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.
When To Buy

In a market where prices are dropping fast, it's always tempting to wait just another month or two to buy your hardware, because you know it will then be less expensive.

A good way to cope with this problem is to configure your system on paper, get a couple of initial estimates, then set a target price, below the lowest one, at what you're willing to pay. Then watch and wait. When the configuration cost hits your target price, place your order.

The advantage of this method is that it requires you to settle in your mind, well in advance, what you're willing to pay for what you're getting. That way, you'll buy at the earliest time you should, and won't stress out too much afterwards as it depreciates.

The Recipe File

Let's look at some sample components, keeping in mind the guidelines we've developed. All prices are from the December 1996 Computer Shopper or their web site at Check this site out—its search facilities are pretty good. Prices and vendors have been selected to represent what's generally available out there.

  • A: P55TV PCI with Pentium 166 and AHA 2940 SCSI on board: $740 from Treasure Chest Peripherals.

  • B: Same P55TV with Pentium 133: $520

  • C: Same P55TV with Pentium 100: $420

  • D: Same P55TV with Pentium 75: $380

  • E: 2 16MB 4x32 SIMMs: $208 from Memory Etc.

  • F: Seagate 1050MB Hawk 2XL: $350 from Insight Direct.

  • G: Seagate 2149MB Hawk 2XL: $480 from Insight Direct.

  • H: “Jumbo” Mid-Tower case + power supply: $40 from Sam's Computers.

  • I: 6x SCSI CD-ROM from MicroXperts: $160

  • J: Hitachi CM1587 15" 1024x768 color monitor: $375 from Automated Tech Tools, Inc.

  • K: ASTVision 7L 17" 1280x1024 color monitor: $400 from Tredex

  • L: Trident Microsystems 9440 1MB PCI SVGA (1024x768): $31 from Hi-Tech USA

  • M: Cirrus Logic CL-GD54M30 1MB PCI 1280x1024: $39 from MicroXperts

  • N: Dalco 1.44 floppy: $43.50 from Dalco Electronics

  • O: Dalco 1.2 floppy: $58.50 from Dalco Electronics

  • P: Seagate MS4000R-SB (4GB SCSI internal DAT): $300 from Global Computer Supplies

  • Q: Americomp 3-button mouse: $5 from Americomp

Now let's put these together into sample system configurations.

First, the deluxe system (A+E+F+G+H+I+K+M+N+O+P+Q): $2,824. That's pretty far off our $2,000 target, but now let's strip away as much as we can.

If we drop the 1.2MB floppy (you'll never use it), the secondary disk, and then downgrade to a 15" monitor with 1024x768 resolution, and drop back to a Pentium 75 (D+E+F+H+I+J+L+N+O+P+Q), suddenly the price is just $1,892.50.

Now, when you reflect that vendors of desktop systems buy in volume and get the parts up to 40% cheaper than you can even by mail-order, you can see that coming in under $1500 with a Pentium-75 system shouldn't really be difficult at all.

Even without a system vendor's volume discount, moving back up to a Pentium 100 (C+E+F+H+I+J+L+N+O+P+Q) makes our price $1932.50, still below our $2000 target. The parts list above is just intended as an example—it wouldn't actually be a good idea to build your box by separately assembling pieces like that. It's better and usually cheaper to go through a system vendor.

There are several advantages to using a system vendor. One is the vendor's ability to buy in volume and carve its margins mainly out of the volume discount it gets from parts suppliers. This is especially important for big-ticket items like the motherboard and disks. Another is expert assembly. A third is the pre-shipment burn-in. And then, of course, there's the warranty—a very reassuring thing to have in case your brand-new machine succumbs in spite of that burn-in.

Once you've designed your configuration, you should get quotes from two or three different system vendors. Any vendor who can't generate quotes for a custom configuration, or resists giving a quote without a buy commitment, is not worth your time—find another.

Questions To Ask Your Vendor

The weakest guarantee you should settle for should include:

  • 72-hour burn-in to avoid sudden death Also, try to find out if they do a power-cycling test and how many repeats they do; this stresses the hardware much more than steady burn-in.

  • 30-day money-back guarantee. Watch out for fine print that weakens this with a re-stocking fee or limits it with exclusions.

  • 1 year parts and labor guarantee (some vendors give 2 years).

  • 1 year of 800 number tech support (many vendors give lifetime support).

Additionally, many vendors offer a year of on-site service free. You should find out who they contract the service to. Also, be sure the free service coverage area includes your site; some unscrupulous vendors weasel their way out with “some locations pay extra,” which translates roughly as “through the nose if you're further away than our parking lot.”

If you're buying from a dealership or superstore, find out what they'll guarantee beyond the above. If the answer is “nothing”, go somewhere else.

Ask your potential suppliers what kind and volume of documentation they supply with your hardware. You should get, at minimum, operations manuals for the motherboard and each card or peripheral. Skimpiness in this area is a valuable clue that they may be using no-name parts from Upper Baluchistan, which is not necessarily a red flag in itself, but should prompt you to ask more questions.

There are various cost-cutting tactics a vendor can use which bring down the system's overall quality. Here are some good questions to ask:

  • Is the memory zero-wait-state? One or more wait states allows the vendor to use slower and cheaper memory, but will slow down your actual memory subsystem throughput. This is a particularly important question for the cache memory.

  • If you're buying a factory-configured system, does it have FCC certification? While it's not necessarily the case that a non-certified system is going to spew a lot of radio-frequency interference, certification is legally required—and becoming more important as clock frequencies climb. Lack of that FCC sticker may indicate a fly-by-night vendor, or at least one in danger of being raided and shut down.

  • Are the internal cable connectors keyed, so they can't be put in upside down? This doesn't matter if you'll never, ever ever need to upgrade or service your system. Otherwise, it's pretty important. Vendors who fluff this detail may be quietly cutting other corners.