the little computer that should

My home server went phut last week. There was a brief power outage, and everything else came back on — except the server. It was a three year old Mini-ITX box, and I’m casting about for ways to replace it.

To serve my immediate music serving and podcasting needs, I have pressed The Only Computer That Runs Windows into service, running Ubuntu using Wubi. Unfortunately, I do still occasionally need to run Garmin Mapsource, which only runs on Windows, and also The Only Computer That Runs Windows is also rather too nice a laptop to be sat doing server duty.

I have some options:

  • Get a new motherboard for the mini-itx box. Via still has some crazy ideas about pricing (over $200 for a fanless C7?) but maybe I’ll go for Intel’s snappily-named D945GCLF, which looks okay for what I need and is only $80.
  • I could resurrect the old Athlon box I got in 2002, but it’s big, loud, and its components are probably near end of life. Also, why disturb a mature spider habitat?

What I was really looking for was one of those tiny fanless internet appliance boxes that were so 2007 (like the Koolu and the Zonbu, both of which have moved on to other things), but such units, without the tied storage service contract, are upwards of $500.

My needs are simple:

  • run Firefly to feed the Soundbridges;
  • generate the automatic podcast every day, which realistically means a linux box with Perl, sqlite and the like;
  • have something to ssh into when boredom strikes the need arises. Perhaps unwise having an open machine sitting directly on the internet, but only the ssh port will be open.

I really also need to get rid of all the computer junk in the basement. It now includes two fritzed mini-ITX systems and the world’s slowest PostScript laser printer. Such fun.

Koolu: low-energy computers

Dave sent me this. It’s kind of what I’ve been trying to do with Mini-ITX for a while, but at a sensible price. I suspect the fanless Geode processor is slightly low in grunt, but it’ll do the job: Koolu.

the beast of the bios

I now have a 16:9 LCD monitor for the front room computers. The Ubuntu box needed a little reconfiguration of the X Server to work perfectly, though I think the bandwidh for 1440*900 might be a bit high for my old KVM, as I’m getting some sparklies on solid colour.

The mini-ITX box was another story. It resolutely refused to see the wider screen. Then I found out I had to update the BIOS. Yuk.

Since Catherine is of the teacherly profession, she bought a USB floppy drive with her iMac five years ago. The drive hasn’t seen much use, but it was essential here. First I had to find a floppy that worked (discarded a couple), then I found that Windows XP’s “make bootable floppy” option doesn’t actually make a disk that boots. I had to go off to bootdisk.com to find a super-minimal floppy boot image. Once I got that, I installed the bios tool and the flash image onto the floppy, and rebooted.

At this point I got really annoyed. The bios tool linked from all the VIA pages is too old to recognize the new bios file format, so exits with “It is not Award BIOS” error message. Once I found the right link (thanks, filupn), I was in business. Or was I?

I then discovered that my SP13000 had its BIOS protect jumper on. This meant dismantling the box. For most PCs, it’s not such a big deal, but for mini-ITX, it’s a horror. I had to remove the DVD drive, the hard drive, the PCI card and riser and many cables just to get down to the motherboard. Putting it all back together was hard, with the expected amount of squtcha, squtcha‘ing on the cables to get everything in.

The BIOS upgrade, the machine rebooted, and now all I need to do is update the graphics driver. Unfortunately, there are many that are described as the VIA/S3G Unichrome Pro Integrated Graphics Driver. Argh.

mini-itx progress

Things are progressing well with the mediabox. I just got wireless networking going from boot, after installing the $23 wireless-g router. The only things I have to get going are:

  • X running under the VIA Unichrome Pro accelerated driver; it’s using VESA, so is hardly fast. Look’s like I might have to build from source from Ivor. Gentoo’s unstable xorg-x11 distribution does the job.
  • DVD playback; the drive doesn’t seem to understand/decrypt the disc structure, even with libdvdcss installed. regionset is your friend.
  • TV decoder; still not decided what card/box to buy, so it’s a way off yet.
  • Logitech QuickCam Messenger; haven’t even tried, though reports of support look reasonable. Yup, qc-usb-messenger to the rescue!

epia = teh h0sed

I tried to replace the noisy fansink on the old Via EPIA 800 yesterday. Seems that the hints at the mini-itx.com project page. My board didn’t have the fansink attached with thermal grease, it used some kind of very sticky pad.

So, in (gently) wrenching the fansink off the board, the board now won’t boot. It feeps loudly every few seconds, but there’s no video output. Feh. At least I dodn’t pay anything for it, but I hope that the RAM’s not broken, as I have plans for a small, quiet SMB/print server.

it lives … IT LIVES!!!

So my mini-ITX box arrived yesterday. Catherine was out this evening, so I set to building it. Can’t be too hard, I thought …

That was at about 19:30. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to fit all the gubbins a computer needs into a box about half the size of a shoebox. It didn’t help that the Travla C138‘s case fan cable is too short to reach the SP 13000‘s fan connector. It also didn’t help that the DVD adaptor’s audio cable doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen (or have to hand). And it really, really doesn’t help that the volume of internal cables in the box is only very slightly less than the total volume of the case itself; judicious squtcha, squtcha‘ing on the ATA cables was required to get everything in. I can tell you, there’s not an earthly chance of getting a PCI card in there, unless it’s a very tiny one that doesn’t mind getting bent out of shape.

With much apprehension, I turned the system on, and stuck the Ubuntu liveCD in. Wouldn’t you know, it all booted fine:

ubuntu liveCD running on my new Mini-ITX

Sure, the resolution wasn’t great, and the timezone’s wrong, but I was expecting horrible POST feeping at best. All the hardware was found correctly, and the screenshot was transferred by USB key, which automounted to the desktop. Phew!

Thanks to Davey Laporte for the Ubuntu CD. It certainly saved my soy-bacon.

Industrial Flower Factory

Cool name, cool idea. Industrial Flower Factory make low power draw, small footprint, low noise computers. I reckon that my hulking old AthlonXP is one of the major power draws in the house, and it certainly creates the most noise pollution.

IFF’s machines are a little pricey, but when they’ll save so much of your hydro bill, that’s got to be good. They’ll also preinstall Linux, which make me happy.