Thursday, 27 June 2013

Mail Pending

Latest Arrivals

There's been little to add over the last few days, all parts I need had been ordered, so it's just been ticking them off as they started to arrive. The CPU arrived first, shortly followed by the case, and then the rest of the stuff. The only thing that's been holding the job up is the HDMI to VGA converter which I'd bought on eBay.

My son has been highly interested in keeping track of which bits have been outstanding. Obviously the whole process just isn't happening fast enough for him. But I've given over wasting my money on the lure of next day delivery, or the hope of orders arriving by the weekend and the disappointment it typically brings. Now I go for the cheapest shipping cost and accept that it'll get here in about a week, and for places like eBuyer (here's a good tip) go for the free 5 day shipping option and it'll be delivered in two days anyway.

Educating the Upstarts

I've decided to involve my 12 year old son Saul in the build as much as possible. Number two son is also interested but at 6 he's a little too young to be more than a hindrance, even though he is mega-bright. The young brainiac's already been reading about motherboards & daughterboards and such things that my oldest son hasn't even heard of, so I'll have to find some way of letting him join in. But Saul wants the Minecraft server, so he can get his hands dirty (he might even enjoy it) and I'd like him to see there's more to computers than game platforms. Honestly I despair at times for all the game install requests I get from him.

I've tried to interest him in learning more but it seems there's no "street creds" in it, so he normally shows little interest. We've tried HTML and Databases (which we suggested could form the basis of scouts badge work), but it just doesn't compare to semi-mindless clicking on crudely rendered blocks. Perhaps these building blocks are just too abstract for him?!

It certainly seems a quandary these days, how to get your kids interested in the nuts and bolts of technology. Back when we were kids computers were all about the nuts and bolts, and if you wanted to play space invaders then you'd better bloody well write it first. Of course we never did, but we tinkered around learning basic programing in the guise of having fun, or we typed in simple (and slightly rubbish) adventure games from the pages of computer magazines.

But look at what they ARE teaching kids at school! Back in the 80's I was fortunate to have Computers Studies classes on Commodore Pets and we learnt real programing and used words like algorithm and hashing, but even back then I was aware of the rise of something involving BBC Micro Model B's called ICT that the less bright kids did. These days ICT is all there is, unless the school runs a computer club, so our kids are being taught how to use Microsoft Office. So if you need help knocking together a power-point, or tips for collating your data in excel then you'll know where to turn! I can't help feel slightly outraged by this... and slightly saddened.

Britain used to have a booming computer industry,..(sighs).. it's hardly surprising there's little sign of it these days.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Perils of Ordering Online

Special Offers

I do love to see special offers online, or back in the day I'd get excited when the Maplin special offers catalogue landed in my mail box. It pushes my buttons, fascinates me, even if it's stuff that I'm never likely to buy. In the past I've bought various items (or lemons), and then once they've past the novelty stage they've either languished in drawers or I've passed them on to family or friends. Here's a list of some of my past mistakes:-

  • A cheap camera with a 12x zoom lens (but no anti-shake technology).
  • An mp3 player that uses compact flash cards (limited to a few hundred songs).
  • A 2.4" Android tablet with resistive touchscreen (a terrible device to use).
  • Scalextric Start Track extension packs (which doesn't fit standard track).
  • And various computer parts over the years that have just not been very good (but we've all done that one, right?).
And I can't be the only one that this happens to, leave me examples of your special offer mistakes in the comments!

Ruth (my lovely wife) has many similar stories regarding online food shopping such as when ordering a kilo of bananas resulted in the delivery of just ONE curved yellow fruit.

I very nearly ordered that AMD E350 based system board the other day, just because it was less than fifty quid. Yet I know that it would been another one of those lemons. It's a good deal if you're making a cheap mini-itx based desktop machine, but no good as a server. So how do I manage to fend off these urges?

Well you can't, but I do have two simple tricks to stop myself from buying:
  1. Never order the same day you see that 'must have' item. If you really need it then sleeping on it will help you confirm this. (It's amazing how many times I've changed my mind using this method)
  2. Always do web searches for product reviews. It only takes 15-30 minutes and then you'll have an idea as to why this item is on special offer. Is it superseded technology that they failed to sell, or did they make the mistake of stocking rubbish. (Either way you need to know)

The Dreaded Blister Pack

Some online shops offer free postage when you spend over a certain amount, and god bless them for it. But I have the desire (and maybe it's by design, not just chance) to whack as many other items to the order to maximise on my perceived good fortune.

So when I found myself with only an mSATA card in my basket and free postage I started looking around for additional products. After five minutes or so of looking I found a third party Wiimote and Nunchuck controller for £22 which was described as being "Wii Motion Plus Compatible". Great, we have a copy of Sports Resort Island that won't work without a Motion Plus controller. It'd be great to try that game.

But even a tech-savy guy like me gets caught out with wording, "the devils in the detail" and all that! When the order arrived and I tried the Wiimote in the Sports Resort I still got the same "Please attach Motion Plus device" instruction on the screen. After some confusion and inspection of the chinglish instruction slip, I realised you could attach a Motion Plus adaptor, and it doesn't have this built in like the later Nintendo ones do,.. BUM!!

Annoyed (partly with myself) I fired off an email to their customer services department explaining the confusion and after a couple of days I got the following reply. 

"I am sorry to hear this. I can confirm that this can be returned as item not required within & days as long as it is in a resellable condition."

Hhhmmm,... the blister pack it came in had to be dissected in order to extract the product, and there's no way it would now be re-sellable in it's current condition. The blister pack has eroded away some of our customer rights and we've all just sat back unaware it was happening.

It's a bit like when people blame supermarkets for the excessive packaging that comes with food. But I'll always argue that nobody forces you to buy it, and often there's a similar item with less packaging, or with packaging that's easier to recycle.

BUT, you can't see the packaging when you order online!

So what IS a blister pack?

A blister pack is a vacuum formed from clear thermoplastic and it's commonly used for small consumer goods, food and pharmaceuticals. There's a version called a clamshell that's folded around the product (often with a cardboard insert) and then welded along the three edges. Opening them can be tricky, (cutting around the edge with sturdy scissors seems to work best) and it does offer one or two benefits both to the customer and shop.

In the shop they hang on wire racks allowing the customer to see the item without tampering with the contents. They're generally quite rugged (especially when you try to open them) and they do quite a good job of protecting the product.

For the consumer you get to see the product, and they give you the guarantee that it's not been tampered with & all the parts are present.

Like many things in life, they're an example of modern inconvenience.

Remember to post examples of your lemons, I look forward to reading them :-)

Friday, 21 June 2013

Picking up the Pieces

Here's my Final List

How frustrating is would be to receive all of the parts bar one important little element. It doesn't have to be a significant part either,.. a missing two quid connector is all it takes. So once again I make myself a list of the supporting items required for the project:
  • Mini-ITX case - Not able to re-use my old one.
  • 2.5" IDE to SATA adaptor - For my old Solid State Drive.
  • 19 volt 90 watt laptop adaptor (not sure about connector).
  • Displayport or HDMI to VGA adaptor. (My TV doesn't have any HDMI sockets).

Replacing the SSD

Re-installing the server operating system is to be avoided at all costs. It's far too much work and I know I'd end up with bits missing. Hence my original idea to try and move all the disks over to the new server and hope it still works OK. It's Linux not Windows so I might get away with this.

I'd planned to get a disk drive adaptor for my old IDE system disk on eBay, but things are never that simple. IDE to SATA adaptors tend to go the other way, letting you use a modern SATA drive on an older motherboard. What I need is a way of connecting an older (IDE) drive to a modern motherboard. I did find something on eBay, but it was located in China and I wasn't prepared to wait at least two weeks before it was delivered.

This set about the seeds of change and I started to wonder about replacing the SSD. This meant cloning the existing system partition to another disk and getting the boot loader to work,... sounds like it might work! A quick google on the topic and I found you can use Clonezilla, or if you don't mind messing about on the command line then you can use the dd utility.

Here's a good page I found that takes you through the basics.

Now the problem was reduced to a simple "what to buy". I could get another 2.5" laptop size drive, and the choice was huge, or I could use one of those Mini PCI Express sockets on the new motherboard to attach a solid state disk directly to it.

Mini PCI Express is a laptop technology to help reduce the size of upgradeable components. (USB and wireless adaptors, that sort of thing.) But an interesting variation allows mSATA solid state drives to be fitted.

nb. Not all mini PCI express sockets support this so check your motherboard documentation before you order one.

The full length mini pci express socket in the DQ77KB can be used for an mSATA card, which means I have one less drive to worry about mounting in the case. The only real disadvantage being that I won't be able to connect both the mSATA and the IDE system disks in the same machine in order to perform the disk cloning. But I have a few old SATA disks kicking about so I'm sure I'll be able to either clone a clone, or create a clone image file that I can use. I'll worry about that task later.

So I ordered an Intel 60Gb mSATA card which had the 6Gb/sec interface and around 500Mb/sec read and write speed. There seems to be an Intel theme building here!!

Another Brick for the Wall

If you remember the motherboard uses an external laptop power supply rather than the usual internal desktop type unit.

Laptop power bricks can be really expensive to buy unless you get one from ebay. Elsewhere even the cheap ones are sixty quid and others as high as ninety! Now ideally I don't want to be a cheap-skate here because the more frugally priced units tends to have less efficiently designed circuits. There's loads of articles on the web about this but the main thing to realise is that the majority of the power supplies out there are at best 80% efficient. The head of the company Delta recently stated, "we can produce units with an efficiency of 92%, but the laptop manufacturers are unwilling to pass on the expense to their customers."

Now consider that different laptop manufacturers choose different voltages from each other, and then compound that with the fact that they have a range of possible DC connectors. I looked at a lot of different power supplies and in the end I played it safe and just bought something that I knew would work. Most forum posts stated that the Dell PA-10 works fine so that's what I bought, for just £12.

Hard Case

I like my current server case, but when I put together Pingu Mk3 I had to do some extensive dremeling on the back panel to allow the system board sockets to fit. It had been a cheap case designed for a board that I didn't have, but it was close in design to Pingu Mk2 and I liked it so I bought it. Odds are that I won't be successful if I try to modify the rear panel again so I'm going to get a new case.

Trying to find a case that's cheap, quite small, yet can house more than one 2.5" disk turned out to be another challenge. I have two 2.5" laptop drives and a full size 3.5" desktop drive so the small cases were no good to me. There were a few slightly larger with built in ATX power supplies (which I don't need) that made the case really quite deep, and then there were much bigger cases, some with quick release disk drive bays. I originally had a target of around £30 which is OK if you're not too bothered what your case looks like, but I didn't like them.

I fell in love with the Streacom F7C EVO case which I discovered on the store, but at nearly seventy quid I hesitated. It is made of lovely thick aluminium and oozes quality, but I just couldn't bring myself to buy it. So I dallied around for another day or so trying to find cheaper alternatives and in the end I figured "Why shouldn't I have a nice case" and ordered it in silver.

You can get fanless versions higher up the range, which come with cpu heat pipes and have integrated heatsinks down the sides of the case, but the prices where getting silly. Plus it doesn't take into consideration the heat generated by the disk drives.

And Finally..

These days everything's digital, and very few system boards have analog video out, so this rules out using my old analog TV as a display (during setup). OK quit laughing again!... my best bet was going to be a HDMI to VGA converter and borrow the screen from the boys' mac mini. Cheap on eBay.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Prepare to be Boarded

Boards as Bad as that Pun?

OK, Intel socket 1150 boards which accommodate the Core i3, i5 and i7 cpus are ten a penny (well maybe not that cheap, but they ARE dead common), and as I mentioned last time they're designed to a cost leaning towards performance. So I started off by searching for product reviews against all of the motherboards that LinITX and stocked. Some of them weren't exactly cheap but they still yielded excessive power usages of at least 50 watts at idle.

In other words that's 50 watts to do absolutely nothing, zip, nada, nix, zilch... get the idea?

There went my lunch time on fruitless searches, but I suppose deduction requires that you eliminate the impossible in order to infer a conclusion. Or in plain talk, "get rid of the dross!"

But I'm not the target audience (I hear you cry), they're aimed at people who want to build small gaming or media centre machines, lusting after oodles of power and not minding a few fans whirring away. Typically there's a slot for a nice high-end video card, multichannel sound and support of up to 16Gb of memory. OK,.. they're not really rubbish, but it's not a good fit for my list and far from being considered green. In the car world they'd be called "a hot hatch" like a Golf GTi whereas I'm looking for a Prius.

That evening I started searching on Google for a mini-itx board for socket 1150 using low power, and to my surprise (and quite quickly) I found that again Intel had produced the very thing I needed. It wasn't cheap, but still priced reasonably, and it's primarily aimed at the embedded systems market where a lower power slim motherboard is valuable. It's called the DQ77KB and this baby will run under 20 watts.

Silent PC has the following to say it's power use (equipping it with a 55W dual core Pentium G2120 which runs at 3.1 GHz). Essentially they have it 'ticking-over' at 17 watts and peaking at 56 watts. OK that's not quite 10 watts at idle, but for a 55W TDP cpu that's pretty darned good!!

More about the DQ77KB

Apart from efficiency the QD77KB isn't that different the other socket 1150 boards, but there is a restriction on the maximum processor TDP of 65W. This rules out some of the higher end Intel Core based processors, but this wasn't a problem to me as I was planning to use an i3 2100T cpu. It does of course leave the door open for the mid range level of performance if you require it, as long as you have enough room in your case for the bigger cooler that would be required.

There's various LVDS and eDP (embedded DisplayPort) sockets which I don't intend to use, the usual array of standard sockets (ethernets, usbs and displayport / hdmi etc), a couple of mini PCI Express sockets (which I'll talk more about later) and a PCI-E 4x slot for a high end graphics card.  Importantly it was 4 SATA ports, two of these being the faster 6Gb/sec variety.

Oddly it doesn't use a standard 20 or 24 pin ATX power supply, instead there's a co-axial barrel type power connector nestled in the corner for an external 19 volt Dell laptop type power supply. (seems a bit non-standard!!) The SATA drives are then powered from a daisy-chain cable that fastens directly to the edge of the motherboard, which is neat, and I guess overall it keeps another source of heat outside of the computer case.

Finding a UK supplier who stock it was another problem, and in the end I found it on Pixmania who in the past have always come up trumps on my more esoteric of my purchases for £115.

Then I tried to order an i3 2120T and it wasn't in stock, but they did have an i3 3220T which after a little googling discovered it was a later Ivy Bridge version (instead of Sandy Bridge) giving slightly higher performance for the same price and thermal/power constraints. So at £93, I ordered that too.

Thanks for the Memories

One of the details I'd read about the DQ77KB was that you could alter some of the voltage and clock settings. Now whilst this doesn't give you full over-clocking control it does give me some scope for lowering some of the voltages, chasing those green fairies. Memory could be reduced right down to 1.35 volts.

That doesn't seem like a big difference from the 1.5V standard but if your memory is being clocked at 1600Mhz switching all those memory circuits on an off requires quite a bit of power to drive these changes so quickly. In fact it's general practice on memory and cpu that if you want to over-clock it then you HAVE to increase the voltage. So maybe I can reverse that, slow down the memory speed and reduce it's voltage.

In the end (after much deliberation) I found a pair of 4Gb 1600Mhz DDR3 sodimms that where rated at 1.35 volts. I figured that if I was spending all that dosh on a new system that fitting cheap ram was folly. I toyed with the idea of just getting one at first, leaving the door open for future upgrades. But then after reading that with both slots filled you get the benefit of dual channel and the increased performance this brings I opted for the pair.

So I placed the order, and then was surprised when they split it across three different suppliers and charged me three lots of postage. Damn,.. but couldn't be bothered to change it now (watch out for this people!!)

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Search for Spec

What do we want?

To start with, I think it's best that I make a note of my demands and then we'll see which I have to compromise due to technical realities. So here's my list:
  • Low Power - it's a server running 24/7 (so ideally around 10 watts at idle).
  • Mini-ITX form factor (we don't have much space).
  • At least 2Gb of ram.
  • A way of using my old IDE SSD root drive (so I don't need to re-install).
  • Able to run silently (or as near as possible).
  • Able to ramp-up performance to run Minecraft.
  • Let's not have any cost restrictions at this stage!

My research so far has shown a few flies in the ointment..
  1. The IDE SSD (solid state drive) in my current server was bought about five years ago and back then I decided to get this type in order to utilise one of the IDE disk ports on my system board. It only had two of the newer SATA sockets so it made perfect sense at the time, but hardly any of the new boards retain this old technology.
  2. The 10 watts target seems impossible because the majority of system boards are built to a price without real thought of power use. Even the fanless (so called) lower power boards are typically greater than 35 watts (in fact some are 50 watts).
I'll come back to the SSD issues at a later date as I feel I have bigger fish to fry. Right now I've got to concentrate on system board and processor efficiency.

In Need of Intel

I decided to spend a little more time looking into the AMD E350 based system boards to see if a more efficient version of the Gigabyte board could be found. Best seems to be the MSI E350IA-E45 which manages about 28 watts in idle. I'm starting to feel like I'm flogging a dead horse!

Then I stumbled upon this article that compares an E350 based system board with an Intel Core i3-2100T.

If you go straight to page 11 you will see that the i3 is seriously low when idling, at only 9 watts. And it's only 10 watts higher than the E350 under load (yet four or five times faster). The secret seems to be the 'T' on the end of the cpu's model number, which signifies "Ultra Low Power" and this uses various underclocking and voltage reductions to achieve these amazing benchmarks. The results of these tricks is to reduce it's TDP value from 65w on a standard i3 to just 35 watts.

Lets see how this works:
  • Idle is at about 9 watts.
  • It's faster at performing tasks than the E350 (so it's quicker getting back to idle)
  • Therefore you use less power.

nb. TDP (Thermal Design Power) is the maximum amount of power the cooling system is required to dissipate.

OK so that decision has been made,.. motherboard selection should be easy!

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Getting up to Speed

What about VIA?

Currently Pingu is running quietly and efficiently on a VIA EPIA LN10000EG mini-itx fanless motherboard. I tend to plug in a quiet case fan in the summer months, but the rest of the time the only fan running is in the 1U compact power supply ( which I swapped out for a quiet version sourced from QuietPC ). It sits inconspicuously on the floor in the lounge and needs to remain as silent as possible. So it made sense to start the search for a new fanless system board with VIA.

I've always been a fan of the site, both for its news articles and its fine (if slightly pricey) store. But these days there's no sign of the humble VIA series of systemboards, it's mostly full-on desktop machines (for socket 1150 cpus) or one of the many flavours of intel Atom board. Certainly there's not much that runs fanless with more than two SATA sockets, or has IDE (don't laugh) sockets.

I checked next on LinITX (which is my alternative source for Pingu upgrade parts) and did at least find they stocked the VIA VE-900 1.4GHz Nano X2, but at 1.4Ghz I didn't feel is was much of a step-up from my 1Ghz C7 (nor would it make those "Can't keep up" errors go away),... and with only two SATA's was a deal-killer.

That left me with a real dilemma,.. I had to learn about the opposition

Splitting the ATOM

Naturally Intel's offering was the next place to start looking (they are well known for power saving features in their latest chips) but with all those model numbers I really didnt know where to start. I knew that the minecraft server couldn't use dual cores, and that I needed something running at about 2.5Ghz to really do it justice, so it was looking unlikely that an atom powered board would do a great job. But you could at least get fanless systems at the lower end of the spectrum and it would be better than the VE-900. I was starting to think that my requirements were way too ambitious!

Not wanting to make any hasty decisions, I decided to sleep on it.

Is Ebuyer Reading my Mind?

The next day I received one of the weekly special offer emails from ebuyer and amongst the usual dross of cheap laptops, portable disks and remote control helicopters they had a Gigabyte E350N dual core mini-itx board for about 45 quid. Initially I dismissed it, but on reflection I figured it was such a good price that I should at least investigate it. were stocking them in their store so it couldn't be rubbish and then I found a few good reviews:,21088.html

I'd never heard of an APU before but if you read between the lines of AMD's advertising blurb it's a low power dual core cpu + gpu. It certainly looked very interesting (1.6Ghz processor with integrated AMD Radeon HD 6310 and four sata ports) but it still wasn't quite powerful enough, and more importantly is used too much power on idle. It could at least be under-clocked and being only a 18 watt TDP design you could just about run it with the cpu fan unplugged.

It was something to think about, but it wasn't shouting "BUY ME!"

Time to be IDLE

Tom's Hardware article and the reader comments highlighted the fact that even when doing nothing these boards were using 33 watts of power. So the CPU might be efficient, but the system board had supporting chips and circuits that were far from sipping the power. I wasn't surprised to read that Atom boards also had this problem. One by one the doors were closing!

By now I was pretty hacked off, and after reading that an intel i3 board could use less power under idle than an Atom one I decided to forget all-in-one boards and concentrate my search in that area.

Here's were I stumbled into my biggest gripe with tech articles on the web!!.. how many times do you get most of the way through (thinking that you've just gained some really useful information) just to find out that it was written in 2009? It got to the stage that I wouldn't commit to reading anything unless I could find a date. And then anything older than a year would also be discarded.

So I spent a few more days procrastinating and bumbling from technical review to review, filling my lunch times and evenings with endless google searches. The more I searched, the more uncertain about what to buy I became. This was getting hopeless!

What to do about Pingu?

The Painful Truth

It comes with some degree of sadness that I resign to the fact that my current home based server is reaching the end of it's natural life. It's not about to crash any moment, nor is it problematic or unstable in it's operation,.. no, something's come along that's revolutionising it's use. And it's not the first hardware refresh either, but the VIA C7 based machine has been pretty consistent for about six years now, having only software upgrades and additional disks thrown at it.

Pingu (my debian based server) originally started out as a way of adding network shares to my computers back in 2001. It was a simple affair, thrown together from cheap parts and a case so thin that I routinely cut my fingers when ever I 'lifted the bonnet'. A few years later I replaced the whole lot with a Mini-ITX machine and it has evolved along those lines ever since. Additionally Pingu has been a test bed and learning environment for me, and ultimately became the platform for iShare, my photo sharing portal (written in perl). These days Pingu does loads of useful things (web server, torrent downloader, media streamer, caldav server, network shares, timemachine store, dns alias updating, dns masquerading, web proxy and adzapping), but then my kids got old enough to start making demands of it.

Ultimately they're the revolution, and the technical impact that they bring is called Minecraft.

The Minecraft Hammer

It was easy to do, you just install the Java 7 runtime engine, download the server jar file from and run it. It then goes about creating all of the additional files it needs along with a barrage of messages and errors. Knowing the humble C7 to be under-powered for this use and the system low on memory I splashed out a tenner and installed a 1Gb SODIMM (maxing out the motherboards capability). I added a bigger swap file and after a little config tweaking we had a running Minecraft server. The console was throwing up loads of "Can't keep up! Did the system time change" errors, but it wasn't affecting the gameplay so my son was happy. (well,.. as happy as a teenager can be!)

Using the 'top' utility I monitored the impact on the server with just one player in the game. It hovered between 65% and 75% cpu usage while memory use was modest. It was about now that my wife started to mention that the web access and our photo hosting was much slower.

A few days later we had two players on the server, so once again I ran the 'top' utility noticing that the memory usage was still pretty low, but the cpu was consistently in the mid to high 90s. During this time none of the other services were responding enough to be usable, web was painfully slow and in the end we gave up our web browsing and facebooking and watched TV.

After a few days of this I decided we needed a new Pingu.