ULB 2004 Preview: Ultimate Linux Box Boots

It's about that time of year again. Time to do the always-controversial, ever-contentious and "what do you mean you didn't include my favorite hardware, you fools" project, otherwise known as the Ultimate Linux Box.

We've been fortunate to have the help of some quality Linux box builders in the past. Los Alamos Computers, Aspen Systems and Monarch Computer Systems all have done Ultimate Linux Boxes. This year, Tim Lee and Paul Bibaud from Pogo Linux showed off a great collection of systems at the winter LinuxWorld and volunteered to have Pogo put the system together.

Paul Bibaud, Tim Lee, Jesse Keating, Cosmo King, Eric Logan and Micah Spacek all are participating in the project at Pogo, with Cosmo doing the hands-on work. He's happy to report that the box has survived burn-in and currently is running a batch of benchmarks.

Big Decisions

Although we probably say it every year, there's never been a better selection of Linux-compatible hardware on the market. IBM has launched a major marketing push for Linux on POWER, and some people are talking up Apple's PowerPC-based Power Mac G5 as great for Linux, but the Ultimate Linux Box always has been about a system that readers can build, so we're going to go where the commodity hardware is.

We'll keep watching the market for alternate architectures, but this year it's all about x86-64, the architecture AMD calls AMD64 and Intel calls something else.

An address-space-starved Linux market devoured x86-64 products on introduction and has happily made it one of the key Linux platforms since then. When AMD hosted an open-bar celebration of AMD64's 1-year anniversary at New York City's fabulous Rainbow Room on April 22nd, 2004, they invited the New York Linux Users Group.

Since we started doing Ultimate Linux Boxes, two have sported Intel processors and two have used AMD. With its own x86-64 entry, Intel is certainly in the running for next year.

Four-Way Commodity Motherboards?

Previous Ultimate Linux Boxes have had two processors, which generally has been the maximum in the market for parts for roll-your-own machines. Vendors will sell you a bigger system, but when you're building it yourself, the choice has been one processor or two.

This year, we're moving up to a four-way. What better way to celebrate the 2.6 kernel?

Too late to make it into this year's box, Tyan just introduced the Thunder K8QS (S4880), which is in a new, larger size known as SSI MEB: 13" x 16" or 330 x 407mm. Cases that fit are rare. Still, it's the first industry-standard 4-way, 64-bit motherboard, and we're thinking about putting one like it into a tower case next year. A big tower case, that is.

For now, the builder's choice in four-way x86-64 systems is bare-bones systems, such as the Newisys 4300. Newisys "sells its designs through indirect channels", so vendors can buy a bare-bones system and trick it out. The business model is similar for the A8440, a joint effort between AMD and Celestica.

Bare-bones servers aren't quite what we're looking for in an Ultimate Linux Box--where would we be without the case and power supply selection debate? But we drool over four processors, and we're better off stepping up to a four-processor system a year early.

More Pixels, Please

Appian's Rushmore card offers four displays at up to 2048 x 1536 resolution, and Cosmo reports the system is booting with two Rushmores installed. That's 25,165,824 pixels, or 32 times the area of a conventional 1024 x 768 screen.

We won't go into too much detail about what applications we can run on all those displays, but we assure you we'll have sufficient RAM on the system.

Must-Buy Hardware for 2004

In a major setback for those who choose to build their own entertainment devices, the US Federal Communications Commission has approved the so-called "Broadcast Flag" regulation. That's bad news for Linux boxes, Ultimate and otherwise. Future HDTV-capable tuner cards will be required to enforce a to-be-determined copy restriction regime. This is one product category that won't get better next year; it'll be worse. If you live in the US, before the end of 2004, if you buy no other PC hardware, pick up a pcHDTV card. Think of it as the digital equivalent of your dad's humidor of Cuban cigars.

As the Ultimate Linux Box nears completion, questions remain. What distribution are you going to load? What sound card? Are you really going to put all that memory in one system--won't you get carpal tunnel syndrome flipping the plastic levers at the ends of the modules? Find out in Linux Journal's August issue.

Don Marti is Editor in Chief of Linux Journal.

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ULB: It's not about the hardware

Anonymous's picture

GNU/Linux has never been about the hardware. GNU/Linux is about FREEdom. The distro that goes on the ULB, and what a user can do with that distro, is at least as important as the hardware that makes up the box. (More important in my mind.) An effort should be made to use as much Free Software as possible, and as little propritary software as possible, and still be able to do all the desireable things. At a minimum the ULB should be able to do all the i-things that a Mac will do, and do them just as easily and well. Web video, flash, radio, etc., should be as accessable as with a Mac. It should do the basic stuff like easy hook up of scanner and printer (assuming available linux drivers), icon mounting and umounting of usb removable drives and hardware. Really good stereo, and home theatre (including ripping DVDs and Tivo ability) seem essential for an Ultimate Box. Ultimate gaming capability? And gosh, wouldn't it be nice to be able to handle personal finance or small business needs, AND be able to do federal and state taxes (wine running TurboTax or the like would be accept, but better to be able to import the financial info into the tax software). Plus, since Linux is inherently a server OS, and this box is the ultimate hardware, it might as well serve half a dozen thin clients so the whole house, or small office, can enjoy ULB power without the expense of multiple ULB boxes.

Re: ULB 2004 Preview: Ultimate Linux Box Boots

Anonymous's picture

I havent checked ATI drivers, for a while, but last time i did they were bad, realy bad, did their support for linux increase ? If not why chooze ATI ? Am i missing something ?

PS: Nvida drivers also stink big time, but IMO they are light years infront of ATI, as far as Linux support is concerned.

Re: ULB 2004 Preview: Ultimate Linux Box Boots

Anonymous's picture

I'm using them on my system. Switched from nvidia mainly because of price. (I needed to upgrade).
What I found was:
1. My mouse wheel started to work. Under Nvidia it refused.
2. The hw acceleration was great.
3. It took a few revisions before the software felt stable.
4. Switching resolutions using alt+ seems to have problems, and sometimes switching to console and back has problems. (This was never a problem with nvidia).

So, in a nutshell, it basically works.

Re: ULB 2004 Preview: Ultimate Linux Box Boots

Anonymous's picture

These are always nice and interesting articles to showcase what can be done with linux, and building your own system. But the last one of these it was pointed out that the noise of the system was an after thought and was noted as somewhere in the high 40 dB from the desk, and in the mid 50 dB at the case with the cover off. This is just unacceptable for daily use.

I have been tweeking my computers for the past year, and have been able to get consistantly in the low 30 dB or under in use, and many people can do better than that. With your last version of this ultimate box, you could have skipped the thermaltake heat sinks, and gone after quiet fans and power supplies, and with the same hardware also got into the low 30 dB, and had an ultimate box which was also usable on a daily basis.

I hope you go the extra mile in this build and achive a real ultimate box, and take the noise into account as well. This would then be also be a good showcase of quality hardware beyond just the motherboard and cpu, and include the power supply, fans and heatsinks used.

Feel free to ask me for advice, or to offer suggestions if you want. Or there are other silent PC build sites with forums where you could bring up a few suggestions. In general I think an article on silient PC building in Linux Journal would be good to see -- but if you are trying to build the ultimate linux box, I hope you take into account the quality of everything you use, not just the cpu, memory, hard drive.

Douglas Smith
douglas@slac.stanford.edu

Re: ULB 2004 Preview: Ultimate Linux Box Boots

Anonymous's picture

2048 x 1536 resolution is NOT 32 times the area of a conventional 1024 x 768 display, but only FOUR times. It's simple mathematics.

Re: ULB 2004 Preview: Ultimate Linux Box Boots

Anonymous's picture

uh, four displays on each card, so four times four is 16, times two cards, is 32. that's pretty simple mathematics too!

Re: ULB 2004 Preview: Ultimate Linux Box Boots

Anonymous's picture

Yes, you are correct, 2048 x 1536 is indeed only 4 times the area 1024 x 768. However, you misread the article. The Appian Rushmore card can support 4 screens, each running at 2048 x 1536. And they have 2 such cards in this computer. So, 4 times the area, times 4 screens, times 2 cards = 32 times the area of a conventional display.

Yet another gentle reminder for posters to read the article fully before posting...

Re: ULB 2004 Preview: Ultimate Linux Box Boots

Anonymous's picture

Appian's Rushmore card offers four displays at up to 2048 x 1536 resolution, and Cosmo reports the system is booting with two Rushmores installed.
4*2*2048*1536 /(1024*768)=32
Mathematics...

Ultimate linux distro suggestion

kgosse's picture

Apologies to the previous poster since I clicked the wrong button and posted under that comment.

However, why doesn't the ultimate linux box sport the "ultimate" compiled distro and put gentoo on the machine.

Keith

Re: Ultimate linux distro suggestion

Anonymous's picture

Because they wanted it to be useful.

Re: Ultimate linux distro suggestion

Anonymous's picture

Troll....

Re: Ultimate linux distro suggestion

Anonymous's picture

Last year we used SuSE because they were the first to release a stable AMD64 version of their distribution.

This year we're using Fedora because we're fortunate to be getting help from, among many other people, Jesse Keating, who appears on the great Fedora People page (had to get that link in there -- Planet sites are why we have RSS, to make web journaling more conversational.

Next year, Gentoo? It's certainly a possibility.

Re: Ultimate linux distro suggestion

dmarti's picture

I'm having trouble logging in for some reason, and I don't want to bug our web team for support on this web site while they're working on the new one. The above was from me.

Don Marti
Linux Journal
dmarti@ssc.com

Re: ULB 2004 Preview: Ultimate Linux Box Boots

Anonymous's picture

*I* have the ultimate GNU/Linux box. ; )

Re: ULB 2004 Preview: Ultimate Linux Box Boots

kgosse's picture

Talking about ultimate linux box, why don't you try compiling a flavour of gentoo to get that "ultimate" speed experience?
Keith

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