Building the Ultimate Linux Workstation

We went to hardware experts to find the best and fastest components for building your own Linux workstation. Here's how to make a responsive system with high-performance 3-D, fast disk, lush sound and the little things to keep it trouble-free.
Network Card

The network card market is rather dull right now: Intel seems to dominate, despite some occasional complaints about hardware changing out from under the drivers and causing unpredictable problems with certain combinations of network traffic. If you're building your own box, you should be qualified to build a new kernel if you have to update the Ethernet driver.

Miscellaneous: Power Supply, Case, Cooling

Whatever you do, don't buy the latest hot CPU and drives and then mount them in a case with inadequate cooling, or hook them up to a flaky power supply that's going to blow out and fry everything. One of the ways a switching power supply can fail is to put the input voltage straight into the parts that are expecting 5 or 12 volts DC. That's not good.

If you live on the bleeding edge, hardware-wise, then your case, power supply and fans will outlast several motherboards and CPUs. Some people take the motherboard and CPU from what was a hot desktop box and use it in a web server. Again, think about being able to shuffle the components you buy today into another machine next year.

Mike chooses PC Power and Cooling power supplies, with Sparkle Power as a second choice. PC Power and Cooling has one called the “Silencer”, which makes a Linux box a little more pleasant to share a room with.

Choose a case with plenty of room to work inside, a side panel that's easy to remove, and several places to install fans. Mike builds quite a few heavy-duty Linux servers for small companies that don't have dedicated air-conditioned server rooms or rack space. That means he needs a tower case with a lot of cooling capacity, and he recommends Supermicro. They make a tower case with mounting points for fans in all the standard places, as well as blowing sideways across the drives. Direct airflow is absolutely required for the 10,000RPM drives that go into an ultimate Linux box. Otherwise, they will soon cook themselves.

A Canadian company, AMK, makes a series of cases called the “Overclocker's Dream”, with exhaust fans mounted in “blowholes” in the top of the case. If you don't mind keeping the top of your machine clear, blowholes are an efficient way to get the hottest air out.

Jason points out that adding fans can sometimes make heat problems worse. You can create a vortex that traps hot air near an important component or, worse, add too many exhaust fans and not enough intake fans. Hobbyists often add an extra exhaust fan or fans to try to suck out the hot air, but if you have too many fans blowing out and not enough blowing in, then the power supply, and maybe the CPU, can overheat. A typical ATX power supply has a fan on the back and a set of vents positioned somewhere above the CPUs. In normal operation, the power supply fan draws air from above the CPUs and exhausts it, cooling the power supply and helping to cool the CPUs. But if the system has too many exhaust fans, they create a negative pressure inside the case, cancel out the efforts of the power supply fan, stop the flow of air inside the power supply and turn it into an expensive toaster.

Two rules to keep in mind when adding fans to the case are first, balance the type and number of intake and exhaust fans; and second, remember that hot air rises—put intake fans low and exhaust fans high. And don't run with the case open any more than you have to. You're just opening it up to severe interference from other devices. “My cell phone rang and my computer went blaaargh”, says Jason.

Ultimate Linux boxes can be loud. Drives, CPU fans, front-panel fans, back panel fans...pretty soon it sounds like you're working inside a hovercraft. Jason Collins plans to install a “DigitalDoc 2”, available from AMK. It's a control panel that fits in a drive bay and provides thermostatic control for fans. His fans of choice are “badass” new ones from Delta that can move 32 cubic feet of air per second. Jason is also putting sound-deadening material on the sides of his case to keep it from resonating.

And, of course, you'll need a UPS. The most important benefit of having one on a workstation isn't to keep your system running during power failures. An extended blackout will drain its battery. The big benefit is that the UPS warns you when it's running on battery, giving you time to shut down cleanly.

Both APC and Tripp Lite make well-regarded UPSes with serial ports. Penguin Computing had to choose between them. Ockman says that his answer to “Why don't you sell our UPS?” was, “Why don't you GPL your control software?” So they did. APC won't even release the specs for their protocol. Until APC realizes that making their protocol available to open-source developers isn't going to result in the loss of their U-boat fleet in the Atlantic, let's put them with NVIDIA on the list of companies we'll be happy to support when they get a clue.

Resources

Don Marti is the technical editor for Linux Journal. He can be reached at dmarti@linuxjournal.com.

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