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there are several things you can optimize by using sysctrl. it's just a script that writes your adjustments to the /proc/sys/.. entries on your system at startup. you may edit them on the fly on the running system too. since every sys is different i can't give you any good values here.
use hdparm to tweak your ide as mentioned above.
if you're using 2.4 kernels here's another: use elvtune and raise read_ & write_latency (1024 & 4096 gave me good troughtput/latency). the (nearly) same is /sys/block/.../queue/iosched/.. under 2.6. have a look at the documentation in your kernel-src-tree.
further i recommend rolling your own kernel since it isn't that hard and you sure can spare
thing out you don't need.