Sunday, 15 September 2019
I finished up the last article by saying I would concentrate on the motherboard component of this project next as I felt that this would probably be the trickiest part of the build.
The specs for the overall system are not mind blowing, they dont need to be as I am not going to be using this as a critical server and I dont need it to be particularly powerful when it comes to the level of compute that I would like it to do. Also, I am trying to keep the costs down here whilst at the same time provide a flexible and dynamic base for the hardware itself.
Going into this build, I already knew I would want a motherboard that would be comfortable in the server role as well as being able to get all of the features associated with server activities built in. My current NAS is supposed to respond to WOL magic packets, but this functionality is shaky at the best of times, I know it works well on the majority of servers I have used in the past so it kind of makes sense that the feature should be more dependable on a motherboard designed for this purpose.
I also wanted to have the ability to have more than one actual CPU, a dual processor based system would again give me more flexibility when it came to the level of compute this thing has once it is up and running.
So, after scouring eBay for a suitable solution, I came across the Gigabyte 8IPXDR. This cost less than £40, so I consider this a pretty good catch for what I intend to do with it and should have the extensibility I need for the build. It is also a server motherboard in the ATX form factor that even came with a back plate, which will be immensely useful for keeping out all the dust and for keeping things quite. The only bad thing I can think of right now is that this is an ATX-E motherboard, the listing didnt mention this fact, and I only have an ATX case. On looking at the case, its pretty huge, so might accommodate this board, I dont know yet as I haven't gutted the case to see if things will fit.
This is also a dual CPU motherboard, so it meets the criteria for providing more flexibility when it comes to the processing power. One other fact that was missed off the listing is that it has two Xeon CPU's sat in both sockets - this is a bargain, although I am not sure what CPU's they are exactly. From Googling the numbers on the CPU's themselves, they may be 6-cored running at 2.5Ghz each. If this is the case, then I have grabbed a bargain indeed.
Sadly though, it doesnt have any on-board SATA interfaces, so I will need to obtain a SATA controller specifically for these drives. Fortunately, FreeNAS is compatible with a large number of SATA controllers out of the box and I have already begun looking for one that will work with this board.
This brings us on to the connections the board has itself. Because of the time it was made, it doesnt have PCI-E slots on board as standard, which is a bit of a shame but nothing that will effect the performance of the system when it is built. Instead, it comes with a mixture of PCI-X and PCI slots, which I think was the practice at the time. This means that the SATA controller I will get can be of the PCI-X format, and can also be a 64bit card - the board has one slot for a 64 bit card.
It also support SCSI RAID, although I dont think I have any compatible drives for this, unless one of the many drives I have in an old SAS array (that doesnt work) is compatible - it isnt important for this build right now as I am trying to make use of my SATA drives. There is also a pair of IDE connectors and an interface for a floppy, I have some old IDE drives that can go in this at some point and who else feels like a computer isnt a computer without a floppy drive?
It has two built in gigabit Ethernet ports, which is great as I will make use of them and on board ATI graphics, so the display should be pretty good as well.
So, what is happening next? Well, I will need to get that SATA controller card for definite, without it the build stops in its tracks. I am going to try and source a 64 bit PCI-X example of one, mainly because I have not used this standard before and I am curious. Also I will need to get some memory for the board, it can support upto 12GB of installed ram - but it needs to be ECC DDR 266Mhz memory. There are six slots available, however I very much doubt I will ever need to go that high for this build, 4GB should be plenty for our needs. Getting a pair of coolers for this board is also on the cards, whilst it came with free CPU's my luck didnt run as far as free coolers and I also need to check that the PSU in the case I will try to fit this to is compatible with this board.
And then there is fitting the board into the case itself, if that doesnt happen then I am going to need to get an ATX-E compatible one, and I am hoping this doesnt happen...
So, the next part should cover the SATA controller once I have bought it and an update on how it went fitting the board into the case.
Wednesday, 11 September 2019
I love this device, it can accommodate two SATA drives in a number of RAID configurations to ensure that your data is securely stored. Right now, I use mine to archive important files as well as to act as a media server.
Synology provides an OS environment on the device itself that is highly configurable and one that has an active ecosystem of first and third party plugins to further extend the capability of the device itself. For instance, you can quite happily use this device as a full blown webserver, running PHP and POSTGres or as a CRM portal using Sugar, the choice is extraordinarily large.
For my needs, I make use of the media server plugins, this serves up all of my music and video across my network and any other device that can connect externally. I also have a cloud storage plugin that allows the device to connect to my various cloud storage solutions, OneDrive, Google etc, and sync files between these locations to ensure that I never lose my important data.
However, I have found myself in the position where I would like to upgrade my current solution in order to add more disks - I can have a max of two, and to increase the performance of the media capabilities - the CPU and resources on the box often get maxed if there is a lot of trans-coding.
I would have liked to buy a more capable version from Synology, but these things start getting expensive when you want to have more expansion options for disks and I just cannot justify spending that amount of money out for a device like this when I have other things I could spend the money on.
After doing a bit of investigation into other products I learned of something called FreeNAS. This is an open source storage OS specifically designed for, well, storage. It is intended to provide a complete and fully featured OS that supports NAS operations. All you need to bring to the party is your own hardware and you are up and running. This is an important point to note - in many consumer NAS solutions, you mainly get a rather under powered desktop PC that has been adapted for use as a NAS, for example the CPU in my DS215J is a Marvell Armada 375 Dual Core running at 800 MHz, it also has just 512MB of RAM. This is pretty weedy, even by the standards of five years ago.
The comparable model available now is the DS218+, which is a significant upgrade on my model and comes with a dual core Celeron running at 2.5Ghz and 2GB of RAM, a massive increase compared to what I have now - but this still has the same physical limitations as my current model with almost no ability to upgrade the memory or connectivity.
Now, FreeNAS allows you to install the OS on pretty much any hardware that is supported - you could run this on an old desktop PC that has IDE drives if you wanted to and it would work as a NAS, albeit a slow one by today's standards - but the upshot is that you get the sensibility that comes with a PC.
Like pretty much any guy of my age, I happen to have an old PC lying around - it serves as a stand for a lamp at the moment. I haven't used it in years, as far as I can remember it has an AMD Athlon CPU in it and what was a very capable graphics card from the mid-2000s. However, I dont plan to use any of that gubbins, I am interested in the case, its all aluminium and black (no windows, not that tacky) and takes a full sized ATX board. So I plan to gut this and source a second hand server motherboard to act as the basis for a new NAS build, one that should be able to take full advantage of the technical features available to FreeNAS as an OS.
FreeNAS itself is an OS based on FreeBSD, which doesn't need that much explanation for the purposes of this article. It also offers a number of features you would find on any enterprise level storage OS component, such as full disk encryption, RAID and backup that is compatible with many different providers. Additionally, it is based on the ZFS file system, which means it can handle snapshots and replication - again these are things you would find in any serious enterprise storage solution, but are neatly delivered to the hobbyist here.
As a result of this, it is possible for someone to create a custom NAS on their network at home that can handle all of the file-sharing, media serving, backup and replication that might be needed to keep an entire families worth of devices running hassle free. Not only that, but due to the fact you can install this on off the shelf hardware, the extensibility of the solution is only limited by your own finances and imagination. My current NAS has one gigabit LAN connection, but the new one I am about to build, why not throw in two 10GBE connections that are teamed? Probably wont do that though, lol.
So, for this little project I pretty much have everything I need to get started. I have a case and all the optical drives/floppy drives I need. I might need a new PSU, but I am going to get the following:
1 x server motherboard: This will be a second hand one from eBay. Nothing too old, but nothing too expensive either. This is my first time doing one of these builds, so I will refrain from going full on and getting a stupidly fast system, given that I dont need one so powerful.
1 x SATA controller: depending on the motherboard I get, I might need to obtain a SATA controller. This could be the case if the motherboard I get is not young enough to have this on board, right now I am assuming that whatever I get will support SCSI under RAID - but I dont have any SCSI drives (but I do have a stack of SAS drives...) plus SATA is a better choice for future drive upgrades. I may also want to have an NVME solution in here as well to boot from, this is something I will need to consider.
2 x CPU's: I am getting a server motherboard, so why not try getting a dual socket one? I was a teenager in the 90's, so I can remember the dream of owning a dual CPU PC for gaming back in the day, I know I dont need two CPU's these days but doubling up the chip count will also double my core count. This seems like an economical way of getting as much performance out of the setup as I can.
RAM: I have some RAM now, but I dont know if it is going to be suitable for this build, so depending on the motherboard I get, I made need more. But right now, I think I have 4GB of RAM that might be suitable for this.
HDD's: I have a stack of SATA drives I can throw in this baby from the get go. Most of them are 500GB drives, which will be fine for testing and getting the set up correct. I also have one 1TB drive I can throw in as well, but it will all depend on how the build will go and what sort of SATA controller I will end up getting, i at all.
1 x PSU: I have an ATX PSU right now, but I have no idea if this will be suitable for the build, so probably I will need to get another.
The first component I will source is the motherboard, this will pretty much determine the overall specification of the device and how much money I will need to spend on other components for this project. I want to keep the price as low as I possible can, naturally, so it will be scouring eBay for me until I find something suitable.
Part 2 should follow this one pretty quickly and will focus on the motherboard search.
Saturday, 26 May 2018
My experience with cryptocurrencies, specifically bitcoin, has been simmering away in the background of my home lab for around five years now. I started off with the most basic of kit, a simple USB miner hooked up to a laptop that probably crunched through at around 33MH/s - we will get back to what that actually means later on. It was a good intro into how mining can work, I initially set the miner up to try and mine a whole bitcoin on its own, but ended up killing it AND my laptop by accidentally passing 12 volts across a 5 volt connection on my USB hub... I was rather embarrassed by the whole thing, but I did end up learning a lot from this experience.
Dont Try To Mine A Bitcoin On Your Own
Just dont, it would probably take you a couple of hundred years. Back in the day when the concept was new, people were easily crunching through bitcoins with the graphics cards on their machines, racking up dozens of bitcoins for no other reason than they could. I am not going to get into the history of bitcoin here, you can find plenty of information on it already out on the Internet, suffice it to say that if you want to make any amount of money with bitcoin mining, then you want to get into a mining pool.
Mining in a pool means you work with others to mine those precious bitcoins as a group effort. Each member of the mining pool gets a percentage of the bitcoin depending on how much effort their miner has put in to verifying the bitcoin itself. Again, I am not going to get into the details of how a mining pool works as there is already a bunch of info out in the wild that can do a better job than I and I dont enjoy mindlessly repeating other peoples words. But, if you would like to get into mining as part of a pool, then I can seriously reccomend the one that I use, Slush's Pool, which can be found here: https://slushpool.com/home/
I think this is one of the more popular pools, I didnt really do that much research into which is the best to join, I picked Slush as there is a copious amount of documentation available on the site on how to configure just about every miner there is. Once you have set up your account, you also get a very good dashboard that tells you the status of your miner(s) and how you are performing as part of the pool itself.
After I got over the act of killing my laptop and my first miner, I decided to step it up a gear and purchase a more serious piece of kit (and a new laptop...) to see how far I could go with this. I ended up getting a BlackArrow X1 miner from Ebay extremely cheap. As far as I am concerned, this was an awesome entry level miner for anyone interested in making some decent cash from bitcoin mining a few years back. The device is significantly different to the USB miner I previously used, that one required my laptop to be running at all times, which was annoying given the fact I needed to move it around the place depending on where I was supposed to be for work etc. The BlackArrow X1 is a self contained unit that houses the ASIC's used to do all the heavy lifting as well as a computer running Android, complete with a touch screen interface, wifi and ethernet. All I needed to do was configure it to connect to the pool and leave it to do its thing, which it did for years and made me a fairly sizeable amount of cash for what I laid out for the device and power consumption. Of course, as with all types of computing equipment, things get superseded and the same is true of the X1, which has led me to start investigating how I can expand my mining setup cheaply. This device will happily crunch through bitcoin hashes as part of a pool at around 100GH/s all day long, however this is now considered to be a low power device.
It uses CGMiner, which is pretty much the same application everyone uses when mining in a pool regardless of whether you are using a USB miner or a more powerful device hooked up to your LAN. It is easy to setup and works extremely well, Slush also provides all the instructions you need in order to get CGMiner connected to the pool so you can get up and running with your bitcoin adventure as soon as possible.
If you do a quick search on Ebay right now, you will find many, many miners working up in the TH/s range that can cost a few thousand pounds. Thats great if you have the money to invest right now, but you need to bear in mind that bitcoin is a currency and its value fluctuates on a daily basis - an investment of £1k or £2k now based on current bitcoin prices wont look like such a great deal if the value of the currency drops through the floor next week. I dont have the money to soak up such a loss and I certainly dont run a bitcoin mining farm, so I got to thinking about how I can expand my mining setup economically.
At some point last year, I was given a bitcoin miner from someone who had bought a device from Ebay, but once they received it, had no idea on how to set it up. I gladly took it and left it in a drawer up until a few weeks ago when I reaslised I needed to up my bitcoin game. The device itself is a Block Erupter v2 mining blade that apparently can run at 10GH/s, this doesnt sound that fast for a device like this, however after some research I discovered that it isnt really meant to operate on its own - its a blade that is mean to sit in a backplane with four other devices attached (well, I think four, might be one or two more) and is powered from a server PSU, it has an ethernet connection as well - note, ethernet is far, far better for mining bitcoin than USB, its a hell of a lot fast, also if you have a standalone miner that offers wifi as well as ethernet, choose ethernet, it is THE fastest connection.
Other than that, there is nothing on the device at all that would give you much clue on how to set it up, the only reason I discovered what type of device it is was after googling the only text on the PCB itself. Right now, these things are about £75 each on Ebay, however, finding the backplane for these blades is extremely hard, I have spent a week combing the Internet for one and came up blank. The last one I saw for sale seems to have gone out in January this year from an Ebay seller in the US, even if I caught the auction the seller would not have shipped to the UK, which is vexing.
So, without a backplane, how am I going to get this thing started up so I can see if it will work? Well, there are a number of truly terrifying step by step guides on forums that go through how to destroy an ATX PSU with paperclips(!) in order to power the blades on, this basically involves poking bits of metal into the PSU's MOLEX connector in order to trick the PSU into the on state and then hooking up a bunch of other MOLEX connectors that have also been cut to shreds to the power terminals on the blades themselves. There is also a lot of gaffer tape involved.
Yeah... a 24/7 mining setup that involves gaffer tape and paperclips in order to power a device that gets extremely hot... Not going to do that.
However, I do need to get power to the board in order to see if it works, it has been sat in a drawer for the best part of a year so I have no idea if it will even start up - so I am going to have to use an ATX PSU for this, but in a much safer manner. So first things first, get power to the board and hook it up to the network to see if it gets an IP (it may have static addressing by default, which I am hoping isnt the case). If this thing works, then I can start looking in to getting it hooked into Slush's pool and supplement my existing setup and, if things go well with it, I might even get a couple more added in if they are good value for money...
But please, if anyone else has one of these - think twice about how you are going to power them. I havent figured out how I am going to do it yet, but paperclips and gaffer tape just doesnt sound safe to me.
Thursday, 8 November 2012
I got given Doom 3 just after it was released, when I say given you should read made my GF buy it for me when I was pulling a sickie from work. I didn't last long playing it, for some reason I turn to water when playing scary video games, and for me Doom 3 is up there as one of the most terrifying games I have ever played. Now, I know some people will laugh out loud at that one, but its true.
In 2004, I had a fairly powerful PC so was able to play it at almost the max when it came to graphical settings. I also had surround sound, which made it even scarier for me. Playing it again, just eight years after its release has made me very aware of how much the FPS genre has moved on. I quickly found myself trying to do things that are found in more modern games, getting down on the weapon sight for a more accurate shot or pressing a button for a grenade etc, even alternate fire modes are missing. But does this detract from a game when it is good? Well, when I first started playing it, I felt that it wasn't standing up to the test of time, however Doom 3 had an ace in the hole when it comes to me - I never completed it the first time round without cheating.
One of the good things about console games these days is the inability to cheat. When it comes to PC games I am pretty weak, if I get to a point where I find the level too tough, I will Google for cheats. You dont seem to be able to cheat (as much) on console games - which is a good thing because it made me appreciate Doom 3 for the great game that it actually is.
A lot of people say that ID make games that are awesome to look at, that are wonderful technical achievements and this is true. Doom 3 uses the Tech 4 engine which has only recently been superseded by the Tech 5 engine used in Rage. The lighting effects are amazing, I didn't really appreciate them enough the first time round, but this time on a 50" TV in 3D, I definitely did. The level design is a little old fashioned by today's standards, a lot of traversing one area only to have to go back to the beginning etc as well as a lot of button pressing and searching for security keys and PDA's. Initially I thought this was a bit daft, but then I started to think back to the original Doom, you had to do the same thing there pretty much.
I think we have been spoiled a little bit when it comes to FPS games these days, take the Call of Duty franchise, it relies a lot on set pieces cinematic battles etc. Doom 3 doesn't really have this, sure there are cut scenes and some cinematic elements to keep the story going but on the whole, the player is left to their own devices when it comes to playing out the levels. This is something the common console gamer just wont be used to. Some concessions have been made for the console generation, there are very limited graphical options when compared to the PC original, plus there are elements like a body mounted flash light that were not in the first release. For me, this was a god send, the first time round you couldn't use the torch and a gun at the same time, this made the game a hell of a lot scarier but also frustrated me a lot. Doom 3 often presents you with about 100 shades of black in some levels and with the default settings, the screen is often dark in the brightest of levels. This means you can be bounced around by the weakest of enemies as you search for them.
I also thought I could clear the game in a few hours, which was wrong. Overall I think I took just over ten hours to complete it - after the first three I was completely engrossed in the story and the game play. It was just as scary as the first time round and for me, completing it after so many years gave me an extreme sense of satisfaction. It also got me thinking about other scary games I have played, or more accurately games that I have played that scared me. Looking at Doom 3 again has made me appreciate just how it has influenced so many newer games. Without Doom 3, I wonder if there would have been a Dead Space? Or perhaps, would BioShock been a little more innocent in its level design?
At the same time, you can also see how other games have influenced the design of Doom 3. If any of you have been lucky enough to play System Shock 2, you will kind of see how the narrative of the game, through its logs and misdirection have influenced its design. I also feel that the Thief series have also made a massive impact on the lighting in the game itself, which is truly amazing.
When the original Doom was released, it was a horror game full of zombies, demons and devils. You searched huge levels looking for keys and the exit whilst being confronted by hoards of nasty things. I remember at the time it got a lot of media attention for its content. Doom 3 didn't get the same level of attention, these days we are used to games having adult content, but it is still a Doom game. You still search for keys and still battle wave after wave of hell spawn and still get scared (well, if you are me you do).
Now, having just completed it, I cannot wait for Doom 4...
Wednesday, 2 May 2012
Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Just picked up a copy of Sonic CD for Android. This is an essential purchase for any retro game collector. Given the recent hype surrounding the classic incarnations of Sonic it is no surprise that this fogotten gem has made it on to nearly all the casual gaming platforms going. I was lucky enough to have a copy of this back in the day, but I had no problem picking this up for a few quid.
Nearly every version I have for this game uses the North American sound track. This is a massive shame as the original Japanese soundtrack is gorgeous. Thankfully, the recently released version comes with the Japanese soundtrack as standard.
The touch screen controls are good, if a little hit and miss, so you may want to play this with the keyboard, should your device support one. I am lucky to have a keyboard on both my Android devices, the controls are a standard WASD for direction, with L for action (you only get one button for every action, you dont need any more.).
This version also has a few other refinments, firstly, you can alter the depiction of the spin dash attack. You can choose to use the original spin animation or the version used from Sonic 2 onwards. You also get to choose Tails as a playable character, but unfortunately you are not able to get a Super Tails with all the chaos emeralds.
For the best part of four quid, this is an unbelievably good bargain. A slice of Sonic heritage that is so often missing from Sega collections. I reccomend that you get this game if you have the chance.
This week I picked up the UK folio case for my new Lenovo Tablet along with the stylus. The folio case pretty much transforms the ThinkPad tablet into a fully fledged Android latptop. The built in keyboard and optical mouse respond very well indeed.
On its own, the stylus allows you to have precise pen input, the built in handwriting recognition performs a lot better when used with the N-Trig device than your finger alone. Note taking is improved and you can rest your palm on the screen - something that using your finger wouldnt let you do.
The folio case is in an attractive black leather with all the signature colours you would expect from a Lenovo device. The only thing missing is the inclusion of the keyboard light, something that appears on a lot of Lenovo devices.
Access to all the connectors is provided, however the memory card slot door and full sized USB port are covered. This case uses the USB port for attaching the keyboard and optical mouse, so you wont be able to attache your HDD whilst this is in use. Unfortunately, the case doesnt allow for easy use or acces of it either, which is a shame.
The case also obscures the memory card slot door, if only partially. Which means you wont be hot swapping memory cards whilst in use. This is a bit of a pain, but nothing major. Access to the docking connector, power connector, headphone/mic connector and pen storage is catered for.
The mouse works well, another Lenovo signature addition, instead of a trackpad - which would have extended the keyboard further and thus ruin the design, you have an optical mouse in place of the traditional Lenovo nipple/nub (dont know the official name for this). It works as well as you would expect it, the only negative comment I have about it is that the pointer icon itself seems to be a little on the small size.
In my personal opinion, if you have a Lenovo ThinkPad tablet, then getting both the folio case and the stylus is a must. Whilst the screen keyboard on this tablet is easy to use, it does take up a lot of screen real estate, the folio keyboard reclaims this resulting in an end product that is highly adaptable to pretty much all situations you may need a laptop replacement.