Recently, I picked up an old Core 2 duo build on Ebay for $25 + shipping. It was missing some pieces (Graphics card, drives, etc), but it was a good deal, especially for the all-metal Antec P182 case and included Corsair PSU + Antec 3-speed case fans. So, I figured what the heck, let’s see if this vintage rig can fold!
To complement this old Socket 775 build, I picked up a well loved EVGA GeForce GTX 460 on eBay for a grand total of $26.85. It should be noted that this generation of Nvidia graphics cards (based on the Fermi architecture from back in 2010) is the oldest GPU hardware that is still supported by Stanford. It will be interesting to see how much science one of these old cards can do.
I supplied a dusty Western Digital 640 Black Hard Drive that I had kicking around, along with a TP Link USB wireless adapter (about $7 on Amazon). The Operating System was free (go Linux!). So, for under $100 I had this setup:
- Case: Antec P182 Steel ATX
- PSU: Corsair HX 520
- Processor: Intel Core2duo E8300
- Motherboard: EVGA nForce 680i SLI
- Ram: 2 x 2 GB DDR2 6400 (800 MHz)
- HDD: Western Digital Black 640GB
- GPU: EVGA GeForce GTX 460
- Operating System: Ubuntu Linux 18.04
- Folding@Home Client: V7
I fired up folding, and after some fiddling I got it running nice and stable. The first thing I noticed was that the power draw was higher than I had expected. Measured at the wall, this vintage folding rig was consuming a whopping 220 Watts! That’s a good deal more than the 185 watts that my main computer draws when folding on a modern GTX 1060. Some of this is due to differences in hardware configuration between the two boxes, but one thing to note is that the older GTX 460 has a TDP of 160 watts, whereas the GTX 1060 has a TDP of only 120 Watts.
Here’s a quick comparison of the GTX 460 vs the GTX 1060. At the time of their release, both of these cards were Nvidia’s baseline GTX model, offering serious gaming performance for a better price than the more aggressive GTX -70 and -80-series variants. I threw a GTX 1080 into the table for good measure.
The key takeaways here are that six years later, the equivalent graphics card to the GTX 460 was over three and a half times faster while using forty watts less power.
I typically don’t report power consumption directly, because I’m more interested in optimizing efficiency (doing more work for less power). However, in this case, there is an interesting point to be made by looking at the wattage numbers directly. Namely, the GTX 460 (a mid-range card) uses almost as much power as a modern high-end GTX 1080, and uses seriously more power than the modern GTX 1060 mid-range card. Note: these power consumption numbers must be taken with a grain of salt, because the GTX 460 was installed in a different host system (the Core2 Duo rig) as the other cards, but the resutls are still telling. This is also consistent with the advertised TDP of the GTX 460, which is 40 watts higher than the GTX 1060.
Folding on the old GTX 460 produced a rough average of 20,000 points per day, with the normal +/- 10% variation in production seen between work units. Back in 2006 when I was making a few hundred PPD on an old Athlon 64 X2 CPU, this would have been a huge amount of points! Nowadays, this is not so impressive. As I mentioned before, the power consumption at the wall for this system was 220 Watts. This yields an efficiency of 20,000 PPD / 220 Watts = 90 PPD/Watt.
Based off the relative performance, one would think the six-year newer GTX 1060 would produce somewhere between 3 and 4 times as many PPD as the older 460 card. This would mean roughly 60-80K PPD. However, my GTX 1060 frequently produces over 300K PPD. This is due to Stanford’s Quick Return Bonus, which essentially rewards donors for doing science quickly. You can read more about this incentive-based points system at Stanford’s website. The gist is, the faster you return a work unit to the scientists, the sooner they can get to developing cures for diseases. Thus, they award you more points for fast work. As the performance plot below shows, this quick return bonus really adds up, so that someone doing 3-4 times more (GTX 1060 vs. GTX 460 linear benchmark performance) results in 15 times more F@H performance.
This being a blog about energy-conscious computing, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out just how inefficient the ancient GTX 460 is compared to the newer cards. Due to the relatively high power consumption for a midrange card, the GTX 460 is eighteen times less efficient than the GTX 1060, and a whopping thirty three times less efficient than the GTX 1080.
Stanford eventually drops support for old hardware (anyone remember PS3 folding?), and it might not be long before they do the same for Fermi-based GPUs. Compared with relatively modern GPUs, the GTX 460 just doesn’t stack up in 2020. Now that the 10-series cards are almost four years old, you can often get GTX 1060s for less than $200 on eBay, so if you can afford to build a folding rig around one of these cards, it will be 18 times more efficient and make 15 times more points.
Still, I only paid about $100 total to build this vintage folding@home rig for this experiment. One could argue that putting old hardware to use like this keeps it out of landfills and still does some good work. Additionally, if you ignore bonus points and look at pure science done, the GTX 460 is “only” about 4 times slower than its modern equivalent.
Ultimately, for the sake of the environment, I can’t recommend folding on graphics cards that are many years out of date, unless you plan on using the machine as a space heater to offset heating costs in the winter. More on that later…
Since doing the initial testing and outline for this article, I picked up a GTX 480 and a few GTX 980 Ti cards. Here are some updated plots showing these cards added to the mix. The GTX 480 was tested in the Core2 build, and the GTX 980 Ti in my standard benchmark rig (AMD FX-based Socket AM3 system).
I think the conclusion holds: even though the GTX 480 is slightly faster and more efficient than it’s little brother, it is still leaps and bounds worse than the more modern cards. The 980 Ti, being a top-tier card from a few generations back, holds its own nicely, and is almost as efficient as a GTX 1060. I’d say that the 980 Ti is still a relatively efficient card to use in 2020 if you can get one for cheap enough.