In a previous post On Building, Buying, or Recycling a Computer to Run Ubuntu Linux I described several ways to get the hardware needed to run Ubuntu Linux.
I’m writing this on a ASUS Terminator T1-C3 Intel Socket 370 VIA C3 800MHz On-board VIA CLE266 Barebone computer that I built myself to run Ubuntu Linux.
Here are some pictures of it:
This post is on my experiences buying and configuring this “barebone” computer, using parts from my favorite supplier, Newegg.com. (See On Buying and Building Hardware: Break a Leg with Newegg for some suggestions on buying hardware from this wonderful company.)
I started down this path when I decided it would be useful to have a dedicated server in my home so I could share files, printers, and such amongst the various machines in my house, which include my own work-related Windows laptop, my wife’s Windows laptop, and my Linux boxes, all of which now run Ubuntu. I also wanted a machine I could use to backup files.
I wanted a server in that I wanted a machine that could always be on, so I could schedule backups without having to power up the machine. Knowing that the machine would always be one, I wanted to keep the power consumption to a minimum. Such machines just do routine work. They don’t need high-performance processors to do that work, as you have to buy the electricity to that enables that high performance.
I had originally planned on building a machine from scratch using an AMD processor, but when I looked into Newegg’sbarebone computers, I noticed that among the cheapast was the ASUS Terminator T1-C3 Intel Socket 370 VIA C3 Barebone for $70 for the box and another $15 for the shipping.
Though not the cheapest, and now AMD, the ASUS was especially attractive. The cheaper boxes were of the usual sort in that they did not include the processor or any video support. But the ASUS included an Intel-compatible processor and fan from VIA, as well as onboard video, so I wouldn’t have to buy or reuse a video card. There were several reports from customers who were running Ubuntu on this box, and also comments that pointed out it only drew about forty watts, much less than the power requirement of a typical desktop.
There was one apparent drawback in that the processor ran only at 800MHz and so was much slower that current processors, but I felt that would be more than adequate for a server.
So I took the plunge. I had an old hard disk at hand. I also was fortunate in that didn’t have to buy memory chips in that I had recently upgraded another AMD box to use a motherboard that supported Socket AM2 instead of the older type I was previously using, and the older type happened to use the same memory type as the ASUS.
So I decided the ASUS barebone and take it for a spin:
- ASUS Terminator T1-C3 Intel Socket 370 VIA C3 800MHz On-board VIA CLE266 2 x 184Pin VIA UniChrome 2D/3D Barebone – Retail, $90 ($75 plus $15 shippping)
If I hadn’t used old parts I would have had to buy memory and a hard drive. The following would have been more than adequate:
- DDR 200/266 memory: I used a chip I bought three years ago that is still available from Newegg: Kingston ValueRAM 512MB 184-Pin DDR SDRAM DDR 333 (PC 2700) Desktop Memory – Retail, just over $30 including shipping. You will never go wrong with Kingston’s chips.
- Hard drive: You can get a 40GB Western Digital hard drive for about $50, but you might as well pay a few bucks more and get 250GB: Western Digital Caviar SE16 WD2500KS 250GB 7200 RPM 16MB Cache SATA 3.0Gb/s Hard Drive – OEM, about $70
This brings the complete system cost, including shipping, to just under $200. All you have to do is plug in the memory chips, the hard drive, and an optical (cd/dvd) drive. Once you’ve closed the case you then need to plug in a network cable, monitor, mouse and keyboard. Then, away you go!
I had no problem installing Ubuntu 7.04 desktop on the ASUS box. I tried both the standard disk and the “alternate” disk. Each worked well, though it took more than the usual time due to the slower (800Mhz) VIA chip.
The fun seemed a bit noisy but I found that if I entered the BIOS and went to Power->Hardware Monitor->Q-Fan Function and changed the value from its default of “Disabled” to “Enabled” then there was a noticeable reduction in noise with little change in temperature.
As an experiment I unplugged the case fan to see if the processor fan would be enough to cool the whole box but abandoned that experiment after temperature had risen several degrees.
I initially set up the machine as a “headless server” in that I disconected the keyboard and mouse, but then noticed that it wouldn’t boot up. I change went into the BIO and went to Boot-> Boot Settings -> Configuration -> Halt On, and changed the setting there from “All Errors” to “All, but Keyboard.” (By default the boot process fails if no keyboard can be found.
The VIA chip is only 800Mhz, which is certainly adequate for a file server. To see how it compares with a more conventional desktop, I noted that I had the same 38GB archive of my digital music files on both the ASUS box and another machine I build recently that has a AMD Athlon 64 3000+ Orleans 1.8GHz 512KB L2 Cache Socket AM2 Processor (and also a faster bus, newer motherboard, and so forth). Here are the results of “time md5sum audio.tar”, where all times are in seconds.
ASUS: 1298 elapsed, 653 user, 288 system; Athlon Orleans: 615 elapsed, 128 user, 43 system. The most relevant times are the elapsed (wall-clock) time to perform the command, and the ASUS takes twice as long as the Athlon box.
I expect folks could do light desktop work on that box without minding the delay, as on this box as is the case with most boxes, the real bottleneck is accessing web pages, not the processor chip. Indeed, the performance is comparable to that I noticed on an e-machine with a much faster processor that one of my children bought to run Windows Vista Basic. Thing is, that chip only came with 512MB of memory, and Vista can barely run at that speed. 
Though I haven’t yet configured it completely, I’ll write more about that when I have time. But it’s good to know you can a brand-new box to run Ubuntu that costs unde $200, and doesn’t use much power either.
1. I bought a 1GB chip for the Vista machine and the performance improvement was dramatic, but that cost over $50. (By the way, Linux is much more efficient in using memory than Windows, especially with memory sizes less than one gigabyte.)