Building the Ultimate Linux Box

Focusing on maximum crunching power and PC hardware whendeveloping the Ultimate Linux Box (ULB).
Oh, for a Real Keyboard!

Like many hackers of a certain age, I imprinted on the IBM Model M keyboard about 20 years ago. They have a relatively stiff travel with a sharp break and a positive keyclick that can only be described as crunchy. They inspire cult-like devotion. It's still possible to buy the real Model M, armor-plated case and all. They're not being manufactured anymore, but old stocks are still being sold. You want these IBM model numbers: 42H1292 (IBM 101-key, buckling-spring keyboard) and 1393278 (IBM SpaceSaver compact, heavy-duty 84 keyboard). They're both available from Unicomp. The dream system will get one of the 101-key PC-2 versions.



For my own use, I'll keep my original three-button Logitech TrackMan Marble. Sadly, Logitech doesn't make the original Marble any more; the replacement has a rather obtrusive wheel replacing the middle button.

There is only one possible modem for the dream system: the US Robotics V.Everything, external version. This featureful, rock-solid, reliable modem is the first choice of discriminating hackers everywhere. Rick has written an entertaining rant on the likely consequences of choosing lesser external modems, or any internal modem at all.

The floppy drive is a relic of the age before bootable CD-ROMs. Occasionally you'll want one for booting up diagnostic software. A plain old TEAC 1.44 3.5" drive will do.

Oh, yes, the software. I realize that the topic of favorite Linux distribution is a religious war, but I can't resist putting in a plug for my own favorite: KRUD Linux from Kevin Fenzi and the good folks at Subscribing to KRUD gives you a Red Hat base plus a monthly update, including all security fixes and a tasty selection of additional programs and tools.

System Integration

We have two SCSI controllers. That's good, because we also have both LVD and single-ended SCSI devices in our parts list. Daryll observes:

LVD drives can drive the bus at 40MHz and 80MHz, whereas single-ended cannot. If you mix single-ended and LVD, the bus degrades to single-ended. So a bus with a single-ended device tops out at 20MHz Wide SCSI or 40MB/s, whereas LVD gets you up to 160MB/s.

Thus, we want to assemble the dream machine with two SCSI chains: a high-speed wide/LVD chain for the hard drives and tape, and a low-speed narrow/single-end chain for the CD-RW and DVD-ROM. We used an SM-20 from The Mate Company to convert the second motherboard channel to 50-pin narrow SCSI.

Because the hard drives are likely to be significant heat generators, we mount them with the spare internal bay between them, rather than stacking them in adjacent drive bays, to get better airflow.

The Antec case makes it possible to mount the intake fan directly in front of the hard disks. Normally, with drives in this class, the drives and the bay enclosure become uncomfortably hot to the touch; with this setup, the warmth is barely noticeable. This is a good thing because it probably extends the expected lifetime of the drives significantly. Another fan near the power supply at the rear helps pull air out of the machine. We ended up mounting a third fan because we noticed the memory chips seemed to be running hot.

We'll have two expansion cards in the machine, the SoundBlaster Live! and the Radeon. The Radeon will probably tend to run hot, the SoundBlaster not. Happily, the Radeon lives in the AGP slot at the upper end of the slot row, where the air it heats will be sucked into the two rear fans.

How does our noise budget look? IBM says our UltraStars emit 48dBA each, PCP & C says the power supply emits 44dBA and the fans 20dBA each, and Tom's Hardware rated the Silverado at 37dBA (but there are two). Applying the logarithmic-sum formula gives us 52dBA as the level of interior noise. Assuming the case blocks 8dB, that will leave us with an exterior noise level of 44dBA adjacent to the case. We can trim another 5dB or so by putting the machine desk-side.

Recalculating with four or five case fans barely nudges the second decimal place in the total. This means that in case our initial burn-in reveals a heat problem; we've got room to cool things down without making the machine substantially noisier.

Building the Machine

Gary Sandine and John Pearson at Los Alamos Computers undertook to assemble my Ultimate Linux Box; in fact, they assembled two, one for me and one for Linus Torvalds. They solicited the vendors on our list for donations of parts, and their courage was rewarded when IBM generously volunteered $15,000 for the project budget.



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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.