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I'd like to learn more about Unix & Linux and would like to set up a little home test server/ headless box. (I'm thinking of compiling from scratch, to learn how that works; either Gentoo Stage II or Linux from scratch.)

I'd likely only need a little bit of storage, a USB port, and a network connection. I've heard good things about the (no longer produced) NSLU2 and overheating issues with those "plug computers" made by Marvell and others. I'd like something low-powered and physically small, which is why I don't just buy/get an old box from craigslist, though I'm willing to be convinced that it's worth finding space next the couch and a few bucks more in electricity.

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This doesn't answer your question directly, but did you consider playing with Linux inside a virtual machine? It's very convenient way of experimenting with different distributions. You could use VirtualBox, which has an open source version.

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I had considered it, but I'm fairly low on free disk space currently even without installing a visualized OS or two. I'd also like to physically isolate this sort of tinkering, just in case I break something in software: if I'm on a different machine there's no chance I can break my Ubuntu install. It's certainly something I'll look into for other things. Thanks. – Andy Sep 29 '10 at 22:54
I see your point. Just to clarify, if you work inside a virtual machine you also cannot break anything in software. – Adam Byrtek Sep 29 '10 at 22:59
@Andy: If you want to build from scratch, you're going to need a bit of disk space anyway. An unclean linux source tree is about 800 meg (plus another gig if it is a git tree), plus you need all of userland. The extra space for a small VM is trivial in comparison (I've built 16meg VMs for embedded simulation). – camh Sep 30 '10 at 1:11
@camh: 16m VMs using what? Linux from Scratch? – Faheem Mitha May 4 '11 at 15:36
@Faheem: They were hand built, but I've built others with buildroot. – camh May 5 '11 at 3:00

Actually I was going to suggest VirtualBox too. Seems like the best solution, but if you want cheep hardware what about a SheevaPlug? Only $100 and it is the size of a wall wart. In fact it is a wall wart.

Oops. Missed that part of your question. Ok, then how about an old computer from a recycling place like Freegeek. This one is in Portalns but there is ab ranch in many major US cities.

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The Raspberry Pi is a one-board computer about the size of a credit card. The RASPIIT-3 was $35 the last time I looked at it. I am currently waiting to buy one. The NSLU2 is a great device, though you need to flash it with Unslung firmware to get the ability to add software/services to it. Both are headless with USB and NIC. You can still buy an NSLU2 brand new.

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+1 for Raspberry Pi – grassroot Jan 29 '13 at 21:39

I have a Guruplug. The newer models have a (VERY LOUD) fan and I've not had lockup issues with it. I've heard of people dismantling the device and installing heatsinks and putting it a larger enclosure, which is likely a good idea and something I will eventually do. I can hear it over my Poweredge 2500.

That being said, if you don't need two Gigabit Ethernet ports, get its predecessor, the Sheevaplug. That never had overheating issues.

I would also suggest you could get an old Pentium I era laptop (but one with an Ethernet port). Should run quiet, not be too intrusive spacewise, and not take up too much electricity.

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Just set a Sheevaplug up yesterday. What I would say is that you would need some Linux knowledge already for this. – Alan B Oct 31 '12 at 12:53

Get any cheap machine. Something like a netbook (but be careful, some of the newer atoms have hopeless graphics cards integrated), or some small desktop box (there are reall small machines around, designed for use as point-of-sale or such) should work fine. Go rummage in the "discarded machines" heap at the local university, get something at a garage sale, ... For what you want, you don't need a powerful machine.

Do not think of a self-compiled distribution, to use them requires a solid bit of Linux background. And on a limitied machine it will take months to compile everything. Whatever you could learn by self compiling you can learn just the same by compiling some select packages of particular interest. Take care not to loose view of the wood for the trees, learn how the different pieces fit together, how the different services work, and how to configure and troubleshoot them. A Linux system is a very complex beast.

Get a simple to use distribution, with a lightweight desktop environment (LXDE or XFCE). Look around you to check what distribution the friendlier part of the local Linux crowd uses, you will have to ask questions and ask for hands-on help.

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