All hardware sucks.

I have to build a computer, and I need another set of eyes before I buy things.

Considering what I do, I’m really not much of a PC hardware geek, especially on consumer-level hardware. But our file-and-everything-else server at home did not fare well during a scheduled power outage lately, and won’t POST. And not only that, but it managed to confuse both (RAIDed) disks such that they are not recognized on any other machine.

(Luckily I kept the previous disks from that machine; that way I only lose a full year’s worth of data. Even more luckily, everything that I had on there from the past year is somewhere else (original CDs, Oink, flickr, etc.) except for the financial and guest minutiae about the wedding, which at this point we didn’t really need to hold onto anyhow. On the other hand, I feel kind of dumb because I had a perfectly good AIT tape drive in that machine but hadn’t yet got around to procuring tapes.)

So I figured I’d just pick up a used PIII-750 or something and away I go. But no! I need to hang serious quantities of disk off of it (enough to hold 1000 or so CDs worth of FLAC), and that means I need a motherboard that can see those big disks. So that means I need a modern machine. Ok, fine — might as well get something that’s modern, and then it’ll last me a while like the 500Mhz Athlon that died did.

The machine doesn’t do much; the busiest it will ever be is transcoding FLAC to mp3 in real-time for streaming audio. Mostly it sits there serving files out to Candice‘s and my laptop via NFS and Samba, and handles DNS, DHCP, printing, outgoing mail, incoming ssh, and so on for our home network. It does need to run cool and quiet, though.

So I’m thinking of picking up a Sempron 2800, because it’s the cheapest modern CPU anyone around here is selling, and it’ll run cooler than a cheap Celeron. I don’t know what to grab for a motherboard yet, but it’ll be something basic with onboard network, video, and SATA and more than two PCI slots (need one for the SCSI controller, and one in case I need to add another SATA controller later, and then one for the thing I didn’t think of.) Disk will be a pair of 320GB SATA drives — probably one Western Digital and one Seagate to avoid the “both disks from the same batch fail at the same time” problem, and the local Cheap Disk Store has both for the same price. For RAM, 512MB of whatever the motherboard takes, generic and cheap. For a case, probably an Antec SLK2650 quiet edition, if I can find one in stock locally, which comes with a 350W Antec SmartPower power supply. I don’t think I’ll bother with a DVD writer, although I considered it. All I’d be doing really is making backups on it, and the tapes hold a lot more than a DVD.

Anything I’m not thinking of? Any recommendations for motherboards?

Also, I see that a lot of SATA motherboards support hardware RAID, or at least hardware-ish. My inclination is to use software RAID-1 anyhow, because that means I can take the disk and put it in any other computer and still get at the data, but I haven’t had the opportunity to play with built-in SATA RAID. Thoughts?

17 responses to “All hardware sucks.”

  1. I’ve been bit by cheap, generic-brand ram every single time I buy it. Funny thing is that sometimes top brands will be cheaper than the generic junk. Happened the last time I built a desktop machine. I originally slapped in 512MB of cheap crap which was DoA, exchanged it for 1GB of Kingston and had $7 to spare.

  2. As for integrated raid controllers, they usually suck. Many of the non-integrated controllers suck too, but they certainly suck less than the integrated junk.

  3. Is there a reason you don’t want to use a PCI SATA card in the hypothetical PIII-750?

    Also, unless I’m buying a server, I just get a pre-built computer. Last one was a Compaq. I don’t really enjoy specing, pricing and so on. And assembling a computer isn’t much fun, imho.

  4. Because I don’t have the hypothetical PIII-750, and the savings I’d realize between buying that old PC, the controller, and new disks aren’t much compared to buying new. Doubly so if I have to buy PC100 or PC133 RAM too.

    As for pre-built, I like being able to upgrade a single component when I can, and at my price point the prebuilts are all designed to be good Windows workstations, where I need the opposite — I end up spending money on a faster CPU, big video card, audio, keyboard, mouse, and a Windows license, all of which I don’t need. And after all that I end up with a machine that wasn’t designed to be particularly quiet and cool-running. And even then it ends up more expensive than putting together my own, especially when it comes to adding disk.

    (And this is a server, remember.)

  5. Brad basically proved that all RAID controllers are total shit ;). Too lazy to find the link now, but you probably remember it. My experience with builtin ones is that they’re utter, total shit. Intel isn’t even building them into the ICH8 chipset, so the MB companies are putting super-cheap ones in just to check that off the feature list.

    You could always do cheapss-old-thing and PATA. Is SATA really that much better for this application?

  6. (Oh, and I remember that thing from brad — but my requirements are a lot more relaxed than his. It’s more archival storage than anything. Even still, I’m not going to touch the hardware RAID from the sounds of things!)

  7. I don’t know about the rest of the hardware stuff anymore, as I’ve been suckered by the ease of Mac hardware with it’s nice pre-built services and the continuing porting of Open Source apps and daemons to Darwin, but I can comment on the RAID. Yes! RAID-1 is the way to go, especially in the home and especially if future budget could be an issue. Yanking out a drive and mounting it on another machine to pull off that data you need at the last minute is *MUCH* more convenient than trying to find/obtain/buy a drive of equal or greater size, plug it into the RAID-5, and pray that everything works itself out–especially if the bank account at the time of the crash is a bit low and/or the computer stores have closed for the day.

  8. Most, that is, not all.

    When I bought an IBM x306m (1U) to replace my co-loc box, it came with an internal RAID card. The IBM guy and their website made it look like the integrated RAID card was the same one that we bought for our x346’s (which are spiffy – let you rebuild/expand RAID online from RAID 5 to RAID 1 for example). As it turned out, this was totally false. It was a piece of crap Adaptec for-which there were no open drivers. This meant installing my kernel with binary drivers just to access my disk, which was something I was not willing to do. The idea of having to choose between running an exploitable kernel or having access to my hard drives while I wait for someone at Adaptec to rebuild isn’t all that appealing for some reason.

    The even dumber part… These drives were connected to the mother board via the RAID card. No RAID == No disks. When I had found this out (after the unit had shipped, late as always, thanks IBM!), I was fuming mad. Fortunately, I could simply remove the hot-swap back-plane the drives were connected to and run SATA cables to the two SATA ports on the motherboard. The box is now running software RAID very happily, and I don’t have any binary drivers.