This Old Server, Part 4: Finished!

Dell Server Case 2013-10-05 022

Following up from last time.  Here’s the new front panel mounted in the Dell case.  The ugly patched-up component on the right is a old USB front panel that has been much abused.  Part of it is taped off because it is an audio panel I don’t use and don’t have connections for in the server.  The other part is taped off because I snagged a thumbdrive in the port one day and the port broke off to save the drive!  The hard disks are already mounted in their cage.  On top is a Blu-Ray drive from my old server.  You may have seen a DLT drive in the old machine earlier in the series, I didn’t install it because it is SCSI and I have no card for it.  I also wish I could have saved the original PERC RAID card, but it does not fit.  Maybe eBay, someday.

Here’s another shot of the inside:

Dell Server Case 2013-10-05 015

At this point, the system is just about complete.  There are two USB connectors on the original Dell.  I’ve wired extensions to these with an old USB cable that I cut up for the purpose, so I have 4 USB ports up front.  The small card in the foreground is an external SATA controller that I use with my backup drives.

There are just a few loose ends.  I mentioned before that I used my old Tyan board to mark out holes to drill for standoffs.  The Supermicro is a mini-ATX board and some of the mounting holes did not line up.  The board is secure for now but I want to fix this by marking new holes and removing the board to drill new ones, so that all seven screws will secure the board.

I also have to work on the fans.  The Dell 1800 used two large (120mm) fans.  One was a case fan—it’s the black plastic casing on the bottom right;  the other fan mount can be seen on the top left.  This was originally part of a air shroud that cooled the CPU.  (Again, I forgot to take pictures, but most of Dell’s servers have elaborate shrouding and air flow management.)  I haven’t mounted that fan.  I’m wondering if a thin-profile 120mm fan would fit in the drive cage;  it does get hot in that area.

The Dell 4-pin fan wiring will work on a modern white-box server board, but the connectors aren’t compatible.  Also, these are big fans that draw 2.5A, much more than the 0.5-1A fans that most white-box boards have, so I don’t dare try running them directly from the motherboard.  I did get one fan working on plain 12V without tachometer control but it is loud so I disconnected it.  The Supermicro already ran much cooler than the Tyan, and even more so in the new, roomier case, so I’m not worried for the moment.

(Fun fact:  When I took the old Tyan board out of my old server case, it was still hot in my hands!)

My server, complete!  Notice the white LED for power:

White box in old Dell case

There used to be Intel Inside, but not anymore!

Inside my Dell PE 1800.  Now with a Supermicro H8SCM-F.

A case like this would have cost me well north of $200;  when I originally spec’d out my machine earlier this year, I was really worried that I’d have to house it in a cardboard box because suitable tower enclosures were either unobtainum or expensivum.

I may not be cut out for casemodding, but the results seem to be good enough.   Happy casemodding!


This Old Server, Part 3: Lighting it up!

Dell server case being tested

I’m writing about an old Dell 1800 server case that I have modified for a whitebox server.  Last time I talked about the old front panel, this is how I had to build a new one.

This is the Supermicro’s front panel connection pinout, similar to other white-box servers.  I did not use the NIC1, NIC2 or Power Fail LED connections

1 Power switch
2 Power switch GND
3 Reset switch
4 Reset switch GND
5 Vcc +5V
6 Power fail LED (not used)
7 Vcc +5V
8 Overheat/Fan fail LED
9 Vcc +5V
10 LAN NIC2 active (not used)
11 Vcc +5V
12 LAN NIC1 active (not used)
13 Vcc +5V
15 Vcc +5V
16 Power LED
17 Key (No connection)
18 Key (No connection)
19 NMI switch
20 GND

This is my completed board:

Old Dell Server Case 2013-10-01 002

I did a cheap and ugly thing for the connecting cable:  I used an old hard drive cable and cut off half the pins with a hacksaw, then used hot-melt glue to seal one end of the connector so it could plug into the motherboard without coming apart.

The original board had buttons for power, ID (identification) and NMI.  The ID feature is common to server boards and consists of a blinking light that is activated with a pushbutton, or remotely from SNMP systems management software.  My Supermicro does have a remote management board, but I could not find the equivalent function, so the ID button on the original board is now a reset button.

The NMI button is recessed on the Dell and it is common on servers, including white-box boards.  When pushed, the system asserts the NMI—Non-Maskable Interrupt—signal which will halt most systems.  Windows will bluescreen (with the appropriate registry changes), and provide a crash dump on this signal.  The Supermicro has an NMI input so this is perfect.

I put just three LED’s on the board:  Power, which is no longer blue (I broke the original LED when trying to salvage it) but now white, HD access (orange) and Overheat/Fan Fail (orange).

I preserved the original intrusion switch and connector, which runs to another connector on the Supermicro board.  I haven’t been able to find intrusion settings in the BIOS but I presume they are there, unless they are in the IPMI remote interface.

At this point, I had a functional system in my new case.  Next post is the finish, with a few loose ends and final thoughts.

This Old Server, Part 2: Drilling, Grinding and Wiring

Supermicro H8SCM-F in Dell 1800

Continuing from my last post, I have a “new” Dell 1800 server case, but I needed to adapt it to a white-box motherboard.  I had originally planned to buy the new motherboard after getting the case, but delays and SATV work compelled me to get the new motherboard running in the old, junky case while working on the Dell case.  This is my new Supermicro H8SCM-F server board, which is considerably smaller than the original Dell board.

I forgot to take photos of the grinding and drilling I had to do to this point, so I’ll have to describe it.  I used a cutoff wheel (and safety goggles!) to grind off the original I/O plate, and several of the standoffs.  I then drilled new holes, marking them off with my old Tyan motherboard as a template.  This was a lot of fun, well, not so much.  This was, after all, a “real” server case, so the steel baseplate is thicker than one sees on a white-box server case, particularly the cheap ones I have encountered.

Most white-box cases have a frame in the rear to hold the I/O plate.  The Dell doesn’t, as the I/O plate is part of the motherboard tray.  After much cursing, I used aluminum tape to secure the I/O plate, and I did get the tray and the board to fit inside the case securely.  I’ll need to rip off the tape if I change the motherboard.  That’s acceptable.

On to the front panel.  

Dell PE1800 front panel

There are three buttons on the board for POWER, ID and NMI, plus a socket which connects to an intrusion switch mounted on the lower front of the case.  There are two LEDs, one is a bicolor blue/orange that is used for power on and alert indications, respectively, and a blue LED that blinks when the ID button is pressed.  There is also an LM75 thermal sensor on the board.  Here’s the pinout as best as I could trace it, for posterity’s sake.  LED1 is the bicolor power/alert LED. Blank pins are either not used, or I could not determine their function.

Pin Function
1 +5 V
2 GND, LED 1 pin 2
3 NMI switch positive
5 ID switch positive, LED 1 pin 3
6 NMI switch negative
8 Intrusion switch, pin 3
9 Power switch positive
10 I2C clock, SN75
12 I2C data, SN75
13 Intrusion switch, pin 2

This is proprietary to Dell, and was not a match for my Supermicro.  It wasn’t feasible to modify the front panel for my motherboard, so I just cut an Adafruit breadboard down to the size of the original.

Dell front panel with Adafruit breadboard

More about the front panel, and finishing my server, in my next post.

This Old Server, Part 1: Too Hot

1998-era junky server case

I’ve written before (This Hot Server) about my home server, and the work I’d done to it.  The case, dating from 1998, was as junky as the parts it once housed.  This summer, we had another heat wave in Salem, and for the better part of July my apartment topped out around 95 degrees F!

Just about every electronic device I owned overheated and shut down in those several weeks, including my tablet!  One device of mine, a graphics card in my workstation, died after reaching 160 degrees.  Celsius. (!!!)  (Trackmania had been stuttering for a while, making gameplay miserable.  Now I knew why.  Of course my card’s fan used cheap sleeve bearings!  Of course was the fan not replaceable! Of course it was toast…!)

Amazingly, my server only shut down a few times!  The Tyan board I had was remarkably tolerant to the environmental abuse I put on it.  I wanted to get a new server board anyway, but more importantly I wanted a new case.

SATV had an old Dell server that was just about depreciated and I claimed it, after salvaging the hard drives for SATV’s use:

SATV's former Dell PowerEdge 1800

Dell systems—I have parted quite a few—tend to be almost physically compatible with ATX form factors.  But not quite.  Most of my server parts would fit in this case.  But, again, not quite.  There were some modifications needed, like the motherboard tray:

Dell PowerEdge 1800 motherboard tray

This motherboard tray would be a challenge.  First of all, most of the standoffs would need to be removed, and new threaded hex standoffs (the standard for white-box cases) would need to be drilled and installed.  The biggest problem was the I/O panel.  In most boards, the I/O panel is a cheap steel plate with holes for the specific I/O ports, serial, video, USB on the motherboard, and they are placed differently for each board.  The Dell’s I/O panel was thick steel, part of the motherboard tray itself.  I had never used a cutoff wheel with my old Dremel clone, but I was about to find out how.

I also had to figure out the front panel:

Dell PE1800 front panel

The power LED on this Dell glowed a nice bright blue when it was on, but the pinout of this panel is nothing like most white box servers I have seen, or owned.  Of course it wasn’t in the Dell service manual.

There were some promising signs.  The Dell power supply and its tray fit the standard EPS12V:

 Dell PE 1800 power tray, drive cage and fans

The PE1800 also came with a decent drive cage and two good fans.  We never had thermal problems with that machine for the 8 years it was in service.

More to come in Part 2.

Sometimes, the smoke really does come out!

Samsung Hard Drive showing zener diode regulators near the SATA power connector

An old joke in the computer and electronics technical communities is the idea of “magic smoke”.  The joke is, electronic components have magic smoke in them.  Overheat and let out the smoke and the component (and usually the device!) doesn’t work anymore.

I was working on a friend’s computer.  My diagnosis on his only two-year-old HP system was that the motherboard and power supply was defective;  I was certain the motherboard was bad, and could not rule out the PS, so I made arrangements to get new parts.

Motherboard for his gently-used computer:  $350.  So much for that.  We (his sister and I) arranged to get a new machine from Staples and I would migrate the data from his old hard drive.

Until that moment, I had been running his old hard drive on my laptop using a USB to SATA adapter that is often used by hardware techs and there was no hint whatsoever of any problems.  I had no reason to think the HD was defective—I could bring it up and read his files whenever I felt like it.

That changed when I provisioned his new machine, put everything the way he expected it, put his copy of Norton 360 on it, and so forth.  Hindsight says I should have copied his files while the HD was on my laptop but I was thinking “look but not touch!”  I just wanted to ascertain that the HD hardware was good, and the SMART data was fine (it was)—I wasn’t going to tinker with his disk if I didn’t have to.

I spun up the drive with my adaptor and plugged it into his machine.  OK, I smell something hot—the drive is in the palm of my hand because of how my SATA adapter works.  It’s not spinning—another reason I like to (carefully!) have my hand on an HD is because I can feel it spin up, or fail to spin up, or grind the heads.

No activity.  It’s still hot.

My friend and I both notice the smoke.  (“Whoa, Dave, what’s that!”)

I unplugged the disk and put everything away.

This is what it looked like on my workbench:


Vaporized zener diode in Samsung hard drive

In the opening image to this post, you’ll notice two surface-mount zener diodes on a working Samsung hard drive.  These are widely used in computer power supplies and major components such as motherboards.  They are the basis for voltage regulation upon which we all depend on in nearly every electronic gadget.

This hard drive was also a Samsung, which made it easy to compare this drive to one of my good ones.

What happened to the diode in the 2nd picture??

There is solder on the pads where the diode would normally go, so the component was definitely intended to be there.  It was there.

I’ve smoked various broken devices and homemade projects on my workbench at home.  Way back in the days when people first made their own computers in the ‘70s, a popular way to learn how ROMs (Read Only Memories) worked was build your own out of these little glass 1N4148 diodes.  The diodes, when connected, were all “1’s”.  You got “0’s” in your ROM by putting a heavy-duty power supply across the diode in reverse, which would kill it.  You’d see a nice flash of light.  People still call it “blowing ROM’s”.

I’ve never seen components just disappear in a puff of smoke!

But my friend and I just did.

Eventually, my friend got his data from an online backup he paid for when he got the Norton product.   Samsung’s disk business has been bought by Seagate so I may not see another dead drive from them again.

I’ve tried getting an RMA for this drive but Samsung insists it was bought out of market, likely to discourage gray market use.  And discourage me from buying HP, permanently, but that’s another post.  I usually offer the platters from any HD that is out of warranty or cannot be returned to SATV staffers and other people I work for.

My friend will get some platters to use as paperweights or coasters.