Motherboard Requirements

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The hardware required to set up a Linux system mirrors a typical PC installation. It starts with the motherboard, which should be an Intel 80386 or better (or use one of the Intel workalikes like AMD or Cyrix). Remarkably, Linux will even run on a slow 80386SX, although slow is the operative word. For application development work, though, an 80486DX or better is recommended due to the high CPU usage of the compiler and linker. The same recommendation applies to X users because X is a notorious CPU hog. You can compile applications on an 80386, just as you can run X on one, but the performance can sometimes deteriorate to the point of annoyance. For a realistic system running X and application developments, consider a fast 80486DX (50MHz at least) or a Pentium.

Linux use a floating-point unit or FPU (also called a math co-processor, although the two terms do not refer to exactly the same thing) if you have one. FPUs are built into the 80486DX and Pentium series chips. If an FPU is not installed, Linux will provide a memory-based emulator that has reasonable performance. Either Intel or workalike add-on FPUs are supported, although some problems have been reported with Weitek FPUs.

Linux supports both ISA (Industry Standard Architecture) and EISA (Extended Industry Standard Architecture) motherboards, but doesn't support MCA (IBM's MicroChannel Architecture) at the present time. Linux also supports VESA local bus motherboards, which give peripheral cards direct access to the motherboard components.

RAM requirements vary depending on the size of the Linux system you want to run. A minimum Linux system runs quite well with 2M, although a great deal of swapping is involved. Consider 4M of RAM an effective minimum, with more memory resulting in faster performance. For development work and X users, 8M is a good working minimum (although X can function with 4M, albeit with a lot of swapping).

Linux systems that have more than one user should increase the amount of RAM. The usage dictates the amount of RAM required. For example, 8M easily supports two users, even if both are running X. With a third-party multiport board supporting eight users, 16M RAM is a good choice, although the users cannot run X with this configuration. For X users, a good rule of thumb is 4M per user minimum, unless the Linux machine can offload the X processing to the user's machine in a client-server layout. (Linux doesn't have this capability at the moment, but it is being developed).

Linux uses all the available RAM in your machine. It does not impose any architectural limitations on memory as DOS and some other operating systems do. Any available memory is completely used. To extend the amount of physical RAM on the system, a Linux swap partition, called a swap space, is recommended. The swap space is used as a slower extension of actual memory, where data can be exchanged with physical RAM. Even RAM-heavy systems should have a swap space. The size of the swap space depends on the amount of RAM on the system, the number of users, and the typical usage.

Table 2.1 shows a general guideline for determining the amount of RAM your system should have. Begin by using the first column to determine which conditions are likely to exist on your system (such as running X, running larger applications, or adding users), and then move across to the minimum, recommended, and best performance columns. Consider any program that uses a lot of RAM such as a word processor (not a line editor like vi), a database, a spreadsheet program, or a desktop publishing system to be a large application. Large applications also include video players, some sound editors, and similar multimedia applications. The Development System entry is if you plan to do a lot of programming, including X application development.

When you have identified all the conditions you will encounter, add the RAM requirements for each condition down the column. For example, if you are going to run a system with frequent use of a compiler (large application), X, and run an Internet WWW and FTP server for a minimum system you would need 6M RAM. A minimum system runs slowly with lots of disk swapping. A system with the recommended amount of RAM is a balance between RAM usage and performance, and the best performance column minimizes swapping as much as possible. Remember that these numbers are only guidelines. You can never have too much RAM.

Table 2.1. Determining your RAM needs.

Condition

Minimum

Recommended

BestPerformance

Kernel and basic operation

2M

4M

4M

Large applications and compilers

1M

2M

2M

X

2M

4M

4M

Additional character-based

.5M

.5M

1M

users (per user)

Additional X users

2M

4M

4M

Development system

2M

2M

4M

Internet Server(FTP, WWW, WAIS, or Gopher server)

1M

2M

4M

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