My new Linux machine for fall 2011 (planned)

October 8, 2011

My current home machine turned five years old a couple of weeks ago, so it seems like about time for for me to get serious about putting together a new one. It helps that I've been mulling this over for some time; it also helps that new software is making the my current machine feel increasingly slow, which certainly adds motivation. As a result of this I was explaining my hardware choices to someone online, so I figure that I might as well recycle what I said as an entry.

I haven't actually ordered the machine from the local clone builder so my parts list here is theoretically not yet final (and I can't be sure that everything is ideal for Linux until I've actually tried it), but I've basically settled on the following build:

Intel Core i5 2500
This strikes me as the current relatively decent sweet spot for a CPU that I want to be using for five years (the i5 2400 might be equally good but going to the i5 2500 is only $15 more from the local clone shop, so why not). I don't overclock so the K-suffix CPUs are irrelevant to me. I could get the i7 2600 but I'd basically be paying $100 more for 2 MB of L3 cache, which hardly seems worth it.

(Yes I'd get HyperThreading too, but that may be an antifeature.)

I've historically used AMD CPUs but Intel seems to be the current CPU top dog, especially if you care about thermal efficiency as well as raw CPU power.

Asus P8P67 LE motherboard
Asus is my default motherboard vendor of choice (and I've had a string of good luck with them). The LE variant of their Intel P67 chipset based P8P67 series has everything that I want and pretty much nothing that I don't; in particular I get two PS/2 connectors and external SATA.

(I also get IDE and a PCI slot if I really need either for some old piece of hardware.)

4x 4GB DDR3-1600Mhz RAM
This may be absurd but it's inexpensive, and getting 16 GB now means that I should be able to forget about RAM issues for the next five years (or more, since the rate of PC improvement seems to be slowing down). I am doing overkill this time around because back in 2006 when I put together my current home machine I opted for 'only' 2 GB on the grounds that it should be fine (and it seemed like an absurdly large amount of memory). Three or four years later, that turned out to be wrong.

A 1600 MHz speed seems to be the top of what's generally available and inexpensive, and various sources suggest that it doesn't matter too much anyways.

(I believe that it's actually cheaper than DDR3-1333 RAM would be.)

It amuses me that my home machine will have more memory than our multiuser login machines (they have 8 GB).

A fanless Radeon HD 5450 based graphics card
As an old fashioned Linux user I have very low graphics needs, so my choice was simple; I wanted a fanless ATI card that was old enough to have decent Linux open source support. This is what my clone shop currently has.

(Hopefully I am reading the entrails of the Radeon documentation correctly about what Radeon chipsets have decent support.)

(For scale, I have an Radeon X300 in my office machine and find it perfectly fine. I would like to find a fanless dual-DVI card someday, but I'm not holding my breath.)

PS: I care about open source driver support because I don't run binary drivers; performance and features of hardware under the ATI or nVidia binary drivers is irrelevant to me. As far as I know, ATI is still your best choice for open source supported graphics cards.

A SATA LG DVD-RW optical drive
I definitely want a DVD reader and the extra cost for a DVD writer is trivial, even if I haven't burned any DVDs at home over the past five years that I've had a DVD writer in my current home machine.

Two 500 GB Seagate 7200 RPM SATA drives
I'll be transplanting my current system's mirrored drives into the new system, but they'll be used purely for the user data I have on them, not the currently installed OS. Over time I've come to the conclusion that I really want the OS on different physical drives than my data so that I can disconnect my data drives and (re)install the OS without having to worry that it (or I) will screw up something and affect user filesystems.

I'm mirroring the system drives (even without user data) because I have no desire to spend any time reinstalling the OS after a disk failure if I don't have to. And disk failures always happen sooner or later.

I pick Seagate disks by reflex. Perhaps I should rethink that, but all HD manufacturers seem to be horrible in their own way (and time), and Seagates have been good to me so far.

(500 GB is absurdly large but apparently the drive vendors are all getting rid of smaller sizes, especially inexpensive 7200 RPM small sizes. Lately, even when we can get smaller SATA disks there's basically no point once you look at the relative costs involved. I think I will do something extravagant with the space, like keeping a local archive of all packages ever installed on my machine.)

Antec Sonata IV case (with power supply)
I'm not terribly enthused about this case but it's the quiet case that the local clone builder carries and it does not appear to be particularly bad. From what I've read online I'd kind of prefer an Antec Sonata Plus 550 (which is apparently the linear descendant of my current Antec P150 case, which I am quite happy with), but Antec has stopped making those. So it goes in the PC world.

(Reusing my current case has a number of issues, including requiring me to build the new machine myself.)

The clone builder assures me that I do not need an aftermarket CPU cooler. I have agreed with that since it saves me researching them.

(In general I have consciously narrowed my choices in order to actually reach the point where I can make them. For example, maybe there are better motherboards from vendors other than Asus but I have made no attempt to find them because I could spend days on that alone. The clone builder's stock parts list has been very helpful in this.)

By modern standards this is a relatively expensive machine (the current quote from the local clone builder we like is around $900) and there are a number of ways to make it cheaper (eg less RAM or a lower cost CPU). However, since I expect to be using this machine for at least as long as the five years that my current home machine has lasted, I think that it's acceptable and I'm not inclined to shave a few dollars here and there in ways that may degrade its long-term usefulness.

Somewhat contrary to what I've written before, my current plan is to install Fedora 15 on this machine. The state of Gnome 3 is irrelevant for one of my primary workstations (since my environment is entirely custom) and I might as well start out with a relatively current base (since on past evidence I am going to wind up neglecting it sooner or later).

Once I have this machine and get it working well, I guess that my next step is figuring out a replacement for my 'going to be five years old soon' LCD display (a Dell 1907FP). That will be an exciting morass, especially if I want to try to decide between a 1920x1080 widescreen display and something that's closer to my current display (assuming that there are decent non-widescreen LCDs left any more).

Sidebar: why not SSD(s)

Fundamentally for two reasons. First, I don't expect the system disks to be particularly active. The thing to accelerate would be my user filesystems, but I can't fit all of my data into current SSDs so I would still need my current mirrored data disks as overflow space. The end result of this is that I'd wind up with at least five disks in the machine (one system disk, two SSDs for my active data, and two HDs for less active data, and yes I would insist on mirroring SSDs that held my own data). This seems like expensive overkill given that I at least think that what I do is not disk intensive.

The second reason is, well, 16 GB of RAM. I am pretty sure that my working set of programs and frequently accessed files will fit easily in 16 GB, which means that a lot of things won't go to disk at all.

Comments on this page:

By gsauthof at 2011-10-08 05:58:47:

Regarding your display: I can recommend the HP LP2475w.

It is a widescreen 24" 1920x1200 display with S-IPS panel (great viewing angle, colors, contrast and 'illumination uniformity') and has a lot of connectors.

No annoying things like 'piano finish' or glossy screen.

1920x1200 is the maximum resolution you can get over over single-channel DVI (in case you connect a Laptop that only has such a digital output).

Regarding Linux graphic card support: Intel seems to be a good choice as well. Intel provides open source drivers for their current graphic cards that are integrated upstream. Sure, the graphic hardware is common only in laptops (and Intel motherboards, I assume). And the 3d capabilities are probably not that powerful as the Radeon ones.

From at 2011-10-08 08:45:54:

If you thought 2GB was absurdly huge then, and it's not now, perhaps 16GB won't last as long as you think?

From at 2011-10-08 09:45:51:

I've also generally had pretty good experience with Seagates over the years, but statistically it looks like Hitachi is doing pretty good as well. I work at a HPC site with over 2 PB of disk, and a good portion of it is Hitachi (OEM). The folks at Backblaze have also have stuck with Hitachi:

Perhaps when getting the two drives, have each one be from a different manufacturer?

I fined Intel's feature matrix absolutely maddening. Some CPU models have particular features, but not others. For example, all the CPUs that support ECC memory do not support the NX bit. Why? I can understand the concept of market segmentation, but in a CPU it seems absolutely silly. At the very least have a set up with "increasing" features, where "higher" models have a super-set of features available to "lower" models. This strange feature matrix is annoying IMHO.

From at 2011-10-08 10:20:57:

all HD manufacturers seem to be horrible in their own way (and time)

Any experience with Samsung? I have bought nothing but SpinPoint ever since my first one, and I haven’t been disappointed yet. They're quiet, they're inexpensive, they're reliable, they perform well. It would interest me to hear if you’ve had any experience to the contrary.

Aristotle Pagaltzis

By cks at 2011-10-08 13:45:49:

[...] perhaps 16GB won't last as long as you think?

I should have mentioned this. 16 GB is the maximum memory that pretty much everyone's Socket LGA1155 motherboards support right now; they only have four memory slots and 8 GB DIMMs for them don't seem to be available (yet). That maximizing the system's memory is inexpensive thus makes it an easy choice.

I don't really have experience with other hard drive vendors; I just have the impression that if you look, you can find people who've had terrible experiences with all of them. Certainly Seagate themselves have periodically had their own incidents.

(Well, technically I have experience with Hitachi. In our initial order of Sun's X2100 servers we also bought Sun disks, which were relabeled Hitachi disks; they had a terrible failure rate with both dying outright and degrading to really slow IO. However I'm not holding this against Hitachi, and other people have certainly had good experiences with them.)

From at 2011-10-08 20:59:31:

That cpu has a built in graphics. Why no use it?

Regarding hyperthreading: I would not pay $100 for hyperthreading, but it is not a misfeature. It is a feature that you may want to disable depending on the load.

For mixed loads such as compiling hyperthreading does increase performance. On a workstation with 8 cores plus hyperthreading server I found that running compiles with make -j scaled mostly linearly up to about 12 concurrent jobs. There were performance gains with more then 12 jobs, but the gains quickly leveled off. IIRC running 16 and 20 concurrent jobs took the same time.

For heavy compute jobs hyperthreading can hurt performance. In my tests I used povray and a chess program (the name escapes me). If the number of jobs was equal too or less then the number of real cores there was a slight but measurable performance hit. If there were more jobs then cores then there was a significant performance hit with hyperthreading on. In the case of povray two or three of the jobs would take twice as long. If hyperthreading was off and there was more jobs then cores then the performance hit was not as significant. I am guessing it is a kernel scheduling problem.

the upshot: For mixed loads hyperthreading is probably good. For cpu-bound computational loads hyperthreading is probably bad.

By cks at 2011-10-08 21:31:58:

That cpu has a built in graphics. Why no use it?

I'd need a different motherboard (possibly from a different company). My understanding is that the Intel P67 chipset doesn't support the CPU's built in graphics; only the H67 and Z68 chipsets do, and then you need to find a motherboard that brings the graphics out. All of ASUS's H67 and Z68 based motherboards seem to either not bring out the onboard video, lack things that I want, or are too small (too few slots to make me happy). The tradeoff doesn't seem worth it for the cost of a basic external card.

By cks at 2011-10-14 11:39:31:

A somewhat belated note: it turns out that the Hitachi drives that the Backblaze people love so much are 5400 RPM drives, not 7200 RPM drives. This is fine for their usage but not fine for me, and I don't know if their experiences would carry over to Hitachi's 7200 RPM drive line (which almost certainly uses different mechanical components and so on).

Written on 08 October 2011.
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