Why HP Workstations are the best hardware for Linux
[Disclaimer: I now work for HP, however the opinions expressed here are my own, and do not reflect anything having to do with my employer.]
Speaking as a white-box builder from Day One (1987,) please understand that I still enjoy it – for recreational purposes only. However, IMHO, there has never been a good economic reason to build a “custom” system. It is no different than trying to build a car out of parts bought from Auto Zone, or the junkyard for that matter. You often end up with what appears to be a good value, if you consider that your time is worth nothing… and support is non-existent.
“Barebones” are a close call – they can be a good (but not great) value, and they do save time. However, you will not find really excellent hardware (see below) available as barebones. The biggest advantage of barebones is the “no OS” option. This saves you about $60 (street value of the pre-installed Windows.)
HP workstations (originally Compaq, of course) have a long history of solid performance. For over a decade, they have been the standard for engineers and other serious users worldwide. They were out there, running UNIX, long before Windows was even on the desktop. They exist outside the retail market, and avoid the trendy hardware enhancements that tend to come and go, as in, “designed for home users.” They are the BMW of desktop computers.
Basically, they are HP servers, minus some of the redundancy features, plus support for a serious graphics card. Or two.
Today, they are designed to run Linux from the ground up. Of course they also support Windows. The two distributions officially supported are RHEL and SLED. They seem to be more fully committed to Red Hat. I have had no trouble with Fedora, Debian or Ubuntu. Most graphics are NVidia, with a few AMD (ATI) cards available.
These are “real” desktop computers, made out of metal (which also helps with RFI.) All are extremely expandable. Even though they have the capacity for serious cooling (dual Opteron CPU’s, multiple graphics cards, and eight or more DIMMS tend to require that!) they are also extremely quiet.
Another feature that is becoming increasingly important: these are green machines. HP has been building energy-efficient boxes for quite some time, introducing +80% efficient power supplies, low-power RAM, and reliable (meaning it actually works) “sleep” functions. All newer HP workstations are designed to consume less than 1W on standby (the “EUP” standard.)
This was the reason I transitioned away from white boxes for the last time – there is simply no contest when it comes to silent operation. HP (and to give credit, the other “majors” such as Dell and IBM) have the best engineering for cooling, without sounding like vacuum cleaners. Thanks to strong construction, custom baffles and quality fans, newer HP workstations such as the Z200 run about 22 dB in normal operation – this is quieter than the average bedroom at night… and they do it without resorting to holes in the side of the case, or super-sized heat sinks. Some models do indeed use liquid cooling.
Newer models have RAID on the system board. I won’t get into the argument of software versus hardware RAID… I believe this is a moot point on workstations today, since SSD’s have eliminated most of the reason for RAID 1. This brings me to…
The single biggest mod you can do for your newly-acquired marvel of engineering is to update it to SSD. Add a 64GB boot drive, and mount the existing (spinning) HD as /home. You can go from zero to login in less than 10 seconds.
You may be fretting over how much these things cost. Sure, a well-equipped brand-new Z200 or Z400 will run into many thousands of $. However, these boxes are plentiful on the used markets. They depreciate FAST. This was the second factor for me – I can find pretty much anything I want on EBay, from reputable vendors who buy these up from large corporations as they come off lease. Again, just like the car market… the going price for a 3-year-old workstation with a couple of Xeon processors (gotta love that L2 cache!) and a few GB of RAM is around $500. Note on RAM – almost all (until recently) use ECC memory, so don’t count on filling it up with sticks out of your junk box… If you really need the latest thing, go for refurbished.
Check hp.com/workstations – you should be able to find anything you need to know there – price, performance specs, options and documentation, all the way down to illustrated parts references. Happy hunting!