Tag Archives: Hardware

I’ve always been a fool for a bargain…

My last blog post, I was pretty incensed with Microsoft and Windows 10. I just don’t understand some of their decisions as it pertains to professional developers who use their tools and have to struggle with how they force upgrades and perform reboots. I’m still upset so I’ve decided to try a little experiment.

I recently came across a five or six-year-old Dell laptop that was priced (I thought anyway) on eBay at an incredible price. This laptop is a Dell E6420 with an Intel I7 CPU and 4GB of RAM laptop for sale at $150 or best offer. Doing a quick perusal online, this laptop has a screen resolution of 1600×900, an NVidia graphics card and with a 9-cell battery which can get (supposedly) up to 10 hours of battery life. Hoping I was not making a rash decision, I decided to give it a try and make it part of my collection.

This little machine was missing a power adapter and a hard drive. It did power up on battery power so I know it works. I found a power adapter on eBay for $20 and I have an older 500GB HDD sitting in a file drawer. I think I might have a couple of 4GB SODIMM’s somewhere that I tore out of a Mac Mini. If I can’t find those SODIMM’s, then I will buy some RAM online. I may also discard the DVD drive and replace it with a small SSD down the road. I can’t remember the last time I used a DVD in a computer so it’s easy to let that go.

If you are like me, you probably have hundreds of cables, plugs and other accessories laying around and at least 20% of it you have no idea what it belongs to. Yet, you’re afraid to get rid of it because it might be something you need down the road. I guess that is one of the few advantages of being a hoarder. i.e. being able to talk yourself into almost any purchase!

So, being the Froogle individual consciousness consumer I am, I ended up winning this machine at best price of $80. It sounds so counter-intuitive to spend money on five-year-old piece of technology but it does give me the opportunity to try an experiment that I’ve wanted to do for the last year. Now motivated by Microsoft, I decided to just do it.

I’m sure many of you have seen the Dell XPS 13 laptop running Linux. It’s fairly pricey bit of kit but it does get rave reviews. It’s obvious that the XPS 13 is also more powerful. I’m also intrigued by the thought of trying to setup an environment where I’m not using OS X or a Windows environment at all. So right now, I’m not concerned with getting a machine with the ultimate in performance. I’m also a bit concerned with working on such a small screen for long periods.

I’m not at all confident that all the programs exist that I want (or need) to use are available on Linux. But, this is an interesting experiment non-the-less.

The idea behind this concept is to see if I can set up an everyday working environment for writing, programming and performing desktop analytics. I want to be able to plug this into a large monitor and use it as a typical workstation when I’m not lugging it around.

Also, I am not adverse paying money for software. I’m not a believer that everything I put on a PC or laptop with Ubuntu must be free or open source. I do expect to purchase a fair amount of software including UltraEdit.

Initial Software

I’m jumping ahead here because I’m going to have to solve some issues with the Ubuntu Install. I want to make sure the trackpad and power options work. Probably be wrestling with the webcam as well. These seem to be issues I found when Googling the internet. Update: the only thing I can’t get to work properly is the sound from the laptops speakers. I can get sound via Bluetooth, HDMI and the headphone jack. I am not sure how much time I want to spend on the sound issue since I typically use a Logitech USB headset or Bluetooth headset from SoundPEATS. Specifically, the model QY7 if you want some quality sound out of a set of ear buds.

I will post back on how this works out. In the meantime, if you have not yet downloaded WPS v3.3, I strongly suggest you grab that release and step up your game!

About the author: Phil Rack is President of MineQuest Business Analytics, LLC located in beautiful Tucson, Arizona. Phil has been a SAS language developer for more than 25 years. MineQuest provides WPS consulting and contract programming services and is an authorized reseller of WPS in North America.

High Performance Workstations for BI

There’s one thing I really enjoy and that’s powerful workstations for performing analytics. It’s fun to play around with and can be insightful to speculate on the design and then build a custom higher-end workstation for running BI applications like WPS and R.

ARS Builds

Every quarter, ARS Technica goes through an exercise where they build three PC’s mainly to assess gaming performance and then do a price vs. performance comparison. There’s a trend that you will soon see after reading a few of these quarterly builds and that is, the graphics card plays a major role in their performance assessment. The CPU, number of cores and fixed storage tend to be minimal when comparing the machines.

This if course will be in contrast to what we want to do for our performance benchmarks. We are looking at a holistic approach of CPU throughput, DISK I/O and graphics for getting the most for the dollar on a workstation build. But ARS does have a lot to recommend when it comes to benchmarking and I think it’s worthwhile including some of their ideas.

What Constitutes a High End Analytics Workstation?

This is an interesting question and one that I will throw out for debate. It’s so easy to get caught up in spending thousands of dollars, if not ten thousand dollars (see the next section) for a work station. One thing that even the casual observer will soon notice is that being on the bleeding edge is a very expensive proposition. It’s an old adage that you are only as good as your tools. There’s also the adage that it’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools. In the BI world, especially when speed means success, it’s important to have good tools.

As a basis for what constitutes a high end workstation, I will offer the following as a point of entry.

  • At least 4 Logical CPU’s.
  • At least 8GB of RAM, preferably 16GB to 32GB.
  • Multiple hard drives for OS, temporary workspace and permanent data set storage.
  • A graphics card that can be used for more than displaying graphics, i.e. parallel computing.
  • A large display – 24” capable of at least 1920×1080.

As a mid-tier solution, I would think that a workstation comprised of the following components would be ideal.

  • At least 8 Logical CPU’s.
  • A minimum of 16GB of RAM.
  • Multiple hard drives for OS, temporary workspace and permanent data set storage with emphasis on RAID storage solutions and SSD Caching.
  • A graphics card that can be used for more than displaying graphics, i.e. parallel computing.
  • A large display – 24” capable of at least 1920×1080.

As a high end solution, I would think that a workstation built with the following hardware would be close to ultimate for many (if not most) analysts.

  • Eight to 16 Logical CPU’s – Xeon Class (or possible step down to an Intel I7).
  • A minimum of 32GB of RAM and up to 64GB.
  • Multiple hard drives for OS, temporary workspace and permanent data set storage with emphasis on RAID storage solutions and SSD Caching.
  • A graphics card that can be used for more than displaying graphics, i.e. parallel computing.
  • Multiple 24” displays capable of at least 1920×1200 each.

I do have a bias towards hardware that is upgradeable. All-in-one solutions tend to be one shot deals and thus expensive. I like upgradability for graphics cards, memory, hard drives and even CPU’s. Expandability can save you thousands of dollars over a period of a few years.

The New Mac Pro – a Game Changer?

The new Mac Pro is pretty radical from a number of perspectives. It’s obviously built for video editing but its small size is radical in my opinion. As a Business Analytics computer it offers some intriguing prospects. You have multiple cores, lots of RAM, high end graphics but limited internal storage. That’s the main criticism that I have about the new Mac Pro. The base machine comes with 256GB of storage and that’s not much for handling large data sets. You are forced to go to external storage solutions to be able to process large data sets. Although I’ve not priced out the cost of adding external storage, I’m sure it’s not inexpensive.

Benchmarks

This is a tough one for me because so many organizations have such an array of hardware and some benchmarks are going to require hardware that has specific capabilities. For example, Graphics Cards that are CUDA enabled to do parallel processing in R. Or the fact that we use the Bridge to R for invoking R code and the Bridge to R only runs on WPS (and not SAS).

I did write a benchmark a while ago that I like a lot. It provides information on the hardware platform (i.e. amount of memory and the number of LCPU’s available) and just runs the basic suite of PROCS that I know is available in both WPS and SAS. Moving to more statistically oriented PROC’s such as Logistic and GLM may be difficult because SAS license holders may not have the statistical libraries necessary to run the tests. That’s a major drawback to licensing the SAS System. You are nickel and dimed to death all the time. The alternative to this is to have a Workstation benchmark that is specific to WPS.

Perhaps the benchmark can be written where it tests if certain PROCS and Libraries are available and also determine if the hardware required is present (such as CUDA processors) to run that specific benchmark. Really, the idea is to determine the performance of the specific software for a specific set of hardware and not a comparison between R, WPS and SAS.

Price and Performance Metrics

One aspect of ARS that I really like is when they do their benchmarks, they calculate out the cost comparison for each build. They often base this on hardware pricing at the time of the benchmark. What they don’t do is price in the cost of the software for such things as video editing, etc… I think it’s important to show the cost with both hardware and software as a performance metric benchmark.

Moving Forward

I’m going to take some time and modify the WPS Workstation Benchmark Program that I wrote so that it doesn’t spew out so much unnecessary output into the listing window. I would like it to just show the output from the benchmark report. I think it would also be prudent to see if some R code could be included in the benchmark and compare and contrast the performance if there are some CUDA cores available for assisting in the computations.

About the author: Phil Rack is President of MineQuest Business Analytics, LLC located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Phil has been a SAS language developer for more than 25 years. MineQuest provides WPS and SAS consulting and contract programming services and is a authorized reseller of WPS in North America.

Thursday Ramblings

Does anyone do comparisons of graphics cards and measure performance in a VM? Specifically, do certain graphics cards boost performance when running VM’s on the desktop? I like to see my windows “snap” open when I switch from VM to VM. As a developer, I often wonder if spending an additional $150 on a popular graphics card will yield a perceptible performance boost.

Speaking of graphics cards, we recently bought a couple of used Nvidia Quadro graphics cards from a local CAD/CAM company that is upgrading their workstations. I got these at about 5% of their original retail price so I’m happy. We were having problems getting a couple of servers to go into sleep mode using Lights Out and we discovered that we needed a different graphics card to accomplish this. The plus side is that these are Nvidia cards with 240 CUDA cores and 4GB of RAM. So we now have the opportunity to try our hand at CUDA development if we want. I’m mostly interested in using CUDA for R.

One drawback to using CUDA, as I understand it, is that it is a single user interface. Say you have a CUDA GPU in a server, only one job at a time can access the CUDA cores. If you have 240 CUDA cores on your GPU and would like to appropriate 80 CUDA cores to an application — thinking you can run three of your apps at a time, well that is not possible. What it seems you have to do is have three graphics cards installed on the box and each user or job has access to a single card.

There’s a new Remote Desktop application coming out from MS that will run on your android device(s) as well as a new release from the Apple Store. I use the RDC from my mac mini and it works great. I’m not sure what they could throw in the app to make it more compelling however.

Toms Hardware has a fascinating article on SSD’s and performance in a RAID setup. On our workstations and servers, we have SSD’s acting as a cache for the work and perm folders on our drive arrays. According to the article, RAID0 performance tends to top out with three SSD’s for writes and around four on reads.

FancyCache from Romex Software has become PrimoCache. It has at least one new feature that I would like to test and that is L2 caching using an SSD. PrimoCache is in Beta so if you have the memory and hardware, it might be advantageous to give it a spin to see how it could improve your BI stack. We did a performance review of FancyCache on a series of posts on Analytic Workstations.

FYI, PrimoCache is not the only caching software available that can be used in a WPS environment. SuperSpeed has a product called SuperCache Express 5 for Desktop Systems. I’m unsure if SuperCache can utilize an SSD as a Level 2 cache. It is decently priced at $80 for a desktop version but $450 for a standard Windows Server version. I have to admit, $450 for a utility would give me cause for pause. For that kind of money, the results would have to be pretty spectacular. SuperSpeed offers a free evaluation as well.

If you are running a Linux box and want to enjoy the benefits of SSD caching, there’s a great blog article on how to do this for Ubuntu from Kyle Manna. I’m very intrigued by this and if I find some extra time, may give it the old Solid State Spin. There’s also this announcement about the Linux 3.10 Kernel and BCache that may make life a whole lot easier.

About the author: Phil Rack is President of MineQuest Business Analytics, LLC located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Phil has been a SAS language developer for more than 25 years. MineQuest provides WPS and SAS consulting and contract programming services and is a authorized reseller of WPS in North America.

Hardware Continues Getting More Powerful

One thing I’ve noticed in the last four to six months is a trend towards mammoth workstations when it comes to analytics. Almost all the workstations that I consider to be large are in the financial services sector too. It’s not common but not rare anymore for a customer to have a workstation that has 12 to 24 logical CPU’s and 16 to 24 GB of RAM. Most of the workstations in the analytics domain are currently four core and eight core boxes.

What I find interesting in the financial services domain is how they are dominant users of in memory analytical applications. Software such as Statistica, Matlab and R is common for these modelers. Of course, WPS runs on 64-bit hardware and OS platforms so it’s a good fit with these other applications because they have access to the Bridge to R.

On the server side, when MineQuest began reselling WPS, it was very common for companies that were swapping out SAS for WPS to have a single or dual-core server. Of course, much of that decision was pre-made for them because of the cost of the SAS software. Today, I rarely sell a two logical CPU server license and have not sold a single core license at all in the last twelve months. I imagine part of the reason for that is a company cannot find maintenance for these old processors but also the cost differential of WPS vs SAS allows companies and organizations to license more powerful servers. This year the sweet spot for WPS Server licenses are four and eight core boxes on x86 hardware.

It will be exciting to see what the next two years hold in terms of how companies replace hardware and decide to scale their WPS licenses up so they can add more users and more applications. The huge pricing differential allows companies to take advantage of such scales of economy and implement more wide spread BI solutions throughout the company than what they can with their SAS server licenses.

About the author: Phil Rack is President of MineQuest, LLC. and has been a SAS language developer for more than 25 years. MineQuest provides WPS and SAS consulting and contract programming services and is a reseller of WPS in North America.