Autumn 2003


The Build


Just starting out... The new power supply is in place, and I'm staring at all those cables and, as usual, worrying about how I'm going to route them to avoid fouling the airflow and ruining the cosmetics... When one has Perspex windows on both sides and the top of the PC, there aren't many dark corners to hide the messy bits! Towards the end of the rebuild I had a brainwave, and routed most of the thermal probes through a " split-loom pipe running down the left side of the chassis - not only does it look rather sexy and industrial, but it hides the mess of wiring really well. I'm rather pleased with that bit... All the wiring went more neatly overall, actually, than the previous attempts - I guess I've got the hang of it by the third incarnation.


The motherboard is in place, and the number of wires seems to have doubled. Aaargh - are they breeding in there? In the bottom right you can see the switches and power connector for the case lights, left homeless and dangling since the original installation - later on, while I was pausing for thought in between sessions of debugging the faulty RAID arrays, I ripped them out and rebuilt them to wire into apertures in the case's back panel - much nicer... Dangling over the bottom edge are the Serial-ATA cables - the motherboard came with four nice red ones, but I'd already bought a set of shiny silver ones to match my rounded IDE cables, and as they were shorter and better suited to the distance in question I decided to stick with the Akasa ones.


Getting there... The bulk of the hardware is in place, now, and the next stage would the the problematic disk drives. The light grey housing in the top left, over the PCI slots, is a blanking plate containing four USB2 sockets attached to the motherboard USB headers. This isn't mentioned in the online specification of the motherboard, and I had expected to use the headers to connect the case's front ports, but when I unpacked this unit it seemed a very neat way of replacing my lost serial ports quickly and easily... I may come back to wire in the front panel ports at some stage, instead, but I don't seem to have much of a need for easily accessible devices at present.


Everything is in place at this stage, if not very neat, and I'm configuring the RAID arrays in preparation for copying my partitions from the old drives. Around about now, I was just starting to get the first sneaky feeling that something, somewhere, was badly wrong... I could join two drives into a RAID-1 mirror, but as soon as the hardware started imaging the data from one to the other, one of the drives would disappear from the bus and the process would fail. All four drives apparently worked well in a RAID-5 array, though, so it took me a while to realise that I actually had a subtly faulty drive - and even then it took a further while to isolate which one it actually was! In the end I swapped everything around and created a mirror for the primary volume and a stand-alone drive for the secondary - when the replacement drive arrives I can add it to the lone drive and form a second mirror, at which point I'll probably also grow the existing 136Gb partitions up past the 48bit LBA barrier to use the full 160Gb capacity of the disks.


I'd actually given up on the disk arrays temporarily, here, and was concentrating on tidying up the cabling... everything is routed, if not actually fastened down securely, with the exception of the bundle of thermal probes in the bottom right of the photo. While I was doing this, I was intermittently fiddling with disk drives, array volumes and annoying software that would corrupt a partition while it copied it and generally getting nowhere fast... I lost three days and a quantity of hair, and was extremely pleased when I switched from Maxtor's proprietary MaxBlast 3 software to the industry standard Symantec Ghost and everything started to work noticeably better. With both partitions copied over from the old drives I used Partition Magic to expand them up to just below the 137Gb threshold - just to be on the safe side. I re-installed Windows 2000 over the top of the existing OS to ease such a major hardware migration, then upgraded to Windows XP a few days later when I was sure that everything was stable. This process preserved all my data and 95% of my system settings, which on a fully-loaded system is a real mercy. I was prepared to re-install, if it became necessary, but I'm very glad that I didn't have to...


The final version of this first draft, with the thermal probes and a number of other odd wires neatly tucked into the corrugated plastic pipe snaking down over the drive bays. In real life it catches the glow of the nearby neon case light rather nicely, and looks very industrial and elegant. The cabling is still very busy, but with so many wires there's not a great deal more that could be done, so I'm happy enough. The rather stiff, awkward S-ATA cables ended up firmly clipped to the base of the case, and hopefully that will help prevent them from wiggling loose in their sockets. I have a little more tweaking to do to route the thermal probes and a few other oddments, which will wait until my replacement disk drive arrives, but for now it's done. Phew!


And there we are! 95% complete and safely back on my desk, to the great relief of all concerned! It was a tense and tiring week, but in the end I'm left with a thoroughly kick-ass PC, probably one of the fastest in its class, and one that should keep me going with minimal maintenance for as long as I can keep my fiddling, tweaking fingers away from its insides. Most informed observers estimate that time period to be measured in weeks...  :-)


Thanks are definitely due to Ros, who soothed my troubled brow when things weren't going so well, made polite noises every time I showed her some odd bit of neatly-sleeved cabling, and put up with barely seeing me for a week while the work was in process. It can't be easy living with a techy when the upgrade fever takes hold, I'm sure...

More thanks to tech site Whining Dog for a pair of very informative articles on building a SMP system based on Supermicro's X5DAL-TG2 motherboard, which acted as a reality check on my basic specification, and also to online suppliers RS, Action2K and Frozen CPU for unusual electronics oddments - without which I would have had to bodge and make-do even more than I usually do! They're all good sites, and well worth a look.

Finally, special thanks to Hamiltone Ltd for stepping in to supply the motherboard when my original supplier, Scan, let me down badly - especially when so many other online suppliers didn't even bother to respond to my panicked enquiries! A big thumbs down to Scan, too, for thoroughly jerking me around over the motherboard - they are a classic example of a company who's online stock levels bear no absolutely resemblance to reality, and who's customer service leaves an equal amount to be desired.




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