Building the Ultimate Linux Box

Focusing on maximum crunching power and PC hardware whendeveloping the Ultimate Linux Box (ULB).
One Disk or Two?

I always build with two disks: one system disk and one home disk. There are two good reasons to do this that have nothing to do with the extra capacity. One is the performance advantage of being able to interleave commands to different physical spindles. The other is I am quite a bit less likely to lose two disks at once than I am to trash a single one.

Let's suppose you have a fatal disk crash. If you have only one disk, good-bye Charlie. If you have two, maybe the crashed one was your system disk, in which case you can buy another and do a new Linux installation, knowing your personal files are safe. Or maybe it was your home disk; in that case, you can buy another home disk and restore it from backups (you did keep backups, right?).

Debian, Installing on Hardware Your Distribution Doesn't Support and the ReiserFS Two-Step

Easier Choices

Max out your memory. Lots of free memory will improve your virtual-memory performance. Fortunately, with RAM as cheap as it is now, a gigabyte or three is unlikely to bust your budget even if you're economizing.

You'll need a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive (you'll almost certainly be installing your Linux from it). You have a SCSI system, so get a SCSI CD-ROM. That's pretty much the end of spec, as there are only a few models of SCSI DVD-ROM, and SCSI CD-ROMs are a generic item.

We'll want a good, high-volume backup device, too. Large disks are so cheap that backing up your home directory to another disk seems an attractive alternative, but it's still good to be able to make backups that you can separate from your system and store off-site, in case of disaster. We'll go with a DDS tape drive. Even if you're building on the cheap, the less expensive CD-ROM burners aren't a good idea for mass backup. The problem is the per-megabyte cost of the media, which you can't reuse. Rick adds: “Tape is also faster, more rugged both in storage and in the process of recording (jostling a DAT drive doesn't destroy the ongoing backup), doesn't require gobs of scratch space for assembling image files and is way, way, easier to automate.”

Speaking of faster, one of the things you want most in a tape drive is transfer speed. This is a good reason to go with the newer DDS4 tape drives, which have speed that is typically half of the older DDS3 drives.

Noise Control and Heat Dissipation

An increasingly critical aspect of machine design is handling the waste heat and acoustic noise of operation. Cooling is centrally important if you want your ULB to last because thermal stress from waste heat is almost certainly what will kill it. On the other hand, cooling makes acoustic noise, which human beings don't tolerate well. It's fair to say we've already reached the point at which the thermal load vs. cooling-noise trade-off is the effective limiting factor in the performance of personal machines.

So how do we manage this trade-off for a personal, desktop or desk-side machine? Being willing to pay a price premium for cool-running and low-noise parts can help a lot. Even clueful system integrators can't afford to do this because they're under constant competitive pressure to cut costs by using generic components. But, we aren't economizing here; we get to do it right.

The Recipe File

Now that we've laid out the principles, it's time to do the practice—specify and build a machine.

Processor, Motherboard and Memory

In July 2001, the clear standout choice for a ULB motherboard is the Tyan Thunder K7, model S2462 (see the Sidebar titled “AMD, SMP, AGP and LEDs: the Tyan Thunder K7 S2462”).

AMD, SMP, AGP and LEDs: the Tyan Thunder K7 S2462

There are good and bad consequences of having your peripherals onboard. The good ones are that the board has fewer points of failure and will throw less heat. The downside is that integration could make fault recovery more difficult. You want to minimize the chance that a failure in one onboard component will require an immediate motherboard swap. On the S2462, all the onboard peripherals can be jumpered out or disabled from the BIOS setup screens.

Choosing a Case

Internal expansion space isn't very important anymore because two-drive bays will hold more disk than you'll ever need. External bays are more important; you want one CD-ROM, one tape, one floppy and perhaps a DVD drive. That's one exposed floppy bay, three exposed half-height 5.25" bays and two internal bays.

There are three other important things you want from a case: good airflow design, component accessibility and noise attenuation, in that order. Finally, you may want your case to look neat. Good airflow design is actually the best reason to buy a large case. You want plenty of room for cool air to flow around the heat-generating electronics.

Tyan's site lists cases that have been qualified with the S2462, so I shopped around for a full tower on that list. Antec's Performance Series offers a number of cases that Tyan qualifies, and the swing-out side panel and quick-release drive bays featured on all of them appealed to me. When my design evolved to include a DVD player and the front-panel controls for a sound card, I went with the SX1200, the full-tower version with seven exposed bays.



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Re: Building the Ultimate Linux Box

Sime's picture

Hi Eric - Nice article ...

Shame about the mother board though... it is apparently JUNK! If you are thinking of parting with your hard earned cash in exchange for a Tyan Thunder K7 MB you would be well advised to read ALL of this!

The next couple of paragraphs will give an insite as to why and the link(s) that follows will reveal the whole sorry mess....


We have a bit of a problem here. Before reading any further, read this thread here, and this one here

In short, matters with the Tyan Thunder K7 are not as rosy as can be. In fact, it seems like they

Re: Building the Ultimate Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Well, yes the mother board suggested seems to be barely worth it's weight in packaging bubbles...So I still want to build an ULB---> but I'm I'm really not on top of my hardware info...Any replacement motherboards to suggest?

Re: Building the Ultimate Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

I am puzzeled by your choice of components. First the CPU's and MB, AMD processors are better space heaters then CPU's, Xeon's run much cooler and use a 400MHZ FSB. Next the MB, why an integrated SCSI controller? I would use a MB with 64 bit PCI slots and 29160 or 39160 controller that could upgrade to a U320 controller when available. Next the hard drives, I would use Seagate Cheetah X15 drives, 3.6ms access time, U320 standard now, better throughput and above all faster warranty turn around. The MB would use a 860 chipset to avoid compatability issues like video timing. I dislike trouble shooting and resolving problems that should not occur. I realize that I may have angered some AMD bigots but I am a pragmatist and have fewer problems with Intel, so it is the path of least resistance. For those that wish to argue benchmark performance everthing come to a screeching halt when you need to resolve compatability problems, the score is 0 when your machine is down.

Re: Building the Ultimate Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Thank you for a well written article. Being technically disabled there is a part I don't understand.

If there is a floppy-there is ide yes/no?

If yes is there not already the 10% hit ?

Quess I would have saved a few pennies taking non scsi cd-rw and dvd-rom and a possible hit here and using both scsi channels for the hard drives with the backup chained to one. Like I said technically disabled but favor daily improvement over hit for occasional cd write.

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