When PCs Fail

That’s part of what’s happened today and it’s causing me to tear my hair out.

computer racks.jpgI’ve been working with computers most of my life. My first/only computer course was 1968. For the past 25+ years they have been an integral part of my work life.

Nowadays I wrangle around a dozen machines (see photo) at work which let me produce a forecast and feed it to a bunch of different (buzzword coming) platforms.

Mostly, I get it. I understand how computers work. That gives me a leg up. Often it’s necessary to think along with the programmer to affect a fix.

There are two things which always surprise me.

1) There’s always something that’s not working!

It might be hardware or software or even a bad piece of data which should be a temperature or cloud but ends up being interpreted as a command. The computer stops what its doing. There’s never a time when I can depend on everything!

Google is well known for designing its software specifically to understand hardware will always fail. Those Google guys are right.

2) Computers often continue to work when something’s wrong–though it turns out they’re really waiting to fail at a time less convenient to me!

That’s part of what’s happened today and it’s causing me to tear my hair out.

A hardware failure late last week took out a two hard drive RAID array (two disks which act as one to provide constant backup or, in this case, additional speed). This particular piece of equipment was down for a day while we waited for FedEx to deliver the replacement. No problem. Like Google we understand working around bad hardware.

Once we replaced the drives we had to repopulate them with data. In this case it was an accurate rendition of the Earth’s surface–really. That meant nearly 200 GB of data had to move across our network. It took hours.

By late last Thursday evening we were up and running perfectly. We’d made some accommodations for the new hardware. No sweat.

Saturday was rainy and heavily tested this new configuration which worked nearly perfectly.

It failed this morning!


Who knows.

What was different between Saturday and today? As far as I can tell nothing!

The point is the computer was working just fine though it obviously wasn’t. There was something still wrong that needed just the right moment… the right set of circumstances… to fail

For whatever reason I was always under the (false) assumption that you needed perfection within these complex system for things to work. Obviously not. And, of course, it makes you wonder what’s next… or if you really can ever fix all the problems.

I’ve still got over two hours of data transfer to go this second time. Time to think about what might be next.

Nixing The Noise

One of the biggest problems of PCs is the noise. My newest computer is no exception.

As soon as I fired it up, I head the whine and the whir. They were tough to dismiss. I buttoned up the case, but there was little change. Some of the problem was fixable, some I’m resigned to endure.

One of the biggest problems with PCs is the noise. My newest computer is no exception.

As soon as I fired it up, I head the whine and whir. They were tough to dismiss. I buttoned up the case, but there was little change. Some of the problem was fixable. Some, I’m resigned to endure.

I mentioned yesterday, the speed throttling ‘pot’ had been left of the CPU cooler. Turning down that fan made a difference – and the CPU temperature has not climbed.

Right now the CPU, motherboard and power supply all check in between 32&#176 and 34&#176 Celsius (89&#176 – 93&#176 Fahrenheit). I think the CPU can easily hand 60&#176 Celsius. I have no clue about the power supply or motherboard, though I assume they’ve got less leeway.

I should add, computers are incredible heat producers. The faster they get, the more heat they produce. And, of course, heat means electricity. This has become a big problem for the proprietors of ‘server farms,’ which need to be cooled ferociously.

If I placed my hand over the fan grate on the back of the case also quieted the machine. That fan was spinning at around 3,000 rpm. As it turns out, in my box of never to be thrown out computer parts, was another speed controlling pot.

Listening carefully, I throttling that fan back until most of its noise was gone. It is now spinning at 2,000 rpm. That’s 1/3 lower in speed, but light years in noise.

Still the computer has a definite whir. I think the problem is the hard drives. Most PCs have one. This PC has five!

The Devil made me do it.

Actually, I had the drives hanging around from older projects. They seemed too young and virile to be filed away somewhere. Today, they could probably be replaced by a single drive – and sometime in the future that’s what I’ll do. Just not now. You have to draw the cash line somewhere.

Oh – last night while throwing in the last of the additions, I did notice some errors in my thinking. What I assumed was ‘just’ a disk controller turned out to be a RAID controller.

I didn’t plan for my two 60 Gb drives to become a RAID&#185, but I had little choice if I wanted to use them.

Also, my TV card may only support 320×240 resolution – 25% of the pixels I’d get with the 640×480 I assumed it was capable of. I bought it cheap, online. Maybe I just didn’t peruse the specs properly.

I think it’s time to stop writing technical stuff for a while.

&#185 – It stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drives, and in my configuration two drives look like one. Since half the data is written to each, getting over some mechanical imitations, they are faster than single drives. Other types of RAID are used to create two copies of all data, for safety purposes.

The Main PC is Too Quiet

I have waited over twenty four hours before writing this entry. I am distressed. I am upset. I have killed the main PC!

It would seem that the data is intact, so that’s not my worry. However, this was a custom PC, built on my kitchen table and office floor. I don’t want to start over.

The back story goes like this. My PCs were too noisy. As I mentioned a few days ago, I ordered some quieter cooling from Zalman. It’s an ingenious design, and my auxiliary machine is a few orders of magnitude quieter than it was. A very pleasing outcome.

Last night, I attempted the same surgery on the main computer. Since the main PC has a slower CPU, throwing off less heat, this technique should have worked even more efficiently. Everything went together with no trouble. It’s really a simple swap.

And then, I turned the PC on.

Instead of the series of beeps I normally hear, the computer set out a continuous set of two second beeps followed by four seconds of silence (I had originally written 2+2 but just actually timed it). The computer would not boot.

I have checked all the connections and reseated both the video card and memory. Nothing. I got the same result after resetting the BIOS.

If it were the new fan causing these problems, hitting the Insert key should have brought the computer to a state where I could work on it. It won’t.

At this moment, pieces of the computer are sitting on my office floor and I am befuddled. It could be the memory, or CPU, or the motherboard itself? I don’t know. And, though most of the motherboard beeps are documented, this one doesn’t seem to fit the patterns that are listed.

I’m not sure where to go – other than the state of denial I now sit in.

I could just order a new CPU and motherboard, giving myself a speedier, newer PC in one fell swoop. The problem is, this machine is built around a RAID. Without going into the technical minutiae, two disk drives are acting as one to allow speedier access for video. But, without the RAID controller the data on these two drives is useless and unaccessible.

Though a few years old, it’s still possible to buy this motherboard (Soyo SY-K7V Dragon Plus) and the dated CPU that plugs in. And, even though that would mean sticking with an older computer, that might be what I do.

At this point I can’t do anything, because I haven’t isolated the problem. Later today I will try and force myself into troubleshooting mode – though it really is painful.

There is a rule of modern machinery that fits this situation: “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broken.”

The End of the Hobby Era In Computing?

The lead story on Extreme Tech is all about building a computer. Build It: A Speedy PC For $800

I’m certainly not adverse to building a computer. The PC this is being typed on was assembled right here on my office floor from parts I specified. It does everything I designed it to do (though it has incredibly noisy fans to remove its internal heat, and I wish I would have designed that out). And, as a bonus, it actually worked when I plugged it in!

The question is why build… and even if you want to, how much longer will that be possible?

My computer was built to edit video. To that end, I threw in the ATI All-In-Wonder 8500DV video card (on which the DV “Firewire” connection never did work) and a Soyo motherboard with built-in RAID (two disk drives act as one for the faster service necessary for video). The on-board audio conflicts with the video card, meaning I then had to go get another audio card.

It was a great learning experience, but today you can buy machines off the shelf that do the same thing. And, increases in processor speed cover a variety of sins. So a machine not totally optimized for video will still do fine because everything else is so much faster and the disk drives are so much larger.

As I was passing by Home Shopping Network earlier today, they were selling a Gateway PC (I am not a fan of any particular brand. All major computer manufactures are just putting together other people’s parts.) with 17″ monitor and printer for under $1200. The CPU on their machine is better than twice as fast as mine! If you’re interested, here are the specs.

It’s tough to build when a speedy machine, pre-assembled, sells for a price like that.

For hobbyists, like me, there will always be the allure of building the ‘perfect’ screaming machine. But, I suspect within the next few years that won’t be possible either.

I remember in high school, a friend of mine bough a Model “A” Ford and restored it to running condition by hand. What he couldn’t get, he modified. Now, there’s hardly anything on a car you can fix or modify on your own.

Computers are going in that same direction. There are a number of reasons, but the most significant seems to be intellectual property rights. My computer is capable of copying DVDs… even copy protected DVDs. I can do all sorts of other things that upsets other rights holders too!

Just as printer manufacturers have added chips to try and thwart aftermarket ink cartridge manufacturers, PCs will be ‘smarter’ (really more restrictive) in what they let you do. The quaint concept of ‘fair use’ will go out the window, because manufacturers now understand how easily their hard work is ripped off.

Will future versions of Windows be built so it only works with ‘trusted’ hardware and software that can be more closely controlled? My opinion is, yes. Sure, a computer could be run on Linux or some yet-to-be-designed operating system, but that would deprive you of much of what’s available today.

I’m not sure where the ‘sweet spot’ is, balancing the rights of those who produce with the rights of those who use. I suspect that PC’s wouldn’t be where they are today… capable of doing what they do… if the restrictions to come had existed earlier.

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