A few weeks ago, I made a post here talking about what I’m doing lately in technology (cleverly labeled “What I’m doing lately in technology” ;)) and some of the comments on it really got me thinking about the approach that I have been taking on the specs for my next desktop computer will/should be. What am I going to use it for? Do I really NEED as much modularity as I’ve always insisted upon in the past? Should I be thinking “sleek, powerful, and small”, rather than “big, modular, and does everything”?
So I thought I’d sort some of this out here, by doing some thinking out loud, and hopefully getting some feedback from the rest of you.
Recap: what I’ve got
As I mentioned in my last post (linked above), “Azalin” is my current, aging, “does everything” box. It’s a server: it stores lots of data which I can access from anywhere, hosts virtual machines, acts as an ssh portal for my home network if I’m coming in from outside, et cetera.
But it’s also a desktop machine: I do most of my serious writing on it, I watch videos/DVDs on it, listen to music on it, play games on it, et cetera.
It’s a solid computer, even though it’s going on six years old and only has a single-core CPU in it. It has no hardware acting up on it, it has plenty of RAM for my day-to-day expectations of what it does, and its CPU is even adequate for most of what I ask of it when it comes to its server functionality (even as a virtual host).
However, it’s starting to seriously show its age as a desktop PC. It’s slow when it comes to multitasking, and my demands of it as a desktop occasionally interfere with its reliability and responsiveness as a server.
What I thought I wanted
My initial thoughts on the subject were pretty simple and straightforward: the same basic idea (“big, modular, and does everything”), only newer. I like the idea that even though Azalin was built back in March of 2005, here it is, November of 2010 and I’m still sitting in front of it, writing a blog post, and it’s not painful to use.
That modularity is what has kept Azalin alive and useful all this time in all of its roles. I’ve been able to swap out bad components, double the amount of RAM I started with, and I’m about to add another 500GB of storage to it.
And during all this time, it’s just kept dutifully chugging along, running whatever Linux distro I decide I want to run on it, and shows no signs of failing any time soon. It’s been a wonderful, reliable, and flexible machine, and it’s been the “swiss army knife” in my home technology arsenal for almost six years.
So, needless to say, as I’m noticing its age and more and more difficulty in keeping up with my demands of it as a desktop machine, my first thought is just to replace it with a similar, powerful, and flexible, newer technology swiss army knife.
Seems to make sense, right?
What I think I might need
Considering how well Azalin still performs its server functions (serving up files, and music, and virtual machines, and ssh services, and FreeNX remote environment), I had planned — and still do plan — to keep it in those roles. It’s rock solid reliable for these things, and performance-wise, it’s perfectly adequate, and probably will be for at least a few more years to come. I don’t feel the need to rock that boat, and I’m reluctant to replace it with something else when it still performs just fine in that arena.
So, that said… why, exactly, do I need to replace Azalin with something JUST as modular, JUST as big, and JUST as multifunctional, if I’m not going to be using my new machine in that way?
My new machine, after all, really only needs to be a desktop computer. I’m still leaving most of my home server needs, my “private cloud” if you will, to Azalin. In fact, as a result of one of the comments on my last post, I’m thinking I’ll even pull the fairly big, power-hungry video card out of Azalin at that point, and replace it with something cheap and low-performing, and I’ll likely run a command-line only environment on it (I’m leaning towards vanilla Debian), so it’ll be using less juice, running more efficiently, and need even less tweaking and maintenance going forward.
So why does my new desktop PC need to be that flexible and multifunctional?
Well, as I’ve had a few weeks to think about it, it really doesn’t. Because of what I ask of it, Azalin runs all the time, 24/7. The only time it isn’t is during one of our frequent power outages here (thanks to a somewhat rural, over capacity, outdated electrical infrastructure in the region in which my wife and I live) or if I’ve powered it down on purpose to swap out a piece of hardware or something.
Which means that my new computer doesn’t have to be running all the time. In fact, it shouldn’t. It should be something I power up when I need to use it as a desktop computer, and I power it down again when I’m done with it. So it doesn’t need the robust, over-designed architecture that makes up Azalin.
It only needs to handle the demands of usage in bursts, followed by blissful, powered-down rest.
This rather changes everything. Because I won’t be making the kinds of demands on it that a 24/7 machine puts up with, my new desktop computer doesn’t need to be as modular and robust. I can get something powerful, but low-profile. Fast and beefy, but more compact and less versatile.
Rather than building this myself, like I originally had done with Azalin, or even ordering a desktop behemoth like I had been eyeing at System76.com, I can get something smaller and less modular, but still powerful and modern, and leave the more robust needs to Azalin, since it’s still performing well for that purpose, and still will going forward for at least a few more years.
So I’m taking a different approach to this. I still want something with a good video card, a good amount of RAM (with the ability to update that at least a little bit down the road if I need to), and from a company that doesn’t saddle consumers with the Windows tax.
But if I’m going that way, I’ve decided that I’m not going to build it myself. I want to buy it ready to go. At most, I’ll buy something into which I can install my own RAM, but it has to have the capacity for a good video card right off the bat, and be Linux friendly.
So what do you guys suggest?