Solaris x86 Desktop Hardware Shopping

I'm not sure if it's the Christmas holiday coming up soon, or if it's just coincidence, but the 3rd person this week emailed me this week asking for recommendations on a Solaris x86 box. Two were asking about low cost laptops for kids that will dual boot, and the other was for a home server. There's also been this interesting internal discussion on small form factor Solaris x86 boxes that's garnered a lot of enthusiasm and suggestions for small appliance systems.

I'm by no means the expert on hardware, especially the high end. I know you can buy that premium stuff online at the Sun shop which has a new look and feel. Surprisingly, I needed to do a double take when I just looked at this site, just now, because while I sometimes have a disdain for big-iron workstations, a dual core Opteron workstation starting at $995 from Sun has to be a printing error, right? It's missing an extra digit somewhere. No, it actually looks like a real price, and it looks like it comes with 1 yr hardware support too. That's pretty hard to believe coming from Sun. We're actually selling them cheap. I'll need to look further into the shop to see what other stuff we sell. But back to the really low-end do-it-urself boxes and shopping for Hardware.

I've been known to have a weakness for big sales (except ones requiring rebates), and I have a hoarding instinct for this computer stuff. Some folks refer to this as a disease. And yes, admittedly, I've got some variation of the illness. But I reassure myself that I'm not the worst. I do have lots of spare parts, but it's all well organized into bins and boxed and bagged properly in anti-static bags. And I tend not to carry anything expensive or power-hungry. For example, the fastest CPU I keep in stock is maybe an Athlon-64 3000+, and I only have one of these. And the biggest graphics card is maybe a 128MB AGP8x unit. The rest is slower, really cheap, but extremely usable and great for fixing computers and great for building Solaris boxes. I'm referring here to my home inventory; not my work, where we get to play sometimes with some bigger, enterprise type systems.

And my stockpile of stuff has come in handy on occasion, like when my nephew's budget "educational software" (i.e. gaming) system died recently due to a bad power supply that then led to a fried motherboard. I had both a compatible micro-ATX motherboard in stock, plus a newer, quiet power supply too and he was back up and running; Or when my Dad's box suffered back-to-back power outages during a recent late summer rain storm that shorted out the power supply, I had a surge protector and new special TFX12V power supply in stock, and still have another in stock just in case. Or if my psychic powers are right, I predict my Bro-in-law will have paging issues with a particular PC game that is memory hog and that extra stick of 512MB DDR333 will be the salvation he will be looking for... just mark my words. I've got it in stock and people will need it!

If you stockpile more than 5 boxed motherboards, or 5 new cases, or more than 5 separate power-supplies, then probably you fall into the class of electronics junky known as a "Hardware 'Ho". The etymology, I'm told, is not from anything related to the "Ho, Ho, Ho..." from a cheerful Santa at Christmas, but from the slang term for "Whore" implying, you'll pay anything to get close to computer hardware. I suffer similar issues with being a Fishing Tackle 'Ho, and I'm also a recovering Bicycle Gear 'Ho. But that said, there are ways to live with being a HW Ho and not break the bank. For example, one way is to focus your energies on low-cost, low-power stuff that works well with Solaris x86. That's how I channel the urge spend all available money on hardware on the biggest, baddest and most power-hungry systems into a contest of who can achieve the best price/power/performance. So, for example, instead of say, blowing $650 on a graphics card to get better frame rates on Quake 4, I simply evaluate 3 integrated graphics motherboards under $50 and experiment with which one has the best graphics performance for the dollar. Another part of my therapy is to go to Fry's for lunch (their small cafe inside the store has surprisingly decent sandwiches) and buy no hardware. The goal is to resist the urge to spend money frivolously while being tempted by a store full of stuff ready to buy. Becoming a discriminating shopper for Solaris-compatible stuff is a good way to curb that urge to waste money, and we'll go more in-depth below.

Step 1: Solaris End-User Requirements

As far as I know, Solaris isn't really an OS for gaming, at least not yet. It's possible to dual boot a Solaris box with Windows so that you can have an awesome PC gaming system, but get real work and do real Solaris development using the same box. But as a home-user, I use it for word processing, spread sheets, some digital photo stuff, email client, web browser client, playing and ripping audio, as a file/web/email server and firewall. I also VPN into work from home using IPSec and I burn a lot of CD and DVD iso images. I find these were most of the things I used to do with Linux, but less and less because on Solaris, the software now performs as well if not better than Linux, and has pretty solid stability even across kernel versions. I can tell that it won't be long before, at least in our household, Linux won't be active, although, I plan to always keep a current copy of a popular free distro around to play with.

More than just software and performance requirements, I also have environmental requirements. My living room and bedroom are places where these systems will stay. People coexist here and must endure the noise. People living in a place also stirs up air and dust too, and the PCs need to behave stably with lots of dust fouling during hot summers and cold winters.

If your requirements are like mine, nothing there really needs a lot of big-honkin' iron processing. Some of the audio ripping and conversion, or editing photo images does take some CPU and memory, but for the most part, any Pentium-3 class machine with more than 600MHz and 512MB of PC133 SDRAM is almost adequate for Solaris. Anything much faster, will be spent idling, or burning more Watts which costs money if folks actually stopped to think of the costs to power and cool a system. In addtion, it could shorten the life of the system because that extra power requirement goes into more fans to suck more air in to cool the system, depositing more dust that can foul and burn out power supplies and overheat capacitors on the motherboard causing failure. Some of my colleagues refer to their home racks as "air filters" for the home, since they suck up so much air and deposit soot inside the case.

This doesn't mean we should just stop buying newer, high speed hardware. In fact, quite the opposite. While the CPU and memory might have achieved performance adequacy 5 years ago for home users, some newer systems may provide even better power economy while running faster, as well as support newer, faster chipsets, graphics and monitors, faster networking and USB peripherals, and are likely to be more available in stores at a lower price, than having to try to find it on some auction site because the original part is no longer made. Sellers rarely make overt offers for low-power, high-value hardware; you need to look for these deals.

Step 2: What works with Solaris x86

To find out the official list of hardware items that work with Solaris, there's an official site called the BigAdmin HCL. On that page, you'll get a list of servers, desktops, motherboards and laptops that are certified or reported to work with official Solaris 10 and Solaris Express. The HCL allows companies and individuals to buy a Support Contract from Sun for an annual fee. Using the OS is still free. Folks can also download the Hardware Compatibility Test Suite (HCTS) from Sun and run this on their hardware and submit their entries. Version 3.0 of HCTS recently went public and it runs for about 12 hours and tests the filesystems, cpu, memory and network pretty intensely during that time. It requires two machines (a system-under-test SUT, and a Test Manager/Server) hooked up back-to-back, or through a seperate switch on a private network to run the fully networked test. The Solaris Marketing folks used to have a Tshirt Give-away for anyone who registered, downloaded the HCTS and tried to run it, then made a Report-To-Work submission or certification. I made a bunch of submissions, but found out later than Sun employees were forbidden to participate in that contest, and anyway, they didn't have 3XLT tshirts to fit me. Bummer.

Unofficially, Solaris x86, especially, the latest build of Open Solaris, supports a lot more hardware. In general, Solaris will run on most major CPUs (AMD, Intel, VIA) and motherboard bridges and north/southbridge chipsets that support Intel's x86 instruction set or the AMD64 instructions (or variant, such as Intel's version - EM64T). This includes standard I/O like IDE/ATAPI interfaces, any SATA interfaces that support IDE legacy mode, systems with PCI, PCI-X, and PCIe bus, older ISA bus support for PS/2 keyboards, mouse, peripherals and Serial and Parallel I/O, most on-board USB, and systems with an AGP slot. Typically, Solaris can be install in console mode on any x86 system with about 128MB of memory, some type of ATAPI optical drive and some type of supported hard disk with at least 5GB of free space. But if you want something usable, 512MB or more RAM is good, and 80 GB disk might be a start. By default Solaris x86 auto-senses 32-bit or 64-bit architecture and boots the OS as appropriate. And yes, the 64-bit version of OS is fully compatible with 32-bit user applications.

Where Solaris doesn't work out-of-the-box is for certain on-board and common peripheral devices like new native SATA and RAID controllers, Wireless 802.11, some ethernet chips, some new graphics cards, or and with some types of high-definition (HD) audio devices. Solaris also lacks software and drivers with proprietary peripherals, like Point-of-Sale scanners, printers, card-swipes, kiosks, etc. Many network, audio, and storage controller drivers are available from third parties, and in the open source space and there are companies that sell proprietary drivers solutions that run on Solaris as well. There are a few drivers in the GNU GPL space that Solaris might be better off having, but those are getting fewer as hardware vendors are coming over to Solaris and we apply more engineering resources for porting. For the time being, it still pays to stick with what we know.

Step 2a: Motherboard Selection

With some experience, we find that most chipsets work with Solaris and it isn't really a particular maker or brand that causes incompatibilities, but it's an onboard peripheral bundled with that particular chipset that may not have a supported driver. When that is a native-only storage controller or NIC or Graphics port, then immediately the Solaris install is more difficult. So the trick isn't so much choosing the maker or the chipset, but knowing what peripherals come with a particular board or chipset-bundle. In some cases, the behaviour of a peripheral, like a native SATA controller, can be adjusted to set to use legacy-mode only, in which case, the board works fine with Solaris.

I like the low-end and all-in-one chipsets because this category provides excellent price/performance and low-cost to buy and own. Counter to what others tell me, I actually think the cheapest and most mass market motherboards are some of the most abused and tested board on the market, and therefore, manufacturers tend to make them more robust to human abuse than on server boards that cost 10 times as much, but have a much smaller marketshare. Certainly, the margins are much greater on server hardware (yeah, we at Sun should talk... we're in that business). But the whole ideal of achieving volume Solaris for the Proletariat means (a) making it cheap to get the OS, and (b) having it install and run well on a damn cheap box!

Rather than go through each chipset and what works, it's probably easier to say what is not likely to work. Since most CPUs, bridges, buses, and standard I/O controllers to memory and disk have to be somewhat compatible with Windows/x86 instructions and memory flow, for the most part, Solaris just works and recognizes and uses that hardware like any other x86 operating system. Standard drivers are in place for the usual ISA legacy devices like serial, parallel, ps/2 mouse and keyboard. Also supported for the most part and standard USB devices and USB storage, and ATAPI drives like IDE disks and CD/DVD ROM and Burner drives and any SATA drives that are running in Legacy IDE mode.

Step 2b: Graphics Selection

What might NOT be fully supported in the install media are the graphics, NICs, audio devices, and WiFi networking chips. These don't necessarily mean that all is hopeless. Some drivers can be downloaded from the web if another system is available and networked and you have something, like a USB jump drive to copy drivers after the initial install for configuration. In other cases, there may be no support for the onboard device, but you might be able to install an add-on card that works with the board you have. Graphics is a good example. Up until build 53 of Solaris Nevada, the AGPgart driver didn't support the onboard VIA Unichrome Pro graphics on any of my newer VIA systems. But those systems all had optional AGP4x/8x slot or PCIe and it was possible to buy a very inexpensive ($15 - $20 online) ATI- or nVidia-based AGP card from a previous chipset line (e.g. ATI Radeon 7000 or nVidia MX-4000). Laptops are different story when it comes to graphics - pretty much, you're stuck with what you get. In these cases, Solaris supports the slightly higher end embedded graphics chips like the ATI Radeon Xpress 200M or the nVidia GeForce 6100/6150. Solaris has lots of issues with Intel embedded graphics, even among chipset variants and vendor implementations that should be supported by the Xorg Intel embedded graphics drivers. I often have the same graphics non-compliance issues with Linux, and luckily, it's been getting less frequent with both Linux and Solaris, as it should since both leverage the Xorg source. But I try to avoid embedded Intel graphics on a system for running Solaris graphics mode. But ATI and nVidia seem like well support brands these days. We even support the newer nVidia Quadro line in Solaris.

Step 2c: NIC selection

With NICs, the problem is less difficult. There are many free drivers out there for Solaris. Murayama-san puts out a bunch of open source, free Solaris NIC drivers. So the installation may not find any drivers for the ethernet devices onboard, but if you have a VIA, SiS, Tulip, Davicom, or other mass market embedded NIC, then most likely, there's a driver for it. What folks may want to avoid are the newer embedded PCI-Express GigE NICs. The drivers may actually use the same core logic, but the PCIe bus signals and handles interrupts differently over PCI. We do support most high-end PCIe server NICs, but each has a specific initialization and so this is device specific and our driver requires some amount of code to correctly initialize each variant of that MAC. So it isn't as easy as trying to stick that vendor/device ID into the /etc/driver_aliases file and run devfsadm to initialize one of these PCIe embedded NICs. It may work, but usually not. Luckily, if you need a NIC and this isn't some laptop where you have no choice, then you can get a Realtek 8139-based Fast 10/100BT PCI card for about $0.99 on sale (sometimes $0.49), and I've purchased 3 Realtek 8169 10/100/1000 GigE PCI cards which I paid $4.99 for each. This is brand new. Not used.

Step 2d: Audio Selection

Solaris 10 and later supports most Intel Spec AC'97 audio, VIA 823x Audio, and some legacy Sound Blaster stuff. That covers about half of all the audio on most boards these days. There are still a few boards with AC'97 audio which the Solaris included install media won't recognize, and there is the new class of High Definition or HD Audio chips. For folks with an unknown AC'97 type of audio controller/codec combination (read your spec sheet or prtconf -pv and find the PCI vendor and device ID and web search that device to find out what it supports), most likely, you have a good chance if you download Jurgen Keil's audio drivers and install them. Jurgen supplies his own versions of VIA and AC97 Intel audio drivers. These have different module names and will not clobber the existing drivers, and his installation package does a good job of pruning and transferring PCI vendor and device IDs to his driver control where both the Sun drivers collide with his drivers. Jurgen's drivers are especially useful with some AC97 codecs that have a non-standard sample rate conversion hardware. Where the Sun audio810 driver fails, or takes a huge performance hit going with a software sample rate converter (am_src module), Jurgen's driver allows one to compute the proper sample rate and set it as a configurable in the /platform/i86pc/kernel/drv/audioi810.conf which usually gets the driver to play audio at the proper speed. The information on how to do this is actually in the .conf file itself and has come in handy on a Compaq motherboard with Intel 815 chipset and AC97 audio. Jurgen's VIA drivers eat a bit more memory for buffer space, but lower the interrupt rate dramatically, eliminating almost any hiccups on some very slow first-gen EPIA 500 fanless C3 mini-ITX systems and allow those to play flawless audio.

As of Nevada build 44, Minskey Guo and the Beijing team did a put back of a quick High Definition compatible audiohd driver implementation. Minskey says he was "helping" me, but actually, he did most of the heavy lifting on the all-nighter coding and testing. I ought to send this guy a case of quality beer and certificates for Pizza Hut in Beijing. I wonder if they deliver like in Tokyo?

HD audio comes from a 2004 Intel spec and is pretty much different and not meant to be compatible with AC97. First of all, the spec which is available from Intel's site separates the combined AC97 controller/codec into separate HD audio controller interface and compliant codec. Capabilities are for much higher bit rate (upto 192kbps for 8 channel - 7.1 audio) versus the old AC97 (48kbps for 6 channel - 5.1 audio). This allows motherboard vendors more performance and choice in selecting the codec and implementing rich audio support for multiple devices, playing different streams simultaneously. At the same time, if the driver is implemented with good support for codec discovery, it's possible to implement a universal audio driver that can ideally parse and initialize any codec. All communications between audio applications to the device are through the controller and through defined kernel DMA structures. This eliminates applications ever needing to hold onto pesky base address register values once the memory segments, driver and codec initialization are complete. The only problem is that support for codec discovery isn't trivial and can take time to test and properly debug. Also, we learn in the hardware business that every codec isn't quite the same and there's always some errata on either the controller or the analog pinouts the codec is hooked up to, such that the discovery may not provide correct information. It's quite a bit easier and faster if the register specs are available to simply check for codec device and do the initialization in the driver code or to use an external configuration file that enumerates name=value pairs of properties that specify where the standard pins for that codec are. It makes it easy for vendors to ship audio codec initialization files too as properties. But that all depends on if vendors are willing to give out the specs on their codecs. Which is really the crux of the problem, since that's been somewhat hard to get except for the Realtek, which have just been excellent Solaris partners. So far, the Nevada audiohd driver can support most Realtek HD audio codes like the 260, 880, 883, and 885 and others. And this supports stereo audio playback and recording. But the number of tested HD Audio controllers isn't great. But if you have a Realtek codec or think you may have one, you may still be able to get the driver to work by editing the /etc/driver_aliases file, and searching for "audiohd". Then add an entry in the same format for a new device. For example, on my MSI K8NGM2 motherboard system with MCP51 chipset and HD Audio controller, the PCI device node blocks me from seeing the codec directly, but a "prtconf -pv" shows the controller as "pci10de,26c" which I added to the list, then ran devfsadm -i audiohd, reboot and suddenly, the audiohd driver works great. The driver may work for quite a few other audiohd controllers that are back-ended using Realtek HD Audio codecs. But we didn't have too many systems at this point to play around with, although a number of laptops are now coming out with HD Audio standard. Many don't use a Realtek HD audio codec, but some other brand, like a SigmaTel.

Support is unlikely until we get specs, or if we have time to work out a really good parsing algorithm for codec discovery. But for the time being, you're not all shot on Solaris if you have HD Audio. In fact, there may be a version of OSS (Open Sound System) from 4Front Technologies that works on Solaris x86. 4Front has been doing high quality commercial audio drivers for UNIX for years. And their latest stuff is free for personal use and has a 6 month license that is renewable for free every 6 months, or can be purchased perpetually for just $49 to end the hassle of re-submitting for that license key. I've tried the OSS stuff and it does work with the ATI SB450 HD Audio controller and codec underneath on my new bargain Toshiba M115-S1064 laptop. The audio worked fine out of the box, but had some issues with standard Solaris audio support devices (like the Gnome volume control) not responding on the laptop (since there is a manual dial for audio volume), but otherwise it sounded good. I have some poorly ripped Enrique Iglesias and Led Zepplin tracks that had lots of Cymbals and high pitch audio that got a bit over saturated and tinny in this driver. But I peeked at the hdaudio.conf driver (no collisions in the name space again) and I downgraded the quality of the input audio stream the driver was expecting to medium (instead of the default - high) and suddenly, the tinniness went away and I was hearing great audio again. It pays to try different settings in the driver if it has a .conf file. Hopefully, between the existing drivers, Jurgen's drivers, and OSS drivers, most audio chips will just work with Solaris.

Step 2e: WiFi Selection

I used to think selecting a WiFi chip was specific to laptops. But recently, in Sunnyvale, the Mtn.View based company: MetroFi Wireless, has installed a bunch of WiFi base stations. These are advertising supported services, but it's changed my outlook on how to help the families of kids at my local elementary get online using broadband. Instead of deploying a donated and refurbished Linux Box with some semi-expensive and rare controller-based modem for a cheap dialup service, the PTA might be able to collect donations and get some cheap PCI WiFi cards, install them into these systems, and then use wifi to get on the network with no monthly or annual dialup fees. We wouldn't be limited to Linux and its LinModem support, which is mercurial at best with the plethora of Host-signal processing (i.e. controller-less) modems. We could go stock 802.11g and with the right booster antennas, users should could get good WiFi signal.

That's motivated me to look more closely at WiFi support and not just on laptops, but at built-in, cardbus, and PCI card WiFi NICs. A big list of WiFi drivers recently got into build 53 of Nevada. These support PCI, mini-PCI and cardbus versions of popular 802.11b/g chipsets including the Intel Pro Wireless 2100 and 2200bg/2915abg, the Prism/Orinoco chipsets, the Atheros 52xx series, the Ralink Technologies RT2500 series chipsets, the Realtek 802.11b wireless chipset and the Cisco Airnet chipsets. The Atheros driver works with most of the previous mini-PCI laptop ABG cards. It doesn't quite work yet with the newer AR5006 PCI express line which is starting to become more prominent with laptops. The same story goes for the Intel ipw3945 which is also a PCIe device showing up in lots of laptops, and latestly, the Broadcom BCM4306 line of WiFi chips fills in the remainder. So none of the newer Wifi chips are supported... yet. But my bet is on the AR5006 since it's already available in the MADwifi driver on Linux so it shouldn't be too long. I don't have too much public news about the ipw3945 or the bcm4306 except that we don't have the specs to write the driver, but some reports claim that the NDIS wrapper can provide a usable and stable driver for either device on most laptops.

But besides laptops, what's interesting is the availability of WPA on top of a lot of PCI-bus WiFi-BG cards. To my surprise, a lot of the cheapest (e.g. Airlink 101) PCI WiFi cards are based either on the Atheros (Super g) 5212 chip, or the RaLink RT2500 chipset (regular G). These are cards that show up frequently on sale for under $20 at stores like Fry's. And the RT2500 version have been down as low as $7 for the card (limit 2 per customer) which is why I have two at home. For folks that don't want to rewire their homes with Cat 5e/6 cabling, and have noise already on the PowerLine and can't get more than 6Mbps/sec throughput on PowerLine accessories, then 54 Mbps is a refreshing increase and it only takes switching to wireless. So Solaris users can simply go out and get a cheap card for their desktops too and enable WiFi without shelling out a lot of money to go wireless. Not bad at all, I'd say.

Step 3: Where to buy this stuff?

I shop for most of my stuff at these sites:

  1. www.newegg.com - probably where I spend the most money. Awesome website, great customer product reviews, and awesome prices. Once you New Egg...
  2. www.ewiz.com - less selection than newegg, 5% cheaper on boards than newegg in a lot of cases and a local Bay Area company with insanely fast service - order it and get it in 24 hours!
  3. San Jose Mercury News - click on the [Newspaper Ads Online] link and see daily Fry's ads. If I see something cheap, a quick trip at lunch with 3 other colleagues in a carpool is the usual menu/venue. And you can order a decent lunch at good prices at the Fry's coffee shop inside the store.
  4. www.directron.com Another low cost online retailer. Houston, Texas-based. No sales tax to CA and good service. I get a lot of quiet-PC gear, adapter, fans, and cases from them.
  5. Starmicro.Net A Bay Area company with fast service and some really cheap prices on older memory and cpu.
  6. www.compuvest.com A Washington-state based company with a long history of low prices and good mail order service. They carry a large variety of older technology and new stuff at competitive prices and out-of-state means no sales tax either.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Sometimes TigerDirect.COM has a good deal if you're into waiting for Rebates (I'm not), or SurplusComputers.COM will have some good deals too which are online-only and not available if you go to the store for pick-up, which is a bummer, since I live pretty close to those guys. There's also www.axiontech.com, another Texas-based company that caries some good motherboard prices, just to name a few.

I tend not to shop eBay that much. There used to be deals in the past, but most sellers have jacked up the price on shipping and handling to the point where the prices are ridiculous. Often, with computer gear, the shipping and handling are more expensive than the item. Who in modern history would pay $25 per disk for a -USED- IDE 40GB drive? But that's exactly what it comes to with these online auctions and the bidding wars in the last few minutes of every auction close. The going rate for disk storage is about $0.40 per Gig and that's out-the-door prices after tax and shipping on a -NEW- disk drive retail. I usually wait for a sale on some Seagate 5 year warranty SATA or IDE drives and get storage at close to $0.25/Gig. Folks are paying upwards of $0.60/Gig for used stuff and that's just stupid and buying from some kid with a 97.9% rating. For that amount of shipping and handling, I'd expect a 110% rating if it existed. But again, eBay does serve its purpose for those desparate and in search of something the other vendors don't carry any longer. I picked up a couple of Intel D815EEA boards for $16/each with shipping recently to build a couple more Solaris boxes to go with a couple of Intel PIII 733 MHz cpus I bought for $8 each at Compuvest.

My Top Pick for Solaris System Right Now

Clearly, there are a lot of choices that anyone could make right now about what parts to throw into a Solaris box for home use. And it's a lot of fun to build and install systems, especially if in the end, they go to help families get low-cost broadband. But I do have a favourite box for at least I think this is the best deal and the one, right now, I wish I had in my home. It appeals to all my personal criteria for the right blend of a) price, b) performance, c) quietness, d) power consumption, e) Solaris support and f) aesthetics. It starts with the PCChips V21G flex-ATX motherboard with soldered-on VIA c7 processor at 1.5GHz. It has a new CN700 chipset that supports IDE and SATA and has integrated VIA Unichrome Pro graphics, VIA rhine Fast Ethernet, and DDR2 support. The motherboard and cpu all-in-one is just $68 at ewiz.com and installs Build 53 of Nevada without any real issues. I'd stick a 120GB Maxtor SATA drive with 8MB buffer which was on sale at Fry's for $49 recently, and then a 1GB stick of DDR2-533 Kingston memory for $95, and put that inside an Antec Minuet 300 Case w/ 300 Watt P/S for $79 with a silver bezel NEC 3550A or 7170A-0S DVD burner for $30 and a Multi-format, Silver bezel USB 2.0 flash reader for floppy drive bay install for $14. Total cost would run upwards of $380 when all shipping and handling was done. Not the cheapest build possible, but a very usable system that's small and relatively quiet. If I were going for a true budget server system and forego a DVD burner and get a cheap case, I'd probably use an Enlight 7396AM1 BookPC case with 180W P/S and save $50 on the case, $44 on optical drive and flash reader. I'd also get a stick of 512MB DDR2 for half the price and save $50 since most of the time, I would run this without X. That'd save a considerable amount of memory more than ample for a simple httpd/j2ee server and mail server. That'd make a box for about $250 that could serve up a lot of services.

How would you install a box without a working network interface (yet) or an Optical drive?

I'll talk about options for that in the next blog.

Comments:

Great stuff, thanks -- shame I'm in the UK and can't get those prices :-) Got any recommendations on VTx / Pacifica stuff ? To work with Xen, of course...

Posted by Tony Heskett on December 04, 2006 at 08:42 PM PST #

I'd also suggest eBay as a good source as well since I've been able to get a few great deals on used Sun workstations. My last purchase was a pristine Sun Java Workstation W1100z, 2.4GHz Opteron, 1G ECC RAM, for $364! Sure, it's not the quietest box around, but I had some left over material from making my W2100z quieter and did a few similar mods; still, those Ultra 20's are smoking fast and very quiet.

The eBay W1100z has become a NFS & web server using ZFS extensively running Solaris Express (11/06) and three zones (global+2), and performance is excellent given the workload.

As for installing a box without at least a DVD-ROM or ethernet, I wouldn't! It's hard enough having a box with only one ethernet port. 8)

Posted by Mr. E on December 04, 2006 at 10:24 PM PST #

eBay is a love-hate relationship for me. On the higher-end items, it can really be good (anything over $150). But for small parts, I like shopping at traditional online retailers that have a good RMA policy. A few years ago, after hearing from a friend how he scored on a couple of SunBlade 1k/2k systems on eBay, I did place a bid or two but lost.

I don't any low-end boards that would be "recommended" for Xen and VMWare. But you might do okay getting one of those new Ultra 20 M2s. They have the right rev of 64-bit AMD cpu for Vtx. Older AMD64 cpus prior to rev D (current socket 939/940 were rev E, the socket AM2 are rev F I think) may not support 64-bit guest OSes (I'm looking out for Solaris viability here!).

Posted by PotstickerGuru on December 05, 2006 at 06:49 AM PST #

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