A home Linux server? $1200?

Last Updated on September 30, 2010 by Dave Farquhar

ExtremeTech has an article about building a home Linux server. They’re recommending high-end P4s for the task. And I say, get real.
If what you want is a simple file/print server, anything that’ll take a 100-megabit NIC and has room for some good-sized hard drives will do great. You want a machine that’s running its PCI bus at 33 MHz, so a Pentium-133 is a better server than a Pentium-120, or, believe it or not, a Pentium-150. If the machine is marginal, get something other than an $8 D-Link 10/100 card or another card with the RealTek 8139 chipset. A pricier 3Com or Intel card will conserve CPU cycles for you.

Remember, too, that Linux doesn’t use the BIOS, so if a machine refuses to recognize that 200-gig hard drive you just bought, set the drive type to “none” in the BIOS and keep another, smaller drive in the system to boot from. Linux will pick up the monster drive and use it.

SCSI is much better for servers than IDE, but when two or three people (or one person) will be using it, the only advantage SCSI really offers is being better-built.

And the video recommendations in the article are absolutely ridiculous. You don’t need a GeForce 4MX 420. Dig around in your parts closet and find that 1-meg PCI video card you bought back in 1995 and haven’t used in five years. We’re talking a system that’s going to be using text mode. Or buy the very cheapest OEM AGP video card you can find to save a PCI slot for something useful–last time I looked, Newegg.com had a cheap AGP card based on an old ATI chipset for 18 bucks.

So don’t listen to those guys. If you want to build a Linux server and all you’ve got to work with is a Pentium-100, go for it. It won’t perform like their aging 1.13 GHz P3 (the slower machine in their benchmarks) but for a home network, it’s plenty. Keep in mind this Website is running off a P2-450. I’ve watched it under heavy traffic. There are two bottlenecks when it’s serving files to someone on broadband: My DSL connection, and the Web browser on the other side. The only time I’ve ever seen CPU usage on this box top 50% for more than a few seconds is when someone loads that giant GPS thread (the post with more than 200 comments).

Just be aware that some Linux distros aren’t too wild about older BIOSes. I’ve got a P133 that won’t boot the Mandrake 7.2 CD (yeah, it’s old–that’s how long it’s been since I used Mandrake) or the Debian 3.0 CD, but Debian 2.2 works fine. So be aware that you might have to experiment a little.

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15 thoughts on “A home Linux server? $1200?

  • October 10, 2002 at 2:57 pm

    The funny thing is, this article that advocates a 2.4-GHz CPU puts an IDE disk in the server. A busy file server will benefit much more from a SCSI drive than it will from all that idle CPU power.

    Realistically, I don’t think a family of four that’s looking to provide a few gigs’ worth of centralized disk storage, print services, and some network glue like DHCP and caching DNS needs SCSI. On the other hand, you can pick up a secondhand P2-based business workstation with a nice SCSI subsystem for $200 (Gatermann’s got an HP Kayak; Steve DeLassus and I have Dell Optiplexes) and that will be all the server most people could ever need. Our Dells even had onboard 3Com Ethernet, so they were truly a plug-in-and-go affair.

    We’ve got some 200 MHz Pentium Pro servers at work supporting hundreds of users. They’re fine. They don’t impress anyone with their specs and they could be a little faster, but the cost of migrating them is higher than the minor productivity gains would be worth. And they’re running NT!

  • October 10, 2002 at 4:51 pm

    The ExtremeTech article is clearly written by people that are not Linux Savvy at all. Several things in the article clearly illustrates this and of course they totally miss the point, treating Linux as it were a Windows 2000 Server specification for several users and not a home based server. I myself am using a Ppro 200 and it hums along just fine. I got no sound card in it and I haven’t installed X either. Why should I? It is a server. Being Linux I only rarely need to do any serious work on it and I am not afraid of the command line or vi so graphics are overkill. That machine only got two cables running to it (network and power).

    I would like to say something about your SCSI discussion above. While I agree that SCSI drives are of higher quality, I fail to see the real need for SCSI in a backed up home server running a single harddisk or maybe two. The reason is that these “servers” (i.e. home based central file/print/web/etc servers) won’t be running heavily for the most part of their life. If that is true, then where is the SCSI benefit? Not to mention that SCSI is often built for servers which sit in cooled server rooms which means that these drives most of the time run hotter and louder than their IDE counterparts.

    I can feel that you are ready to bring out the big guns on me after the above but please believe me when I say that I am not trying to defend IDE in any way. I have done lots of tests on this and the latest being two Dell’s at work, both running Linux. The computer with the SCSI drive (9 gig) had double 300MHz PII’s and the other had a single 266MHz PII processor and a 6 gig IDE disk. I did some tests on both machines and I actually found that the IDE disk had slightly higher throughput than the SCSI disk. Of course it consumed more CPU but the difference wasn’t as great as I thought it would be. The machine with IDE could do more work than any family will ever request of such a machine so I simply can’t agree that a SCSI drive is a must. Of course the SCSI drive machine was loud as hell in comparison to the other but that is another thing all together.

    Where SCSI shines is in real servers doing real jobs in a RAID environment. That is where advanced SCSI adapters come into their own. I have received questions from customers on those RAID cards available for IDE drives and I tell them to forget it. I even wrote a document that was published to our customers on what to think of (most ly in terms of I/O) when setting up a server to run our software (which is both read and write intensive). I only mentioned IDE drives once in that document, and that was to say that IDE isn’t and won’t anytime soon be a replacement for SCSI.

    I got 3 possible machines at home that could be used as a server. A 400MHz Celeron, a 400MHz K6-2 and my “old faithful” Ppro 200. So why am I using the slowest?? Easy, I want a quiet machine that can run 24/7. There is only one fan in the machine (in the PS) and I bought a 40 gig Seagate U6 to run in it just so I wouldn’t have to listen to it constantly. It is whisper quiet, even during access. So what if a tough copy job takes a few minutes longer than it would do on a faster machine with a faster drive? I’ll go brew some joe, but mostly I don’t feel it because I am not actively working on the machine.

    Anyway, to end my post I would like to mention that the BIOS in this dell only sees 8.4 gig harddrive and just like you said Dave, Linux doesn’t care. But you don’t need another drive in the machine to boot from. I only got that 40 gig drive in my machine and it works without problems.


  • October 10, 2002 at 6:35 pm

    Dave, I wasn’t saying SCSI is a necessity, but if the cost of entry is low enough, why not do it? Unless noise is a consideration, but my 10K RPM SCSI drives don’t make any more noise than my IDE drives do. I’ve got a 7200-rpm SCSI disk that’s a little loud but I know what I’m going to do about that. (Basement!)

    Different systems will behave differently when you put a too-big IDE drive in them. Some of them will refuse to see more than a set amount of it, but others refuse to boot at all. I’ve got a system that won’t boot if you go past its limit (which I can’t remember if it’s 8.4 or something higher). But in that case the workaround is easy: Set the drive type to NONE in the BIOS and either make a boot floppy and boot off the floppy, or put a small IDE drive in there to hold /boot. A 40-meg drive plundered from an abandoned 386sx will do fine. You can idle the boot drive with hdparm once the system’s started up to cut down on the noise and power requirements.

  • October 11, 2002 at 9:44 am

    My HP p100 and Dell Opti p200 servers both complain about booting headless and keyboardless. I believe it is a bios problem in each case. I have searched every bios page to try to turn off the warnings, however, I cant find the setting. Is there a way to force the bios to not check for a keyboard or monitor. As it is, it is a pain to have to plug in a monitor and keyboard on those rare occasions that I have to reboot the systems. Any help would be appreciated.

  • October 11, 2002 at 10:53 am

    It depends on the BIOS. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a PC complain about booting without a monitor, so I’m inclined to think you can get away with that. If you confirm that you can’t boot with a keyboard in place but no monitor, replacing the video card with a dumber one would solve that problem (assuming the video isn’t onboard or can be disabled). If the system’s headless, pick up a grotty old 1-meg PCI card from someplace like surpluscomputers.com or computersurplusoutlet.com for 5 bucks. For that matter, an ISA card would be fine if you have one and the system has ISA slots.

    Keyboards definitely can be an issue. You might look for a setting that says “Proceed on error” or something like that if there’s nothing that explicitly mentions the keyboard.

    Failing that, I’ve heard of people taking apart an old or cheap keyboard and taking out the small PCB with cable attached and plugging that in. That’s enough to keep the BIOS happy, and takes up minimal space (the PCB is usually about 4″x1″ in size). You can just wind up the cable and stash it and the PCB somewhere behind the machine.

    I know when I was doing desktop support I had dead keyboards all over the place. Try bumming a dead keyboard off your desktop support guys at work and see if a surgically removed PCB from one of those solves your problem. I’d do that first because I always feel bad about wrecking something that works and could be useful to someone.

    Failing that, the cheapest keyboards at Newegg.com at the moment are $3.50, and I know Directron.com usually sells refurb keyboards for a buck or two. You might think about picking up a couple the next time you need to order a hard drive or something.

  • October 11, 2002 at 12:32 pm

    Hey Dave, could be one reason why they’re pitching
    a 2.4G P4 with all that crap that no one needs for
    a server is that they know that people will actually
    buy something from their advertisers then. You’re
    not getting any clickthru sales by pitching leftover P1’s and
    2’s as servers, right? Call me cynical but…
    Or it could be just as you say, they’re just W2K-clueful and Linux-clueless.

  • October 11, 2002 at 5:55 pm

    I was just checking out this site and thought i would drop a line. If you need good USED DELL optiplex systems: p2-400, 128 ram, 6gig, fd, integrated NIC and video for a cheap computer system $150 with no OS, we can get them. Also cheap Dell notebooks.. If you can figure out how to get the Linux on it or whatever, we are a local St. Louis hardware store.. Email me or check out our used/refurbished stuff area on our website (www.dimension-computer.com) PS. THis is a pretty cool site.

  • October 12, 2002 at 8:31 am


  • October 12, 2002 at 11:30 am

    Interesting discussion about keyboardless/headless booting. I keep an extra keyboard plugged into my server for just that reason–as I recall it hangs at some point during the POST if it doesn’t find a keyboard. I’ll have to try looking for a bios setting to turn it off or see if I have a dead keyboard around to see if just the PCB attached will do the trick.

    It’ll probably be a couple of months before I try, though. The machine, running RH 7.3, only gets booted when my power goes out longer than my UPS can hold up, which typically occurs every few months.

    As for the article being clueless, talk of a GeForce 4MX 420 is enough to tell you that. I have one of the cheap $99 ones in both my Linux workstation and Win2k workstation, and they work well for 3D games, but are wasted in a server. In a linux workstation, Red Hat 8 recognizes the card and works ok, but you still have to install nVidia’s drivers to use opengl for 3D acceleration.

    But for a server, as you say, I don’t even run the gui. The only time I’ll even use the video card is if ssh isn’t running, so why waste the $.

    As for scsi, well, I think of real servers as both running scsi and raid. But in the home, while I’d like to play with scsi, price tends to be #1. Heat is an issue, and lately I’ve decided that when I build another computer noise reduction will rate very high. Performance with any new drive probably won’t be an issue, at least for me.

  • October 12, 2002 at 11:41 am

    Actually, it occurs to me that I should amend my previous post. Where I work, NT servers have scsi and raid, unix servers are on a SAN. So, I’d say that real servers are on a SAN.

    I won’t be installing one of those at home anytime soon, though. Nor a diesel generator so that I can outlast power outages.

  • October 12, 2002 at 2:42 pm

    Oh, and Dave G., the advertising/editorial aspect you brought up can be a sticky issue. Some publications don’t even let the editorial and ad staff use the same elevators to avoid the conflict of interest. But advertisers do try to influence editorial and sometimes they can. When a big account pulls an ad, the ad people are screaming bloody murder to the editorial people.

    So yeah, I agree that what you brought up could be a possibility. In the online world, advertisers have a lot of weight to throw around. That’s why we see so many popunders and so many multi-page-for-no-good-reason stories.

  • October 12, 2002 at 3:11 pm

    Steve, what do you mean you won’t be buying a SAN for home use?? Although ExtremeTech didn’t mention it in this years Linux server article, it will surely pop up next year as a “must have” 🙂 It is state of the art Hitachi SAN equipment that counts and nothing less 🙂

    Not all computers will allow you to ignore keyboard error warnings in BIOS. I got four Dells at home that I adopted from work after my employer threw them into the bin and all of those have BIOSes that allow me to ignore keyboard warnings. I have 3 home built units and all but one allow it as well. I know that companies like Compaq don’t give you much freedom to choose how your computer boots and runs and I guess HP is the same although I have no experience with their hardware.

    As for home use, it is most bang for the buck that is the deciding factor as well as noise for me. I got a high performance Maxtor 60GB drive in my main machine and it is the loudest thing in my room and it is honestly beginning to get on my nerves. I also got a 20Gb IBM 34GXP drive that is now retired, collecting dust because of it’s noise levels. But just like the Maxtor drive, it is really fast and performance is impressive compared to most IDE/ATA drives I have played around with. But the high whine factor takes the fun out of computing, especially when I like to listen to music or even watch TV in a small window while I work.

    I understand David F. when he says that entry level SCSI are cheap in the U.S. but here it is different. You still pay a premium for SCSI, even on the second hand market where SCSI stuff is not found that often so when they appear, the seller can usually get a decent payment for his stuff. I got a decent SCSI adapter and a great SCSI CD-ROM but I got no harddisks that would allow me to set up a no IDE/ATA system. I have been looking but I haven’t found anything worth putting my money on.

    Dave T.

  • October 12, 2002 at 9:32 pm

    Dave T,

    Well, right now my computing environment is just 1 Win2k box, 2 Red Hat, 1 PS one and 1 Nintendo 64. Plus, probably various chips in my cars, etc. But PC wise, only 3 boxes.

    Once I add a couple more, though, you have a point. A nice fibre-channel back end network with a bunch of drives will be just the thing ;). I’m sure my wife will understand.

  • October 13, 2002 at 1:43 am

    Hey, Steve, just remember to pass along whatever ‘explanation’ you get away with on that!

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