Archive for December, 2004

Nice Rack

Thursday, December 16th, 2004

In an effort to reduce the physical volume of computer hardware that I keep in my home, I have decided to convert my servers from towers to 1U racks. I don’t need anything too powerful, so 1U racks are large enough for my purposes.

So, where does one start when one is going to start replacing their army of towers with an army of racks? Ebay, of course! I located a (working) machine for sale on ebay which ended up costing me about US300 after shipping. It was an AMD Athlon 1700+ with 256MB RAM and a 40GB hard disk. Not too shabby, given that lots of stuff on ebay are barebones 4U Intel boxes for $250. I was quite happy with my purchase, particularly because the seller sent it quickly and the machine was as advertised (which was as-is, but hey, at least it booted!

The first thing I noticed after I had started it up to determine it’s DOA status was that there was a tag hanging from one of the case handles. It read: “W2 Memory Bad”. Sure, the machine booted (into a basic install of Windows XP), but that’s no indication that the hardware doesn’t suck. So, I got out my trusty memtest86 CD and checked out the machine.

I’m not sure exactly which test was running when the machine died, but this was the result:

Hosed Memtest86

Wow! That’s crazy. The machine was totally hosed, too — not just the display. Since I have 4 machines around that have similar processors (AMD Socket 462’s) as well as compatible RAM (PC2100 and PC2700 DDR SDRAM), I had some hardware to use for a process-of-elimination game. The easiest component to check is the RAM, so I put the possibly bad RAM into another machine with known good hardware. Memtest86 says everything’s okay. :( So, I put known good RAM into the failing machine, and memtest86 indicates that things are no good. :(

In this way, I tested a total of four components: RAM, CPU, CPU fan and motherboard. Sadly, it appeared that the motherboard was the problem. Good thing for me, I was planning to install the operating system from scratch, so I could pick pretty much any hardware-compatible motherboard. The plan was to get something as soon as possible at the lowest price.

I’ve lived in Arlington, Virginia (USA) for more than four years, now, and I have yet to locate a computer shop that sells components — i.e. not just off-the-shelf brand-name systems. Other than the occational “computer show and sale”, I rarely go anywhere to just graze among the available hardware to see if anything interests me. Back in Gaithersburg, though, there is a place that has all that: The Computer Place. TCP has suppliedmy computer hardware habit a number of times, both in and out of travelling computer shows. Their stuff is a touch on the expensive side, but always rock solid quality.

They have a store in Falls Church (just west of Arlington), but I had other things to do last night and the Gaithersburg store was more convenient, so I decided to drop by. I had identified a motherboard that met my specifications (AMD Thoroughbred1700+, DDR memory, built-in VGA — it’s a rack, remember?): the ASUS A7V400-MX. It even physically fit into the rack: 24.5cm per side.

I bought the board and took it home. Immediately, I noticed that there was a problem:

Audio Header is Too Tall

The audio header sticks up almost 1cm above the case opening. Just in case you hadn’t guessed, this is a major problem. If the motherboard doesn’t fit, it’s pretty much a failure. Taking the motherboard back wasn’t an option: they’d charge me a 15% restocking fee, which I’m not about to pay, given that the board is perfectly good. I’d at least craigslist it and recoup the entire cost. However, I was in a hurry. I want this machine running now
because it’s going to be replacing all the network services running on a machine destined to be a holiday gift for someone in the family. It’s got to be now.

I had a plan that was just stupid enough to work.

Motherboard soldering [1 of 4]: preparation Motherboard soldering [2 of 4]: close-up of the pins to be de-soldered Motherboard soldering [3 of 4]: header cover removed Motherboard soldering [4 of 4]: audio header completely removed

Now, this isn’t going to win any IEEE awards in…

  • The good idea category
  • The steady hands category
  • The well-ventilated room category
  • and certainly not
  • The safety equipment and proper use thereof category

But, this was a pretty successful hardware hack if I do say so myself. I give myself an enormous amount of credit for this mini-project due to the following considerations:

  1. I haven’t held a soldering iron in my hand since I was about 12 years old.
  2. I did not burn down my condo, let alone the entire building.
  3. I did not inflict any permanent and/or unsightly injuries to either myself or my wife, who was willing to hold the board at an angle for me for several minutes before losing interest and moving on to other things
  4. I soldered neither myself nor any other object to the board in any way (which, sadly, I cannot claim regarding previous incidents involving “hot-glue” and other objects)
  5. I did not solder any two parts together on the board that were not intended to be connected.
  6. The motherboard still works (except for the audio plugs, of course)
  7. and, of course
  8. The motherboard now fits into the rack case

Motherboard sans audio header: a perfect fit

I finished my game of operation this afternoon and I’m writing this entry in homage to my ‘1337 h4x0rz 5k331z. However, there’s more to the story. I’m also trying out a new Linux distribution: Gentoo Linux.

My favorite all-time distro was Red Hat Linux, but they switched over to their “Fedora Core” product which isn’t ready for prime time, yet. I liked Red Hat because of their super-easy package management. I would have stuck with Red Hat Linux 9.0, except that Ximian’s red-carpet feed stopped making updated packages available. I’ve also had experience with debian‘s package manager, but I have to say that I found it overly complex and usually out of date. Gentoo looks like it’s got pretty good package management, and they’re relatively up-to-date with versions, etc. The only problem is that the gentoo folks are all about two things:

  1. More voices and more choices (or is that Ralph Nader?)
  2. Compile early, compile often (this must be a distro based in Chicago)

Now, I love a good all-day-compile as much as the next guy (that is, not at all), but this “everything gets compiled specifically for your unique processor” stuff may not be for me. The first painful compile I’ve had to endure (that would be the one that’s still compiling) is mysql. But, you can’t really do anything about that: mysql is just huge.

Anyhow, I’ll be happy when I’ve got the system to the point where I can stash it at the back of the closet where it belongs.