This article will appear in the June, 1998 issue of the USENIX Association journal ;login:.
On the one hand, the enormous marketing pressures of hundreds of PC hardware vendors forces rock bottom prices. On the other, only a small fraction of the thousands of combinations are well balanced. While there are plenty of high performing hardware devices, a large number have marginal value, either due to design flaws, cost constraints, poor reliability or inadequate drivers. In this issue we'll explore many of the issues surrounding choosing PC hardware and come up some specific recommendations focused on running source code UNIX. This article deals with the hardware components at the "executive" level; go to the Web references for details, depth and additional recommendations.
We will discuss components in terms of three levels of target systems: LOW, MEDIUM and HIGH. We'll define a "system" as a CPU, motherboard, disk, memory, CD, floppy, ethernet, video/graphics card, keyboard, mouse, power supply and case. Add a monitor and you have a complete workstation.
The LOW system aims for good performance at the lowest possible price. We forgo some upgradability and expansion capability in this system. We get the cost advantage of one or two year old technology. The system, which will be a respectable performer, will cost around $800 - $1200 (no monitor).
The MEDIUM system is a very substantial general purpose workstation. By increasing our budget to $1500 - $2000, we get a motherboard that will take current generation CPUs, faster memory and a better disk sub-system. The technology here is about 3 to 9 months old. We will be able to easily upgrade and expand these systems with bigger/faster disks, lots more fast memory and faster CPUs.
In the HIGH system we will pay a premium for everything. Figure spending $2200 - $3500 for having the latest, widely available hardware. Some of these components are just being released. We may find ourselves helping debug new drivers for this equipment, but be assured, this system will scream!
This article dissects a PC system component by component. (See login; April 1998 for the motivation to run UNIX on your PC). We freely give our advise and opinions on what works and what is valuable. We intersperse Web references that will allow you to get more details. The prices mentioned have been found on the Web in one or more places -- they are not always the lowest. At the end of the article, we mention several integrators; give these guys a list of what you want and they will quote a system price and maybe even load software for you. You could also purchase the individual components and assemble the system yourself. Look at www.computeresp.com, www.pricescan.com and the other references in this article for price shopping. Enjoy.
You've got to have something to hold, power and cool all of the pieces. While most any case and power supply will sort of work, there are reasons to be selective. We prefer a case that has a simple single removable side panel or two removable side panels for convenient access. Over the years, we find the wrap-around style cases a major nuisance. You'll want to think about how big or small of a case to buy. How many I/O peripherals (tapes, CD-ROMS, DVDs and disks) will you be connecting? We strongly recommend the ATX style case which requires a different kind of power supply. It gives you on board serial connectors and PS/2 style mouse/keyboard connectors. Even for the LOW system, we will use an ATX style case. Most motherboard manufacturers are going over to the ATX form factor. So, if you get an ATX case and power supply, you'll have more options when you want to upgrade again. We like the Personal Mid-Tower ATX Enclosure for $69. See www.pcpowercooling.com and www.american-media.com/gigastar.html. See www.tdl.com/~netex for a discussion of other options for a chassis. Also, California PC Products (http://www.calpc.com) makes quality cases.
Cheap power supplies will cost about $35. The better supplies will have higher quality voltage regulation and a longer lasting, ball-bearing fan with a two year or more warranty. We like the quiet operation of the Silencer 235 ATX for $79. If you need lots more power or cooling look at the Turbo-Cool 450 & 600 which have a 5-year warranty and MTBF of 70,000 to 100,000 hours. (www.pcpowercooling.com)
At the heart of the workstation is the CPU, which for us must be x86 compatible. From Intel, we have the choices of Pentium, Pentium-Pro and Pentium-II. The main competitors which cost less are AMD's K6 line and Cyrix's 6x86MX line. They are fully compatible and should be trouble free. The issues are described in more detail on Tom's hardware Web page: www.tomshardware.com. Also check out his references on BIOS.
The classic Pentium is pretty much at the end of its lifetime. Pentiums with MMX are also thinning out, but still available for about $100 for a 166 MHz chip with a fan and a heat sink. MMX instructions themselves can be useful if you're willing to write assembly and have specific applications in mind. Most contemporary games will take advantage of the MMX instructions. Even though most UNIX applications do not use the MMX instructions you get a 16K instruction and 16K data L1 cache which makes the MMX option worthwhile for general purpose computing. A Pentium/MMX 233 MHz costs about $200 or you could get the middle Pentium/MMX 200 MHz. The connection to the motherboard is called 'Socket-7'.
The Pentium Pro 200 is also near end of lifetime but still available. It will give you 3 instruction pipelines, 8K L1 instruction cache and 8K L1 data cache, and L2 cache in sizes of 256K, 512K or 1M. With its L2 cache that runs at CPU speed, some applications may run 50% faster than on an equivalent Pentium. We have heard a few stories where a Pentium Pro 200 runs compute intensive applications faster than a Pentium II 300 MHz. It's likely because the Pentium Pro cache runs at processor speed and the Pentium II's cache runs at the slower system bus speed. The 256K L2 cache versions go for about $325. The 512K version costs $750; but you may find deals on the spot market.
The Pentium II is Intel's new CPU line. It requires a motherboard with 'Slot 1' connection. The big win for the PII is the ability to use SDRAM (see the Memory section below). The Pentium II has 16K L1 instruction cache and 16K data cache. The Pentium II can only cache 512MB of RAM. See www.intel.com/pentiumII/specs/fact.htm. The following Pentium II CPUs have been available for several months:
233/66/512 for $300 266/66/512 for $400 300/66/512 for $550 333/66/512 for $625
The first number is the processor speed in MHz, the second is the system bus speed in MHz and the third is the size of the L2 cache in KB.
Just released in April and important for HIGH end systems are the Pentium II 350/100/512 and the 400/100/512. Notice that the system bus speed has increased to 100 MHz. You'll need a newer motherboard to be able to take advantage of the higher system bus speed.
Expected to be released in June or July is the Pentium II called "Deschutes". It will run at 100 MHz bus speed and come with a so called 'CSRAM' 2nd level cache that will run at CPU clock speed rather than 1/2 CPU clock in the Pentium II. The Deschutes' cache will be able to access up to 4 GB RAM. This CPU will need a new connection, called 'Slot 2'. See www.thechipmerchant.com for processors and memory.
The first issue for choosing a motherboard is deciding what CPU you will be using. You will want to look at the bus speed supported and on board peripherals such as SCSI and Ethernet. We only recommend the ATX form factor; it puts the serial and parallel connectors on board instead of extra, problematic cables. Some folks will want to run motherboards with multiple processors. Although this article doesn't address it, Symmetric MultiProcessing (SMP) works well with the right hardware and software. Intel provides the following motherboard chipsets:
430TX Pentium Chipset 430HX Pentium Chipset 440FX Pentium Pro / Pentium II Chipset 450GX Pentium Pro Chipset 440LX Pentium II Chipset
and soon to be released:
440EX Pentium II Chipset (lightweight version of 440LX) 440BX w/ PIIX4 Pentium II Chipset (Due out April) 450NX Deschutes Slot 2 Chipset (Due out this summer)
The old 430TX and the 430HX are the socket-7 workhorses. While they limit cacheable memory to 64 MB, they are a great deal for LOW systems.
The 440LX Pentium II chipset comes with AGP (See video boards below) and SDRAM support to increase the performance of Pentium II systems. It supports a bus speed of 66 MHz. This is the chipset you want if you need a high performing system today at an economical price. It should serve you well for quite some time.
The 440BX Pentium II chipset will finally give us the 100 MHz system bus speed. Expect to pay a premium for this new, high system bus chipset but it should be worth it for HIGH end systems.
The 450NX Deschutes Slot 2 chipset will finally replace the 450GX Pentium Pro chipset for server platforms. This chipset will be the first for Slot 2 and hence only run with the Slot 2 Deschutes CPU. It will support up to quad CPU systems. This chipset will run at 100 MHz bus clock and is designed for server systems.
Other chipsets include Acer Labs Inc (ALi), Silicon Integrated Systems, and VIA. See www.tomshardware.com for more information.
There are many motherboard manufacturers incorporating the chips mentioned above. You can check the references for details or just go with the recommendations we give below. For a given motherboard you'll want to know how many CPU's it handles, the kind and amount of memory (SDRAM, EDO, FPM, etc), the system bus speed, the form factor (ATX or AT), and the number of PCI and ISA slots. Also look for what peripherals are supported onboard. Finally, you may want to know about the BIOS supplied and whether it is flashable. See the BIOS section on www.tomshardware.com. Also see www.anandtech.com for numerous motherboard reviews.
The solid, inexpensive ($150) ASUS P/I-XP55T2P4 motherboard runs the 430HX chipset and supports Pentium, Cyrix and AMD-K5 CPUs with Socket-7; it is a great candidate for a LOW system.
The FIC PA-2012 ($100) has a 1 MB cache and AGP support for Socket-7. This board will run the Pentium, AMD-K6, and Cyrix 6x86MX. Further, it supports SDRAM. Put in an AMD-K6 266 ($270) processor, load it up with SDRAM and you have a very hot, inexpensive system. (www.fic.com.tw)
For the Pentium Pro, consider the ASUS P/I-P65UP5 w/ C-P6ND cpu card (2 200MHz P6's, 256K). One of the reviewers runs this as his main system. It has been fast and reliable. The motherboard has 8 SIMM slots on board, and you can get up to 512MB. It also has 5 PCI slots and 3 ISA slots. You can only have a total of 7 cards, though, since one of the PCI and one of the ISA slots share the same space. The CPUs are on a daughter card, and you can get a dual pentium daughter card for it (C-P55T2D) or the dual pentium Pro card (C-P6ND). www.asus.com.tw/Products/Motherboard/Pentiumpro/P65up5-pknd /p65up5-pknd-spec.html
The ASUS P2L97-S for $250 is an excellent choice for a Pentium II system using Slot-1. It has an integrated SCSI using the same AIC-7880 chip as on the Adaptec 2940UW. This board takes SDRAM and handles Parity/ECC. The P2L97-DS will handle dual Pentium II's.
The Intel DK440XL motherboard ($600) is a big win if you plan to run Pentium II. Onboard it includes the Adaptec AIC-7895 SCSI chip and an Intel 82557, 10/100baseT chip - two fewer PCI boards to buy. You'll need to run very current software to take advantage of the very new 7895 chip. This motherboard can handle dual Pentium IIs. This board takes SDRAM and handles Parity/ECC. See developer.intel.com/design/motherbd/dk/index.htm
The Intel PR440FX which handles dual Pentium Pros has both 10/100 ethernet and ultra wide SCSI on board, but only one ISA slot.
We are strong advocates of reliable memory. We frown on those who choose to run without Parity or ECC. When things go wrong, we want as much help as possible in pinpointing the problem. Historically, PCs have not had good memory sub-systems; but that is changing. You can get very fast memory today and full ECC protection. (Error Correcting Codes allow the correction of one bit errors per memory word and detection of up to two bits per memory word. If you ran parity detection, two bit errors in the same memory word would be a wash and the hardware would not report a problem.) You need the right kind of memory SIMMs (DIMMs, etc) and the right motherboard to support parity or ECC. Generally, you can enable these options in BIOS settings.
When buying RAM, look specifically for the features Parity and ECC in the components and stick with the more reputable organizations that will insure that their memory will work in your system. (Some of this new SDRAM memory is borderline). The new SDRAM is considerably faster than the previously available memory. One of the reviewers ran a trivial memory test ("dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/null bs=1024k count=1024") to read and write a gigabyte. He saw about a 50% improvement in speed by using SDRAM over FPM. 100 MB/s for DRAM PP FPM and 150 MB/s for SDRAM on a PII A 64mb SDRAM 8x72 parity/ECC module costs about $225. You can look at John McCalpin's benchmarks for more memory tests: www.cs.virginia.edu/stream. There are also memory tests in Larry McVoy's "lmbench" tests available in the benchmark ports collections (www.freebsd.org). A reputable supplier of memory is www.thechipmerchant.com.
We are fans of SCSI based I/O. While IDE disks are cheaper and you don't have to buy a separate controller board, we recommend spending the extra money if you want more reliability or more performance. SCSI gives you a lot more flexibility for connecting devices to your computer and it gives you the efficiency of "Tagged Command Queuing" (multiple outstanding requests that the drive's firmware can reorder for efficiency). You can have multiple drives seeking while another is transferring. It is easy and efficient to share a several disks, CD-ROM and tapes on a SCSI bus. You only get two devices per IDE bus and a transfer on one locks out the other. Although pricy, our favorite SCSI bus controller board is the Adaptec 2940UW for about $220. You can hook up both narrow and wide devices at the same time and run at ultra speed (see below). Make sure you properly terminate the SCSI bus at the end by using the disk termination jumper or a SCSI active terminator. Some of the new motherboards incorporate SCSI onboard by using the same Adaptec 7880 chip as is in the 2940UW. This saves the cost of a board and a PCI slot. A somewhat less expensive controller card is the Buslogic (now Mylex).
The consensus is that SCSI disks are more reliable than IDE drives. Many SCSI drives come with 5 year warranties; IDE drives typically have warranties of 3 years or less. Don't buy a disk without at least a 3 year (preferably 5) warranty. Typical IDE drives today spin at 5400 RPM; you go to SCSI disks for the 7200 RPM performance.
There are two significant bus widths: the "narrow" 1 byte, 50 pin kind and "wide" the 2 byte, 68 pin kind. You need the right kind of cables to connect these devices. The Adaptec 2940UW has both kinds of connectors so you can easily mix narrow and wide devices.
The two predominate bus speeds in use today are "fast", 10 MHz and "ultra", 20 MHz. (Just recently available is the Ultra-2 LVD at 40 MHz, 80 MB/s). So, a Fast-Wide-SCSI bus can move up to 20 MB/s and Ultra-Wide can move up to 40 MB/s. (With three high performance disks going at once, we have measured more than 17 MB/s aggregate on fast-wide so we would expect an aggregate of into the 30's for ultra-wide).
Now, what width of SCSI drives do you buy (50pin or 68pin)? If you will only have one or two regular disks on your SCSI bus, then you don't need the Ultra-Wide version. But if you are building a server with many disks or high performance disks, you probably want the extra head room of 40 MB/s SCSI Ultra-Wide. Copying from one disk to another will require more that 20 MB/s aggregate if you are using the new 10,000 RPM disks. (see IBM 9ZX below). While the traditional workstation vendors like SUN and SGI have had Fibre channel to disks or disk towers for a couple of years, I have not seen much FC activity for PCs. Either 80 MB/s SCSI will catch on, or 100 MB/s FC will catch on.
Manufacturers are rapidly introducing bigger disks and dropping their smaller products. For example, last summer Seagate phased out their 1GB SCSI Hawk drives. Last fall, they phased out their 2GB SCSI Hawk drives. You can still buy 2 GB Quantum Atlas II disks, but not for long. On the high end, you can buy up to 23 GB disks. We wonder how long 4GB drives will last. These changes make for great deals on the spot market. Check with www.pricewatch.com for specials.
We like the Seagate Barracuda product line (www.seagate.com). These are solid, high performance, 7,200 RPM drives with 5 year warranties.
ST34371N Barracuda 4GB Ultra $550 ST34371W Barracuda 4GB Ultra Wide $600 ST19171N Barracuda 9GB Ultra $790 ST19171W Barracuda 9GB Ultra Wide $820 ST34501N Cheetah 4GB Ultra $630 ST34501W Cheetah 9GB Ultra Wide $999
The higher end drives include the IBM Ultrastar 9ZX spinning at 10,000 RPM and the Seagate Cheetah 4LP. These have faster access times, faster transfer rates and bigger buffers. IBM claims that theirs can do 17MB/sec sustained. (www.storage.ibm.com/hardsoft/diskdrdl/ultra/9zxdata.htm) These days, IBM seems to be interested in providing drives to the general market. In the past, only their surplus was available. It will be good if they become a reliable supplier -- Ultrastar drives are among the best on the market today.
The Quantum Atlas II is also a good drive. Its features include 7,200 RPM, 4.5 GB or 9.1 GB, 8.0 ms Ave Seek Time, and a 5 year warranty.
The primary consideration with modems is being compatible with your Internet Service Provider. If you are lucky enough to be in an area where 56Kb modems will work, then you can go with either a KFlex or X2 style modem. In early 1998, the ITU standardized on V.90 for 56Kb modems. Most contemporary modems can be updated (FLASH memory) to be V.90 compatible; but again, check what your service provider recommends.
Some of us like external modems because they can be reset without resetting your computer. You can see what is happening with all of their status lights. Others prefer internal modems because they are cheaper, don't need a power supply, have less wires and don't take up a serial port.
If you intend on working with FAXes under UNIX with software like Hylafax, make sure you get a class2 modem. This kind, unlike class1, does most of the protocol negotiation in the modem instead of requiring your software to do it. Avoid the nameless modems - they can cause you lots of headaches. The following are all 'name brand' modems that should server you well:
Zoom/FaxModem 56K external K56Flex ($116) US Robotics External Sportster FAX Modem ($150)
The most troublesome area for running UNIX on PCs has to do with supporting the Video/Graphics cards. Before you buy that super hot Voodoo2 card to play DOOM or other games, check what kind of support is available for X11. On a workstations that doesn't have heavy 3-D requirements, the good old Matrox Millenium II 4MB for $210 is an excellent choice. You can run this one up to 1280x1024 by 24 bits. If you want good 1600x1200 resolution or 1800x1440, get 8MB of video memory. The game players will want to look at the new 3-D accelerated boards. Check the PC magazines and www.tomshardware.com for hints. Beware, the XFree86 Project lags behind for some of these boards. Check www.xfree86.org to find the currently supported list. The folks at www.suse.de/XSuSE/XSuSE_E.html use XFree86 as a base and support additional cards. Finally Xi Graphics, Inc supports many of the most modern boards. For a modest price, this may be the way to go. See www.xig.com. Currently, AGP graphics doesn't buy you much performance over PCI graphics cards. However, it does save a PCI slot, and when used properly, it has the potential of taking lots of traffic off of your PCI bus. See www.tomshardware.com for a discussion of this. The Diamond Steath 3D 2000 4MB PCI is a good lower end board for $90.
There are many good CDROM drives. For $100 we like the Toshiba SCSI XM5701B. If you don't have SCSI, get an ATAPI CD-ROM drive for about $60 to work on the IDE controller. www.tdl.com/~netex has a nice list of CDROMS. You may wish to consider the DVD drives. Even though the standards are still in flux, the Sony 5X DVD-ROM drive for $388 is a good bet. They offer DVD+RW compatibility as a free option.
These don't matter much. The TEAC 1.44 FLOPPY drive works and costs $25.
Today, you may want to buy a 10/100 card even if your network only is running at 10 Mb/s. We have measured the Intel Etherexpress Pro 100+ ($82) at 98 Mb/s. It is based on the 82558 chip. Almost as fast, based on the 82557 chip, is the Intel Etherexpress PRO 100B at $60. Cards based on the DEC 21140 chip are also very fast and efficient. Stay away from the nameless cards.
If you are spending a lot of time in front of the computer, get the best monitor you can afford, they will last a long time because once your eyes get bad, no amount of money will bring your eyesight back. A good monitor will substantially lower stress and fatigue - again, it's worth it. If you are working for someone, make them understand that you will be happier and more productive if you are looking at a sharper, clearer, no flicker screen. The economics are compelling.
Monitors are always being rated in the PC magazines and trade rags. They provide much more detail than the presentation below. But, for a superficial set of opinions, read on. And see www.pcguide.com for a description of monitor specs.
For X11 work, we consider a 17" monitor the minimum acceptable size. A 19" is better and you may want to go to a 21" for some applications. Note that you want a good 19" more than a mediocre 21". To run a 1280x1024 screen on a 17" monitor, you will need dot pitch at least as fine as .25mm. If the dot pitch is larger, you won't be able to distinguish all 1280x1024 pixels. For vertical lines to be as sharp as horizontal lines, you'll need plenty of video bandwidth. Too little and your screen will flicker. We like the following monitors:
Manufacturer Model Size Pitch Maximum Res. Price Nokia 445XPro 21" .21mm 1800x1440@80Hz $1350 Nokia 446XPro 19" .21mm 1600x1280@80Hz $955 Nokia 447XPro 17" .25AG 1600x1200@76Hz $680 ViewSonic G790 19" .26mm 1600x1280 $785 ViewSonic P775 17" .25mm 1600x1280@76Hz $550 ViewSonic PT775 17" .25AG 1600x1200@77Hz $670 Sony 400PS 19" .26AG 1600x1200@75Hz $955 Sony 200PS 17" .25AG 1280x1024@75Hz $750 Sony 200GS 17" .25AG 1280x1024@75Hz $630
Ken Merry's "theory" on monitors is that you want to run your monitor at one step below its maximum rated resolution. I.e. if the monitor is rated to 1600x1200, only run it at 1280x1024 and it will look great. See www.tdl.com/~netex, www.pricewatch.com, and www.cdw.com for details on monitors.
The KEYTRONIC 104KEY Lifetime Series PS/2 is solid, reliable and cheap ($35). You may prefer the contour of the Microsoft Natural ($69). MOUSE
We recommend the Logitech MouseMan 3 button version which costs $25. For $45 you can get the new M-CV46, a contoured version with a forth thumb button. (Stay away from the ones with the scrolling wheels - they get in the way). If you get stuck with a two button mouse, most Xservers allow you to emulate a three button mouse by pressing the two buttons at the same time.
Somewhere, somehow, you better be backing up your material! The main modest cost tape drive contenders are 4mm DAT, 8mm and DLT in ascending order of price. These are all SCSI devices that are fast, reliable and proven. (We look forward to Sony's new AIT, but for now it's unproven and quite expensive - $3000 or so). For under $1000, you can get HP's C1554A which is a DAT DDS-3 storing up to 12GB. The Exabyte 8mm and DLT drives are considerable more expensive. We recommend you stay away from weird controller boards, Travan, 1/4" or other low cost things. Visit www.necx.com for prices on various tape drives.
The 4mm DAT drives basically come in two flavors these days: DDS-2 and DDS-3. DDS-2 is 4GB uncompressed, 8GB compressed, with the 120m DDS-2 DAT tapes. You can get these tapes for $15-$20. Backup speed is approximately .5MB/sec. DDS-3 is 12GB uncompressed, 24GB compressed, on a 125m DDS-3 tape. You'll pay about $25 per tape for these. Backup speed is roughly 1-1.5MB/sec.
If $1000 is too much, consider getting a refurbished Conner/Seagate (Archive, actually) DDS-2 drive with 4GB/8GB for around $450 from Insight (www.insight.com). We've had a drive similar to this for quite a while, and it has worked great. If you can dig a little deeper into your budget, they might still have some refurbished Seagate (Archive Python) DDS-3 drives left for ~$665. Don't just look at the specials they have listed, hit the specials search page and type in variations on "DDS" "DDS2" "DDS-2" "DDS3", etc....
You may want to consider alternatives to tape such as the Zip SCSI $150 iomega with disks cost $7. For more storage look at the Jazz 1 or 2 GB drives for $450 and $90 per 1GB disk. These can also be used as hard drives. The writable CD drives are another option for backing up you system. The drives are down to $450 now with blank disks only costing a couple of bucks each.
UNIX systems get along well with Postscript. An HP LaserJet 6MP makes an excellent high quality, medium volume printer for $900. The Lexmark Optra S 1250 Laser Printer ($950) prints 12 pages per minute at 1200 x 1200 dpi. The 16ppm faster Lexmark Optra S 1620 costs about $1000. The Lexmark Optra S 1620n for $1300 comes with 10/100 network connections. The Lexmarks like the HPs, handle PostScript and PCL. You can pay extra for the ethernet connected printer, or just put it on a parallel port and use lpr software in your network. For not too much more money, you can get "color" laser printers that produce almost photo quality prints for about 35 cents each. Pages that just have a little color can be as cheap as 5 cents or so. See www.qms.com, www.lexmark.com and www.hp.com.
For much less money, you can get ink jet printers. The print quality has improved significantly over the years, but it is still inferior to laser printers. Color ink jet printers are also inexpensive. The HP deskjet 500c is a good candidate, but unfortunately most of the ink jet printers don't have Postscript. You'll need to install Ghostscript and apsfilter to convert all of your work into PCL. It is a workable solution if you need to save money and if you don't need laser printer quality.
Sound cards and multimedia equipment in general are difficult areas to deal with on PCs running UNIX. Check drivers and recommendations on the appropriate OS homepage before you buy. Here are some other references: www.opensound.com www.iet.unipi.it/~luigi/FreeBSD.html
We keep our systems up around the clock. Consider getting a UPS to help you around the power glitches and blackouts. You don't need to spend much to handle the one or two second interruptions. A simple system like a APS Back-UPS 400 for $130 will accomplish this.
The prepackaged systems such as the Micron, Gateways, Compaqs, HPs, Dells, etc represent good value in the WinTel world. These systems have been optimized for price and compatibility with Windows95. You'll find they don't all work well with NT and/or UNIX. Generally the stumbling block for UNIX is the video/graphics card. If you find a prepackaged system with one of the supported cards, you'll probably be fine.
Keep in mind that to keep the price down, they generally use less reliable power supplies, cheap IDE drives and other off brand components such as modems and graphic cards. These often cause headaches, negating the cost advantage. If you need to buy a bunch of boxes, you may be able to amortize the cost of figuring out these issues; for the one or two system situation, save yourself the trouble by buying what is known to work well.
An integrator can save you lots of time and maybe some money because they buy and stock the components in bulk. Here you can get a system build from the components you specify. Ask one of the following vendors for a quote on the system you want. Also, visit their Web sites and look at the details of their prepackaged systems. Maybe they already build what you want. Some of the vendors will even preload your source code UNIX system. Also see www.linux.org/hardware/systems.html for other resellers.
www.tesys.com www.tdl.com/~netex www.asacomputers.com www.apache.com www.varesearch.com
For a LOW end system, look to save money with a Pentium/MMX, AMD or Cyrix processor. Live with IDE drives: both hard disk and CDROM. You'll be using plain, cheap EDO or FPM DRAM. Get at least 32 MB - more will help, but insist on parity detection. You can save some money with a lower cost video/graphics card. You might drop down a notch or so with a cheap power supply and case, but if possible stick with the ATX form factor. Watch for the clear-out advertising. For example, OfficeMax is dumping Pentium 166 systems for $700 and 233 systems for $900. But be careful about the video card. Or, build your own based on Socket-7 CPUs. Check out www.surplusdirect.com for deals.
For the MEDIUM level system, you'll want a more current processor such as Pentium II or K6. Get the fast SDRAM to go with it. (Ie, FIC motherboard for K6). Spend money on SCSI drives. Upgrade to a Matrox Millenium II graphics card. Here are the prices of a medium system that we are building:
300 INTEL 233 MHz Pentium-II, 512K cache 275 ASUS P2L97-S motherboard, 4PCI/2ISA, AGP, SCSI 250 MEMORY ECC 8X72 64MB-10NS, SDRAM 400 SEAGATE SCSI 4GB ST32272N,7200 210 Matrox Millenium II 4MB 24 TEAC 1.44MB FLOPPY DRIVE 3.5" 25 KEYTRONIC 104KEY,W95,PS/2(ATX) 21 LOGITECH MOUSEMAN 3BT PS/2 90 INWIN MIDTOWER/ATX,IW-A500,8BAY,W/230WPS 24 CPU COOLING FAN,PC-POWER&COOLING,P5-II,5 10 COOLING FAN, 8X8CM(3.14")-ADDITIONAL 84 TOSHIBA SCSI 12X XM-5701B 80 NET-Intel INTEL PRO 100B ETHERNETCARD 4 SCSI STD-CABLE INTERNAL/RIBBON, 3-CONN ----- $1797
For the HIGH end system, get a motherboard based on the 440BX that runs the system bus at 100 MHz. Get a Pentium II 350/100/512 or 400/100/512 or even the Pentium Deschutes processor and think about multiple processors.
I am indebted to the following engineers: Ken Merry, Michael Durian, Tom Poindexter and Joel Rem; they know and understand hardware -- I just tried to summarize their knowledge.