Building a 15W Debian GNU/Linux system

When the Intel Atom was revealed to the public I didn’t came around to say: „Wow!“, because that piece of hardware promises to be a generic-x86 1.6 GHZ CPU with a total power consumption of 2 Watt, which is amazing considering that x86 hardware generally wasn’t an option if you wanted to build a low-power system. But then the first chipsets were presented to the public and the Atom became a farce, because you don’t want to have a chipset that eats over 25W for a CPU which consumes 2W. That was basically laughable.

Recently I managed to find out that there is a new chipset out there, the Intel i945GSE, which runs at about 11W TDP, including the soldered-on-board N270 atom cpu. And I convinced myself that this could get my new homeserver. So together with a 2.5″ drive I could get a system which runs with about 15W maximum power consumption, which is amazing, given that the Arcor Easybox my provider gave to me seems to have similar maximum power consumptions. And it isn’t able to provide me with the great flexibility, the new Atom system is.

So I bought the following components:

  • Intel Essential Series D945GSEJT
  • A Mini-ITX M350 case, which is amazing, because its about the size of a Linksys router and should still provide a good thermal environment.
  • 2GB Kingston HyperX DDR2 533 MHZ S0 DIMM
  • a Western Digital Scorpio 320 GB hard-drive

It took a while to get those components together, especially because I previously decided for an Antec case which I ordered from K&M Elektronik, but as they didn’t keep their delivery promise I came to the M350. What a luck.

Running Debian on this machine is the easy part, you would think. This is true, for some exceptions. First: Lenny runs fine. I’ve installed the notebook hd in my desktop and then put it in the atom, when I got the first hardware and it worked right away. Except of a grub message, which is disturbing and which I didn’t manage to fix right now (grub says „Error: No such disk“ just to get the menu a seconds later anyway and boot the system flawless).

What didn‘ t work exactly reliable was the included network chip. Its quiet a shame to say that, but if you buy an Intel board, wouldn’t you expect that it would run Intel components? Unfortunately this is not true for the atom board. It has a Realtek RTL8111 network chip, which isn’t properly supported by the 2.6.26 kernel (that means the kernel think it is and loads a rtl8169 module, which isn’t able to properly detect a link).
The workaround for this is to use a 8168 module from Realtek and compile it for your kernel, but as I equipped this system with an Atheros 2424 PCIe chipset for playing WLAN AP, too, I had to upgrade to 2.6.31 anyway and there the chip is fully supported by 8169.

Making the system an access point has been surprisinly easy as well. The greatest pain was to find a Mini PCIe WLAN card, because after all this isn’t very common. However I found one based on an Atheros 2424 chipset and bought it. I additionaly bought an SMA-antenna connector that I could mount into the case (the M350 has a preparation hole for it) and an SMA antenna.
Setting this up, has been fairly easy. You need to know, that running master mode with newer mac-subsystem-drivers in Linux doesn’t allow setting master mode directly. Instead you need to use an application to manage everything, which is capable of running cards over netlink. Thats hostapd. The unfortune is, that the lenny version is too old and so I built myself a (hacky) backport of the sid version, which isn’t that hard anyway, because rebuilding against Lenny is enough. Additional you need a kernel 2.6.30 with compat-wireless extensions, or an 2.6.31, because previously the ath5k driver didn’t support the master mode. After that getting hostapd up is a matter of a 4 – 15 lines configuration file. For me its now running in 802.11g with WPA and a short rekeying interval with 14 lines of configuration.

After all I’m satisfied with the system. Without any fan the CPU constantly runs at 55°C, which is okay, given that it must operate within 0 and 90 °C according to the tech specs. The system and the disk are somewhat lower (47 and 39°C). The power of this system is more then enough. Its booting quick and working with it works without latencies, even when the system is doing something. What I haven’t yet tested is weither the power consumption actually fulfills the expactations. I will do so, once I got a wattmeter.

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