First off, 'dactyl' is the name of a group of mythological creatures that lived on Mount Ida and helped raised Zeus. However, the mythological name isn't my reason for chosing the name. Instead, there's an astronomical connection, Dactyl was the first astroidal moon (it orbits around the asteroid Ida) ever discovered. It's tiny and that matches well with the server. Plus, since circular logic is important, one of my cat's name is Ida. And she was named Ida because she's a polydactyl cat (she has extra toes), so that brings us back to dactyl.
Needs and Wants:
Dartmouth's email system sucks. In order to send mail from off campus, you have to use the Blitzmail program [think horrible UI meets buggy crap]. So dactyl is running a secure authenticated stmp server.
I needed a web space for showing some of my photography, and none of the machines I have access to are set up for serving web pages.
I wanted to offload some of the non-essential stuff on my laptop but still be able to access it at work. Samba serves my files and daapd serves my music.
I wanted to have a linux box to experiment on.
Dactyl was designed to be the lowest cost computer that I could possibly get. The motherboard is an 800 MHz VIA mini-ITX board. You can read more about mini-ITX boards at http://www.mini-itx.com/. Basically though, it's an all-in-one motherboard with a soldered processor. It's just a matter of adding a power supply, memory, and drives and you're ready to go. ($80)
At the moment, dactyl only has 128 MB of ram, but I am going to add an addition 256 MB or 512 MB DIMM in the future. ($25)
I got a good deal on a hard drive at Best Buy, a 80 GB Western Digital drive with an 8 MB cache for $100 with a $60 rebate. ($40)
A semi-generic 300 Watt power supply chosen to be cheap more than anything else. It doesn't even know that it's working since the whole server only burns around 10 Watts. ($25)
A TEAC slim-line CD burner mechanism salvaged from my old firewire CD burner. ($0)
A wood box that I had sitting in my parents house. ($0)
I chose to use gentoo linux because it has some real advantages over other distros. It's compiled on and optimized for the machine it runs on, which is important when you have a relatively low-horsepower processor. It lets me customize exactly which software packages are installed (leaving off things like X and knome and KDE to save space but using the 2.6 kernel). It has good support, and it has a very easy to use update program. With other distributions, updates usually require some sort of payment. Fast, supported, customizable. It doesn't get much better than that.