VAR Station II
After working with the system as shipped for several weeks I broke down and installed a fresh Red Hat 4.2 onto an external hard drive that I added to the VAR Station II. Red Hat shipped 4.2 shortly after I picked up this review system. However, I didn't upgrade it right away because I wanted to do a fair review of the system as it was shipped. This serves two purposes. One, it tests how well-supported this mix of hardware is by “stock” Linux distributions (and reveals if any custom or special drivers or kernel patches are required). Two, it probably matches the version of Linux that would be installed if you were to get one of these systems now. I picked up a copy of the Red Hat 6 CD set which includes the free portions of Red Hat (no Metro-X server) and mirrors of the sunsite and ftp.x.org sites.
The SymBIOS SCSI controller in this system has a SCSI-3 connector, but VA Research thoughtfully provided a SCSI-2 adapter. Adding the extra drive was simply a matter of picking an unused SCSI ID, and plugging in a cable and terminator.
I normally do upgrades as new installations on separate drives so I can easily revert to the old, working system whenever something “suddenly” doesn't work on the new installation. This installation went smoothly, with the usual fussing over the lilo.conf to convince it that I really did want two bootable partitions on two separate drives. The new twist this time was that I needed an initrd directive.
This new version is much nicer. More of the initially installed menu items work out of the box (at least if you do an install of “everything”), and there are some nice new packages (like the lincity game—a “civilization” for Linux). By far my favorite new package is XEmacs.
XEmacs is an improved Emacs (based on the GNU version—and therefore free). As the name implies XEmacs has enhanced support for fonts and graphics when run under X Windows. The “GNUscape Navigator” (formerly called w3-mode)--a web browser package written in the Emacs lisp macro language—can render pages with embedded graphics under XEmacs but is limited to text mode (like Lynx) under GNU Emacs. The surprise for me is XEmacs' support for ncurses, which allows me to have color and “fontlock” support for my text-mode screens and from my laptop when I log in over a serial line.
This is an excellent combination of hardware for Linux. It is probably the fastest single-processor x86-based system available (VA Research has some multi-processor server systems, too), and all of the equipment works with Linux and is pre-configured for it. If you're tired of fighting with your hardware to get your sound card to play CDs or your video card to work in decent resolutions, you should get a system like this one. The only things missing from the hardware package are the speakers and some sort of suitable backup and bulk storage device.
While I have my concerns about Intel's processors, I am sure that they will fix the problem. The Linux community will work around them if Intel takes too long. I wouldn't build any bridges, aircraft or medical equipment without running the numbers through the same calculations on another architecture, but I've recommended that since the first FDIV bug was announced, and I recommend it regardless of which processor(s) are involved.
Finally, the software configuration is still rough in spots. Red Hat is showing steady improvement, and VA Research does offer other distributions (such as Caldera and Craftworks), if you ask.
VA Research clearly tries to balance the degree to which they customize their installation against the expectations and preferences of experienced Linux users. They also have to do constant research as hardware vendors make unannounced and undocumented changes to various components (which might cause an Ethernet card of a given model to suddenly stop working with Linux, for example), and as the development of Linux and other software that runs under it keeps steaming along. Personally I think they've done an excellent job—there are very few PC manufacturers and integrators that are willing to take up the challenge.
So, if you're tired of getting blank stares when asking vendors about Linux and you need a fast X Windows workstation, get a VAR Station II from VA Research.
Jim Dennis is the proprietor of Starshine Technical Services (http://www.starshine.org/). His professional experience includes work in technical support, quality assurance and information services for both large and small software companies. He has just begun collaborating on the 2nd edition of a book on Unix systems administration. Jim is also an avid science fiction fan. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.