The Ultimate Linux Box

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

Our selection of cases boiled down to a contest between our favorite case from last year's Do-It-Yourself Ultimate Linux Box (the Silverstone TJO7-S full tower) and a new Cooler Master full tower case. We chose the Cooler Master case for both the right and wrong reasons.

Here are the right reasons. The case is almost tool-free. Almost everything snaps in and out without screws. We could jiggle in the RAID cage and flip a few plastic widgets to hold it in place, thus mounting the cage in seconds. The motherboard tray slides out, so you can mount the CPU, memory, video and RAID cards on the motherboard while the tray is outside the case. Slip the tray into the case, and it snaps into its proper place. The exceptions to the rule, where you'll need a screwdriver, are the power supply and possibly the hard drives. You'll need to use screws for hard drives only if you mount them in the 3.5" cage that comes with the case instead of inserting a RAID cage in the 5.25" bays.

The case is not without its drawbacks though. You should not have to do this, but we had to cut some plastic off the side panel in order to mount the water cooling fan for our first shot at a video card (Figure 6).

Figure 6. The original video card forced us to cut some plastic for the side panel door to close.

We had to make this modification only because the first video card we chose used a built-in water cooler with an external fan. The only reasonable place to mount the cooler was in place of the 120mm CPU case fan. We even replaced the video card's fan with a more powerful fan because our first choice of motherboard used a hot AMD CPU. You could mount the cooler on the door, but the water tubes would prevent you from opening the door completely.

Regardless, even if the door interferes with anything, you don't have to cut any plastic off. As long as you don't install something that creates a lot of heat, there isn't much need to mount fans in the side door. You can remove the door entirely if it gets in the way of anything (it snaps out easily). The case has a side panel that normally fits over the door, so you won't even notice the door is gone once you have the case assembled.

It's a good thing that the Cooler Master case has casters to allow you to roll it around. This case is a tank. It is huge. It's even bigger than the Silverstone case, and we thought that was the biggest case we'd ever seen. Oddly enough, it doesn't feel like it's as big as the Silverstone case when you work inside it with the motherboard tray inserted. The difference is negligible, but we managed to scrape a knuckle now and then while arranging cables.

If we had this to do all over again, we'd try out the Antec Nine Hundred black steel ATX Mid Tower, which sells for only $140. We can't guarantee it would be a better case, but it's smaller than our choice, and the specifications still allow for plenty of room for the RAID cage and more. It even has the 120mm fan in the right place if we chose to keep our discontinued video card. The bottom line is that you won't really know whether you've got the best case unless you try them all, and that's clearly impossible. For what it's worth, we're very happy with the case we chose. But, we could have saved ourselves the aggravation of modifying the case if we'd held out a few more weeks before picking among video cards.

Power Supply

The Thermaltake W0106RU 700-Watt power supply may sound like it is more than we needed, but it has a minimum output of 600 Watts, and a fully configured ASUS motherboard requires 550 Watts. We've had enough bad experiences with marginal performance power supplies that we're eager to err on the side of caution. Take heed that a single 8800Ultra display card requires two 12-volt connections. We can't imagine why you'd want to do this, but if you go crazy and install two of these display cards in SLI configuration, you'll need a better power supply than this one.

Monitor

We can't gush enough about the Acer AL2416 LCD monitor. Couple this puppy with a good display card, and you've got 24" of wide-screen glory for only $550. You may be able to find a better display, but we couldn't find one that competes on all three categories of size, price and performance. The 1920x1200 display is crisp, bright, has sharp contrast, and it is fast enough even for gaming.

Speakers

The Creative I-TRIGUE L3800 2.1 speakers sound terrific, whether you're playing music or composing music with an attached synthesizer plugged in to the aux port. There's not much more to say other than pick whatever speakers suit your wants and needs. This is a simple 2.1 setup (stereo with subwoofer). If you have room and play games, go for the surround-sound speakers.

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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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