Posts Tagged ‘Computers’

Brain transplant for my flagship computer.

January 4, 2009

I’ve been agonizing over what to do about my dying computer.  Normally, I would put it out to pasture as a backup and build a new machine from scratch.  I did some Core i7 pricing tonight.  While the processors themselves are quite comparable to the Penryn chips, the motherboard and memory prices are out of sight.

So I got to thinking.  Is this the right time to go crazy on hardware?  I decided that it’s not. So I just bought a new motherboard, chip and RAM with a Zalman cooler.  I’m going to replace these parts only in my main machine and keep the video card and raptor hard drives and everything else.

I did splurge on the Q9550.  I think with the Zalman, I should at least get 3.6 GHz.  It will easily be the fastest computer I’ve ever worked with.  It will be faster than my kids’ computers and the upgrade cost me less than $600.  It would have been over $2000 building a new Core i7 system.  I think, for now, this was the smart way to go.

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Computer Trouble.

January 3, 2009

Last night I tried to boot my flagship computer and had some weird trouble.  First, I got an overclock fail and then it just wouldn’t go completely into XP.  It also seemed very, very slow.  I tried resetting the factory defaults in CMOS, but that had the very undesirable result of knocking out the RAID zero boot disk.

So even though it’s back to factory defaults, I had to convince it to pick the RAID back up without trashing the windows partition.  This thing is old enough where you have to make a floppy to put the drivers on the system.  Around midnight, I remembered that there was a setting in the BIOS necessary for the RAID.  I flipped that back on and got it to boot (but very, very slowly).  Because the slowness starts with the post screen, I do not think this is a software problem.  I might try to flash the bios.  I also see that Norton has a program called Ghost.  I’ve never messed with imaging programs because I’ve always kept my data on a separate disk.  I’ve always felt that since I had program disks, I didn’t need to worry about programs.  Of course, now I’ve accumulated so much crap, I don’t even know what I have.  Plus, I’ve got a lot of codecs on this machine.  So, I want to try to do an image.

Something similar happened to two AMD boards that I had years ago before they died.  I fear this computer’s time grows short.  I detailed its creation on this blog.  You can see that it’s lasted a scant 2 1/2 years.  This is not typical for a computer that I build.  I usually get 3 to 5 years without any problems.  I think most would agree that it’s probably the overclocking.

Of course now, I know a lot more about overclocking and I know how far you can push components.  The price of my knowledge has been this computer’s potentially premature death.  I’ve been joking that this is just an excuse for me to build the I7 rig that I’ve been thinking about (and maybe I will in the next few weeks) but for now, I’m mourning the decline of something I created.

Becoming an Adobe fanboy.

December 27, 2008

On of my goals over my holiday vacation was to learn Dreamweaver, Photoshop and Flash.  Later I might learn more about Premiere but I’m told that Vegas Pro might be the way to go.  I’ve been sick, so I haven’t made the progress that I’ve sought, but I have made inroads on the Dreamweaver book.

I want to take the blog that I do for work out of free WordPress hosting and put it into an environment where I pay to host it but where I also have more control.  I probably don’t need to learn Dreamweaver to do this, but I think it may be a good start.

Also, learning new software causes me to make mental connections that help in ways that I have never considered.  I think that this whole software learning project is going to take several months now.  If I decide to buy the software after playing with it for a while, it’s going to be expensive.  I want to be absolutely sure that I’m going to use these tools.

You might ask why I don’t stick to open source.  Certainly, there are some alternatives.  Everyone knows about Gimp, for example, instead of Photoshop.  I’ve been using Gimp for a while for quick photo editing.  I want to get past superficial editing, though and really learn about the layering aspects that Photoshop offers.  I think that’s going to be the most fun part of the project (along with video editing).

Doing this for fun is also a real motivator.  Just starting the Dreamweaver book has made me think of some unrelated server projects that might be interesting.  So there’s real value in this and it could be engrossing too.

Computer Vagaries.

December 24, 2008

I was reading this article on Slashdot the other day and I couldn’t help but think about how many times I’ve seen this before.  I had actually started writing a post on this back in July, but I didn’t have enough ammunition to make my point.  This article provides ample evidence of how a user’s experience with PCs is not uniform between individual boxes.  This is not just dependent on operating systems.  Time and time again, I have experienced this.  For example, I could not get iTunes to install on one of my Vista boxes.  On an XP machine, Twitter doesn’t work.  On my iMac, I can’t get Firefox 3 to install. My experience as a hardware fanatic is one thing.  But what I wonder at is the experience of the average user.  A non-geek could buy a computer with Vista on it and try to install iTunes and fail.  Another user might be banned from ever experiencing Twitter and never be the wiser that the problem comes from the vagaries of one machine.

The latest example concerns my daughters’ computers.  I bought identical parts for them to make my life easier.  The free Nero program that came with the DVD drives works on one of the computers but not the other.  I have reinstalled windows twice in trying to resolve this.  It simply won’t run.  Yet, it runs fine on the other one.  I have a workaround.  Sonic works fine on the machine that hates Nero.  So I use Sonic.  It’s no big deal, but it bugs me.  Again it is supposedly identical computers behaving differently.

Digital isn’t supposed to be like this.  This is analog behavior.  The OP from Slashdot was about how computers and cores really aren’t the same from machine to machine. Each box develops its own idiosyncrasies.  I’m frankly amazed that computers work at all given this divergence.

But from an AI perspective and from the genetic algorithm perspective, this is crazy.  You’d have to develop using several different boxes simultaneously to allow for the divergence.

I was talking about this with Jason, AI researcher and the creator of Underworld Hockey Club (and also a Friday Night Party Line panelist) and I thought his comments were insightful:

“[O]ne interesting thing with genetic algorithms is that they learn with the computer.  If I train a checkers player on the cluster in the lab, that player will not be as good when I run it on my own computer.  It’s not stupid, but it’s not as good.  It’s because it’s tuned to the specific compiler & floating point operations of the cluster.  This is why we need online learning.  Genetic algorithms simulate evolution, but there aren’t any mature methods to simulate learning during the life of an individual.  A common belief that I share is that evolution contains 99% of the knowledge we need to survive, but without the 1% from learning, it is completely useless.  Look at deer, for example.  Baby deer (and other quadrupeds) are able to walk within minutes of being born.  Clearly, the basic constructs of coordination are tied to DNA (baby deer don’t flail stupidly until they figure it out), but the deer need learning to make sure that their programming works with their specific bodies.  One student in the lab is looking at neuroplasticity, which is the study of neural networks that can adapt to their environment in realtime.  It’s really interesting stuff.”

New KVM Goodness.

September 30, 2008

I ditched my old KVM and looked around for a 4 computer model that would work with my 30″ monitor.  I’m trying maximize the surface area on my desk.  Happily, I found one:

Here it is in action:

Right now, I only have one computer plugged into it.  The plan is to slowly build 2 more and perhaps buy a Mac Pro for the 4th.

I’ll do a follow up review on this in the future.
IOGEAR GCS1204 4PORT DVI KVMP SWITCH W/ 2.1 AUDIO DUAL LINK
(Oooh, cheaper here)
IOGear GCS1204 4-Port Dual Link DVI KVMP with 2.1 Audio

Expensive PC chrome.

September 1, 2008

I like reading both CPU and Maximum PC because I’m very much into computer hardware.  Some people like messing with cars; I like messing with computers.  Some people will pay more for chrome, I’ll pay more for GHz!

In its September 2008 issue, CPU featured some tricked out computers that sell for around $15,000.  That’s the price of a car.  If I were rich, would I buy such a thing?  Because I like building PCs, I probably would never buy a PC like this because I’d rather have the fun putting it together.

Let’s look at one of these.  The Biohazard Rapture impresses me because it uses “multiple evaporator phase-change cooling systems.”  This system allows Biohazard to overclock two QX9775 systems to 4.6GHz on a Skulltrail motherboard.  Whoa.  I mean, daaaaaaamn.  The cooling system brings the processors down to – 20 degrees F.  It’s very difficult for a hobbyist to do something like that.  So here, you’re getting something for your $15k that you can’t really do yourself.

Of course by studying these supercomputers, a hobbyist can see how the big boys do their tricks.  I picked up how to set up Raptor drives in RAID zero from reading about these machines.  I  also got into water cooling this way.  If I bought a Skulltrail mobo and some high end cooling equipment, I could probably create something faster than anything a person could buy at Microcenter.  But there’s no question I could not equal what Biohazard has done.

Could it be done more cheaply?  Relatively speaking, yes.  In this neighborhood of performance the mobo and the chips alone come close to $4,000.  Thus, even if you do it yourself, you’re talking about spending 5 grand.  Now that’s a third of the price of a Rapture, but the performance would be closer than that.  I’m confident that I could get it up to 4 GHz.  I’ve done that with lesser chips.  So while I’ll stipulate that I can’t match the Rapture for $5,000, I can get to 87% for 1/3rd the price.  Moreover, considering the level of diminishing returns right now on using an 8 core box, what difference would it really make day to day?

Sadly, that cuts both ways to me as a computer enthusiast.  You could say to me, “but Thaed, I can buy a Dell for $1000.00 that gives me comparable performance for 1/5 of your $5000.00 price that will be great for Office, Firefox and maybe a little Photoshop.”  And what do I have to say to that?  Well, yeah, but look at the chrome!

Building a 32 TB Server: a thought experiment.

August 31, 2008

Daniel Gimpelevich and Holden Aust built a 16 TB server for Christian Einfeld and his Digital Tipping Point Project.  See Linux Journal, Issue 173, September 2008.  I am impressed that these gentlemen built a server with four times the capacity of anything that I have ever attempted.  It’s funny because in Einfeld’s article he mentions it almost in passing.  My jaw was on the floor.  Also I think it’s cool that he’s a lawyer who is also very much into technology.  Moreover, his philanthropic efforts in San Francisco are admirable.

The server they built motivates me to try to build a 32 TB server.  There are three problems that I have not worked out.  One: fitting 16 drives in one box.  I would wait to build the server when 2 TB drives are obtainable.  I am assuming that I can find a case somewhere that will hold 16 drives.  If I can’t, I would have to have some sort of an external enclosure and run SATA cables to it.  Two: I don’t know if FreeNAS can handle 32 TB of storage.  If not, I’d have to use some other platform, but I suspect it could do it or could be made to do it.  Three: I don’t know if you can put three or four SATA cards on one motherboard.  Obviously these gentlemen figure that part out.  It must be possible, I just don’t know how to do it.  It may be as easy as plugging them in.

If I were to succeed, a RAID 5 FreeNAS server would provide 20.8 TB of usable space out of the 32 TB available.  Since you have to do backups anyway, it almost makes sense to have two raid zero 32 TB servers as you would get 27.73 TB of usable space each and faster performance.

At this point, this is just a thought experiment.  In terms of money, when the drives become available, we’re not talking about that much compared to other types of extreme computing.  For example some people will spend in excess of 14 or $15,000 buying an overclocked “ultimate” machine.  A 32 TB server would probably only cost $2-$3000 to build.

I have to admit it is exciting.  I don’t know what I would use it for.  I still have plenty of space on my 4 TB server that only has 2.6 TB of usable space.  Even with an HD TiVo and pulling HD content off of it and putting it on the server, I don’t think I would need anything close to 32 TB of space.  But it would be fun to build.

FreeNAS Idiosyncracies.

July 27, 2008

I enjoy using FreeNAS. I have three FreeNAS servers. Why would anyone need three? It’s because of the idiosyncrasies associated with using the software. For one thing, Vista doesn’t like FreeNAS very much in certain configurations and I have 3 Vista machines. For example, if you set up one of your servers in a RAID 5 configuration, Vista will read it just fine. But it won’t write to it. It won’t write to it because it thinks the disk is full. Vista can’t get an accurate reading of the disk size. So it won’t write to it at all. XP does not have this problem, thankfully. If it did, I would not be able to use FreeNAS in a RAID 5 configuration.

I overcome this idiosyncrasy by having another server set up with its disks mirrored. Vista reads disk mirrors without any trouble. All I have to do is use an XP machine to sync up the data from the disk mirrors with the main server. This way I have all my data on one machine. I use the third server to back up the main server. In a way, it seems ridiculous. However, FreeNAS servers are cheap (the software is free). Moreover on a gigabit network, data transfer is fast. You could accomplish what I do with a Drobo. However, it wouldn’t be nearly as fast. Also I’m not sure that you could stream video from a Drobo. FreeNAS servers make excellent video servers.

I started out using Rsync to keep my servers synced with each other. This quickly crashed. I couldn’t figure out how to fix it either. So, I moved to Allway Sync. This program has worked wonderfully. Of course FreeNAS wouldn’t be FreeNAS with out idiosyncrasy here as well. You have to reboot the servers more than you should. Often, after transferring gigabytes of data, the server will drop out and need to be rebooted. I haven’t lost any data and the servers are fine once you reboot them. Sometimes, with Allway Sync, sinking directionally as opposed to bidirectionally works better.

The latest FreeNAS joy has been having two of the servers spontaneously switch IP addresses. I have no idea why this happened. I thought for a moment that maybe there was some malice involved from a third party. But no. My best guess is that IP addresses opened up and that the servers rebooted and picked those. I’ve been using FreeNAS for a long time and it has never done that.

You might think that is a lot of effort to use these servers. But I can tell you that that is not so. While I have identified the above issues, they are all manageable. The servers have great up time and I can move my data around quickly.  Plus, it is awesome to have all my data in one place.  It’s like having an old car that has problems but you know what the problems are and you know how to fix them. And in the meantime the car gets you where you want to go. With all the redundancy I have with these servers, I believe my data is safer than it has ever been (knock on wood).

Building a 3 TB Backup Server Using FreeNAS.

July 6, 2008

My computer videos are the most popular thing that I do online for fun. Here is my latest.