New PC

It being a wet and windy public holiday (in honour of Australia Day), I decided I had nothing much better to do than try to salvage something from the new PC debacle by actually building the thing from the parts delivered so far. Naturally, I first had to buy a replacement PC case, since that has never been delivered by the original suppliers; but after that, it was simply a matter of trying to remember how to build a new PC from its parts without making a total hash of it. It’s been a few years since I tried… and I was never very good at it!

I’m happy to report that I only scraped one knuckle and the wiring is not the ghastly spaghetti job of my PC builds of yesteryear (just a little wild around the edges, perhaps). I also managed not to pull any SATA connectors off the motherboard. The case has three 120mm fans -which concerned me in a theoretical sort of way, for I like my PCs to be as near silent as possible. To my surprise and relief, however, the thing just purrs, almost inaudibly.

I’m booting off a 128GB Samsung 830-series solid state hard drive; I’m storing most of my data (all my VMs, for example) on a 512GB Samsung 830-series solid state hard drive; and if I really need to, I have a Seagate 1TB traditional spinning disk. The thing boots and launches applications satisfyingly swiftly and smoothly.

For graphics, I am relying on the baked-in HD4000 integrated graphics. That’s fine for a bit of Solitaire! It also does quite nicely for Stellarium, producing a frame-rate of around 50fps, which is smooth and sufficient. As a bonus, being built into the CPU, there’s no additional graphics card fan to worry about, so I get the silence I crave. I was a bit concerned that Intel Graphics and Linux wouldn’t mix, but I really shouldn’t have worried: 3D graphics effects (wobbly windows, desktop cube, etc) were all one mouse click away, and my dual-screen desktop worked near-perfectly, first time of asking. For some reason, CentOS decided to put the main menu bar on the right-hand screen, and I found no configuration tool to allow me to specify that the left-hand one should be regarded as my primary monitor …so I was actually reduced to physically moving the screens around on my desk! Apart from that, though, I have zero complaints about the way CentOS copes with Intel graphics.

The 32GB of RAM were something of an extravagance, but I suspect I’ll never have to buy RAM again! They certainly leave lots of room for multiple simultaneous virtual machines, which is my main use-case these days. Here’s how the PC is coping with running five different Solaris VMs at once, anyway:

Nice.

I’d still rather it had come in one piece, pre-assembled, but I think my choice of components was good and this beastie will last me a good couple of years as a result. Happily, it lets me run a two-node RAC with a two-node Active Dataguard configuration on my desktop with ease… I may have to write about that soon!

GreenboxIT – Avoid at all costs

I wanted a new PC for Christmas. I left it a bit late and only ordered on December 21st. But still, I thought it would arrive in time for my birthday (Jan 7th). It didn’t. In fact, parts of it still haven’t arrived -though the courier is claiming I signed for it. Which means I have very long hands, because I was in Melbourne when the signing allegedly took place. The vendor merely says it’s a matter between me and the courier…

The company responsible for this shambles goes by the name of GreenboxIT. They have a website, but it’s very slow and I don’t intend to drive traffic to them any more than I have to, so no link from me. Their prices are excellent (seriously -or perhaps that should be “suspiciously”- so: an Ivy Bridge i7, 32GB RAM, PC case, 600W power supply and an Asus z77 motherboard for $700 or so, some $200 cheaper than the best I could cook up on other sites). Their pre-sales customer service is excellent, too: a thread of 19 different emails built up over a couple of days, as I asked whether they would (a) assemble the components into a PC; (b) deliver to my rural part of the world; and (c) would get the couriers to take the goods for safekeeping at the local post office if I wasn’t at home to accept delivery.

In very friendly, speedy replies, GreenboxIT promised that, yes they would assemble. They even offered a 24hour stress-test. Yes, they would deliver, though it would be $30 more. And (eventually), yes, they’d actually use Au-stralia Post to do the delivery (for an extra $8), so dropping off at the post office would be fine.

Assurances on all fronts finally received, I placed my order. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. When I finally emailed them about it, they said the RAM brand I had chosen was out of stock, but they were expecting more the next day. Another 4 days passed, and when I chased them up again, they announced the goods were on their way.

Finally, on January 19th -4 weeks after ordering- I discovered that a courier company called Fastway had indeed delivered something. It’s just that they’d left it on my front doorstep (since I enter the house via the garage, I hadn’t noticed until the next day). And the package consisted of a motherboard, RAM, CPU and power supply. Separately. Each in its own box and packaging. So, wrong couriers, no assembly and no PC case.

I emailed them to ask what was going on. “Ah,” they said. “You asked for assembly in an email exchange, but if you’d really wanted assembly, you would have clicked the ‘service’ button on the order form on the website. So you got what you ordered”. I wait a day or so, and then ask where the PC case is. “Fastway say you signed for it, so if you are saying you didn’t, you’ll have to take it up with them”.

So, no PC case. No assembly. Wrong couriers (despite having explicitly paid more for AusPost to do the deed). And a company that thinks it’s OK just to wash its hands of the whole business. I don’t think so: Visa will be getting a call from me quite soon to dispute the entire transaction.

Which brings me to another peculiarity of the saga. I’ve been using my credit card to buy stuff on the web for a decade or more: music, books, Kindles and Nexuses, PCs and hard drives galore. I’ve never had a problem. On 28th December, though -just 7 days after having used my card to order goods from GreenboxIT- a charge for $3800 was put through on my account, for some air tickets with Emirates.

Now, ToH works for a different airline, so I get staff travel on that if I want it. So I don’t buy tickets on competitor airlines at the best of times. But I certainly didn’t buy seats to Dubai, which is not exactly high on my list of ‘must-see’ travel destinations. So I had to dispute that transaction as soon as the credit card company was open for business in the new year… and had my existing card cancelled as a result. The inconvenience caused was certainly a pain, but at least it was easy to get ~$4K back.

Now, it could well have been a complete coincidence that I was subject to credit card fraud just days after supplying my credit card details to GreenboxIT.

But it is beyond dispute that, as far as I’m concerned, GreenboxIT are a bunch of shysters: assiduous in offering pre-sales care, but completely oblivious to their customers once the cash has hit their bank account. They obviously don’t care about repeat custom, and I’d certainly strongly advise anyone thinking of trusting these people with even a single purchase not to do it.

Con-men would be too strong, probably. Bastards, on the other hand, they definitely are.

DIY NAS

I have spent most of the beginning of this year re-building my two NAS servers …and then re-re-building them because I wasn’t happy with their performance or some other configuration peculiarity. Not a speedy job when each rebuild requires you to move off 6TB of data and then copy it back when you’re ready!

My biggest problem was getting the RAID stipe alignment right: I cunningly used command line-fu to start partitions at various cylinders to try and get it right, but performance figures suggested I’d got it horribly wrong instead. So then I re-did them using the simple GUI tools provided… and everything worked beautifully. On this occasion, then, GUI 1, CLI 0.

But the job is finally done, and I now have a minimalist CentOS 6.3 purring away on both boxes, one being a mirror of the other and with decent read performance, which is the main thing.

I figured it would be useful not to forget some of these painfully-learnt lessons, so I wrote up the installation and configuration process as a new article.

At some point this year, I will start replacing the drives used with new 3TB WD Red drives… At least I’m now confident that things should be plain sailing at that point.

New Year NAS

It was six months ago that I got a couple of HP microservers, slapped Windows 2008 R2 on them, software-raid5′d 3 2TB disks in each and thus acquired, in total, about 8TB of usable, protected storage. It now being the New Year, it was time I had a bit of a re-think about those servers.

First, I wanted to bump up the storage. The servers come with only 4 disk bays (each), and one of them was occupied by the Windows O/S disk -hence there were only 3 bays for the ‘safe storage’ drives. Happily, I find I own a couple of 60GB solid state hard disks that are sitting on the shelf doing nothing -and it’s trivially easy to plonk them is as the boot disk, freeing up all four drive bays for safe storage duty. Even more happily, I had a couple of spare 2TB drives sitting around, so those newly freed-up drive bays could be put to good use.

So, each server now has a 60GB O/S drive, plus 8TB of storage (though if you RAID5 4 2TB drives, you end up with around 6TB usable storage). Per server.

So then it came down to a choice of OS and raiding technology. There were three basic options:

  • Stick with Windows 2008 (or maybe upgrade to Windows 2012)
  • Switch to FreeNAS and start using ZFS
  • Switch to CentOS and use an mdadm software raid, plus a traditional file system (like ext3 or ext4)

In the end, I decided to dump the Windows options, simply because it works, is dull and isn’t very educational. I don’t have moral objections to Microsoft these days, and Win2008R2 has done sterling service for the past six months… but I just can’t get excited about NTFS and dynamic disks anymore!

Much more fun was to back everything up very carefully (only I wasn’t quite as careful as I should have been… see below!) and then wipe one of the servers with a FreeNAS install. If you haven’t met FreeNAS before, I can certainly recommend it. Your server ends up running a console-only BSD O/S which you access and manage via a nicely polished web interface from a remote PC of some kind. Setting up new volumes as Raid-Z (ZFS’s new take on the basic RAID5 principles) was a matter of mere minutes, even as a complete beginner; and setting up Samba shares to expose the newly-protected storage was trivial. It’s slick and I was happy… for about 3 days.

The samba shares are there because ToH still insists on using Windows and the home entertainment consists of a Windows 8 PC sitting under the telly running Windows Media Centre. It was as I was trying to play music via these shares that I encountered a couple of rare ‘stutters’, where the music would pause until “whatever it was” cleared and sorted itself out. That had never happened before. I did some research and discovered various tweaks you can apply to a vigin FreeNAS install to make samba shares perform better -and, as far as I can remember, they worked well enough, but I would occasionally still encounter a stutter or two.

I don’t think I’m alone in having found that the N40L is a great little server that lacks a bit of puff, though -and once I read that others have had “issues” with it and FreeNAS, I’m afraid my mind got a little bit closed on the matter. The N40L is a lovely little server, but it’s not a performance giant …and asking it to cope with ZFS raid, even with 8GB RAM fitted, was probably a bit on the ambitious side. I’ll confess, too, that whilst FreeNAS seems a great way to do things, it’s new (to me) and thus has a learning curve: this being the Christmas Hols, and me having more inclination to Deck the Halls than battle with ZFS, I fear the pull of the tried-and-true began to outweigh the excitement of doing something sexily unfamiliar.

Hence, I ended up wiping the Windows 2008 off my second server and installing ye olde CentOS 6.3. A quick refresher on mdadm (the software RAID application) and I had 6TB of protected storage up-and-running using nothing more exciting than ext3 pretty quickly. I then wandered about, lost and forlorn, for a couple of hours as I struggled to remember how to set up Samba shares manually. I was failing miserably until I remembered that although I had edited my SElinux configuration to be disabled, I hadn’t actually rebooted the server afterwards, so the ‘enforced’ setting was still effectively in place. That which had remained unshareable for hours, after one quick reboot, became trivially easy to remotely access once more. (PS: I hate SELinux!!)

So, I now have one server running sexy FreeNAS -perfectly happily, as far as I can tell, though I am suspicious of its performance and suspect it might go horribly wrong at any moment. And then I have the other server running traditional CentOS -also perfectly happily, it would seem, with me basking in the glow of the comforting and familiar and sure that if it ever goes horribly wrong, it will only be because of something I typed.

The eventual plan, of course, is to have both servers configured identically and replicating amongst themselves with a scheduled rsync. So, ultimately, one of them will have to “win” and the other will become a mere clone of it.

Having to decide a winner is therefore a bit of a tricky one. In the red corner, there’s the fact that we watched The Dark Knight Rises on New Year’s Day streamed from the FreeNAS box, in high-def, with not one glitch, unscheduled pause or hiccough (though I did fall asleep after 50 minutes, so it’s possible the rest of the boredom actually streamed really badly, just without me noticing). Over in the blue corner, however, is the fact that a 1.5GHz AMD Turion is probably not up to running ZFS effectively, even with 8GB RAM to play with… whereas boring ext3 and a bit of mdadm probably suits that quite well. Difficult call to make, I think, without me spending a lot of time doing benchmarking I don’t actually have time to do…

There is one real nasty in all of this -and it’s an oldie and a goodie! Foreign characters in file names have been an issue once more. Take this bit of gibberish from an ssh session connected directly to the FreeNAS server:

[[email protected]] /mnt/SafeData/Music/classical/Richard Wagner# ls
./                                Parsifal/
../                               Parsifal (Levine)/
Das Rheingold/                    Rienzi/
Der fliegende Holl??nder/         Siegfried/
Die Meistersinger von N??rnberg/  Siegfried-Idyll/
Die Walk??re/                     Tannh??user/
G??tterd??mmerung/                Tristan and Isolde/
Lohengrin (Keilberth)/            Tristan und Isolde (Bernstein)/
Orchestral Music from the Operas/ Wesendonk-Lieder/

Anyone wanting to listen to a bit of Walküre or Götterdämmerung is going to be a bit disappointed, I think. However, maybe not, judging by this screenshot of the very same directory of the very same server taken on my Fedora-running PC:

Even Windows clients have no problem with that directory listing:

Similarly, when I copy exactly the same files from exactly the same external USB (formatted with NTFS by the original Windows 2008 server) onto the CentOS server, I have absolutely no problem with foreign characters at all… so somewhere during the FreeNAS construction process, I suspect there was a file system mounted without UTF8 being specified as one of the mount options. Since I know -from long and bitter experience- to do this on my Linux boxes without even thinking about it, I imagine this is one unfortunate result of my inexperience with all things FreeNAS and BSD! It is, therefore, another black mark against FreeNAS, despite it almost certainly being a result of a PEBKAC.

Anyway, I haven’t quite decided yet, but I suspect that CentOS will win out in this race, simply because I have other things to worry about at the moment.

Such as what operating system to run on my main PC this year? Yup: that’s still up for grabs, despite all the experimental, exploratory installing I did a few months ago. I spent some weeks with Windows 8, which wasn’t as horrible as I expected, but ultimately hit the boredom buffers, as often happens with me and Windows. Currently, as one of the above screenshot shows, I am running Fedora 17 with the XFCE windows manager (Gnome 3 being utterly beyond the pale as far as I am concerned). It’s OK, but I am encountering a hell of a lot of bugs, crashes and other assorted weirdnesses). So I don’t think it’s for me long-term.

Funnily enough, I reckon I know what I’ll be installing on my new 32GB RAM PC (when it finally arrives): CentOS 6.3. It is stable, cuddly (in a Gnome 2ish sort-of way) and functional, yet still requires copious quantities of command line affection from time to time. Sounds like all I could really ask for in a desktop OS! Roll on PC delivery!!

Until then, or the next time, Happy New Year to all my readers.