Stairway to Geek Heaven

“The Ultimate Linux Box” indeed: a review of the Monarch Empro Ultimate Worktation.

Most recently, Linux Magazine has reviewed a number of AMD Opteron rigs, and that’s no coincidence, because the AMD64 chip currently provides the best bang-for-your-buck for high-performance Linux servers and workstations. So this month, we look at — yes, yet another — Opteron server. But this review has a twist, so read on.

Most technology publications, especially those focused on PCs and servers, tend to review hardware offered by the “Tier 1 vendors,” such as HP, IBM, Sun, and Dell. To a lesser extent, those same periodicals also review hardware from the so-called “Tier 2” vendors, or those companies that are a fraction of the size of the “The Big Four” and value price their hardware to compete. (Oddly, the Tier 2 companies sometimes offer the exact same hardware and configurations as Tier 1 organizations, but sell under a different label and emphasize their value-adds as differentiators.) Below the second tier lies the huge, murky world of “white box” independent system vendors, those companies that will build you any system you want, at cut rate prices, from an assortment of OEM multi-vendor parts that, for the most part, come in non-descript white boxes from countries such as China, Taiwan, and Korea.

Some of these white box shops, in an effort to remain price competitive, will unscrupulously use “grey market” system components that are singifcantly cheaper, but may come with drastically shortened warranties or aren’t as capable as their retail counterparts. (If these grey parts fail or prove incompatible, you may find yourself calling technical support only to find out that the parts weren’t supposed to be sold as part of a system in the first place, because they were surplus component parts from a larger systems manfacturer.)

Typically, we don’t give white box shops the time of day, because they all sell commoditized hardware that you can buy universally and because those shops have very little to differentiate themselves from everyone else. However, Monarch Computer Systems — a white box shop that sells everything from motherboards to graphics cards to complete systems — really stands out. Why? Because Monarch is an “AMD Platinum Solutions Provider,” and the company maintains direct relationships with other critical components vendors, such as Corsair Memory, Western Digital, Seagate, nVidia, and ATI. If you’re inclined to go to the channel for a customized white box system, then Monarch is probably one of the best vendors to choose from. You’ll get only premium parts with full warranties, and you can be assured that the system will run Linux perfectly right out of the box.

The AMD64 system sent to Linux Magazine was dubbed “The Ultimate Linux Box,” and for all practical purposes, that moniker was fitting. The machine sported twin Opteron 250 series processors and a massive stack of super-premium OEM components, such as Tyan’s K8W high-end workstation mainboard (accomodating up to 8 GB of RAM), two gigabyes of registered ECC PC3200 Corsair RAM, a premium Enermax 550W power supply, 3Ware/AMCC’s 8-port 9500 series SATA RAID controller, four Western Digital 73 GB 10K SATA disks, a Plextor DVD burner, a PNY dual-head nVidia Quadro 3000 card, and a monster sized full-tower case from Lian-Li. The Ultimate box came preloaded from Monarch’s Atlanta-based manufacturing center with Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Everything was put together like it came out of a meticulous hot-rodder’s shop: the cabling on the inside was perfect and everything was absolutely solid. Monarch definitely knows how to put machines together properly.

Needless to say, this is the machine that, with no spared expense, every Linux geek would want. And its a tremendous value, delivering performance at a price point that most Tier 1 vendors selling equivalent hardware would be envious of, even with its$ 5,900 price tag.

What would you use the “Ultimate” configuration for? Probably anything. It’s like a super server melded with the ultimate graphics design and content creation workstation. Create gigantic real-world financial model simulations by day, play Unreal Tournament by night. Or, design your own private spaceship or cancer drug for fun and profit. Everything about this particular box screams overkill. It’s an example of what would happen if your typical hardware freak had unrestricted access to Donald Trump’s credit card for a few minutes and could mail order the custom machine of their dreams.

But it’s not really important what this particular configuration can do. As we said, Monarch is a custom systems builder, and can build you whatever you (really) need from a huge list of Linux certified and tested premium parts. The only real important thing to learn from this orgy-like exercise in unrestrained, unbridled custom systems building is that Monarch knows what they’re doing, they use top components, and the component vendors themselves recognize Monarch’s commitment to building good machines and providing good service at a reasonable price.

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