Just a suggestion: Don’t buy a Shuttle!

As I mentioned a while ago, I bought myself a new Shuttle XPC SH67H3. In fact, I bought two of them; one with an i5 and 8GB RAM, the other with an i7 and 16GB.

I would like to tell you what a joy both have been since purchase, but I’ve only had the i5 in the house for about 3 days all up and the i7 keeps crashing on me as I write this, so I can’t really. In fact, the i5 has spent all but 6 days since purchase back at the place I bought it from, because it malfunctions so spectacularly.

Temperatures are good (coretemp shows 32°C idle, going up to about 62°C when under full load from Prime 95). Memory passed 24 hours of Memtest+ runs. The hard disk passed its Seatools tests with flying colours, too. Nevertheless, three days after it was first installed with Windows 7 x64, the thing suddenly decided to reboot. Fair enough, I suppose: it’s Windows, after all. Only you don’t generally expect the hard disk to go missing from the list of devices displayed by the BIOS, and for the machine to boot up to a ‘no boot device found’ message, I think!

Switch it off, wait ten minutes, switch it back on… BIOS suddenly re-discovers the hard disk and Windows boots normally. Two days later, however, the same thing: a reboot that causes the drive to disappear from BIOS. A simple switch off and on doesn’t allow the disk to be re-recognised, but a switch off-wait-20-minutes-switch on does.

After a fresh Windows install, same thing happened 11 hours later. At which point, it got taken to my offices (nearer the supplier). I spent a day re-installing Windows a third time… and waited and waited and thought, ‘Bummer, must be something about my power supply at home’ when Bingo! Three and half-days later, the thing Blue Screened with an error about iastor.sys. No reboots this time, and no missing disks from BIOS, but regular blue screens with assorted stop messages indicating various types of hardware failure or driver error. Back to the shop it went.

Meanwhile, I congratulated myself that the i7 shuttle had behaved itself perfectly. Maybe because it used a Western Digital disk whereas the i5 had used a Seagate one? Who knows… at least mine was stable!

Until 8 days after it was first installed, when it simply decided to switch itself off. No error messages in the Windows event viewer; no warnings; nothing really… just one minute it’s all fine, the next the power dies and the thing no longer functions. At least I could switch it straight back on: the BIOS wasn’t forgetting about the existence of a hard disk, so Windows came back without drama. But then it happened again. And again. And again. So I wiped Windows and put Fedora 15 on. And then it happened again. Four times, actually.

The supplier, happily, has now been able to see the first Shuttle crash and blue screen (but it took five and half days to happen, and he was about to give up!), so at least he now knows I’m not making any of this up. Having originally suggested he thought it might have something to do with SATA power management, he now says he thinks it’s something to do with the RAM and that “Memory incompatibility is just normal, some memory just does not work with some systems”. So who knows?

I’ve meanwhile found a thread in which someone describes my symptoms almost exactly, and for which suggested solutions range from (a) buy a new power supply; (b) increase voltage on the RAM and © downgrade your BIOS because the latest one from Shuttle is buggy and can’t do Intel turbo mode properly.

Can I suggest an option (d) there? Don’t buy a Shuttle in the first place??!

If the thing had worked as advertised on the tin, I probably wouldn’t suggest that; but to buy two of them, neither of which can stay stable for longer than about 4 days, means I now have zero confidence in the product. Minor issues, like their noise levels (it’s not high as such, but you tend to place them up on a desk, so that their fans are much more at ear-level than a normal mid-tower would be. So they sound quite loud) wouldn’t have bothered me in themselves. Now, they just combine with their jelly-like instability to annoy the heck out of me.

If I could get a refund, I would (but the supplier seems to think it’s OK for him to fiddle with them long enough by way of a ‘repair’). I’m not sure at what point I just let loose the lawyers and point out that he’s sold me a defective product that’s not fit for purpose. I’ll give him another fortnight, I guess (and that’s just to sort out the i5… I have to go through the whole thing again with the i7 as a separate exercise afterwards!)

I will say in passing that the supplier has been helpful and honest throughout, and the build quality of what they shipped me was superb (as it always is with them). It’s just unlucky that they happened, through no real fault of their own, to sell me a steaming pile of poo instead of a functioning computer. Twice.

Caveat emptor, I suppose. Or, in plain English: don’t buy a Shuttle, if you know what’s good for you.

Remote X

I’ve written a short article on how to connect a Windows PC to a Linux server and have Linux applications appear to run on the PC. I suppose it’s just a bit of a re-visit of something I first wrote about many years ago, but the sheer cleverness of the X windowing system is a source of perennial joy and amazement, so it doesn’t do any harm to re-visit the subject from time to time (especially if you’ve just bought a new PC that has to be configured right!)

The article can be found here.

Shh! Don’t disturb the consensus…

I found this graph, courtesy of The Register, fascinating:

The top half shows average temperature anomalies in Greenland, measured with a number of different ‘proxies’ (such as tree rings, ice core analysis etc). We start using real thermometers in the latter part of the 19th Century (the red ‘instrumental’ line), and it is apparent, I think, that all indicators are suggesting that the temperature is going up quite rapidly as we reach the end of the 19th Century, with no sign of that increase really dropping off in any significant way.

What’s really interesting, though, is the bottom graph: it’s a plot of the rate of change of the Earth being hit by Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCRs), again as measured by a number of different proxies (such as isotope ratios for Beryllium). It’s an inverse scale, so the lower the line drops, the more cosmic rays are heading in our direction. Put another way, we’ve had far fewer cosmic rays coming our way since around the 1870s than we did in, say, the 1700s.

Spot a correlation between the two graphs? Does it perhaps suggest that when the rate of cosmic ray strike is high, global average temperatures drop? Or, more relevantly to today, perhaps, that the increase in global average temperatures we’ve measured in the past recent decades might be related in some way to the fact that cosmic ray activity has been tailing off over much the same period, and is now much lower than it has been in ages?

Correlation is not causation, of course, but if the cat is sitting next to an empty saucer of cream and licking his whiskers, you’d not want to discount the possibility that a bit of causation has resulted in the observed correlation!

The suggestion in this case is that cosmic rays act as ‘seeds’: by ionising air, they cause vapour trails to condense around their path, thus leading to the formation of clouds. And clouds reflect back the sun’s heat -so the more cosmic rays, the more clouds, the greater the cooling. Fewer cosmic rays, fewer clouds, greater warming.

(From the dim recesses of my brain I seem to recall that when they grounded all aircraft movements in the wake of the September 11th attacks, the same thing was observed: average temperatures over the continental USA shot up by a degree celsius or so, because there were no jets causing con-trails, and the completely clear skies that resulted allowed more solar radiation through than normal… so this is the same sort of idea, only with cosmic rays playing the part that jet engines commonly do). Update: I found a reference to what I’d only badly-remembered.

Naturally, implementing a carbon tax or an emissions trading system does not affect the number of cosmic rays hitting the Earth: that’s a function of the strength of the Sun’s magnetic field; and of the strengh of the Earth’s magnetic field; and of the complex interaction between the two.

Whether one draws the conclusion that a carbon tax or an emissions trading system is therefore a complete waste of time in the ‘fight’ against ‘climate change’ is, I guess, a matter for the politicians and not the scientists (which is no doubt why the physicists at CERN have been told not to draw conclusions from their research).

Personally, I look forward to a world powered by thorium reactors, hydrogen and solar (wind farms, not so much) and have no problem with the idea that switching away from a carbon-based economy is a Good Thing, for its own sake. I don’t expect doing so will make a blind bit of difference to the climate, however, and I suppose that makes me a “denialist”. So be it: I think research like this only serves to show how many known unknows there are out there!

Update: see this article for a different perspective on whether cosmic rays and climate change are linked..

Network Configuration in minimal Linux installs

By default, the new Centos 6.0 distro performs a “minimal” install, as I mentioned last time. This is good because you end up with a very small footprint O/S (no Gnome, for example), leaving the server more resources to run the things you actually use servers for (like Oracle).

The downside to it, however, is that a feature of Red Hat Enterprise Server 6 (and therefore of all its clones -so this stuff applies to Scientific Linux 6, too) is that it defaults to managing your network connections with NetworkManager, which isn’t actually installed as part of a minimal install. The net result (no pun intended) is that your network doesn’t work when you first boot into your new, slimline O/S.

The fix is to run the command system-config-network-tui, which allows you to specify a fixed IP address manually. In Centos 6, however, even this tool is not installed as part of a minimal install (I guess they took the word ‘minimal’ literally), so you’ll end up having to edit by hand the /etc/sysconfig/network-scripts/ifcfg-eth0 file.

You’ll need to end up with something looking like this:

IPADDR=192.168.0.33
BOOTPROTO=none
NETMASK=255.255.255.0
GATEWAY=192.168.0.1
DNS1=192.168.0.1
DNS2=192.168.0.2
USERCTL=yes

Obviously, you replace those specific IP addresses with whatever suits your local environment. The USERCTL=yes line is optional: it lets non-root users control the interface. Once the file has the appropriate entries, a reboot will do to make the new settings take effect.

In Scientific Linux 6, the system-config-network-tui tool exists, so you could use that… or you can achieve all these edits with the nano text editor. The Centos 6 minimal install is less forgiving, however, and you’ll have to use vi (because nano is not installed as part of its minimal install option).

CentOS 6… finally

The first question about when CentOS 6 would be released, contained in this thread on the CentOS forums, was asked on December 2nd 2010. 42 pages and 8½ months later, there is finally an answer: it’s out now.

Of course, Red Hat themselves (and Oracle’s Enterprise Linux equivalent) have moved on in the meantime to version 6.1 -and Scientific Linux already have a matching 6.1 beta out, as I’ve mentioned before. Still, better late than never, I guess.

Personally, I think the CentOS devs have blown this, badly -and the tone of their commentary on the forums has been sniffy, at best: not exactly calculated to win friends and influence people, anyway. There have been ‘defections’ in droves to Scientific (count me amongst them), and I don’t see that being reversed any time soon.

There’s not a lot to say about the OS itself, of course (especially since we’ve been using its Scientific binary equivalents for months!), but I have to say I really dislike the fact that it defaults to doing a “minimal” install (not even a “minimal desktop”). It means you get this once the install has finished:

I realise you could argue this is actually a good thing: very Ubuntu Server-like, svelte and exactly what an enterprise-class Server ought to be doing. None of your fancy GUI stuff required etc. I’d certainly vote for (and my kickstart efforts have tried to create) a very much slimmed-down installation. Oracle users will, however, know that an X Server is pretty much a requirement (yup, I know it doesn’t have to be running on the actual Oracle server, but it’s simpler when it does), short of getting into response files and silent installs, so starting off this svelte is a bit of a problem!

Scientific Linux 6.0, by the way, defaults to a standard Desktop install -and, at this stage, I think that’s an easier way to go than CentOS’ choice. It’s also mildly interesting to note that Scientific Linux doesn’t have a “minimal install” option: they call it a “basic server” install instead. What’s more, that installs 514 packages, which is way more than the Centos 6 basic install does. Why supposedly binary-compatible distros vary like this, I can’t say, but I wish they wouldn’t!

There are other niggles with CentOS, too. The GUI installer has not had the Red Hat trademarks cleaned particularly well. Here’s what you see in Centos:

Notice the weird blank, blue bar stretching across the top of the screen? Compare that to Scientific’s installer:

They got the ‘de-branding’ right, CentOS didn’t… which seems a bit slack. I know it’s not a particularly important thing, but I suspect that when the little details like this are wrong, there are ‘polishing’ problems elsewhere. I could, of course, be wrong (probably).

Anyway, it’s things like this, together with the mammoth amount of time taken for the distro to get even this far, which mean I’m deeply suspicious of the quality of this particular release. (Yeah, I know I don’t pay for it, but my expectations are rational, if not reasonable).

Your mileage might vary, of course. And in the meantime, Gladstone has been updated to work on Centos 6.0.

Good News/Bad News

Good News: Scientific Linux 6.1 is out in (very stable) Beta. I get mine from mirror.aarnet.com.au.

Bad News: CentOS 6.0 **still** hasn’t been released.

Good News: Scientific Linux 6.1 has a network install boot ISO (as SL 6.0 did, but SL 5.6 didn’t)

Bad News: the Scientific Linux network install boot ISO is over 200MB in size -so you almost might as well install from the original CDs or DVDs! By way of comparison, the CentOS 5.6 netinstall boot ISO was only 10MB in size. Maybe not so important when $4 USB drives come in 2GB sizes and up, but annoying nonetheless. I notice Fedora 15′s net install ISO is similarly huge… progress, I guess!

Even Badder News: you can’t use the Centos 5.6 netinstall boot ISO to kick off a Scientific Linux 6.1 install. (At least, I’ve not managed it yet!)

Good News: Gladstone has been updated to work with the 6.1 version of Scientific Linux.