The Ultimate Linux Box

We packed unbelievable power in a tank case and added all the trimmings for less than $4,000.
CPU

We chose as our ultimate CPU the Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600, two dual-core CPUs combined into a single part. Each core runs at 2.4GHz. It isn't a true quad-core CPU, so it doesn't scale like a true four-CPU system, but we quickly fell madly in love with it anyway.

You're probably already asking yourself if you really need four cores. Most likely you don't. But, you may find that you appreciate all of them, depending on the kind of work you do. Linux is noticeably more responsive with the Quad processor than with the dual-core AMD configurations we tried, and it's a thrill to watch things compile with the command make -j 5. It is common practice to have the make command spawn a number of processes equal to the number of CPUs plus one. The -j 5 switch spawns five processes, one for each core, plus one.

Granted, the Intel Core 2 Quad is pricier than AMD dual-core CPUs. But, the $515 price tag is very reasonable for the kind of performance you get, especially when you consider that better Intel CPUs sell for almost twice the amount.

Speaking of AMD, it says a lot that we ended up going with an Intel Core 2 Quad for our ultimate system. We're passionate fans of the AMD FX-74 (socket F, 1207 FX) and AMD FX-62 (socket AM2) dual-core processors. These processors cook, and even the 3.0GHz per core FX-74 chip sells for $100 less than the Intel Core 2 Quad. We like AMD processors so much, we almost chose as our favorite the combination of an ASUS M2N32-WS Pro with an FX-62. (The M2N32-SLI, the board we chose for the Penultimate Linux Box, is almost the same board, but it lacks a PCI-X slot.) This combination will be more than enough power for most people, and it's hard to beat the price of the FX-62 at the time of this writing ($280). If you choose this combination and want to add a RAID card though, make sure you get one that works with PCI-X instead of PCI Express. The 3ware 9550SX-4LP works well with this motherboard.

Of course, AMD processors cook in terms of heat too. We tried a number of fancy third-party fans, but none of them cooled the FX-62 processor below 95° at idle. Worse, when we combined the FX-62 with our original water-cooled video card, the water cooler fan had to do double duty as a CPU case fan. We had to replace the water cooler fan with one that's more powerful just to keep the CPU at a normal running temperature. In the end, everything ran fine, but the system was much more noisy than it had to be.

In contrast, the Intel Core 2 Quad runs very cool and quiet with the stock fan. The cores run at between 72° and 88° Fahrenheit, which is quite a bit cooler than the AMD FX-62, even with a great third-party fan.

If you really want to go over the top on performance, you can invest in an ASUS L1N64-SLI WS Dual Socket L motherboard and plug in two AMD FX-74 CPUs for four processors. We didn't try that combination, but it stands to reason that it should blow away the Intel Core 2 Quad. The processors themselves are faster, and having two sockets theoretically brings you closer to what you expect from four CPUs in scalability. However, this configuration represents a big jump in total price. The two processors are more expensive than a single Core 2 Quad, and you'll need an extremely hefty power supply (more than 1,000 Watts) to power the processors and video card. That's a lot of power, which means you'll also be generating a lot of heat. Think of it as a trade-off. You may pay through the nose for an ultimate system, but you can lower the house thermostat and throw away your stove.

Motherboard

We went with the ASUS Striker Extreme LGA 775 NVIDIA nForce 680i SLI ATX motherboard. With one possible exception common to most motherboards, the layout is excellent. It includes onboard power, reset and CMOS clear buttons. (In order to prevent you from accidentally clearing the CMOS, you have to change a jumper for the CMOS clear button to work.) There is a rear LCD panel with backlight, but we didn't find a need to use it. The motherboard includes excellent built-in HD audio via an add-in card located above the display card slot. It can run up to 1,333MHz for the front-side bus. The Core 2 Quad processor we chose needs only a 1,066MHz front-side bus. There are six internal SATA ports and two more external ports, none of which we actually used, as we went with the 3ware RAID card. It supports up to ten USB connections, four of which are connected to the rear connectors on the motherboard.

Figure 2. The power and reset switches along with USB ports and drive activity light are recessed into the top of the case.

Figure 3. Under the lip below the power switch are duplicate USB ports, an IEEE 1394 port and audio ports.

The one exception to the otherwise excellent layout is that, like many motherboards, the one place to insert a RAID card happens to be right next to the fan of a two-slot display card. This means the RAID card may block the airflow of the fan for the display card. We provide more details about this throughout the remainder of the article in the appropriate categories.

ASUS provides a handful of nice extras with the motherboard. It includes extra sensors that you can arrange to monitor the temperature of just about anything you like. It also includes a directional microphone you can place on top of the monitor.

ASUS includes a few pin adapters to make it easier to wire things to the motherboard. You attach things like the power switch, reset switch, power LED and hard drive LED to one of these adapters, and then plug the adapter onto the motherboard. This way, you can detach and re-attach these wires all at once, even while the motherboard is mounted in the case without having to use a flashlight and needle-nose pliers. ASUS also includes USB and IEEE 1394 pin adapters for those folks who buy a case or other attachment that does something silly like include individual wires for the USB or IEEE 1384 connection.

We don't know why you'd want to overclock a system like this, but ASUS makes it easy to do from the BIOS setup screens. If you push the system too far and it fails to reboot, press the reset or power switch again and it should recognize that there was a problem. It will reset the BIOS and allow you to try again.

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keyboard

Anonymous's picture

I used to own that keyboard (MSNEK 4000), and it is the only keyboard that has ever failed on me. It is not a very good keyboard for the price. The keys are mushy and the leg stands broke after a few months. It was also a pain when it first came out to get most of the keys working. I could never get the zoom slider to work with any software. It also has a windows (super) key, which on a linux computer, is analogous to putting a Hyundai emblem on a BMW. However, if you insist on getting a keyboard with the natural layout, go for the older Natural Elite.

No mention of RAID compatible drives...

Anonymous's picture

Hmmm, recommending RAID, but failing to mention the problem with hardware RAID and some hard drives...did you check 3ware's RAID site to see if you are using drives approved by 3ware? One of your recent articles, the one about the 12 TB or 16 TB or whatever high TB backup server build detailed the issue of RAID and jackass hard drive manufacturers with their crappy firmware and the necessity of flashing new firmware on some hard drives to get them to try to work correctly with hardware RAID...

Having been burned by Maxtor (iirc) dropping out of a RAID 5 array (kind of ironic, would be funny too unless you try and wrap your head around redundancy and drives dropping out of RAID 5 with hot-spare and the reasons for spending A LOT of money on RAID 5 capable hardware RAID and the cost of all the drives...) dropping out of the array because of firmware putting the drives to "sleep" during "inactivity", and the subsequent necessity of moving all the data back off the RAID array so you can shut down the workstation or server to remove the drives from the RAID array, plug them into the motheboard ports, flash them inddividually, then reinstall on the RAID card, re-initialize them over another half day to full day, reinstall the OS and data...finding out about all this after you install the OS and migrate the data to the array...priceless. And one way for hard drive manufacturers to be placed on the permanent sh*t list...

If you're going to be showcasing a RAID card in your builds, when you KNOW that some of your readers are going to follow most or all of the build as their spec sheet...you have a duty to call the hard drive/RAID compatibility issue out, whether you're beholden to your advertisers/potential advertisers or not. Otherwise your just as guilty as the tech review sites who continued to use Deathstars in their review rigs without mentioning the Deathstar issue when most other tech sites were reporting on the issue and covering the subsequent class action lawsuit and the later exiting of IBM from the hard drive business. The fact that other sites were covering the issue didn't mitigate the fact that some sites continued to use (and list) the Deathstars in their test rigs during their performance testing and reporting. Nor is it a mitigating factor that a tech review site can't afford to buy new drives since they recently purchased the Deathstars...one of the excuses I was given when I called them on the issue in an email, nor did they address the issue in their response to me of not mentioning the Deathstar issue somewhere in each performance shootout of other hardware.

Finding out that you could've avoided the hard drive firmware flashing chore after you purchase the drives doesn't exactly make a happy camper. Finding out that the manufacturer's drives are to be avoided at all, or that you purchased the drives and the return period ran out while you waited for other hardware to be delivered/back-ordered, or that you'll have to pay a restocking fee, or that the vendor doesn't accept returns of OEM drives...all because there wasn't a heads up in the article about the "approved drive" or bad hard drive manufacturer firmware issue...especially for specs for a computer that isn't really a server and may likely be someone's first experience with hardware RAID...especially for someone who in all probability will be ordering the hard drives and RAID card at the same time...

Just a minor observation... ;-p

Linuxjournal redefines RAID levels...

Anonymous's picture

"We configured Kubuntu 7.04 to run RAID 0+1 (also known as RAID 10)"

;-)

An observation I'd expect from PC Magazine or other Ziff Davis publications, not Linuxjournal.

"RAID 0+1 is NOT to be confused with RAID 10. A single drive failure will cause the whole array to become, in essence, a RAID Level 0 array"

Perhaps a RAID refresher, especially the part about fault tolerance between 0+1 and 10 would be appropriate?

Interesting article. A setup with AMD Phenom quad core cpu would be nice, along with if the possibility of a dual phenom quad core cpu motherboard is available, comparison would be great as well. I thought you needed specific dual version or 8-way versions of Opterons for multi-socket boards, hence the existence of 2xxx and 8xxx versions of Opterons in addition to 1xxx versions (I'm aware that there are other specific advantages to the multi-socket versions of Opterons, better communication between the cpus, but from what I remember of the AMD Durons being used in dual-socket boards when that wasn't intended by AMD and they tried to prevent this through locking the cpus...

I guess I'll have to check out 2cpu.com if they are still around and other dual AMD sites if they still exist to see what my options are before I spec out a new computer. Hope there are lower cost options out there for home workstations without moving up to a SuperMicro board or other workstation/server board intended for business processing. And even for non-servers, some of us are able to put 4/8 cores to use, as well as 4 GB and more memory even though we aren't compiling anything. So don't assume...

How about an almost-ultimate desktop box that doesn't require a gaming class graphics card or electrical breaker jumping cpu/power supply? Say a low-power Phenom quad core or highest clock speed Phenom at 95 watt class rather than the 125 watt class, 4 GB memory, what motherboard, sane cooling, etc.

How about a desktop cooled via ducting, duct tape (if necessary, don't discount it), a custom built manifold made out of cardboard > and a 20" box fan located in another room for silent cooling in one of your buildups?

How about a 4 port Areca card intead of a 3ware card, where RAID 5 & 6 levels (they're not the same, ;-p btw) become possible, or RAID 5 with hot-spare...I'd personally go with RAID 10 on one of these builds, with at least one hot spare (having suffered catastrophic deathstar-related data loss when two mirrored drives failed within hours of each other, teaching me a good lesson on the value of hardware RAID, appropriate RAID levels, hot-spare value, and the subsequent lesson Adaptec burnished into me on fake "hardware" RAID and Linux support). The problem with RAID 10 with hot-spare however, is that it requires an Areca or 3ware board with more than 4 ports, which means jumping up to an 8 port card and the extra 150% plus cost that entails.

Since you're running Drupal, reCaptcha is also an option. I'd guess you're Captcha solution is too easy to break, isn't it? Also, how about enabling the blockquote tag, I see it isn't working...

Cover info in error

Jay Griffin's picture

On the the cover of this September issue at the bottom there was the bullet info for the Ultimate Linux Box that had an error. The cost amount showed "$4,0000" and was meant to have been "$4,000" most likely. I believe this was overlooked by the proof staff in their overview before release. I would think that the cover, in the marketing aspect, should be the most verified and looked over part of the developement stages prior to entering the internal editorial stage. I am sure it was just an oversight by the delivery team. In short, it was kind of an eye catcher for me. I wonder if anyone else caught it?

Keep up the Great Linux coverage.

Nah mate ... perhaps you

Anonymous's picture

Nah mate ... perhaps you should get out more ..

That junky keyboard is bent.

Anonymous's picture

That junky keyboard is bent. Your missing several buttons from your mouse. That screen is too small. That box has too much excess trim. It lags...

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