A Debian server at 150Mhz, 32Mb

For the past four or five days I have been running the Mebius laptop as my home file server, torrent slave and music player. I jumped to put a larger hard drive into the machine when I realized Debian could configure the network, the sound card and the hard drive (at its full 120Gb size!) without any extra effort from me.

But I’ve already taken it down and switched back to the Thinkpad and Crux for that role; neither Debian nor the Mebius is wholly to blame for the change. I made the original swap for the experience of setting it up in Debian stable, and to see if a machine running at 150Mhz can fill those roles as easily as one running at 550Mhz, but better than one running at 120Mhz or 100Mhz. (And maybe even 166Mhz, if that’s worth adding.)

Up front I’ll say that with the exception of the weirdo graphics card and weak LCD, the Mebius is quickly winning points in this household, and not just for having a working decade-old battery. It’s easy to get into — I can swap hard drives by pulling only six screws and it does not require any technical acrobatics — it’s got enough peripherals to keep it out of the “inconvenient” category, and seems to be holding up well under experimentation.

Furthermore, with only a quick swap to a newer drive (of any size! 🙂 ) and suddenly it’s a good deal quicker and a great deal quieter. Oh my goodness, but the whine and clatter of those 4200rpm drives is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. But with a little more speed, the tendency to swap becomes bearable and the machine becomes a lot faster. No more waiting for that lunker 2Gb hard drive to catch up with the action.

And to be honest, all of those points make it more valuable as a testing machine than as a server. I can, in most cases, pop any CD into the drive and see exactly how “lightweight” a distro is. No more beating around the bush and pointing the finger of practicality at 300Mhz for your Ubuntu-based distro. I’ve got a machine here that will either call you crazy or call you a liar, and sometimes the truth hurts.

I jest. The machine is too flexible to sit alone as a server; it needs to be put to more intensive use. And despite the miracle that is Debian, there are still a few weak points in its armor.

For one, it too suffers from stuttering music playback with both mocp and other console-based media players, let alone the graphical ones. I have seen this on three different machines now and a half-dozen distros, and I do believe that short of downsampling the audio files or reducing audio quality, there’s not going to be much in the way of a solution.

In fact, a few minutes in Debian with some low-grade audio playback streams more or less proved my theory: A 24Kbps, 22Khz stream from the BBC in mp3 format played back flawlessly, but a 128Kbps, 44Khz from a local ogg file or mp3 from the ‘Net sounded like a secondary school brass band.

Which is a shame, really. You can call me crazy for saying this, but the Mebius has a different sound from the Thinkpad — a fuller and mellower quality. Roll your eyes if you must, but there are people out there in the world who still use vinyl albums, and will swear until they’re blue in the face that the sound quality is an improvement over compact disc. I can’t be that much more crazy for suggesting that an old ISA card sounds better than a newer PCI card.

Second, there are some subtle differences in software between Debian and Crux, and I must admit I prefer to build and sculpt software with Crux, if things have to be built from scratch. And with the machine working as a drop-and-download rtorrent slave, Debian stable’s 0.7.9 version lacks some of the things I am accustomed to from 0.8.6.

I could, and I tried, transplanting 0.8.6 out of the testing repositories directly into the machine as upgrades, but I ran into a net of dependencies that would also need upgrading, to include libc6 and some others that were drawing in a lot of still-deeper upgrades.

Building it myself was likewise abortive, since many of rtorrent’s changes since 0.7.9 would require me to rebuild things like libsigc++ and its underpinnings. After a while, it just got too hairy.

And like I said, if I have to compile things from scratch, I prefer to do it in a distro that is intended for building from scratch. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t knock Debian for being precompiled and stable — those are some of it’s strongest points. If I hadn’t grown accustomed to, for example, rtorrent with DHT or screen with the vanilla vertical split patch, it wouldn’t even come into play.

But in my case, it’s easier and smoother to build the entire system as a rolling release, than to try and transplant or rebuild so many core packages. One by one. At 150Mhz. 😯

And finally, even though it has little weight since it’s a simple matter of adding a flag to a mount command, but all the machines I have now (even the Fujitsu Pentium, which has a brand-spanking-new kernel configuration in it) are running NFS4, and the default nfs-kernel-server package from Debian apparently runs NFS3. This let the NFS4 clients mount the NFS3 server normally: /media/nfs nfs noauto,users,nolock,nfsvers=3 0 0

This probably falls into the above category really, since the difference between the nfs in Debian stable and the difference between NFS in the 2.6.34 kernel with the current nfs-utils is again, the choice between building from scratch and installing a precompiled package. No difference in performance on my rough-and-tumble home network … and only one small flag that needs added to make things work … so maybe it doesn’t bear singling it out in this case.

But if the machine’s three main duties are to play music, serve a giant NFS share space and seed a few ISOs over rtorrent, then a machine that’s better geared toward experimentation is best used as guinea pig. The Thinkpad is no golden child; it’s a favorite but it has its fair share of eccentricities. At this point in time though, it’s best sitting on a shelf, always on and always online: serving, playing and downloading. :mrgreen:


12 thoughts on “A Debian server at 150Mhz, 32Mb

  1. imgx64

    About the sound, do you use the laptops’ built-in speakers or external ones? The difference in music quality might be because of the different speakers, not the sound cards.

    1. K.Mandla Post author

      External ones. I use the earphone jack on both machines to feed into a lousy old boom box that I got for free a few years ago. This is the first time there has been a noticeable difference in sound quality though, and the Mebius, personally, sounds better.

  2. anon

    this will probably have to be flagged as “off-topic” but this is about as “on-topic” as i’ve seen here and i’ve been waiting quite a while to ask this in the best context possible:
    since you’re rather keen on source-based distros, and you are somewhat acquainted with debian, what would you recommend for a hardcore debianite who’d like to give source-base distros a chance?

    1. K.Mandla Post author

      That’s a tough one. Of the source-based distros that I’ve used, Gentoo seemed overly complicated, and by that I mean more options and detail than I really thought necessary, personally. But I thought that after using Crux, where everything is exceptionally simple. LFS was fun once or twice and taught me a lot, but wasn’t particularly convenient.

      To be honest, I would suggest a quick foray into Arch if you haven’t tried that already. You can get used to the ABS and makepkg system before shifting to Crux, which is generally the same but simpler and faster. Crux is not a popular distro and that’s the way its organizers want it, but it might appeal to someone with a Debian experience. It did to me. 😐

      There are other source-based distros to consider; perhaps someone else will mention another one.

  3. urukrama

    “If I hadn’t grown accustomed to, for example, rtorrent with DHT or screen with the vanilla vertical split patch, it wouldn’t even come into play.”

    You do know that the screen package in the Debian repos (at least in Testing, which I use) already has the vertical split patch?

    1. K.Mandla Post author

      Yeah, and I’ve used it before. The problem is that it makes some configuration changes that I didn’t like, and which take more time for me to hunt down and correct than it does just to rebuild the plain-jane vanilla version from scratch. 😉

  4. TheGZeus

    If you want a rolling release, and Debian convenience, just install Testing.
    Adding pinning for Sid and Experimental is useful, as well.

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  6. Pingback: A Debian server at 150Mhz, 32Mb | Debian-News.net - Your one stop for news about Debian

  7. Nick Leverton

    Don’t be afraid to run testing. 99% of the time it All Just Works like you expect of stable. If something does happen to be unavailable to upgrade (which shouldn’t happen anyway once the imminent freeze happens), you just need to wait a few days.

    I ws drawn to your article as I have a 150MHz 32Mb single-chip AVR32 system I’d like to try Debian on, when time permits !

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