The Ultimate Linux Box 2001: How to Design Your Dream Machine

The real unabridged version of building the ultimate machine.

Editor's Note: The following article is the unabridged version of an article by the same title that appears in the November 2001 issue of Linux Journal.

Introduction

Five years ago, in a Linux Journal article I wrote during 1996, I developed a recipe for an elegant and economical Linux box. I used this as motivation for a discussion of what makes a good balanced system design. The article became one of the most popular in LJ's history, so the editors have invited me back for a second round.

This time, however, we're going to involve more people than just me. LJ recruited Rick Moen, author of some well-known FAQs on modems and other hardware topics, to assist with this article. Daryll Strauss, the man behind the famous all-Linux rendering farm used in the movie “Titanic”, also contributed sage advice coming from his background in graphics and extreme data crunching.

Also, we're going to examine system architecture from a different perspective. Instead of going for economy we're going to go for the balls-out maximum crunching power. This time, we're going to ask not what the most cost-effective plan is, but how to get the absolute highest performance out of hardware we can live with.

“Hardware you can live with” means a machine that is stable, easy to troubleshoot and inexpensive to maintain after the original money-is-no-object build phase. It should be small and low-maintainance enough enough to live beside your desk, as opposed to (say) some liquid-cooled monstrosity that needs to be nursed by a full-time technician. It should be, in short, a PC—an extraordinary gold-plated hand-tuned hotrod of a PC but a PC nevertheless. Another important aspect of liveability is level of emitted acoustic noise and heat; we'll be paying attention to minimizing both as we design.

We'll stick with Intel hardware. Alphas are fast and have that wonderful sexy 64-bit architecture with enough symmetrical registers to make an old compiler jock like me drool copiously, but the line has just been sold to Intel and seems all too likely to be end-of-lifed in favor of the Itanium before long. The PowerPC has earned its fans, too—considered in isolation, I like that chip a lot better than any Intel architecture. But PC hardware has all the advantages of the biggest market; it's the easiest to get serviced and least expensive to upgrade, and thus scores high on the hardware-you-can-live-with scale.

The “ultimate Linux box” that we showcase as a result will, of course, inevitably fall behind the leading edge within months. But walking through the process of developing the ULB should will teach you things about system design and troubleshooting that you can continue applying long after the hardware in this article has become obsolete.

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The TOC is munged together.

Anonymous's picture

The TOC is munged together. Needs some BR tags.

Re: The Ultimate Linux Box 2001: How to Design Your Dream Machin

Anonymous's picture

[this is not really a comment, it is more of a question]

Dear Sir,

I enjoyed your article very much, especially because I am thinking of building a machine for, basically, number crunching. You said you'd stick to Intel hardware. But I like the PowerPc a lot; I am used to seeing the little beasts handle 30+ users, working with Oracle databases on our unix (no, no Linux at my workplace) machines, without anyone ever waiting for anything.

Would you care to comment on this, or give directions to sources of information on how to build

with the PowerPC for Linux ( sources, that is, for

hardware ignoramuses) with SCSI drivers?

Another question, just to show how green I am on

hardware: in any case (Intel or PPC), are we limited

to 2 disk drives?

Thanks

Ant

Re: The Ultimate Linux Box 2001: How to Design Your Dream Machin

Anonymous's picture

Of course we are not limited to 2 disk drives. RAID-5 (the most common type) requires at least 3 physical disk drives, and often file servers have 5 or more disk drives.

http://en.tldp.org/HOWTO/Software-RAID-HOWTO.html

Most motherboards (most Intel, and a lot of newer PPC) have 2 IDE headers, and a ribbon cable connects each header to 2 drives (for a total of 4). So how do we get 5 hard drives, plus a CD drive for a total of 6 drives ? Simple -- we buy an IDE card or a SCSI card and plug more drives into that.

Many PPC motherboards have a SCSI connector.

http://www.uni-mainz.de/~neuffer/scsi/

Up to 7 external devices can be daisy-chained through the SCSI connector, so it's simple to connect 5 hard drives and a CD-ROM to a single SCSI chain.

Re: The Ultimate Linux Box 2001: How to Design Your Dream Machin

Anonymous's picture

Dear Sir or Madam,

Why is it that there is no mention of applying a RAID-solution for the disk-arrangement ? Surely this would have brought even more performance ?

Could this have been done with the Adaptec -controller that is allready on the Tyan-board (the other is ofearmarked for the cdwriter/dvd) ?

I'm asking this because I would like to build something like this for a ANSYS-FEA-workstation.

Regards

John Poverjohn.pover@planet.nl

Re: The Ultimate Linux Box 2001: How to Design Your Dream Machin

Anonymous's picture

Every time i've clicked on the "one disk or two?" file of eric's article it never completes building. Instead it bounces me to the search window, which displays a message to the effect that it found no hits to what I was searching for. . . . . HELP!

Re: Broken Link

scott's picture

Every time i've clicked on the "one disk or two?" file of eric's article it never completes building. Instead it bounces me to the search window, which displays a message to the effect that it found no hits to what I was searching for. . . . . HELP!

This should be fixed now, sorry about that.

If you find a broken link, just send me an email directly: webmaster@ssc.com

Thanks,

Scott

This is Classic

Sarah in Orange County's picture

This just reminds me of the good old days.

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