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.

David Moisan’s IT Resumes Blogging

SATV's new Dell T320 server

It’s been a year since my last post, Hac-Man Won the Retrochallenge!  I’ve been very busy at SATV and with the Salem Commission on Disabilities.  SATV is coming up on our franchise renewal year;  the current contract runs out 11 months from now, in September 2014, and we started the planning process a year and a half ago.

My part of the process is to determine, for a 10 year contract cycle, what IT we need.  Keep in mind that it’s practically impossible to determine technology trends more than a few years out.  Rather than even try doing that, I just made estimations based on our current technology, our equipment refresh schedule (which varies by the technological area) and our unmet needs, pain points and so forth.

It was a very exhausting process that I can’t fully get into here, but let’s just say from September of last year until September this year, I and our executive director, had our heads down in this.  I also had to refresh our network server sooner than we had anticipated as our backup Dell 1800 server was 8 years old and showing ECC memory errors.  It was also the last 32-bit Windows server in the building long after Microsoft moved to 64-bit only server OS’s.  That machine had a good life.

Our newer Dell 1900 was running good, but it was also running SBS 2008.  As many readers know, there was a major disturbance in the SBS world last year. Microsoft discontinued SBS!  The operating system I had been certified on twice (SBS 2008 and SBS 2011) was dead.  SATV had been an SBS shop since the old BackOffice 4.0 days and I knew we would have to find a replacement head on.

I can’t get into any more detail about this either, but I like to quote an old phrase all the time, “The cobbler’s children go barefoot”.  Between SATV’s franchise preparations, my own research into a life without Small Business Server,  and numerous other personal circumstances, I had no energy for blogging or much of anything else.

I even missed the screaming about Windows 8.  I had tried the developer preview, so I knew it was going to be a very different experience,  but I had no time whatsoever to even try it out thereafterwards   I finally got to use it after all when I convinced SATV to get me a staff laptop with Win 8 on it.  (After using Win 8, oddly enough, I dislike Win 7 now.)

I also spent the past three months of summer and early fall migrating from SBS 2008, and Windows Server 2008, to a new server that is running Windows Server Essentials, Exchange and Sharepoint in a virtualized box hosted by our new Dell T320 server in the picture.

That was work.

The absolute low point was spending my birthday (July 24th and do-not-ask-please) with a very sick new Windows Hyper-V server that would not stay running (due to corrupted everything, as it turned out.  Plus a Windows servicing stack that lied to me about what was and what was not installed, another story.)  That afternoon I only remember staggering to my favorite takeout joint in Salem, going home in a daze, nomming down steak tips, and then falling into bed.  The topper was me remoting into that same server four hours later because I could not sleep! (!!)

I am extremely stubborn and hyperfocused with computer problems.  Now imagine 12 months of this.  I’m surprised I’m even still here.

I’m just in time for Windows 8.1, though, and I did get new server hardware at home to write about.  I’m catching up on my gaming, too, and I have no shortage of topics now.

Stay on the channel.

Hac-Man Retrochallenge: How do we do graphics?

hacman cursor addressing

As mentioned in my last post, there are a lot of old, interesting and scary idioms that RSTS/E programmers had to employ if they were to write any kind of game on the system.  Of course, the term “graphics” has to be stretched quite a lot with a text-mode VT100, but when you’re in 1981 and can’t afford an Atari, one does what one must.

The screenshot above shows some of the graphic handler routines in Hac-Man.  You’ll note this looks somewhat like BASIC, only with some extensions.  (This describes virtually every dialect of BASIC with “Extended” in the title…)  RSTS/E BASIC has what is known as EXTEND mode.  This allows for longer variable names and multiline statements and comments.

I’m using the DEF FN functionality of BASIC to wrap some code that displays VT100 escape sequences to the user’s terminal.  FNAD$ is a function that performs direct cursor addressing.  It is not obvious from my snippet of code, but RSTS/E is a 7-bit ASCII system and one had to do some tricks to get the escape code to pass to the terminal without the system intercepting it.  Earlier on, there is a line in my code that defines the escape character (which would normally be decimal 27).

910 ESCH$=CHR$(155) ! Default escape character
for RSTS/E

Code 155 is simply code 27 with the high bit set.  RSTS ignores it and it is echoed back to the terminal.

To make this game work, we also need to turn on the alternate character set.  That’s in the function FNLD$.  Here’s what the program listing looks like normally:


normal character program listing

The GFL$ array holds our playfield, which I will describe in a later post.  Doesn’t look like anything.

Here is the listing in special character mode:

special character program listing

The playfield is being murdered by line wrap, but you can see blocks and dots there.

An aside on editing:  RSTS/E had an older revision of TECO, but with screen editor capabilities via the TECO program VTEDIT.  (EDT also had a screen editor, but back in the day I much preferred VTEDIT;  also, today, EDT’s screen mode doesn’t seem to work in Tera Term.)  Such an editor was a virtual necessity when developing in any language on the 11/60.  This playfield was first composed in TECO as a plain text file, and then copied, and edited again to add code around the text.

The next few posts will explain more about my graphics and my input logic.  Then, I’ll be almost ready to move Hac-Man and his ghosts around the screen!

SATV Update Part 3: The Future

Our new Drobo SAN

As I write this, it’s been a year and a quarter since SATV hatched our idea for internet broadcasting.  We still had a few things to pick up.

Over the spring, I bought a GPS module for myself, for experimentation.  With some open-source software, I found that it would make an excellent, cheap time reference.  For less than $200, we could keep our facility timekeeping—our on-air timekeeping—to within 1/1000’s of one second.  Sal agreed, and we got a GPS module of our own.  I’m planning a  guide on cheap GPS timing in a future series of posts.

We’ve long been worried about our server storage.  We now have several terabytes of video at SATV.  We need a backup and data recovery plan for off-site.  While we figure out that, we got our first SAN, a Drobo B800i.  It’s loaded up with 14 TB worth of storage.  We plan on using it to backup both our video servers, plus our SBS machine and the backup DC it is paired with.

I’m well aware that we need something more for offsite.  I plan on talking with our city’s IT director (who, in an irony, was once my boss—I interned for her the summer after I graduated from Salem State College (now University)) to see what resources she may be able to bear on our problem.  She was the one who first asked about airing government meetings over the internet!

As a member of the Salem Commission on Disabilities, I’ve known for a long time how important TV coverage is to us as we conduct our business. Government transparency has been cited so often that the expression is clichéd now. But I have seen first hand how important it is and when Sal wanted to implement video-on-demand I jumped in with both hands and feet. 

We got a nice hat tip from the Salem Gazette for our efforts. 

This whole project has been a labor of love for me, and while I want to give Sal Russo the credit for our overall leadership, I’ve worked in the background to give us the IT experiences and resources that we all accept without a second’s thought.  Now, a thought about the future.

SATV receives its funding through a contract with our cable provider, Comcast, and a franchise agreement that our city has negotiated every 10 years for nearly 30 years.  In Massachusetts, at any given time, one of our neighboring communities will either be going through the franchise negotiations, completing the franchise negotiations or just starting discussion.

When I started this project a year and a quarter ago, Sal and I had been discussing the last of our payments from Comcast in our current contract period, and we decided on the strategy and spending that I’ve just described in the past three posts.

We are about to think about our future as an organization.   It’ll be a challenging and intensive process;  I was involved in our planning for the current agreement and it was a stressful time.  With our economic and political situation, I have not enjoyed thinking much about the future.

But it is here nonetheless.

I’m already planning replacements for several big-budget items, including our impossible-to-fix Inscriber.  I am well aware of Microsoft’s roadmap, and the fact that Windows XP will be completely out of support in 2014.  Not long ago, we needed two huge road cases to broadcast in the field.  They’re obsolete now.  We’ are thinking of a suitcase and a laptop.  If that.  Years ago I could not hope to have my own personal camcorder, but today I have a camera I can hold in my hand that shoots excellent HD video.  It cost me just $100.

Those are the realities that SATV and I have to adjust to.  I normally love working with technology—it really has been a labor of love for me—but it could be difficult and dispiriting for a while.

But we can’t argue with the results so far.  I hope we can be just as relevant tomorrow as we are today.