computer for use with Pro Tools?

    • cir.jpg A. CAD/CAM workstation
    • cir.jpg B. Audio/Video Workstation
    • cir.jpg C. Gaming PC
    • cir.jpg D. HTPC
  2. What do CAD/CAM workstations require most?

    • cir.jpg A. Liquid cooling and RAM
    • cir.jpg B. TV tuner and silent hard drive
    • cir.jpg C. Surround sound card and specialized GPU
    • cir.jpg D. Powerful CPU and RAM
  3. Your organization needs to run Windows in a virtual environment. The OS is expected to require a huge amount of resources for a powerful application it will run. What should you install Windows to?

    • cir.jpg A. Type 2 hypervisor
    • cir.jpg B. Gaming PC
    • cir.jpg C. Type 1 hypervisor
    • cir.jpg D. Thin client
  4. What are some of the elements of a home server PC? (Select the two best answers.)

    • cir.jpg A. Liquid cooling
    • cir.jpg B. Fast network adapter
    • cir.jpg C. The best CPU
    • cir.jpg D. RAID array
    • cir.jpg E. Gamepad
  5. You just set up an HTPC. However, the Windows Media Center live TV option is not working. All connections are plugged in and all the other portions of Windows Media Center work. What is the most likely cause of the problem?

    • cir.jpg A. The coax cable is plugged into the antenna port.
    • cir.jpg B. Media Center needs to be reinstalled.
    • cir.jpg C. Windows libraries are malfunctioning.
    • cir.jpg D. The computer overheated.

Cram Quiz Answers

220-901 Answers

  1. B. The audio/video workstation is the type of custom computer that would use Pro Tools, Logic Pro, and other music and video editing programs.
  2. D. A CAD/CAM workstation most requires a powerful CPU and RAM. Liquid cooling, a surround sound card, and a specialized GPU are required by gaming PCs. TV tuners and silent hard drives are needed by HTPCs.
  3. C. If the virtual operating system needs a lot of resources, the best bet is a “bare metal” type 1 hypervisor. Type 2 hypervisors run on top of an operating system and therefore are not as efficient with resources. Gaming PCs have lots of resources but are not meant to run virtual environments. Thin clients have the least amount of resources.
  4. B and D. Home server PCs require a fast network adapter for the quick transfer of files over the network and a RAID array to offer fast and reliable access to data.
  5. A. If everything is working except for the live TV option, then the coax cable is probably plugged into the antenna port instead of the cable in port of the TV tuner card. This is also a common mistake on set-top boxes.
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