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Ubuntu/Debian on an Intel MacMini

In our previous adventures with Mac Minis as “blade” servers, I thought we might try installing Ubuntu/Debian on an Intel MacMini and seeing how the system performed against an OS X client based system.

Well, we did that and about a week later we wiped the machine and imaged off one of the other Minis and set it back up under OS X.

We had one of our techs scour all he could find on the net about installing Linux on an Intel MacMini and the biggest hurdle was getting something working in the EFI realm.

We ended up using rEFIt, a project on sourceforge, to allow us to dual boot into either Debian or Tiger. This had some issues, but in the end it worked out ok.

The USB Ethernet adapter also worked rather well right out of the box.

No, the real kicker was the on-board gigabit ethernet which is used on the backside primarily for database access. The Mini uses the Yukon based chipset for it’s GigE port and and this combination with the default ethernet driver installed by Debian induces a flow-control hang under certain loads.

Marcus Bointon hinted as much in comment #6 to my original article and so when the Debian Mini developed problems communication over that interface, I was pretty sure where to look.

Debian by default picks the “sky2” driver for that PHY and it wasn’t cutting the mustard. Apparently this bug has been around for a couple of years (the chipset is also used on some other system boards) and the “workaround” is to recompile a different ethernet driver into the kernel and it solves the issue. Since running Debian on this system was merely a trial, we decided to punt instead of sinking more time in tinkering with it.

Under Debian, the Mini did actually perform about 10% better than when it was running Tiger. Ultimately, the OS turned out to not be the biggest factor in getting more performance out of the load balanced system as a whole. Tuning Apache and making some other improvements to the web application proved to be far more useful.

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