Mission Impossible: Changing the CMOS battery in an Inscriber CG Machine


After 25 years in IT and 15 years working on IBM PC’s, one comes to think he can fix anything.  Sometimes that’s not true.  I have worked on servers and rack-mount machines that are different enough from a stereotypical PC tower, and while I’ve had difficulties unique to each of them, I can manage each of them with patience and meticulousness.

This Inscriber CG machine is something else again.

SATV bought the Inscriber several years ago when we renovated our control room and designed an all-digital (SDI) interface for the video, switcher and graphics units.  As an experienced graphics operator and designer, it was up to me and our executive director to pick out a CG unit.

For reasons too lengthy to get into here, we picked an Inscriber INCACG-2U machine.  It wasn’t cheap;  the base hardware was $6,000 but the license for the features we needed was $20,000!  Not great.  But the studio it is installed in is used for some very high-profile productions in Salem so we needed professional gear (again, long story.)

The Inscriber has been working so far for 5 years.  Then a problem developed:  The Inscriber has two RAID controllers, one is SCSI and drives a 79G RAID 1 array that is the Windows partition, and the other controller, an onboard nVidia SATA interface, drives a 300G RAID 0 array for the content drive, where the graphics files are stored.

One day the Inscriber couldn’t see the RAID 0 array, nor our graphics files.  We’d backed up our CG files regularly, since RAID 0 is not resilient to put it mildly, so nothing was lost, but it was (of course) discovered before a show.  I’d thought one of the SATA drives dropped out but when I rebooted the Inscriber I found something much simpler.

The CMOS battery was dead and so would lose its configuration.  We contributed to the problem, inadvertently, since we shut off the control room equipment when we aren’t using it and the Inscriber is never on standby AC for any time.  So, I think, change the battery.  Every machine in the world seems to use those quarter-sized CR2032’s, so just pop it out and put in the new.

The Inscriber is based on the Tyan 2895 motherboard.  Here’s where the battery is supposed to be:

This is taken from the Tyan motherboard manual.  I’ve rotated the board to match how it is oriented in the case.  Card slots are on the left rear of the machine when looking from the front.  The battery itself is not in the most convenient place to start with;  I and most other techs much prefer it to be in the front where there are fewer components in the way.

This is what I found when I pulled our machine out of the rack and popped the top cover:

This is unreal.  Most PC technicians would run away and not come back.  I’m not sure what our contract engineer, Dennis, would do if he saw this blog.  The SATA RAID 0 array is front and center.  The CPU is under the cover in the middle.  One of the SCSI RAID 1 drives is in the rear—I could not find the second drive!  The right rear holds the dual redundant power supply (which has two plugs that must be connected to AC or else an alarm will sound.  Not that we discovered that.)

The card cage is at the left rear and has the SDI interface card, an ATI video card and a professional audio card.

Under it is our battery.

Try as I might, I could not remove the card cage without a prybar.  Since one can’t experiment like that on a $20K machine, I gave up, only after taking the cover off several times over a few days and trying to find the magic screws that would let me remove the cards without damaging them and change the battery.

Another view of the card cage, with the connectors on the SDI card partially removed.  Notice the ATI card below.  And the hot-melt glue holding what appears to be the ATI’s S-Video output.  When I saw that I just gave up.

I contacted Harris Broadcast, which owns Inscriber.  Their technical support could not give me instructions, or had no instructions for changing the battery.  All they could tell me is what I already knew, that it was based on the Tyan 2895 board.

I understand that a machine like this cannot be built like “Joe’s Whitebox Servers”.  The broadcast market is specialized.  Many broadcast plants are built more like server farms with dual power supplies and the kind of redundance one expects from a machines like these often used for 24/7 broadcast graphics and newsroom operations.

SATV has always been in a hard place where we can’t use consumer gear because it doesn’t hold up or doesn’t do what we want but we can’t afford the broadcast gear that does do what we want.  That is life in our industry.

We will probably work around this for the life of the machine by reconfiguring our power distribution so that the Inscriber is powered from standby at all times.

Still I wish I could change that battery.  I can’t fix everything.

And that hurts.