A tough day at the silicon-face (it's end-of-month backup time again, and in an increasingly small window for the increasingly large datasets) so not much energy for the home network... I scheduled some backup jobs on the rebuilt workstation, tweaked the open-file settings, and crossed my fingers...
I want to buy something cool for my PC, after all these boring PSU and processor upgrades... I want something that brings a broad, geeky smile every time I sit back and look at it. I think lighting will be the thing, probably some EL string or tape around the front air intakes, and maybe even a full keyboard glow-job now that I have something pretty enough to justify prettifying further. Yep... I think that will be the next big one. I have a couple of little hardware chores to fit in at some point soon, though - replacing the baycooler that blows over my secondary disk (well, more wafts than blows, recently, with only one of the weedy little fans working) with a rather more exotic heatsink and fan unit. Oh, and while the case is open, finding out exactly which fan the fourth channel of the Digidoc is monitoring the speed of - I can't account for that fan at all, so either my documentation has fallen out of step with reality again, or they're breeding in there...
What I would really like is a 5¼" bay-sized panel of red LEDs, straight out of a sixties SF film or a Connection Machine, moving and changing and flickering... Mmmmmm.... LEDs.... [Homer_Simpson_Mode=OFF] Ideally it would actually need to be tied into the PCI bus or whatever, to reflect real data movements in some way, but as long as it looked right I'd settle for a random pattern... The electronics required for either is far beyond me, but unfortunately I can't find anyone online who has designed anything along those lines. Mail me if you know differently, please!
Spent a while tweaking the server for the KVM switching, and discovered that it's just as happy at 1280x1024, the same resolution that I use on my workstation, in spite of the fairly low-end cable. In fact, there's no discernable difference in image quality between the five metre cheapo and the two meter coaxial gold-plated-bells-and-whistles cable on my main system - which leads me to speculate that, at least in a low RF environment, these high-quality KVM cables are really a bit of a scam... I can recommend the cables I bought from the imaginatively-named KVM Switch Direct, though - they're good quality, reasonably priced, and arrived in a couple of days. I'll be shopping with them again.
I'm currently trying to wheedle my programmer-guru friend Mike Rix into writing me a little applet that I can attach to one of the smart buttons on the new keyboard, sending the right key-presses to automate switching between workstation and server - but apart from that it's all working very nicely. It's not strictly necessary, given the existence of VNC, but now it's in place it feels like a good investment and an elegant solution, too - and I do enjoy the sheer simplicity and tautness of my home LAN, having had to make too many concessions and work-arounds on the office systems for reasons of budget, practicality, or management idiocy.
A quiet and boring day at the office, for a change, so when I got home I dived straight in to widening the hole next to my desk and running the KVM cables downstairs. Originally I enlarged an existing knothole in a convenient floorboard, and then enlarged it again earlier this month to run a second CAT5 cable down to the server, but this was barely adequate for a RJ45, let alone a VGA connector... Out with the Dremel again (I love that thing!) and, considerable sawdust later, I managed to both widen the hole and angle it to neatly avoid the joist. Working with those fat, inflexible all-in-one cables is annoying (reminds me of laying RG8 broadband Ethernet coax in my salad days!) but all is in place and appears to be working well. The Belkin switch can be operated from the keyboard as well as a button on top, so I've been able to bury it out of sight at the back of the little stack of network hardware on my desk Waiting so long for the cables has been an annoyance, but it's lovely to be able to drive the server without the annoying lag that VNC brings even over an adequately fast LAN.
If you don't know VNC, by the way, I heartily recommend it - it's network or dialup remote control along the lines of pcAnywhere or Carbon Copy, but without the bloat and heavy resource footprint of the current commercial products and, best of all, it's free under the GPL! It doesn't feel quite as quick as pcAnywhere over a dialup connection, but a version optimised for slow links is under development for the impatient and even the standard build's Hextile encoding is fairly impressive... I've come to rely on this little app both at home and in the office, and if you need a generic remote control solution it's definitely the first one to look at.
[Pauses to sniff at the smell of sawdust in the air... Reminds me of my father's almost constant DIY work while I was growing up...]
I'm still not sure about the new keyboard... there's nothing I can put my finger on (pun unintentional!) but it just feels odd, with a capital "O".
The all-in-one KVM switch cables I've been waiting for finally arrived, today, so I delved down into the rat's nest behind the desk to hook it up. Disaster! My faithful old AT keyboard, veteran of many, many millions of characters in the seven years or so that I've been using it, wouldn't work with the KVM switch... It was hard to give it up, as it's big and solid to suit my typing style, and has a convenient little shelf to collect pens and junk and knick-knacks - and it's retirement has an extra poignancy from the emotional attachment of a love affair conducted mostly by email... we exchanged almost twenty thousand messages in a little over five years, nearly all of mine typed on that keyboard - and if that's not worth a tear...
The replacement, conveniently at hand, is a Logitech "Internet Navigator" that I acquired by mistake at christmas. It's extremely light and flat and spongy in comparison, but has a million programmable buttons scattered around the top, including a full set of audio/video controls that may well come in useful, and even a little clickable mouse-wheel! It's been interesting to watch Windows juggling with the drivers, having installed something modern enough to be recognised as a keyboard - it took a few reboots, but it finally cottoned on to the fact that it now had two Logitech keyboards, a Logitech mouse and a Microsoft mouse all attached at once... Plug-and-play has finally come of age.
The new keyboard has a tremendously different feel, and the short space bar (to permit two of them new-fangled "Winders" keys) is already giving me some odd effects! I use dozens of different keyboards in a typical day at the office, though, and I'm sure I shall adapt soon enough. The next project is to widen the hole in the floorboards beside my desk that runs cabling down to the workstation and server in the basement, to allow the second KVM cable to be hooked up. I think this will be another job for the Dremel, especially if I hope to achieve it without pulling back all the cables currently routed through the hole... No guts, no glory!
Phew! Still a lot to do, but the worst is past - I couldn't persuade Win2K to install straight to a single drive on the Promise RAID card, so had to leave the hard disks on the motherboard interface until after the OS installation, and then migrate and mirror them as a single operation... This left me without the safety net backup that I'd hoped for on the second disk of the old mirror, and that never helps the blood-pressure... All went well, though, and by Sunday enough drivers had been installed and apps migrated to make it worth testing the tape subsystem - it's happily streaming 30Gb of data to tape as I write, at around 60Mb/minute, so I'm quite happy. The new server seems to have taken up the load really well, and although there's a lot of work ahead re-installing apps on the new OS, it's been a productive weekend's work. High spots included fluking a home-made drive activity cable between the needlessly complex connectors on the new FastTrack TX2 RAID card and the Dell LED controller - at least eight ways of inserting the connectors, but by chance it worked the first time.
Damn, but that thing with NT and Win2K setup not recognising disks on secondary controllers is annoying - this time my usual fallback of booting from the startup floppies rather than the CD didn't help, as the installer then failed to find the CD drive, instead... If I hadn't been able to fall back on the motherboard controller, a luxury that I don't normally have with the SCSI array on a server, I would have had to scream for help. Still, this time pride is intact, and so is the data.
Moved the second workstation, SANDBOX (the laptop was the first) into the new domain. A touch slow because of all the logins to create default profile folders, but I managed to preserve the actual profiles without fuss. The next and last one to migrate is my own system, INFINITY, and as it's far and away the most complex I'm glad of the extra practice.
Planning the simultaneous migration from the old server and domain to the new, and downgrading the current server to a workstation. Interesting...
Replaced the tape drive in the current server - it's been having all sorts of problems reading tapes, recently, and although it could be down to dirty heads or worn media, a fortuitous accident left us with a glut of tape drives and swapping the drive out is likely to be the quickest way of solving the problem. [Addendum: It didn't help - the IO failures mid-backup were due to device contention on the over-crowded IDE bus. Solved later by migrating the disks to their own controller.]
Some more spring-cleaning inside: used the Dremel to cut away a whole bunch of excess plastic from the fan cages, in the hope of reducing the air turbulence a little... no apparent change in temperatures or noise levels, but it looks neater and pleases my tidy spirit...
Installed the new Enermax power supply - the fluctuations have vanished, and it seems to hold the 12V line to within about +/- 0.03V - sounds good enough to me. The installation was smooth enough, although requiring an annoying quantity of fiddling with wires... but somewhere along the line the DigiDoc lost all it's firmware settings and needed to be completely re-programmed - an activity reminiscent of setting the earliest digital watches, and made rather more obscure by the apparent disappearance of the manual.
Is the system cooler? Maybe a shade... Is it quieter? Not to speak of... Oh, well...
I swapped the graphics card in the current server from an old TNT2 to a budget third-party Radeon VE card. It hasn't made as much difference as I'd hoped, so evidently that wasn't causing all of the DirectX bottleneck, but The Sims scrolls a little better so it was £30 well spent.
Installed APC PowerUPS and, eventually, the PowerChute software. Played with many serial cables en route, but it's still as dumb as a stick.
Built the new server, installed Windows 2000 and the basic management tools, but failed to get both tape drives working well under BackupExec's RAIDirector as a striped array - only a few Mb per minute, at present, so the backup stays local… but with a dataset of approaching 100Gb spread across the network, even the high-end Travan drives are looking a little weedy.
A necessary but unwelcome burst of overtime at work left me somewhat cash-rich after Christmas, so I splashed out… The two main PCs are now fed by an APC Back-UPS 1400, obtained cheap as packaging-damaged stock. This model is as dumb as a post, even after much hacking with the bizarrely proprietary serial cables APC insists on, and extensive experiments with the Wintel port of the open-source APCUPSD daemon. Both techniques returned rather more information than APC's own PowerChute (crippled for this model of UPS), although nothing of any real interest. However, whichever technique I use the basics of UPS management are there, and the electricity supply in our area of London is flakey enough to make me very glad of APC's notoriously excellent power-conditioning features. [Later: the UPS has already proved it's worth in a recent two second blackout...]
I'm also on the point of installing a new PSU, having noticed some rather worrying fluctuations in the 12v supply - the DigiDoc shows levels as low as 11.7v when the CPUs aren't running flat out (huh?) and that's a touch un-nerving - although I haven't actually seen any symptoms apart from the DigiDoc's warnings, so it's another example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing…
However, a shiny new Enermax EG465 will provide another 150W or so to draw on and, if the reviews are to be believed, considerably better voltage stability. It also has yet another fan (monitorable by the DigiDoc), but Enermax hardware is usually fairly quiet and with luck the overall noise levels won't increase.
The network is also growing a dedicated server to run the Windows 2000 Active Directory - this is currently been hosted on one of the regular PCs, along with the DNS and DHCP services, but they were having a growing negative effect on performance and stability… and teaching myself AD debugging on a live system has had some unfortunate effects, too - actually, having accidentally severed the DNS server from the AD, it's a wonder it works at all!
These functions are gradually being migrated to a surplus PII, and when complete the original server will be re-installed as W2K Pro, which should help with The Sims. At the same time, I'm migrating the network to a "legal" external domain name, epicycle.org.uk, which will make some configuration simpler and some infinitely more complex… Hopefully in the long run it will prove worthwhile, though, allowing us to partially bypass the increasingly monitored and sanitised UK ISPs by hosting our own mail and web services internally. The new server will live downstairs in the basement where the cooler air will permit a mostly passive (and so quiet!) cooling solution, connected to the IO hardware on my desk with a Belkin KVM switch.