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A hardware review: Penguin Computing's dual-Pentium systemI recently came to the conclusion that working on my old Pentium-100 system was, well, for the birds. The system served me well for a long time running things as big as emacs; netscape, though, began to challenge its limits, and StarOffice tended to cause paralysis on the display and smoke from the power supply... It was time for an upgrade.
Some research on the web turned up Penguin Computing as a competitive vendor. Penguin has been making a bit of a name for itself with its Linux-only, in-your-face approach to the business. They also seem to be doing quite well for themselves. It was time to check them out, so I ordered one of their dual-Pentium SCSI systems in mid-June.
Things got off to a slow start - it seems they are kind of busy, and turnaround time on orders was more than two weeks. I would have to wait a bit for my new toy...
Christmas in JulyFinally it arrived. Here's what I got:
Gripe number one: there was little hardware documentation in the box. Most of the components in this system will have come with a little manual; only the motherboard manual was included with the system. I would have liked to have gotten the rest of them as well. Other Linux system vendors I have worked with (ASL, Net Express) have included that material.
At the minimum, they could have packed a list of system hardware components with the computer. It would be most useful for anybody trying to install hardware or software on the system.
Plugging it inThe system almost worked out of the box: the one exception was the CDROM drive. On opening the box, I discovered that the IDE cable was not plugged into the motherboard. Penguin tells me that there is no way the system could have shipped with the IDE cable unplugged - the system can not get past their testing routine without a working CDROM. We can always blame the problem on UPS's gentle shipping methods... In any case, I had no trouble plugging it in, many other users would probably have ended up calling in for help.
The system runs great - it's a screamer. A full kernel build, using "make -j 2", takes just over two minutes. It's everything I wanted it to be.
Penguin claims to have "the world's most reliable Linux systems." A look at the system suggests they take that claim seriously. For example, the case used for this system, has clearly been designed with good airflow in mind - something that's discouragingly rare in the PC world. It's full of fans, including a cute front-panel setup with two little fans blowing air over the disk drive. This system is meant to run cool.
SoftwarePenguin's hardware is good; their approach to software is just a little worrisome. Here's a quote from their "Quick Start Guide":
Your system contains cutting-edge hardware that has only recently been released to market. As such, the drivers and configuration tools for these advanced parts likely won't be in the release distributions of Red Hat Linux or the Linux kernel releases. We strongly advise against reinstalling Red Hat Linux from scratch or installing kernels other than those released by us specifically for your systems.
Reading this, I decided to go looking at the kernel they supplied to see what cutting-edge stuff had been added. Turns out that it is a stock 2.2.9 kernel with exactly one change: the Tulip ethernet driver has been updated. I'm not going to worry much about putting in new kernels.
The version of Red Hat installed on the system is decidedly not cutting edge: most of the updates to 6.0 released by Red Hat have not been installed. Thus, the system as shipped by Penguin contains a number of known problems and security difficulties.
The Red Hat updates are easily installed by the user, as long as they don't mind downloading over 100MB of stuff. But if Penguin is going to tell their customers not to install new kernels, it is really up to them to make kernel updates available. 2.2.9 has a number of known problems, including the ICMP denial-of-service vulnerability. There is nothing on Penguin's web site about the availability of any software updates for their systems.
Again, reasonably advanced users can look and figure out that putting in a new kernel is not a problem. Everybody else is likely to feel blocked and wondering what to do in the face of security and other problems.
(Penguin tells me that the system software has been updated since my system shipped, and now includes a 2.2.10 kernel and all Red Hat updates.)
OverallI'm pleased. Penguin has delivered a quality system at a reasonable price. They are a high-quality Linux systems vendor; a little more attention to software issues could put them right at the top. This box will be producing code and LWN for a long time.
-- J. Corbet.
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