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Build a High Powered Linux Workstation on the Cheap

High-Power Components Galore

August 20, 2009

Prices for high-end workstation computers have dropped to all time lows of late. You can buy a machine with a Quad-core processor from both Dell and HP for not much over $500. That price typically gets you a 2.33 GHz processor, 6GB of RAM a 640GB hard drive and Windows Vista. Dell has had similar deals with essentially the same hardware plus Windows Vista. None of these deals give you the option of running Linux unless you want to just reformat the hard drive and install it yourself.

For this series of articles we set out to build a high powered workstation with the latest Linux virtualization software capable of running multiple operating systems (OS) at the same time. Our goal was to get the fastest multiple-core processor and most memory while staying close to the $500 price tag of the other off-the-shelf machines. We also wanted the ability to install at least three hard drives to help with performance issues when running multiple OSes from the same disk.

CPU options

Picking a CPU between the offerings from AMD and Intel can be intimidating when you take a look at the available options. Intel offers their Quad-Core processors in a wide range of speeds up to 3.00 GHz. You could also go with a Quad Core Xeon processor designed specifically for high-end workstations and servers, but the price on those is more than our target budget. Intel's latest and greatest processor offering is the Core i7 Quad-Core processor. It packs a processing wallop but at a premium price.

AMD has played David to the Intel Goliath for many years. AMD traditionally offers comparable performance at a lower cost, staking a claim to most bang for the buck. The latest Quad Core processor from AMD is the Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition. It clocks in at 3.4 GHz with a multitude of other specs to make your applications fly. Suggested retail on this chip is $245. For this project AMD provided us with this chip and an MSI motherboard to test it out.

Motherboards abound

Choosing a motherboard will be driven by your CPU choice. Once you pick a specific CPU you'll still have a number of options when it comes to things like on-board graphics, number of SATA drives, Gigabit Ethernet and more. AMD has a web page where you can select your processor and get a list of motherboard options for the AMD Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition including:

  • Asus M4A785-M EVO
  • Asus M4A79-T Deluxe
  • DFI Lanparty DK 790FXB-M3H5
  • ECS A780GM-A Ultra (RS780M-A)
  • ECS A790GXM-A (RS780DM-A)
  • ECS A790GXM-AD3
  • Gigabyte GA-MA770T-UD3P
  • Gigabyte GA-MA790FXT-UD5P
  • Gigabyte GA-MA790GP-DS4H
  • Gigabyte GA-MA790XT-UD4P
  • MSI 785GM-E65
  • MSI 790FX-GD70
  • MSI DKA790GX Platinum

AMD provided the MSI DKA 790GX Platinum motherboard for our testing along with the Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition CPU. This motherboard was targeted at the gaming community but has everything we wanted and more. If you shop around a little you can find it for $140.

Memory choices

The general rule for memory is the more the merrier. With our CPU and motherboard chosen we then have a good idea of what options we have for memory. With the latest BIOS update the MSI DKA790GX Platinum motherboard will handle 16 GB of DDR3 memory. The only problem with this option is price.

DDR2 memory is considerably cheaper while providing enough performance to keep our virtual machine zipping along. PNY provided 8GB of their Optima line of DDR2 memory for our project, and the price fit our budget as well. This product is sold in a 4-GB package (2x2GB memory sticks) and available from a number of different Internet vendors for a low of $48.99 each.

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