I've been having a bit of fun putting together a new home server, and have some info for others who might be pondering building their next PC, but who are on a budget. This is kind of off-topic, except that we all need hardware to run Perl on, and many of us are on tight budgets right now.

I do most of my work on a laptop, using a server for mod_perl/Samba/CVS/etc. My old P133-based server was getting unstable (I suspect that the disk controller was dying), and I was looking around for what to replace it with. None of the refurb boxes I found inspired great confidence, new equipment seemed rather expensive, and I wanted something small. The Shuttle boxes looked tempting, but were still expensive. My needs didn't require 1.8Ghz+ speed.

Researching further, I found that an emerging alternative to Intel- or AMD-based motherboards are the all-in-one Via Mini-ITX boards, many of which run the low-power, i586-compatible Via C3 chip. The Mini-ITX boards have Audio, Video, and LAN on-board. Some have TV-Out. You basically plug in RAM, hook up a disk and CD/DVD, install an OS, and away you go. Oh, and you need a case. That's where some people have been having a lot of fun, building Mini-ITX boards into lunch boxes, toaster ovens, old game consoles, cigar humidors, etc. The low-end processor can be run fanless, for truly quiet computing.

I was skeptical of the stability of these boards until I did some research, and found that they could run RH8 and recent builds of FreeBSD (and gentoo linux, with a bit of futzing), and that people who had them were pretty happy with them.. A positive report from a serious FreeBSD developer I respect was enough to push me over the edge.

I opted for this board in this case (which is quiet, but not silent), adding a 256Mb RAM stick and a Sony CDRW (on sale), and reused a 60GB IBM drive from the old server. (The board actually booted off of the old drive, which had RH7.2, but I installed RH8 to get newer drivers.) In total, I shelled out about $350 USD, including taxes.

I'm happy with the result, with a few caveats:

  1. The C3 processor is i586 compatible, but lacks a few instructions in the i686 set. This means compiling some stuff from source. I haven't had any trouble with anything from a fresh RH8 install, which claims to be built for i686, but I'm probably just lucky (so far).
  2. The on-board AGP graphics is pretty much limited to 1024x768x24 graphics. It's fine for text or X, but don't expect to play graphics-intensive games. I run the box mostly headless, so I don't care.
  3. TV-Out may require drivers that aren't yet stable on Linux. Again, no issue if you're just running headless or don't plan on plugging the box into a TV.
The linITX forum has more reports from people who're running Linux on Mini-ITX boards.

Disclaimers: None. I'm just a happy customer.