Building the Perfect Box: How to Design Your Linux Workstation

Eric Raymond


Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the Open Publication License, version 2.0.

December 1996


This article, written for the Linux Journal's December 1996 issue, is a guide to building capable Linux workstations on the cheap from generic PC hardware.

Table of Contents

What To Optimize
So What Processor Should I Buy, Then?
One Disk or Two?
Monitor And Video
Easier Choices
Some Pitfalls To Avoid.
How To Buy
When To Buy
The Recipe File
Questions To Ask Your Vendor
After You Take Delivery

Most of the good things about Linux flow from the fact that it makes a full-featured Unix accessible on inexpensive hardware. Accordingly, there's a huge amount of documentation and folk knowledge in the Linux community about how to get people who already have cheap hardware started using Linux on it. But up to now there hasn't been much advice available for someone who already knows Linux, on how to acquire cheap hardware that is well-matched to Linux.

At today's prices, it's possible to put together a terrific personal Unix platform for less than $2000 US. If you're prepared to go mail-order shop carefully, and make a few minor tradeoffs, you can do it for $1500 or even less. But beware! If you buy as though for a DOS/Windows box, you won't get the best value or performance. Linux works its hardware harder than DOS/Windows does, and configurations that are marginal under DOS/Windows can cause Linux problems.

In this article, we'll develop a recipe for a cheap but capable Linux workstation. While developing it, we'll discuss the recipe choices in some detail, and see how to avoid common pitfalls that can cause you grief.

We are going to stick to Intel hardware in this article. OK, Alphas are fast and have that wonderful sexy 64-bit architecture, and SPARCs too have earned their fans. But I think PC hardware is still overall the most cost-effective: cheapest to buy, easiest to get serviced, and best-tested with Linux. And, given the relative sizes of the respective markets, PC hardware seems likely to hold its lead for years yet.

For more detail on this subject, organized in a reference rather than narrative format, surf to my PC-Clone UNIX Hardware Buyer's Guide. (I've been maintaining this document and its FAQ ancestor for longer than Linux has existed, and have been running Unix on PC hardware since very shortly after it first became possible in the late 1980s.)