June 2002 Part Two


15th June

The quest for the perfect case continues, but so far all my favourites have one serious flaw... The larger Lian Li cases are almost perfect, especially the latest models with pre-installed side window, but would need immediate modification to fit my shiny dual-fan Enermax power supply... Coolermaster's ATC-410 is a rack-mountable dream, but only has three external drive bays. I'm relieved, really, as I won't have the time or energy in the foreseeable future to transplant INFINITY's hardware, but if I did find my ideal I'm not sure that I have the willpower to resist it.

Here's another interesting case: re-badged by Directron for the US market, it's actually a SuperFlower SF-201T (don't some of these Pacific Rim hardware manufacturers have such wonderful names!) and as well as a mirror-finished all-black aluminium chassis with gold trim, it comes as standard with windows in both side panels and the top! Internally, it's very similar to the current flood of mid-sized Antec/Chieftec/Chenming/Atlas cases, and has just enough space for all of INFINITY's bits and bobs. Hmmm... It would mean re-colouring the bezels of all my drives, but apparently it's easy enough to achieve a pleasant effect with the vinyl dye used for car interiors. <smiles to myself> Maybe...

ATI have just launched a new unified driver suite for their Radeon graphics cards, "Catalyst". All sorts of great things are claimed, but I think I'll hang on for a while until the first update ships... ATI are definitely making great strides with their drivers these days after many years of slow, buggy and feature-poor releases, but their reputation is not yet shiny enough for me to risk a first edition... Initial reviews at [H]ard|OCP and Rage 3D.

14th June

The ad-hoc changes to the air-flow in the computer room yesterday had a rather unexpected effect. The entire "hot-spot" cabinet was positively glacial, and would have had dangling icicles if the air wasn't so dry - but the rest of the room was at an uncomfortable 25C, the five big-ass servers having soaked up the cool air like a sponge. I replaced the cabinet's rear door, which I thought might achieve the happy medium of deflecting the bulk of the airflow out into the room, but then the cabinet started to over-heat once more so it was off with the door again and back to the drawing board. The engineer will be back on Monday, I'm told, so we'll see...

Unfortunately, my gut feeling is that the air-con isn't actually powerful enough to cool the room properly. I provided figures on the room's total power consumption when the first survey was performed, but the the salesdroids didn't really seem to know (or care!) what proportion of this would be dissipated as heat and I think they've under-specified significantly - even on the coolest thermostat setting, 16C, the ambient temperature doesn't come down much below 20.

I have the feeling that we've been treated fairly shabbily by the company's salesmen, actually - it turns out now that although we have two completely independent cooling systems, each allegedly powerful enough to cool both rooms in the event of a failure in one unit, the automatic switchover hardware was not included in the original contract and so will have to be purchased and installed separately - presumably at greater cost than had it been integrated with the rest of the project. As it seems that we also need humidification systems to prevent the static charges that can build up in heavily-cooled air, I'm starting to get the feeling that we're being led up the garden path... What will the next unaccountable omission be, I wonder? Coolant? A heat-exchanger? Big fans?

Oops! It seems that the recently-released Korean version of Microsoft's Visual Studio .Net development environment is infected with the Nimda virus. Not Redmond's fault, this time, as it seems to have crawled onto the CD via the 3rd-party company that contracted to translate the help files. As it happens, it would apparently be extremely hard even to run the virus on a .Net development platform, so the chances of it ever escaping in commercial code were minimal - but it's another red face for Microsoft and if you listen carefully you can hear the hammers pounding over at Slashdot as Bill is nailed to the wall once more.

13th June

The new computer room air-conditioning was finally commissioned yesterday, after much hammering and dust and delay. The secondary zone, a little room housing the big Salicru UPS, is as cold as an iceberg but I have the feeling that the pumps may be struggling a little with the main computer room - even with the thermostat at the minimum of 16C, the temperature in the air of the room is closer to 20 - with hot-spots in some of the server cabinets of up to 10 warmer. By chance, the supervising engineer was on-site today, and having worried at him a little he angled the slats in one of the output vents to direct the cold air directly towards the hottest cabinet. I've tethered the rear door open with a spare earth strap, and the back of the servers are now feeling nicely glacial. The only thing that remains is to install the automatics that switch the flow from one pump to another in the event of failure - currently one of us (guess who!) would have to climb up into the false ceiling to make the change, and that definitely wasn't part of the plan...  the engineer assured me that he'd only seen three such failures with this kind of installation in all his twenty years, but I expect most firms are more diligent than mine when it comes to regular scheduled maintenance...

This afternoon was spent in a fairly fruitless attempt to make either Compaq Insight Manager or Dell IT Assistant report correctly on any or all of the Compaq and Dell server hardware. I don't really understand the cause of the problems, but my suspicion is that DMI is not nearly the universal standard that it is claimed to be... some servers provide information down to the serial numbers of the various PCI cards, whilst others barely acknowledge name and IP address. I'll try to bring all the agents to the latest version over the next few days, but I don't think that will fix all the problems - part of it is almost certainly just a basic cussedness, especially annoying as Insight Manager used to be a really sweet app before it was re-written in Java for a browser interface.  :-(

11th June

I'm having a day off, today, for no reason other than I felt like it... I opened INFINITY to change the tape drive, managing to avoid disconnecting the many I/O cables and work with the PC in place - always far quicker when it's possible. I'm a touch paranoid about backup in spite of the mirrored disk drives, and I'm feeling better now that the tape subsystem is online again - the backup is running now, and in an attempt to prevent the drive over-heating again I've turned on the four cross-flow fans that cool the top bays, adding around 100 cubic feet per minute to the airflow and what sounds like an equal number of decibels to the noise levels... Ho hum...

I've been looking at new cases again, too, almost in spite of myself. The current favourite is the all-aluminium CoolerMaster ATC-410, rather less tall than the current SuperMicro but considerably deeper, and with (you guessed it!) plenty of space for fans. It's tempting, but although it's well-supplied with 3" internal drive mountings it's rather short on external 5" bays: I need at least four and it only has three - rather a deal-breaker.

The new Settlers add-on arrived this morning, courtesy of Amazon's second-hand service, so I guess that will absorb most of the rest of the day - it's a compelling game.

[Five hours of Settlers later] Yep, compelling alright...

I've just heard that the major European backbone company KPNQwest has gone into receivership rather suddenly, and it's a race to re-route the bandwidth through other providers before the administrators repossess all of the infrastructure hardware. The Belgian-based company's Ebone and subsidiary networks carry around 50% of European Internet traffic, and in an attempt to keep the data flowing the sysadmins have barricaded themselves inside the computer centre, intending to stay there until responsibility for the pipes can be handed over to Colt. Full story and comment at NeoWin.

10th June

Oh, what a swizz! The "new" Thermaltake case I've had my eye on turns out to be an existing Chenming design with a few mostly cosmetic enhancements - very similar cases are also sold under the Antec, Chieftec and CoolerMaster brands, and when it comes down to it the Xaser is not nearly as exotic as Thermaltake's promotional blurb suggests. I'm torn, now - a new case might well help the cooling and noise problems a little, and the Chenming range are getting good reviews... but the problematic Supermicro was described in equally glowing terms as a super-cool case for high-powered systems and I could go to a lot of work for very little actual gain... Maybe I should stick to my original idea of replacing the fans and leave it at that: there doesn't seem to be a lot of point in switching to another off-the-shelf case unless I could find a water-cooled solution, and none of the current offerings will support dual Slot-1 format processors... Back to the drawing board, then.

8th June

It looks as though Friends Reunited has reached critical mass, and is now really starting to work well... One can now register workplaces and colleges as well as schools, and ten minutes work last week filling in various details has just resulted in mail from the most fondly remembered of my drinking buddies at university - a pleasant surprise indeed.

Ros played her 10,000th game of Bubblet a few days ago, truly a mark of how compulsive the game is. I'm lagging somewhat behind, with just under 8000 games behind me, but the numbers on the official high-scores page make both of us look like rank amateurs. I'm not convinced about the veracity of some of the stats, though - there are some extremely high scores from a surprisingly low number of games, and while it's not statistically impossible I do wonder if people have discovered how to hack the authentication string instead...

Here's yet another breakthrough in ergonomic keyboard design, this time a bizarre split pair of vertical keypads. Does it work? Who knows... Will it achieve any significant market penetration? No - they never do.

My space-geek friend Mike was telling me that the secret Soviet orbital weapons platform Almaz once targeted the space shuttle Endeavour as it was launching! Reagan's "Star Wars" programme was in full flow, and the Soviet government wanted to prove that they could prevent any further SDI components from being placed into orbit - the weaponry used was only a targeting laser, blinding the shuttle's external sensors temporarily, but the implication was clear... And shortly after the US were made aware of this "attack", the entire Strategic Defence Initiative was cut-back and eventually abandoned. There were other factors too, of course, such as the complete inability of the targeting systems to successfully track incoming ICBM warheads and the complete inability of the proposed weapons systems to successfully destroy them, but the presence of a working orbital laser battle station was likely to have been the last straw. Of course, these days the power behind Almaz and it's planned successors has collapsed and evidently former Governor Bush feels safe in resurrecting the program under a different name.

5th June

I investigated the dead tape drives yesterday, and found that both of the tapes had snapped, too - definitely over-heating, I think, especially after blowing several cubic inches of dust out of Ros's PC with compressed air... The Dell Dimension cases are easy enough to work on, and both drive and tape were replaced in less time than it takes to translate the Book of Maccebees from Hebrew into Lithuanian. Replacing the drive in INFINITY will be the usual maze of twisty little wires all alike, though, and will have to wait for scheduled downtime at the weekend.

Back at work again tomorrow, after a very long rest, and raring to go... What I'm raring for even more, though, is for ThermalTake to fix that damn link!

4th June

I've just come across two new and decidedly unusual pieces of PC hardware. The first is a monitor, diagnostic and status display for the PCI bus. It's reviewed here, and is certainly tempting... The second is just plain weird - a motherboard from AOpen, the audio subsystem of which is driven by vacuum tubes. Talk about retro chic! They make the usual claims of richer, fuller, warmer sound, but how well they've managed to screen out the high-frequency interference produced by all the PC's digital circuitry will remain to be seen.

I'm still waiting impatiently for ThermalTake to fix the link to the full specifications of their new Xaser II case, and waiting even less patiently for the first reviews... It's an elegant design in aluminium, rather smaller than INFINITY's current SuperMicro SC-750a case but with a similar capacity, crammed with features and an integrated "smart" cooling system... If it lives up to its looks, its certainly a strong possibility.

3rd June

Uh-oh! It looks like I've offended the technology gods again, with Ros's tape drive dying last night during the weekly full backup and mine following suit this morning... Both the same symptom, a horrible grinding screeching noise that I suspect is a bearing failure, and both probably caused by over-heating in the hotter weather. Unfortunately the top of INFINITY's case, where the tape drive lives, has been several degrees warmer since I fitted the sound insulation and the tapes are burning hot at the end of several hours continual use... It's interesting to note that none of the tech sites that have reviewed the various sound-deadening materials have reported such a significant temperature increase, so it's doubtless another result of the SC-750 case's famed peculiarities of airflow. Fortunately Ros's PC is probably just gummed up with dust, which will be easier to cure - and if both drives are dead, as I suspect, at least a strange set of circumstances last autumn left me with a plethora of spares.

The DigiDoc still needs to be replaced, too, and I'm starting to plan on replacing the main cooling fans with either a higher-airflow/lower-noise combination (they do exist, it seems!) or the snazzy new thermally-controlled Smart Fans from ThermalTake. It looks as if there's going to be a lot of re-wiring on the cards, and I suspect that if I'm going to I'd better fit it in sooner rather than later - the hot weather is coming up, but so is a house move... Busy busy.

[Later] Damn, I think I've fallen in love... I went to ThermalTake's site to frown over the Smart Fan specs again, and they have a new case... It's very new, and doesn't seem to have been reviewed anywhere as yet; but oh, on paper it's beautiful. I know I said I'd never build another full-height tower, this being the 21st century and all, but I can feel my resolution fading even as I type. Help meeeeeee!

1st June

Almost a full day's worth at work, today, but it was quite productive - I "supervised" a thorough cleaning of the computer room and UPS room, and the installation of earth straps for all the server and comms cabinets, and in between managed to tidy the mess of WAN cabling that links us to the regional offices: next week we're having the stack of the old-style Kilostream interfaces replaced with a modular chassis holding a plug-in card for each link - much neater and easier to manage, I think. The cabinet is crowded with other WAN hardware, too, and is now considerably less confusing - it's rare that the network is powered down to the point where I can juggle router hardware around at will, hence the spaghetti of cabling, and although I'm not a fan of weekend work this sort of opportunity is usually well worth exploiting.

I splashed out on a couple of space kits from the online model shop Hannants earlier this week, and they arrived today. One is the well-known (if quite rare, these days) 1/24 Gemini special edition from Revell, the other rather less commonplace - a Russian-made kit of the Energia-Buran (The USSR's shuttle look-alike) full stack, complete with an introduction in incomprehensible Cyrillic by Energia's Chief Designer! It's a nice looking kit, and as Buran project didn't survive further than the initial glide-tests it will fit in well with the Von Braun lunar lander and the ISS. I may not start either of them soon, as time and energy are both short, but the Gemini has now disappeared from Hannant's listings and I'm glad that I spotted it when I did.




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