The Ultimate Linux Box

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

We chose the PNY Technologies VCG8800UXPB GeForce 8800Ultra for our Ultimate Linux Box. This video card is one of the latest and greatest, which carries with it both advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is clear: performance out the wazoo. Most people will never push the card to its limits. Despite the hefty price, you'd actually pay almost as much to plug in two cheaper cards in SLI mode, and you won't get nearly the same amount of performance.

On the other hand, the card is burdened with copy protection features meant for Microsoft Vista that you'll neither want nor use. It is built to support DirectX 10 as well. We may see DirectX 10 come to Linux sometime, but we're not there yet. Finally, if you pick any of the NVIDIA series 8 cards, such as this one, most if not all of the current Linux distributions will fail to detect it properly or set it up properly. You can configure the card to use the Xorg nv driver, or download and install the latest NVIDIA drivers yourself (see the How to Install NVIDIA Drivers on Ubuntu/Kubuntu sidebar for instructions). If you use the nv driver, there isn't much reason to go with a powerful card, because that driver doesn't make use of most of the power.

Our first pick was the NVIDIA-based MSI NX8800GTX, which sports its own water-cooling system. We chose an onboard water-cooled system because of the way many motherboards situate the display card next to a slot where you'd place a RAID card. The high-powered display cards take up two slots. The RAID controller card can block some of the airflow into the display card's onboard fan. You can put the display card in the second PCI-Express slot, but that usually interferes with PCI slot on the motherboard. Our configuration does not include a PCI card, so that may be a good option to keep the display card cool.

You won't have to deal with heating problems caused by an adjacent RAID card if you can situate a two-slot display card in the second PCI-Express slot, or if you buy our recommended video card or opt for one of the less-expensive one-slot GeForce 7 series cards. We tested a second sound card in our machine when we started. The sound card took up the PCI slot, which made it impossible to move the two-slot display card to the second PCI-Express slot. The onboard audio is great, though, so you won't have any problem using the second PCI-Express slot as long as you don't need some other PCI card.

If for any reason you do need to place a two-slot display card in the first PCI-Express slot, consider that RAID controllers tend to run a bit hot too, so this just adds to the problem. A water-cooled card like the MSI moves the fan off-board, which solves the problem. The solution worked beautifully with our Cooler Master case. You can remove the 120mm CPU case fan and mount the water cooler and fan in its place. This means the display card fan doubles as a CPU case fan. We had to replace the display card fan with a more powerful fan when we tried it with an AMD FX-62-based motherboard, because the AMD FX-62 runs so hot. In the end, either fan would work well with the Intel Core 2 Quad, which doesn't need as much cooling.

We would have kept the MSI card as our recommended display card except that it is no longer available. Perhaps that should tell us it has problems we haven't yet discovered. As it turns out, the PNY GeForce 8800Ultra is faster anyway. The position of the fan on the PNY card is such that the RAID controller card does not interfere with the airflow enough to cause any heating problems.

At $670, it's a very pricey card. We're leaving it in as the default choice for the Ultimate Linux Box because it is pretty ultimate. We play games in our copious spare time (cough), so we like the way it handles 3-D graphics. Most games run—thanks to TransGaming's Cedega (although there are also native Linux 3-D games). Honestly, we're more likely to play around with 3-D rendering for amateur cartoons, so the rendering speed does come in handy.

Unless you do the same sort of thing, you won't need this much power. You can get a single NVIDIA 7950GT card instead, for example. The best of these cards generally runs at less than half the price of the 8800Ultra. Better yet, if you use an NVIDIA 7 series card like the 7950GT, you won't have to compile your own NVIDIA driver in most cases. It takes up only one slot, so you don't run into heating problems due to the proximity of the RAID card and the display card fan. You also can install two of these cards in SLI mode, which provides better performance without creating heat problems. However, two of these cards can cost almost as much as the 8800Ultra, and you won't get nearly as much performance for that money.

If you really don't need the best of the best in graphics, you still can get a screaming video card, such as the EVGA 256-P2-N636-AR GeForce 7950GT with 256MB of GDDR3 RAM for about $200, and there are plenty of decent lesser performers for less than $100.

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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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