Hardware considerations for development

TL;DR What facet of a computer really moves the needle in development performance (compiling/tests/etc)?

So, I know that an Elixir app uses its BEAM based magic to spread itself over all the available cores when running, and that a certain amount of memory will always be needed that scales with concurrent users or workload. But is the same true during compilation and testing?

I only ask because I’ve been recently working on an iPad using a remote DigitalOcean droplet. It’s a modest one ($20, 2vCPU, 4GB RAM) and I’ve found my workflow to be quite OK despite the low specs. I’ve also been using a 2014 Mac Mini on occasion which only has a paltry 1.4Ghz dual core, and again it performs perfectly well. In either case I’m never left waiting too long for builds, but tests do seem to be taking longer now that I’m getting to a decent amount.

We’ve bought a house and I’m looking to end the nomadic working life and setup a nice office with a desktop. I’ve also considered acquiring a dedicated server to continue working over an SSH connection as I’ve really grown to like it’s benefits.

I’ll be looking to spec a nice large monitor and good keyboard as I think it’s a given that these are good for productivity/developer health; but the other hardware is still up for debate.

I tried scaling my current droplet up to get a feel for the performance increases I could expect to see. I bumped it up to the $320 per month (insane amount of money!) CPU optimised server with 16vCPU and 32GB RAM.

In an admittedly non-scientific and basic test I compared compilation times from a clean state. The $20 server built my current project in about 35 seconds, but surprisingly the $320 took 22 seconds. I was expecting a much larger change to be honest. I rarely have to run a full build, so those 13 seconds a few times a month definitely aren’t worth $300.

Now, these being VPS’ I might be losing some of the raw power I could get from a dedicated server or desktop running similar specs - more testing needed. I had a octa-core Xeon server from Hetzner kicking around until last month, but never tested Elixir on it. I may provision one just to have a play.

In short, is it worth building a powerful desktop (or renting a powerful dedicated server) for Elixir dev? Or is it a case that my current DO droplet is “enough” and I should keep my hard-earned in my pocket and look for efficiencies elsewhere?


You won’t get perfect answer, but I always get the latest mainstream cpu, gpu, ssd, ram, mb, psu, monitor, keyboard, and mouse I can get at that time.

Just make sure you have >= 16GB ram and the others scale them proportionally to your budget, but usually it will be >1K USD to get future proof desktop.

I know RAM is biggie for most developer’s machines, but how much of that is browser (Chrome) and Electrion (Slack, Atom, etc) usage? Assuming there’s always some memory available, does more = better?

For example: if my RAM usage never really passes 4GB (quite usual on remote systems without browsers, etc) then how much of the remaining 12 in a 16GB system gets used for running builds and tests? Only what it needs, or everything it can lay it’s hands on?

If I do go the desktop (local development) route, it won’t be until later next year (tax reasons) but I’ll be looking to spend a solid amount of money (~£2500) with the hope of getting a machine that should last a good few years that I can selectively upgrade as new/better components become available. In many ways something like an iMac is the perfect computer for me — particularly if I go the remote dev env route — but I’m trying to break away from having to replace the entire computer every time I need to upgrade.

Basically, I’ll have the budget to build something powerful and future proof, but is it worth doing?

I have that close to dream PC that you want to build but I’m currently always using my 15” mbp on a docking station for dev works. That setup give me flexibility if I want to work while travelling.

That’s why I’ve grown so fond of the remote environment via SSH. It doesn’t matter where I am, or the computer/tablet/phone! I have in front of me, I’ve got my work environment exactly as I left it.

There’s a few reasons I’m not all in on it though, like the price of renting a dedicated server. Breakeven point is around the 2 years when compared with a similar spec desktop, and the desktop would last a hell of a lot longer than that. You have to factor in the clients to the cost too — iPad Pro is £1000+ and even a modest desktop with a nice screen and keyboard are going to be £500 £800+. Plus I also use my computer for a lot besides development (occasional photo editing and maybe even gaming given the specs I’m looking at).

Remote dev is genuinely the best experience, but it just doesn’t make financial sense when you’re as tight as me! :joy:

I’ve got sidetracked from my original question…

Interesting stuff! Which apps do you use on your iPad that let you develop remotely? I’m intrigued!

Blink is all I use.

I’ve wanted to work this way for years, and knowing that the dev tools for iPad would at best be slow to appear — if at all — I got comfortable with the command line, and using tools like tmux and vim.

I’ve tried apps like Coda for iOS but I didn’t get on with it. It still heavily relies on pointer-input rather than keyboard and just feels like it’s designed for some super light static HTML work. Any dynamic app where the URL structure doesn’t directly map to the folder structure of where the template/file is stored doesn’t work. Basically you have to be writing vanilla PHP with a strict file = page structure — does anyone still do this? Also I’m probably one of the only people that doesn’t really like Coda, even on desktop.

That said, I think Transmit — which they’ve now killed off for iOS — was fantastic. Most other native apps feel like poor counterparts to their originals. I just stay in Blink as a result. It’s mosh connection to a server is fantastic at reducing latency compared to straight SSH — you need to be on an extremely shaky < 3G connection to notice issues — and remains connected over the course of days & weeks, whereas SSH will disconnect just alt-tabbing to a browser and back.

I realised that ideally I wanted a Linux work environment (over OSX) and that Linux laptops aren’t the best (compared to the MacBook Pros I’m used to) but that I couldn’t be arsed to deal with all the faff that comes from setting up a nice desktop environment in Linux. The iPad & Linux-on-server combo fixes that. I get the best of the CLI along with great apps/OS for day to day browsing, emailing and design work. The iPads great build quality and battery life is the icing on the cake.

Regarding setup, I may end up building a home desktop/server that I can access using DDNS. That way I’d get the best of both worlds, assuming my local connection is stable/fast enough.

Back to original question…is it worth speccing an all-singing, all-dancing server for development use? Can I make big changes to the time taken to build an Elixir project and run tests?

EDITED TO ADD: The lack of decent browser devtools remains the biggest pain-point on iPads. There’s a few tools out there. Some don’t even work and others are basic and only get updates sporadically. I think there’s plenty of room for a iOS dev to make some good money building such a tool, as I’ve noticed more and more developers blogging about working this way. It started with 1 or 2 back in 2012, whereas there’s now a few dozen a month cropping up.

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For development your factors are:

  1. CPU with more cores and ability to turbo-boost a single core when the need calls for it. Basically, it’s what most i7 CPUs do so you have quite a lot of choice.
  2. Never go below 16GB RAM, ever. You might end up working with an IDE, a CLI editor, and 10 console tabs, and a browser with 50+ tabs. It’s pretty normal for a programmer workflow. If there’s one thing you shouldn’t compromise on no matter what, that’s the RAM. If you can, aim for 32 or even 64GB. It will pay off thousand-fold.
  3. SSD > HDD. Especially if you compile a lot (that’s including Node.JS and frontend development in general – it’s not just about C/C++/Java) then SSD is a must. Even if is as small as 128GB, you can still manage quite well (unless you have to import huge databases).

Quite predictably, I would recommend you a MacBook Pro 2015 (15"). I got mine refurbished for about 1600 EUR – 512GB SSD, 16GB RAM, very strong CPU. This also allows you to carry it and put it in a stand in an office / coworking space with your own keyboard, mouse and maybe monitor. It’s a long-term investment, the thing is insanely fast and macOS is quite economical on RAM (if you use Safari).

If that’s way over budget for you, I would recommend assembling a cheaper PC at home with 16-32GB DDR3 RAM, 250GB SSD (Samsung EVO 850 are quite cheap and plenty fast) and a decent CPU (even something as old as the 2nd or 3rd gen of i7 are still VERY strong to this day) – and make sure you have access to it 24/7 from anywhere.

Don’t try for Linux laptops. It can work well but it’s mostly a surprise show with WiFi refusing to turn on after a wake-up, the machine not sleeping after closing the lid (and deforming its display in the process due to heat), static sounds from the speakers, sometimes even refusing to wake up… and whatnot. There are many people that make it work well but there are even more for whom it doesn’t.

Laptop: definitely a MacBook, don’t question it, just trust me. :smiley: (some people are happy with Microsoft’s Surface laptops but I have no experience)

Desktop: anything Linux.


I often use my cheap laptop to ssh into my beefier PC. Sounds like such setup might be fitting for you too.

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Funny enough I have one of those exact same models next to me! I completely agree with you, and think that it’s still one of the best laptops ever built. That said, I’ve now given it to my wife as her iPad Mini wasn’t cutting it for her work.

I never got on with docking my MBP though. The screens I had access to were always inferior to the laptops own, and by the time you’ve hooked up a monitor, keyboard and screen it felt like a waste as you may as well be using any old computer.

Again, 100% agree on Linux laptops. The few I’ve had a play with just weren’t quite there. Plus, my main motivation behind all of this is get to a position where I can incrementally upgrade components, which basically means I’m looking at a desktop, or abstract the entire thing away by just renting hardware in a data centre.

I’ve been primarily looking at Ryzen chips so far. I hadn’t considered single-core Turbo performance, so maybe that’s something I’ll review.

I think I may end with this exact setup, just using my iPad instead of the cheap laptop

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Also anyone wanting to learn about development on iPad should look at this article. Loads of people have written about mechanics of working on an iPad, but this one digs into why it’s such a good idea

Me too. Unless you go to an office where they already have idle Apple monitors and good keyboards/mice then the whole thing “get a stand and carry your peripherals” never really did appeal to me. I practiced it several times and wasn’t bad but as you said the experience is subpar and makes you wonder what are you doing there and why aren’t you working on your PC in the first place.

Ryzen, EPYC, Threadripper are all very good. I have a few colleagues that lately jumped on AMD laptops and they are very happy. They say their compilation speeds improved by factors of 4 or more. Crazy stuff. I feel that AMD is catching up to Intel on all fronts (except maybe gaming) very quickly.

As an aside, one of the things that makes the MBPs so good is that they choose CPUs where the single-core Turbo performance is solid. Truthfully though, for like 99% of your desktop work it’s not needed. Only when your machine needs to crunch something right now, and fast. But IMO one can live well enough without it as well.

That’s the sort of thing I was looking for… As I mentioned in the first post, this question all came from an experiment with a powerful VPS that didn’t really deliver meaningful improvements. I wondered whether that was the case generally or just in this instance. I think that ^^^ may have answered my question!

By all means though, do your own research! Not all AMD chips are magic. :003:

Oh I know! I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading on them vs. i7 and even Xeon chips. The fact that most support ECC means that a like for like comparison between Intel and AMD swings even more towards the Ryzen chips, of course assuming ECC is worthwhile in a given use case.

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Blink does look interesting:

But why not just get a MacBook Air?

OS X spaces are great to run apps in full screen mode on even the smallest of screens, you can use four finger swipe to switch from space to space or use hot corners to quickly view all spaces. I uses spaces extensively and couldn’t live without them now.

New MBA (and Mac mini and iPads!) are meant to be announced at the Apple event at the end of this month - and the major benefit is you have a full computer with everything on it - your photos, files, etc :023:

My hot corners are set up as follows:

Top left - Mission Control
Bottom left - Dashboard
Top right - Show Desktop
Bottom right - put display to sleep
(And right key to show all windows for selected app)

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I use an Intel NUC i3 for most of my work. When I got it I had 8gb of ram which was not enough, I pushed that to 16 at some point and I find it quite nice to work with. It is small, quiet and works quite well. While it is not a speed demon by any means it does perform quite well.

Fully agreed. I am aware some people are on a budget and found themselves only having iPads one day – to them I have nothing to say except that they are heroes for making it work!

For everybody else though, it’s basically willingly crippling yourself. A MacBook Air with 4GB RAM is still quite useable if you only have 10 or so browser tabs and do light programming or design, and you will be just fine. Or just get the MacBook from 2015 – 12" screen, 512GB SSD, dual-core 1.2-1.3GHz, 8GB RAM. Quite adequate for a lot of people, I even know frontenders using it and swearing by it. I still own it but want to sell it – the keyboard is not adequate for my needs and 12" for work is just a no-no. I might have bought it out of boredom 2.5 years ago. :003:

Having in mind that going for a MacBook Air or the 12" MacBook refurbished is basically the same as a good iPad Pro, I see no reason to limit yourself to the iPad.


I bought an 11” 2008 MacBook Air when my old 17” MBP was being temperamental and breaking every few weeks (ate a motherboard and 6 HDDs before I gave up). It was a great backup and in many ways much better than the MBP thanks to the SSD.

I never replaced the MBP and continued using the Air. It’s what I learnt all my web development on and built my first few websites on. I thought it was great.

It was only when I took a full time job and the company supplied me with a fully specced 2015 MBP did I realise how much the Air had been holding me back.

My wife bought me the iPad Pro a few years ago when the company was all over the place and the spiteful investor was talking about pulling the plug, letting everyone go and taking back all the company computers. I had decided that it would have been a good compromise if I was let go - I’d be able to do some freelance work from if - and nice to have around if things settled down.

Personally, despite the lack of a “proper” OS, I feel the iPad Pro is a better computer. For me, building a Linux desktop is about trying to get that same ‘upgrade’ I had when I moved from the 2008 MacBook Air to the 2015 MacBook Pro.

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Well, it’s true that the iPad Pros are much faster than most laptops nowadays. :003:

However, you’re not utilizing its power since you only work remotely on it, right?