The past few years, as I’ve written about, I’ve worked primarily off Thinkpad laptops, with an aging Sun Opteron workstation available for more computation heavy tasks. Neither of those pieces of hardware, however, is up to the workloads I’ve been engaged with lately. Virtualizing multiple operating system instances, working on large datasets, or tinkering with big data software such as Hadoop. To be honest, it was all either machine could do to run Chromium with my usual 60+ tabs open. Sure, the cloud helps, but when you can barely keep a browser up and running, it’s time for new gear.
Hence my call to Dell, who for the sake of full disclosure is a customer of ours. In response to my inquiries, Dell shipped me a loaner top of the line workstation to test, the Dell Precision T7500. I’ll have more on what, specifically, the machine is for later. For now, a quick rundown on the specs, setup and software choices.
This beast comes equipped with two quad core Intel Xeons running at 3.2 GHz, 24 GB memory, and 3×300 GB 10K RPM hard disks. It’s easily the most powerful box I’ve had locally since my mainframe days, in other words. Plugged in to this are the 30″ and 24″ monitors I already had on hand.
The Operating System Choice
The first thing I did when I got the box was try to get my beloved Thinkpad USB keyboard working with the Windows 7 Home Premium instance preloaded on the workstation. I failed. Even after manually installing drivers from the CD that came with the keyboard, Windows insisted that my U, I, O, J, K, L and M keys were instead 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, and 0, respectively. So rather than waste more time tinkering, I gave up and installed Ubuntu. Being a latest and greatest guy, I picked the still Alpha Lucid release of the distribution.
As an aside, please note that I’m sure that Windows can be made to work with that hardware just fine, and that I’m not recommending that people use Ubuntu simply because they can’t get a piece of hardware to work. If you like Windows, use Windows. I happen to prefer Ubuntu, so that’s the context for this decision. Your mileage may vary, as always.
Anyway, Ubuntu recognized the keyboard perfectly, to the point that even the volume up/down/mute buttons work properly. Everything on the machine works out of the box, actually, with but a few exceptions. A quick rundown of the hardware:
- Wifi: Atheros AR5001X+, just works
- Graphics: NVidia Quadro FX 3800 just worked with the single 30″, had to enable the non-free drivers to get compositing working and the 24″ inch online as a dual monitor
- Sound: Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeMusic (D), just worked
- Internal USB card reader: just worked
- External Hard Drives: 2xSeagate 1.5 TB, just worked (this bug has been satisfactorily addressed for me)
- iPhone: while I don’t use this functionality, Lucid sees my iPhone perfectly, will play music off of it, and even offers primitive music support
System-wise, Ubuntu 64 bit sees all of the available memory and cores correctly as evidenced by this htop capture. As mentioned, I had to enable the proprietary NVidia driver to get the fancy graphics and second monitor working, but the driver installation is completely automated.
Simply put, Ubuntu Lucid 64 bit pretty much just works on the T7500, at least with the configuration I chose.
From there, I did my usual Linux install. First, the software to be installed:
- Amazon MP3 Downloader
- Chromium (my default browser now)
- Deluge (my now default Bittorrent client)
- Dropbox (a staple of my existence these days)
- Emacs (my editor of choice)
- eMusic Download Manager (for downloading eMusic tracks)
- Flash (still necessary)
- GNOME Do (a Quicksilver like application for Linux)
- htop (top, but pretty and visual)
- revolution-r (R, in other words, for statistical analysis)
- VirtualBox (a really excellent free virtualization package, I only wish that a.) I could resize hard drives and b.) that Aero would be enabled for Vista/Windows 7 as it is both in Parallels and VMware Workstation/Fusion)
- VLC (will play anything, as they say)
Eventually I’ll get around to installing all the infrastructure stuff I use to test like Apache, MySQL, and so on, but these are the day to day basics I need. Next, the software to be removed:
- Evolution (don’t use a mail client, and don’t particularly care for Evolution)
- OnBoard (don’t need it)
- Transmission (my experiences with this Bitorrent client has been very poor)
After using one of Bisigi‘s Pretty Themes for a while, I’ve cut over at least for the time being to one Ubuntu’s new “Light” themes, Ambiance. I know some people are a little bent out of shape about the window controls, but I just assumed what we were subsequently told: that they looked heavily at how existing operating systems did things, Apple in particular. While I agree that not everything Apple does is perfect, the fact is that they’ve invested a ton of time and energy into user interface research over the years, and they are, at least in my view, the best in the world at UI. Meaning that if Apple believes the controls should be on the left, I don’t think it can hurt to try it.
Because if I decide I don’t like it, I don’t have to use it.
Finally, a bit of quick configuration to pull in my emacs settings and so on.
ln -s ~/Dropbox/.bash_aliases .bash_aliases: pulls in my bash aliases from my Dropbox copy
ln -s ~/Dropbox/.emacs .emacs: pulls in my .emacs file from Dropbox
ln -s ~/Dropbox/emacs emacs: pulls in my emacs directory (w/ themes, etc) from Dropbox
ssh-keygen -t rsa: generates an ssh certificate for the box
ssh-copy-id username@host: copies my certificate to our various servers so I don’t have to log in each time
And that’s about it, apart from migrating a few VirtualBox harddrives from the old workstation to the new one.
I had very few problems, and having done this multiple times most of the above takes less than five minutes of effort because it’s all handled by package management tools. Everything wasn’t perfect, however.
- Amazon still doesn’t provide 64 bit versions of its MP3 store downloader, and the usual fix of using getlibs didn’t work on Lucid. Nor did Pymazon, a Python based alternative, work properly. Still don’t have a fix for that, as I’d prefer not to get in the habit of copying libraries around.
- Brasero, meanwhile, the CD/DVD burning tool broke as it always does during Alphas of new releases, so I’m temporarily using the less user friendly GNOMEBaker to burn CD’s and DVD’s.
Two other items of note for the Ubuntu geeks in the audience. With this migration, I’ve officially dropped Banshee in favor of Rhythmbox. I liked Banshee, and still prefer it in many ways, but after a couple of ugly crashes that corrupted the library thus losing my playlists, I needed a replacement. Rhythmbox isn’t perfect, but it works and is nicely integrated into Ubuntu.
Second, I haven’t (yet) installed Pidgin, the IM client that OS X’s Adium is based on. In part because Ubuntu has transitioned to Empathy and because some of the underlying technology is interesting, I’m giving that project a shot. But there are some serious usability issues with the interface, and how it’s woven into the Ubuntu desktop. The integration into the Me Menu is suboptimal, the user interface – specifically its usage in the Indicator applet – is terribly confusing, and the account creation process was clunky.
It’s not clear to me that Empathy is ready for prime time from a UX standpoint, so I’ll be curious to see how that aspect evolves within Ubuntu and the other distributions that leverage it.
The T7500 is just stupid fast, and Lucid’s a nice interface for the hardware. I don’t have enough up and running yet to do any legitimate comparative benchmarking versus my usual hardware, but it’s impressive even on trivial applications. The disk usage analyzer, for example, scans the entire filesystem in less than ten seconds; with either of my old machines, runtime was a minute to two, depending on what else was running. The rendering of an eight minute video in Pitivi, the video editor included with Ubuntu, took about forty seconds. Chewing through the entire works of Shakespeare to count the frequency of the word “Zounds” using Hadoop took about fifteen seconds, but that was on a virtualized instance with more limited resources. And as as you can see from the screenshot above, virtualization is not much of a challenge for this machine.
I’ll have more on how the box will be used both on virtualization and big data later, but for now the Linux compatibility report for the hardware is excellent, as is the performance.