ULB 2004 Preview: Ultimate Linux Box Boots

by Don Marti

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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