Building the Ultimate Linux Box

Focusing on maximum crunching power and PC hardware whendeveloping the Ultimate Linux Box (ULB).
Power Supply and Cooling

For the power supply, the three of us agreed on a vendor: PC Power & Cooling. PCP & C has a reputation for making good units and, as a bonus, quiet ones. PCP & C justified our confidence when they told me of their brand-new 450A4 unit, specifically designed for use with the S2462. And at 44dBA, the A4 counts as pretty quiet.

In May, Tom's Hardware compared 46 CPU coolers. The clear standout is the Silverado from Noise Control, Inc., rated best in cooling performance at 30°C and second-best in noise emission, only 37dBA. Typical coolers emit about 50dBA. The Silverado's only real drawback is that it's large—80mm long, 56mm wide, 113mm high—so you need to be careful about case clearances.

We can avoid having our case fans add more than a bare minimum to the machine's decibel output by specifying cooling fans that have ball bearings rather than the cheaper and more common sleeve bearings. This will cut machine noise by an appreciable degree, especially the annoying, whining high-frequency component, which is mostly bearing noise.

PC Power & Cooling makes 20dBA Silencer 80mm ball-bearing case fans. Specify the three-pin connectors to plug into the motherboard, not the four-pin connectors meant to be plugged into the power supply.

Mass Storage

We're going to be specifying fast-wide LVD drives, the cutting edge in SCSI devices. Within that class, the important statistics are seek time, rotational latency, capacity, heat dissipation and noise output. Mean time between failure is long enough on the leading brands that you're quite unlikely to see one before your system is years obsolete.

A search confirmed anecdotal evidence from Rick Moen. He likes IBM's current product line, the UltraStar. With a 4.2ms seek time, they edge ahead of competition from Seagate, Quantum and Fujitsu. Rick believes they run relatively cool, too, and we hear they smoked the competition in some comparative trials run by Evi Nemeth at the CAIDA Project. So we'll add two IBM UltraStar 36Z15 drives to the parts list.

We also want to be able to read (and write) CD-ROMs. Again, confirms Rick's anecdotal report, tapping the 32-speed Plextor PX W1210TS as the best-of-breed among SCSI CD-RW drives.

Rick observes:

CD-R/CD-RW drives by their nature have head assemblies much more massive than those of ordinary read-only CD drives. Why? Because they mount burn lasers. Much greater mass means much greater inertia and much faster mechanical wear, and the considerable heat generated during burn cycles also takes its toll. Accordingly, the MTBF times for CD-R/CD-RW drives are markedly shorter than for regular CD drives. One should not use CD-R/CD-RW drives for mundane read operations, but rather only for CD-burning. Accordingly, if you really have the need for a CD-R or CD-RW drive, you also need a second, read-only drive for everyday CD-reading.

Daryll Strauss chimes in with: “Buy a DVD-ROM rather than an ordinary CD-ROM. Typically the transfer rates are just as good, if not better, because the base DVD rotational speed is higher to begin with.”

A DVD is a must-have for another reason; any true dream system for a Linux hacker must include the ability to violate the anti-fair-use clauses of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act by playing DVDs, even if (like me) the hacker is basically uninterested in DVDs per se. It's ethically imperative.

Presently, only two models of SCSI DVD-ROM are available: the 304S/305S by Pioneer and the SD-M1201B by Toshiba. The Toshiba is 5X as a DVD drive and 32X as a CD-ROM drive; the Pioneer's numbers are 10X and 40X. Easy call, especially since the Toshiba is actually more expensive.

History says that the top-of-the-line Hewlett-Packard tape drive is either going to be the best-of-breed or close. The top-of-the-line HP DDS4 drive appears to be the C5685, with a capacity of 40GB and a transfer rate of 21.6GB/hour (assuming hardware compression).

Monitor Graphics Card and Sound

For my purposes, clearly displaying a lot of text at relatively small font sizes is the most important thing I want a monitor to do. Thus I pick the only monitor PC World rates as excellent at both text and graphics, the Mitsubishi Diamond Pro 2060u. It supports 2048 × 1536 at 75Hz, a refresh speed comfortably above flicker level.

Daryll is a graphics expert and part of the team working on the Linux drivers for ATI's high-end Radeon card. He tells us that for the foreseeable future (or at least until NVIDIA gets a clue about open source) the Radeon will be the best high-end graphics card with entirely open-source drivers. So we add one ATI Radeon 64MB card.

Because this is a development box rather than a gaming machine, it's more important that a sound card be well supported with stable drivers than that it hug the bleeding edge of audio technology. The safe choice seems to be the SoundBlaster Live Platinum 5.1. ConsumerSearch's top speaker pick, rated excellent for both game play and music, is the Klipsch ProMedia 2.1.

Graphics: Safety or Speed? SB Live



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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.