When it comes to putting together a kick-ass Linux box, I usually prefer building my own box. It generally works out better, I get to pick the hardware so I know it's quality and I know that the support in Linux is very good.
However, there are sometimes when building your own box isn't practical. I recently found myself in this situation, and I had to purchase some pre-built rack mountable machines from a vendor. Here's what I wanted minimally in each machine.
- 1U rack mountable
- Dual Core processor
- 64-Bit processor
- DDR2 memory
- 10K RPM SATA Hard Drive
- Dual Giga-Bit Ethernet
And I need them to be inexpensive because I was working on a small budget.
The machine I ended up selecting was the Dell 1950, which at the time was a brand new offering. Technically the machine more than met my prerequisites including the low cost. However my biggest concern was that the support for Linux would be poor.
Upon receiving the machines, I began to experimenting with two different distributions of Linux (Ubuntu Dapper Drake, and Suse 10.1). Here is what I found out.
Ubuntu (6.06) "Dapper Drake" Server
I chose the Server version from Ubuntu for the following reasons, it's absolutely free, it is only one CD to download, it takes less than 10 minutes to completely install, and it installs a very minimal set of tools which are perfect for creating a server to do just about anything. My favorite thing about Ubuntu Server is that is comes with NO servers pre-installed.
If you are going to install Ubuntu on a Dell 1950, make sure that you download the 64-bit version of Ubuntu. If you try to install the 32-bit version, the install will not complain. It will install normally, but you will not get any of the benefits of the 64-bit processors in the system.
My biggest concern was that the installer would not be able to find some of the hardware. The Ubuntu Server installer was able to find all of the hardware in the system, except the network cards (Broadcom® NetXtreme IITM 5708). At first this seemed like a major problem, however I was able to continue through the installer by telling it to ignore the fact that it couldn't find my Ethernet. Everything else installed fine. However, when the installer went to reboot the system, the screen locked up completely. Yikes! So I held in the power button, the system turned off. I powered up the system and was happily greeted by the login prompt.
After logging in, it was my first priority to try to get the Ethernet working. Upon closer examination, I found that Ubuntu had already loaded the driver I needed, and all I had to do was configure my devices. So I opened up the /etc/network/interfaces file and add records for each Ethernet device, and restart the network (sudo /etc/init.d/networking restart). Sure enough I had two fully functioning Ethernet devices.
After a little bit of poking around, it seems that the kernel on the installer CD doesn't have the driver that is needed for this network card, but that the kernel that is installed does have the correct driver. The driver that worked for me was called 'bnx2'.
In addition to my good fortune with the network cards, I found that when I rebooted the system, it no longer froze. So other than these two small gotchas I was able to get the system working perfectly, with a very minimal amount of work.
I'm going to start by saying I had a major problem with the Suse installer, so I didn't pursue working with it for very long. The problem I had was that the installer wouldn't recognize the hard drive. I'm not exactly sure what the problem was because it seemed to load the drivers for the SAS controller without any problems. But something wasn't right because it couldn't find the hard drive at all.
I would imagine that if you were using Suse Enterprise edition, this problem wouldn't exist as Dell ships a CD with a special installer program that is used to give the Dell drivers to the Suse installer. Unfortunately this software would not work with OpenSuse.
If you are looking for a reasonably priced server with great performance I would recommend the Dell 1950. In addition, if you are looking to run Linux on it, I would recommend using Ubuntu Server. It is easy to setup on this hardware, and is a very solid distribution overall.