Shopping for an Intel Mini

This site is served by an eight-year old, 300 MHz Pentium II, Debian Linux box in my home office. It works well enough for my needs. However recently the system has begin making occasional whining noises for intermittent periods. I’m afraid it’s on its last legs.

I had hoped to replace it with an Intel Mac Mini; but sadly that did not arrive at MacWorld, and seems unlikely to arrive before April 1 at the earliest. In the event I need to quickly replace this system, what do people recommend for small, quite, cheap, energy-efficient X86 box? Here are my requirements:

  1. Must have 100 Mbps or faster Ethernet.
  2. All hardware fully supportable by Linux.
  3. CD drive required. DVD optional.
  4. Under $500, ideally under $200. Note that I do not need or want a monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers, etc.
  5. Operating system not required.
  6. Zero-noise. I will pay more to get this.
  7. Small, ideally mini sized or smaller. I will pay a little more to get this.
  8. Energy efficient. It should draw less than 60W, ideally less than 45W.
  9. AMD chips are a plus, but not a requirement.
  10. An ATI Radeon video card is a plus, but not a requirement. I’ve just had better luck with ATI cards over the years.
  11. 802.11 is a plus. I’d pay a little extra for this
  12. Bluetooth is a plus. I’d pay a little extra for this

So, what are my options? Wal-Mart sells a $220 bare bones Microtel box that might do the trick if I added a little memory (though I wish they’d knock ten bucks off the price and leave out the mouse, keyboard, speakers, and OS). Does anyone know what one of these things sounds like?

Possibly a Shuttle bare bones system? The price is starting to climb once I add all the pieces though; but at least it’s small.

NorhTec has some interesting small servers, but they may be a little too small for me (no CD drive). Plus they’re on the expensive side.

If this server dies in the meantime I guess I’ll just repurpose my whitebox desktop Linux system for the time being, but that’s quite big and noisy; and I’d rather not turn it on in my office full time.

20 Responses to “Shopping for an Intel Mini”

  1. Tony Cowderoy Says:

    I’ve had a couple of servers of around the same age start making “whining” noises. There is a good chance it is one of the cooling fans. If you listen carefully, you can probably tell where the noise is coming from, especially if you open the case first. I kept one machine going happily for about three years by peeling back the label in the centre of the fan, putting one drop of oil on the bearing, and gluing the label back. Replacement fans are only a few $ but lubricating the fan saved me the time and trouble of ordering one.

    HTH

  2. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    That’s a good suggestion. However, anything involving opening the case radically increases the chances of immediate, unfixable failure. I’m hesitant to take the risk on a still-mostly working system unless I have a hot backup ready to go.

  3. Adam Constabaris Says:

    Why is Intel-ish architecture is an issue? Is Linux PPC (e.g. Yellow Dog) Linux not up to snuff? Or do you just not want to pay Apple prices on the hardware if you can get away with it?

    Picking on one end of your desiderata: small, low power consumption, suitable for light web serving duties … perhaps something based on low power x86 compatibles VIA, such as mini ITX: One place to start looking is http://www.mini-itx.com/, although it is a UK shop.

    I’ll stress that I have never built a mini ITX system, nor run Linux on one, or dealt with the vendor above, but a while ago while I was looking for a server for my home LAN, I was thinking about them, and got sidetracked.

  4. Avery Regier Says:

    I’ve also been looking into Shuttle for the same need. They are finally selling direct (http://us.shuttle.com/). For a long time they didn’t and it was really hard just to find them.

    -Avery

  5. Alex Blewitt Says:

    If you want something about the size of a Mac Mini, and that makes as much noise as a Mac Mini, then what about a Mac Mini? You can get Debian running fine on PPC hardware; in fact, more than any other distro, it’s more likely to be better behaved. Plus, it’ll also act as a target firewire drive, so if you ever needed to make a backup of your server, you can simply put it into target firewire mode and stream off the contents.

    As for the hardware … most of the Mac Mini’s components are supported by off-the-shelf components.

    See http://www.sowerbutts.com/linux-mac-mini/ for a list of what the Mac Mini’s hardware requirements are and even a step-by-step installation of Debian onto it. It does highlight an issue that the Broadcom card doesn’t have equivalent Linux drivers written for it, if only because most use variants of Windows drivers for x86 architecture.

    If that’s an issue, and you’ve got the fast ethernet, it’s possible to have an ethernet-to-wireless bridge.

    Lastly, I liked the advice given on sowerbutts:

    “Installing Debian GNU/Linux

    Tools you will require:

    * Apple Mac OS X installation media (comes with the Mac)
    * Internet connection
    * Blank CD-R
    * Weak lemon drink

    Once you’re done, click the Partition button, quit Disk Utility, and install Mac OS X onto your new partition.

    Drink your weak lemon drink now. ”

    I’m guessing that it’s compatible with other drinks, too. For example, Apple juice …

  6. Adrian Says:

    The ‘zero-noise’ requirement may be your biggest hurdle. Out of size, price, performance you can really only pick 2.

    See http://www.silentpcreview.com for a pretty thorough resource on quiet computing, but in short, you probably have to rule out all current Intel CPUs (Celeron/Pentium) except for the Pentium-M (expensive, uncommon but fast & extremely low power consumption therefore can be passively cooled).

    Be careful of which Shuttle model you get as they aren’t all quiet (and often those who claim they are ‘silent’ tend to be comparing them to standard P4 windtunnel boxes). But an AMD based one would be acceptable, particularly if the CPU load is generally low so it can throttle back the fan speed. As you say though, not the cheapest option.

    A VIA based system will definitely be silent – if you can live with the performance hit. I’m not convinced that the VIA CPU’s are quite up to server duty in reliability stakes either, but hey, folks used to say that about AMD too.

    I’m a bit confused you’ve got a noise requirement for a server, yet your desktop machine is too loud? And if it’s big you’ve got a lot more flexibility in terms of getting it quiet – there should be no excuse for not having it silent :)

  7. Tony Cowderoy Says:

    If you want something cheap, low power, nearly silent and compact, how about a second hand, good quality laptop fitted with a new low-noise HDD? That would be one way to get a Pentium M system and maybe even your 802.11 and bluetooth. In my experience the things that fail most often on laptops are the screens and keyboard, neither of which you need.

  8. Barend Garvelink Says:

    I just set up a Shuttle SD11G5 / Pentium M 1800 system for a relative. This is basically laptop technology in a desktop box, in fact, various screens within Windows XP suggest that the PC thinks itself a laptop.

    On the plus side, it’s quiet. The power supply is an external brick that’s passively cooled, and the system fan (which sits on the CPU heatsink) powers down entirely when the CPU isn’t stressed. Really, the only permanent sound from that system is the hard drive (and with plenty of RAM and cacheable data, you can have that power down too). The Pentium M is a very decent performer at acceptable power consumption.

    The downside is obvious: that system was not cheap to build. The barebone was pricey and the Pentium M is more expensive than it’s AMD counterpart too. Aside from that, note that the AMD Turion is a 64-bit unit, while the Pentium M is still at 32 bits. At this time, 64-bit desktops are of questionable benefit IMHO.

    Based on my experience with the Shuttle system, I’d say a barebone system is definately a viable option, but likely to hit the limits of what you had in mind budget-wise. I agree on all counts with what Adrian pointed out above; not all barebone systems are quiet, and http://www.silentpcreview.com is a good place to find out which are. Good luck!

  9. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    I have a noise requirement for the server because it’s on 24-7. My desktop Linux/Windows dual boot machine is just a cheap box I turn on only when I need to do something specific on those platforms. For instance, recently I used it for a while to test out the Java USB API that’s only available for Linux. However this usually isn’t more than a few hours a month. Most of my day to day work is on a Mac that’s usually pretty quite.

    Thanks for the suggestion of http://www.silentpcreview.com.

  10. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    I’d be afraid a laptop wouldn’t stand up to the 24-7 server load. Plus even used laptops aren’t very cheap.

    Maybe I should just go ahead and buy a G4 Mini. I just have a strong aversion to buying a system when I know the entire architecture is going to be swapped out within a few months. But if I can get one for as little as an acceptable X86 system would cost me anyway, I might as well.

  11. Andrew Semprebon Says:

    I’ve gotten Microtel boxes from Walmart, and they were ok for the price – not particulary small or quiet though, and as you said, not much memory. When I had to replace my server, I just went directly to the microtel website, where you get a lot more configuration options than buying them through Walmart.

  12. Bart Guijt Says:

    This is just a wild suggestion: How about a Linksys NSLU2 unit (see http://tinyurl.com/b22gt) with a silent USB drive attached, loaded with alternative firmware (see http://nslu2-linux.org/) to support a webserver (see http://www.nslu2-linux.org/wiki/Info/ComparingWebServers). Seems that some people are successfully deploying websites with this (see http://www.nslu2-linux.org/wiki/Info/WhatPeopleAreReallyUsingTheirSlugsFor)!

    You definitely meet the low-noice and power consumption criteria. No CD drive unfortunately …

  13. Andrew M Says:

    AOpen makes a Mini clone. I don’t have one, and have seen mixed reviews: the main complaints were that it isn’t any cheaper and that it has a fan (!).

    http://lib.store.yahoo.net/lib/myaopen/MINIPC.html

  14. Leif Warner Says:

    My main system now has a Via C3 GigaPro chip soldered into the motherboard. It runs at 733MHz… I guess the ones these days are faster. The chip itself is tiny, and no fan is needed to keep it cool. So the only moving parts in the system are the hard drive and power source fan. If the system’s overall power draw is low, you could get a power source with an adjustable fan speed and crank that down low.

  15. Adrian Says:

    One more thing – if quiet is important, I’d strongly suggest putting in a 2.5″ notebook harddisk rather than a standard 3.5″ drive. Once you have slow spinning fans, or no fans at all, the harddisk becomes the noisest part, particularly if it’s bolted onto the frame of the case. As well as being much quieter, notebook hard drives have lower power consumption & heat output.

  16. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    Fry’s sells bare bones boxes for about $199 and sometimes as little as $149. If I lived in the valley I might pick one up. I’m not sure what shipping adds to that. Plus these don’t have enough memory. I’d have to add $50-100 of extra memory.

    Koobox has a decent box for $299 and an even better one for $399.

  17. Kent Says:

    Why not look through the Special Deals link at the Apple on-line store and see if you cannot get a refurbed Mac Mini?

  18. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    I don’t trust refurbs. You don’t save that much money (maybe 15%), you can’t customize what you buy, and you’re likely buying something that’s already failed once, usually with an inadequate warranty.

  19. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    Sal Cangeloso writes about building his own Linux Mini-ITX. That might be worth trying.

  20. The Cafes » Intel Macs as Servers Says:

    […] I’ve been thinking about getting an Intel Mac to replace the old Linux box that serves this site. However, a lot of software hasn’t been ported yet, and Rosetta emulation is slow. How much server relevant software is yet native? […]

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