Ultimate Linux Box 2004
You might say that the trend to 64-bit Linux systems started in 1994 when Jon “maddog” Hall, then at Digital, gave Linus Torvalds an Alpha workstation. But the mass market started to make the move last year when AMD introduced the first x86-64 processors. AMD calls the architecture AMD64, and Intel has followed up with compatible processors under the name IA-32e. We selected a two-way AMD64 system as Ultimate Linux Box last year.
Our Ultimate Linux Boxes have sported two processors since 2000, and it's time to make the move to four. Now that major vendors are offering Linux systems in sizes up to SGI's 256 Itanium processors in its Altix 3000 series, we have to make it clear that this is the ultimate box you can build, not the ultimate box that anyone has ever built.
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. The Ultimate Linux Box always has been about a system that readers can build, however; so we're going to go where the commodity hardware is.
Timing for this article was a little awkward. Too late to make it into this year's box, Tyan recently introduced the four-way SMP Thunder K8QS (S4880), which is in a new, larger size known as SSI: 13" × 16" or 330mm × 407mm. Cases that fit are rare. Still, it's the first industry-standard four-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.
But, it's clear that four-way x86-64 motherboards are the new top of the line for Linux box builders, so we're getting a head start on the trend by using one of the rackmount bare-bones systems, the Celestica A8440. Both the Celestica and another four-way, the Newisys 4300, are popular basic boxes on which Linux box builders are developing complete systems.
Although user-group mailing lists and other community fora are great for answering many technical questions, they tend to be less good for advice on what hardware to buy. Unfortunately, you're likely to get secondhand media reviews, justifications of random stuff someone recently bought and just plain errors.
But that's fine, because the Linux scene already has an excellent source of hardware recommendations—the system specs pages on the small Linux vendors' sites. If someone in the Linux business is willing to take phone calls about a particular piece of hardware and stays in business, that's a pretty good sign.
Some of the hardware the small shops use is on the expensive side. You see a lot of Supermicro and Tyan motherboards and Seagate and Maxtor hard drives, for example. But the good news is high-quality PC hardware doesn't command as much of a price premium as it should. Commentators make such a big deal out of PC hardware being a commodity that people ignore the fact that even commodities have different quality levels. As long as the “a PC is a PC” meme stays current, the market undervalues quality hardware.
Linux vendors don't mind home builders free riding on their hard-earned hardware choices, because hardly anyone builds PCs for work. If you bookmark a company's hardware choices as a reference for your home projects, you're likely to come back to them when it's time to order.
If you're reading this far, you probably have strong opinions about your system's details, including the visible parts. If you want a cool-looking case or a weird combination of hardware, you're likely to want to build. You can save some money that way too. When you build, you can splash out on expensive boutique ball-bearing fans, heavy but quiet heat sinks and other small hardware that's not cost effective for a vendor to use but that you can justify by spreading its cost over several generations of electronics.
On the other hand, if you're trying to home-brew a digital content creation workstation, you're likely to be out in no-man's-land searching for device drivers for your video card. The top 3-D cards still have full support only with proprietary drivers, so don't expect to treat a high-end 3-D system like a Linux box. Where the low levels of the system are concerned, your workstation might as well be a proprietary UNIX system, because you can't expect community support when some drivers are closed off from your view and the view of the experts on the linux-kernel mailing list. For now, get anything requiring high-performance 3-D from a vendor that has a good working relationship with the video card manufacturer and whose support you trust.
A good middle ground between buying and building is to work with a friendly Linux system vendor that lets you customize the machines you order. It doesn't cost any more to talk to someone on the phone than to use the Web configurator, so it's a good idea to rough out the system you like, place a call and get some feedback.
You might choose to go with a small, friendly vendor for your systems at work and then build your own home machines. One advantage of getting systems from a friendly Linux vendor is burn-in. I suspect the engineers at Linux vendors have unresolved anger issues toward hardware—or maybe they want to cut back on the number of returned systems. Pogo uses a battery of burn-in tests based on the Cerberus Test Control System, which traces its heritage back to the original VA Research.
Enough introduction, it's time for the parts list.
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