Build A PC

A custom PC configuration guide. © 2000,2001,2002 by Jef Poskanzer.

Reference Systems

Here are a few sample systems based on the info presented here. First, some examples based on current architectures - aside from the CPU/motherboard/memory these systems are the same. Then some servers, and finally some obsolete designs. Some prices are only approximate.

[Dual Athlon] [Athlon] [Pentium IV] [Low-Power Dual PIII] [Quad Xeon] [Web Server] [Compute Server] [Gigabit Server] [Dual Celeron] [Old Web Server]

Dual Athlon DDR system
It took a while, but there are finally boards supporting two Athlons. You have to get the special MP version of the Athlon to use them.

Athlon DDR system
A very fast single-processor system. We can use faster memory here than on the dual-Athlon system.

Pentium-4 system
Another fast single-processor system, this time with a P4.

Low-Power Dual Pentium-III system
Intel recently came out with a low voltage / low power version of the Pentium-III - 800 MHz at only 11.2 Watts. These are intended for use in dual-CPU 1U "blade" servers where the small physical space means it's hard to get adequate cooling for higher-power CPUs. However it seems to me that in a regular case with good airflow, these guys might actually run without a CPU fan. You'd use a big copper heatsink instead. There would still be a fan on the power supply, but one less fan means a quieter system. If you're interested in experimenting and want to try this idea, let me know what you find out!

The AOpen DX37 Plus-U or the Iwill DVD266u-RN are good motherboards for this project, since they have DDR memory as well as dual FC-PGA sockets. The AOpen board has SCSI which we don't need, so we'll go with the Iwill.

Next, some server systems.

Quad Pentium-IV Xeon server
The ultimate, a fast four-processor super box. SuperMicro just came out with a board that supports four of the mPGA603 P4 Xeon MP chips: the P4QH8. They sell it pre-packaged with a case / power supply / fans, $4200 as a 4U rackmount and $4500 as a full tower. Since rackmount is k00ler as well as cheaper, we'll go with that. The board takes PC1600 registered memory, but it's interleaved so it's actually faster than PC2100 or PC2700. Since the board has SCSI and already costs so much, we might as well use a SCSI disk too. Also, we might as well pack in 2GB of memory too. And be sure to get the Xeon MP CPUs, not the regular Xeons.

Co-Located Web Server
This is a web server for a medium-busy web site, co-located at an ISP. It doesn't need a mouse, keyboard, monitor, sound card, or speakers. During setup and debugging, you borrow a keyboard and monitor from another system. The current price/performance leader in CPUs is the Duron, so we'll use that. However, a web server doesn't need a whole lot of CPU power - only 200MHz is enough to saturate a 100Mbps ethernet. So we'll use the cheapest Duron currently available. Getting a motherboard with embedded video saves a few bucks too.

If you run Apache you'll need more memory of course, but with a more reasonable web daemon the 512MB will be more than enough. The disk should be big enough for most web sites. While it's not the fastest disk available at the moment, its speed is about four times more than is necessary to saturate the network interface directly from disk. The main thing I like about this disk is its reliability, a big plus for a co-located system. But if you think you need more speed, then you ought to look at the gigabit server.

Compute Server
This is intended for sticking on a shelf along with a dozen similar boxes, to provide massive parallel computing power. Here again you don't need a mouse, keyboard, monitor, sound card, or speakers. You also don't need a lot of memory or a big/fast disk. The main design criterion is to maximize MHz/$$$. Currently this means the Athlon, and putting two Athlons in one box means you pay less for the auxiliary components.

Gigabit Ethernet Server
Gigabit ethernet has approximately the same bandwidth as the PCI bus, so if you expect to use most of that gigabit bandwidth you will also be using most of your PCI bandwidth. That's a bottleneck you'd like to avoid. The solution is to use 64-bit 66MHz PCI, which most gigabit ethernet cards support. However, this limits your choices for the chipset and motherboard. Intel has some chipsets which support fast/wide PCI - the i860, i840 - but they use RDRAM, which I prefer to avoid. All of the ServerWorks chipsets do fast/wide PCI; SuperMicro and Tyan make some very nice boards based on these chipsets. And the dual-CPU Athlon chipset from AMD does fast/wide PCI. We're going to use that, but with only one CPU.

The motherboard comes with onboard 100baseT ethernet, so if you need that in addition to the gigabit ethernet you are set. The motherboard can take two CPUs, add a second one if you'll need the cycles; if you're just shoving raw bits out the ethernet, a second CPU will actually hurt performance somewhat.

Obsolete Designs

Here are a few systems we used to feature here, which are now obsolete for various reasons.

Dual Celeron-A system
This was a nice el-cheapo hot rod, in its day. There was only one motherboard with two Socket-370s, the ABit BP6, so we used that. It was based on the rock-solid 440BX chipset, so stability was not a problem. The 440BX only goes up to 100MHz FSB, but Celerons only go to 66MHz so that's ok.

Note that the BP6 uses Socket-370, which is physically the same as the newer FC-PGA but electrically, slightly different. This means you must use the older Socket-370 Celeron-As, which only go up to 533MHz. FC-PGA Celeron-IIs go up to 733MHz but they will not work in a Socket-370 board without an adaptor, and will not work in a dual-CPU configuration at all. The older Socket-370 Celeron-As are becoming hard to find now, and prices are up.

Old Co-Located Web Server
This is a web server for a medium-busy web site, co-located at an ISP. It doesn't need a mouse, keyboard, monitor, sound card, or speakers. During setup and debugging, you borrow a keyboard and monitor from another system. This is more or less the box that ran on from 1999 through 2004.

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