What Has 1.1 Terabytes, 9,503 BogoMips and Flies?
You don't want to make an Ultimate Linux Box your first PC-building project because of the sheer cost of the parts. Salvage one good box out of a desktop machine with a bad hard drive and a server with a bad motherboard, or something like that. We assume that you know the basics of static protection, reading the Fine Manual for the hardware and not electrocuting yourself. If your Linux box-building tool of choice is a web form, you can skip this part.
Besides the basics, some tools you probably will want are a hemostat for fetching dropped screws and moving jumpers, wire cutters for removing cable ties, a nut driver set, a power screwdriver cranked down to minimum torque and a label maker.
Big tower cases are a win when you're putting together your own box; you have the flexibility to put what you want where you want. We still like the Lian-Li aluminum cases, one of which we used last year.
Our least favorite color is Dumb PC Beige, no matter what you call it. (“Putty” is a typical vendor name for this ugly color. Cool, just what I'd like to have in my den, a big block of putty!) Unfortunately, many of the cool-looking cases in other colors are designed for gamers who run hot processors and video cards but only one or two ATA drives. So it is with a heavy heart that we must recommend the SuperMicro sc760 series, not only for its capacious size but also for its excellent flexibility in drive and fan placement.
SuperMicro cases are available with many convenient spots for drives and fans, many of which you won't have to use. Different models support motherboards with and without the special Xeon mounting holes, so decide on your motherboard before selecting the case. Working inside is easy: remove the locking front panel and both sides open out like a book.
Think of the case, or any well-designed full tower, as a two-story building—the motherboard and expansion cards live on the bottom floor, and the drives and power supply live upstairs. There is one 12cm exhaust fan directly behind the processors on the first floor, and you can place up to three intake fans at the front. Upstairs, there is one exhaust fan above the power supply, and you can mount up to four fans on the sides of the drives. We recommend leaving off the drive carrier downstairs, if you can, and putting your hard drives in the 5.25" bays with adapter brackets. This gives you more usable intake space at the front of the bottom floor and puts the drives where the side fans can blow on them.
All the ribbon cables from the 3ware card to the drives add up to a surface area of about two and a half square feet. That much cable, placed sloppily, would block a lot of airflow. We bundled the cables together into a flat bunch with Velcro ties and looped the extra length upstairs behind the drives instead of downstairs around the motherboard. Because we have side fans, this is the safest place for it.
It's always important to balance intake and exhaust fans. The natural instinct is to “blow out the hot air”, but too many exhaust fans will drop the pressure inside the case, canceling out the efforts of the power supply fan and trapping hot air inside the power supply. When the power supply goes, it generally takes something more expensive with it. Because hot air rises, it's hard to go wrong with low front intake fans and high rear exhaust fans.
A nice touch you will probably want to add is thumbscrews in place of the Philips screws for the case sides. The Lian-Li case is already fitted with thumbscrews throughout because the aluminum is very soft. Don't use a screwdriver, manual or power, on an aluminum case.
All the surfaces of the SC760 are paintable, drillable and are easily removable without unplugging a single wire. If you want candy-apple red and a blowhole, you can easily take all the beige stuff on a nice trip to the sheet metal shop and the spray booth without moving drives or cards.
You'll notice that we didn't mention all the peripherals, such as keyboards, mice and monitors. Monitors, keyboards and mice are a matter of personal aesthetic judgment, and your ability to pick one hands-on is probably going to be pretty good. How many computers have your current favorite keyboard and mouse outlasted, anyway?
What about CD burners, DVD drives and tape drives? Well, in a recent reader survey, we saw that 95% of our readers have multiple computers. We recommend that you set up one of your other machines as a backup server or CD ripping/burning station.
That should be enough information to get you started on the journey to custom Linux box building, so in the immortal words of the SuSE installer, “have a lot of fun”.
Don Marti is technical editor of Linux Journal.