Ultimate Linux Box

AMD64 looks great on paper, but can you build a high-end system with 64-bit processors and have all your device drivers work? We mix the hottest new processor architecture with the latest video, audio and storage devices and watch for smoke.

The rough edges on this machine, however, are only in the eye candy. Aside from Chromium (the video test), we were able to run the rest of the Linux Journal Benchmark Bundle on the machine (bonnie++, postgres-test, tiobench and the kernel compile), and the results were impressive. The base kernel compile averaged one minute 35 seconds using both CPUs. As a point of comparison, my personal 1.1GHz Duron took six minutes 50 seconds to do the compile. Overall, the Opteron/3ware architecture seems to offer about a 15% advantage in speed, gigahertz for gigahertz. The Opteron has an integrated memory controller that bypasses the Northbridge and gives you a 64-bit duplex channel direct to the DIMMs. This particular machine also allows use of a singleton DIMM in 32-bit mode, which is handy for debugging hardware problems, at the expense of speed.

Tiobench produced the other interesting numbers, as shown in Listing 1. I compared the performance of the 3ware/Western Digital harness on an Athlon 2800 to its performance on the ULB. The numbers are not quite apples to apples, because I took advantage of the Opteron's 64-bit addressing to handle a larger file size—but that in itself produced interesting results. The 32-bit platform appeared to do better in single-threaded sequential reads but produced comparable numbers for the rest of the run. On random reads and writes, the absolute rate of the ULB lags behind, but the latency does not. The ULB soundly trounces the Athlon despite using a file more than double the size. I suspect that the drop in numbers at the end of the sequential read and write runs is an artifact of hitting the 3ware card's buffer limit, given the nice flat curve up to that point. On a side note, these numbers compare favorably in most departments in absolute terms—and very well in terms of bang for buck—with a Dell Precision 650n SCSI system I tested previously.

After receiving some feedback on our Web article series that discussed the ULB, we decided we needed to test noise levels. The ULB scored 50.5dBa at 10" in front of the case, 50.0dBa at the operator position (24" above the top of the case) and 60.0dBa at 10" from the back of the case. Obviously, these numbers aren't as low as we'd like them to be with the aforementioned Dell coming out at 47, 45 and 55dBa respectively. I think the culprit is the Thermaltake coolers; when we had the machine in-house previously with AMD coolers, it was quieter by far. However, the AMD version did get rather warm. The ULB version seems to be quite stable with respect to temperature, at the expense of extra noise. I suspect that between now and when this issue is on newsstands, companies such as Zalman and PC Power and Cooling will have offerings available for the Opteron like the ones they now have for noisy Athlons.

The Ultimate Linux Box, like Linux itself, is a work-in-progress. By the time you read this, new toys will be on the market, not to mention new software, maybe even a major kernel revision. The Escalade 8506 also will be available, as will newer, bigger Western Digital Raptors, DVD-plus-or-minus-RW combo drives—perhaps even an Athlon 64 CPU and motherboard. Use this design as a place to start and make your own improvements.

The author would like to thank 3ware, Western Digital, NVIDIA, Arima and SuSE for their contributions and Monarch Computer Systems for tying all the hardware together in one package and making it play.



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Re: Ultimate Linux Box

geoffleach's picture

I actually went and bought one. Its running Fedora Core 2 quite nicely, using drivers from Broadcom (open source) and Nvidia (closed source). The MB also features a Promise RAID controller for the SATA drives, which is supported by the 2.6 kernels.

FWIW, I was not overly impressed by Monarch's quality and build processes. To be fair, however, they did eventually clear up all of my problems.

Re: Ultimate Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

The configuration for the ULB includes SATA disks. I was unable to find specific support for SATA in either the 2.4 or 2.6 kernels, which means that the ULB makes a nice boat anchor, so far as Linux is concerned. Hopefully, someone will tell me I'm wrong.

Re: Ultimate Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Serial ATA is on the SCSI menu in the 2.6 kernel

Re: Ultimate Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Looking at the suse website, there's a link on their support page for paid support to configure SATA.


If they provide phone support, then it would seem that the suse linux enterprise server 8 has the capability for SATA built in. I could be wrong tho...

Re: Ultimate Linux Box

Anonymous's picture

Had the same good experience with SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 8 (SLES8) and the YaST2 tool makes administration chores a simple enough that a junior admin can do it with little supervision. I work for a large Brokerage house on Wall Street and we were looking to explore the AMD processor for some of our work. Called SuSE since as the article stated they have supported 64 bit computing on the Opteron the longest. We were informed by SuSE that they had a business partner, Systems Solutions in the Downtown NYC area, when we contacted them it turned out they are a couple of blocks form our location. Upon arriving we signed the obligatory non-disclosure agreement, we informed the group from Systems Solutions that we were interested in the AMD version of SLES 8 and were particularly looking to run it in a clustered environment. They asked if we had decided on which hardware platform we wanted to run, which we hadn

Re: Ultimate Linux Box

geoffleach's picture


Thanks for another great ULB article. I may just treat myself to one! Regarding your choice of graphics card, is it correct that NVIDIA does not make the cards, but just the chips? I concluded this from the fact that they don't have end user products. In any event, Monarch offers PNY cards and it seems that the FX1000 has been replaced by the FX2000; the former is now priced at $784 and the latter at $1220. There's also an FX1100. So, (finally, the point!) given this, do you have a feeling for what your choice would be today?


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