Building the Perfect Box: How To Design Your Linux Workstation

This article is a guide to building capable Linux workstations from cheap generic PC hardware.
Easier Choices

Now we've got a good handle on the most important choices, disks, bus, processor and video. The rest is easier, and less dependent on the peculiarities of Linux.

Next in importance is your CD-ROM drive, since you'll almost certainly be installing Linux from it. You have a SCSI system, so get a SCSI CD-ROM. That's pretty much the end of spec, as SCSI CD-ROMs are a very generic item. The only significant difference among drivers is their speed—6x, 8x, 10x or up. It's hard to find 2x or 4x speeds anymore.

Again, bear in mind that you probably don't need the latest and greatest. High-speed CD-ROMS are really designed for people playing CD-ROM games or other applications involving image and sound archives. If you're doing the Linux thing, chances are you'll primarily use CD-ROMs that are code archives. Your average transfer size will be small and an apparent speed of 6x or even 4x is quite satisfactory. So here's a place to cut costs by buying well behind the leading edge.

Next, consider a backup device. This is another place where spending extra money pays. Cheap tape drives are unreliable, noisy and have agonizingly slow transfer speeds. It's no fun to listen to what sounds like a blender dicing celery for twenty minutes while your disk is backed up, so with the cheap drives you'll quickly find you're backing up less often than you really should.

The worst are the QIC mini-cartridge drives, including the new Travan technology. They're also the cheapest, and thus, exactly what clone makers tend to bundle and salespeople tend to push. Avoid them. Quarter-inch QIC drives are less nasty, mainly because they have higher transfer speed and get done quicker; also they're usually engineered better for reliability. But you really want to pay for a DAT or DLT drive.

Of course, buy 16MB of memory, unless you really like a text-only console—X is not comfortable when memory is tight. Having lots of free memory will also improve your virtual-memory performance. Fortunately, with RAM as cheap as it is now this is unlikely to bust your budget.

You'll also want a three-button serial mouse. I happen to like the three-button Logitech MouseMan and its kin—just the thing for a hacker's chronically cluttered desktop. Your mileage may vary.

You'll want a modem, of course. 28.8 is recommended for speediest possible net surfing. “How to Buy a Modem” could be an article in itself; we won't try to cover it here.

The rest is basically frills and freebies. You can get a sound card if you like, though under Linux you're not likely to use it for anything but playing Doom. Every system sold today has the requisite two floppy drives and two serial ports and one parallel port.

That about does it for basic hardware. Later on we'll look at some actual system configurations.

Some Pitfalls To Avoid.

Don't buy jumperless peripheral cards, whether of the newer variety called “Plug'n'Play” or the older kind that requires a DOS utility to poke registers in the card at bootup time. These will cause you no end of grief. Plug'n'Play isn't yet supported under Linux as I write, and it would be totally nasty to have to boot DOS first every time you want to run Linux. A lot of these cards don't even hold their settings across a warm boot.

You need to be extra-vigilant about this when buying. The tiny, reptilian brains of most computer salespeople cannot seem to encompass the existence of clone-box OSs other than DOS or Windows. They think boot-time setup utilities are just fine and jumperless cards are the best things since sliced bread, because they are easier to set up and a whole fifty cents cheaper. So they'll push jumperless cards at you with glee and abandon. Foil them, or you'll suffer for it later.

Don't buy so-called “WinModems” or anything that advertises “RPI” or “Rockwell Peripheral Interface” on the box. These are ways for manufacturers to save a few bucks on firmware at your expense; they won't work without driver software that runs only under Windows.

Don't get stuck with a 2-button mouse. Specifying a three-button model is an easy detail to overlook when filling out your order.

How To Buy

When I originally launched the Buyer's Guide years ago, the major distribution channels for PCs were business-oriented storefront dealerships and mail order. The dealerships had, and still have, high overheads and higher prices. Accordingly, I recommended mail order.

I still like mail order, especially for techies on a tight budget. Publications like Computer Shopper and their web site at, are a great way to get a feel for prices, and these days most mail-order outfits with enough cash to advertise on glossy paper are good risks. The online version of my Buyer's Guide (see the URL at the top of this article) has details on how to protect yourself when buying through the mail.

These days, though, I'm also a fan of computer superstores—outfits like CompUSA and Circuit City that sell hundreds of machines a day out of warehouse-sized premises packed to the ceiling with discounted hardware. These obviously have more overhead than mail-order outfits, but their price premium over mail-order is small. They make back a lot of their margin on computer games and small accessories like mouse pads, cables and floppy disks.

So, if you shop carefully and don't fall for one of their name-brand “prestige” systems, you can get prices comparable to mail order with the comfort of knowing there's a trouble desk you can drive back to in a pinch. Also, you can see your monitor before you buy.