Archive for the Category: ' hardware '

Posted By mart

Boosting ThinkPad X40 with SSD

Some time ago I was able to obtain a beautiful piece of hardware – IBM ThinkPad X40. Long ago I attended a presentation of this ultra portable notebook when the speaker after mentioning the magnesium alloy cover and the active protection system for the hard drive simply took the demo machine, dropped it (while it was still running) on the ground and jumped on it with both feet. Then he placed it back on the table, connected the projector and continued in the presentation like nothing happened. Awesome!

The notebook comes with low voltage version of Pentium M at 1.2GHz with 1MB L2 cache (TDP 12W), 1.5GB RAM, 12″ TFT display @ 1024×768, 40GB hard drive, Gigabit Ethernet, WiFi, Bluetooth, InfraRed, 56k modem, two USB ports, SD slot (although it should work only with simple SD cards, I’m using a 16GB SanDisk class 6 SDHC card without problems) and a Windows XP Professional licence. The standard battery has capacity of only 2600mAh but thanks to the low power components it gives about 3.5 hours of normal work. High capacity 8-cell battery is available that can provide up to 8 hours.  This all comes in a package less than 1 inch thick and 1.3 kilos light.

I got it together with Ultrabase X4 Dock which has integrated CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive (can be replaced by second hard drive or battery) and more ports (serial, parallel, USB).

The only fault I found so far is the hard drive. The capacity is more than enough but IBM had to make a sacrifice and used 1.8″ 4.2krpm drive that is anything but fast. Another thing is the scary clicking sound it makes periodically – at first I thought it is about to die soon but using it for a while I realized it is feature…

This is a screenshot from HDTach 3.0.4.0 with the original Hitachi DK13FA drive:

Hitachi DK13FA-40B benchmark

Maximum transfer about 21MB/s, random access 21.7ms – nothing but a disaster.

The only HDD replacement I found in regular computer stores here was 80GB drive from Toshiba (kinda expensive at about 250 USD for a new one). I didn’t find any reviews of this drive but I can guess that it won’t be much better than the original.

Yet again I was saved by eBay – I found 1.8″ PATA SSD drive made by KingSpec especially for X40/X41 notebooks. It comes in 32 and 64GB capacity and now costs about 140 / 240 USD including worlwide shipping. I ordered the 32GB version, got it in 2 weeks, replaced the original drive in less than 2 minutes, installed operating system and ran the benchmark:

Stable transfer speed almost 70MB/s and access time 0.2ms – that is more than 100 times faster than the original drive.

By the way – I paid more for the SSD drive than for the notebook with the docking station, but still the whole thing was cheaper than the new Atom-based netbooks that are so hot today. So if you are thinking about buying Asus EEE or the Acer Aspire One,  my advice would be to think again – just check eBay for refurbished ThinkPad X31/X40, replace the hard drive with SSD and you get much better and nicer notebook!

Posted By mart

Promise TX4310 vs. Intel ICH7R

Some time ago I wrote a recipe how to lose 2 TB of data. The server in which we had the two Promise TX4310 controllers started acting up so we decided to replace the old socket 603 motherboard with a newer one. We had couple of spare servers with Supermicro PDSML-LN2 motherboards.

The new board comes with 4 SATA ports (previous one had only IDE and SCSI) using ICH7R controller which supports RAID 0, 1, 10 and 5, so I decided to see how this built-in solution from Intel handles the 3TB RAID5 array that the Promise cannot. I installed Windows 2008 Standard Server x64 SP2, Matrix Storage Manager 8.8 (latest available from Intel) and the latest driver for Promise controller (2.06.1.326 for Vista/2008).

I created the array using MSM GUI and opened Disk Management console. The array was visible but was split into two partitions: one with size 2048GB and the second one with the remaining 746.41 GB. The default Windows disk – MBR – does not support partitions larger than 2TB. I had to convert the disk to GPT in odrer to have just one partition.

Out of curiosity I tried to do the same operation on the Promise controller, connected the 4 drives, created RAID5 array in the web application (it is not supported in the controller BIOS!) and to my surprise, it behaved the same as on Intel. I could see the whole ~3TB partition! The original server was running 32-bit version of Windows 2003 Server, so first I thought MS is to blame – but only until restarting the server. During the POST, I noticed the Promise BIOS reported the array size as 2199GB and when I logged in and checked the Disk Management, the size was only 2048GB. So obivously there is something wrong with the Promise BIOS. The only way how to use all 4TB of raw capacity is to create two RAID5 arrays (each with size < 2TB) and then – if you want to have only one disk in the system – to create spanned volume accross these two disks. If you make one 3TB array like me it will work only until first restart. And question is if the data written above 2TB will be written properly or it will be just a garbage, eventually it overwrites data stored at the beginning of the disk (as it has happened to me).

And there is one more important thing – the performance of each of this arrays.

First the Promise controller with 4 WD drives, each 500GB in RAID5:

Promise TX4310 RAID5 performance

Then the Intel with 4 Hitachi drives in RAID 5:

In both cases the disk cache was enabled, controller cache enabled and NCQ enabled.

I wasn’t able to use the Hitachi drives with the Promise controller as they were already filled with few hundred GB of data, but the WD is not at fault here. The only thing in which the Promise controller is better is CPU utilization. The server is using one Core 2 Duo 6420 @ 2.13GHz, and the performance gain of the Intel is certainly worth the 13%. Not to mention that I don’t have to worry about losing the data again…

Posted By mart

Recipe: how to lose 2TB of data

You will need the following ingredients:

- Promise FastTrak 4310 SATA RAID controller with latest BIOS (2.8.1.0004) and drivers (2.6.1.318)
- four Hitachi HDS721010KLA330 1TB SATA drives
- 2TB of really important data

1. install the Promise controller in PCI slot
2. boot to OS and create RAID5 array on all 4 drives
3. start transferring files to the newly created array
4. fill up 2 terabytes and enjoy the error message
5. spend two days trying to recover the files
6. spend another two days trying to recover yourself

This recipe is OS independent.

Posted By mart

Multimedia PC for $160

If you were trying to assemble small computer that would fit into sexy case that looks just great in your living room and could act as a multimedia center PC to play music, DVD and even some simple games, until recently there was only one option – all-in-one mini-ITX boards from VIA. These included VIA C3 or C7 CPU, integrated graphics, audio, LAN, USB and firewire. There are however few problems with these mainboards – the CPU is everything but fast, the graphics is good only for 2D, and the price is way too high even for the lowest model. And since every component is soldered to the PCB it cannot be replaced or upgraded at all.
There is new competition in the market that comes from the current king of CPU’s – Intel. Same mini-ITX format of only 172x172mm, the better of two available models BLKD201GLY2 called ‘Little Valley’ has the following specs:

- SiS662 + SiS964 chipset with integrated SiS Mirage 1 GPU
- up to 1GB DDR2 PC4300 memory
- Intel Celeron 220 @ 1.2GHz – based on Core 2, TDP 19W
- 1x IDE, 2x SATA, 1x PCI, 1x 10/100 Ethernet, 6x USB, VGA, audio

Intel Desktop Board D201GLY2

From the specs it is obvious that it is no miracle performer, graphic adapter is as bad as the one in VIA, but the CPU is about 4 times more powerful than the C3 and most importantly – for 1/3 of the VIA’s cost.

The street price of the above configuration, believe it or not, is $75. Just add $25 for 1GB DDR2 memory module and $60 for 60GB 2.5 inch mobile hard drive and you have fully working computer that would be powerful enough for majority of users. And since the board is so small it deserves to be placed into small computer case, which ironically would be the most expensive part of our PC – but nice ones including 100W power supply can be bough for as low as $120.

I know it is a stupid thing to use two 160GB drives in a pseudo-hardware RAID0 array for storing 300GB of important data. It all started as experiment to see how the array will perform and compare the performance with standalone hard drive. My MSI K8T Neo2-F mainboard has two SATA ports included in the VIA 8237 chipset and two additional SATA connectors provided by Promise 20579 chip.
So I created RAID0 array in the Promise BIOS without any problems and happily used it for couple of months. The performance was better than single drive which was good news. During the time I collected many files, database dumps, source codes, but also family pictures and videos, some movies, music and games – about 300GB of data. And just when I was finally about to backup everything and connected external USB drive, one of the hard drives in the RAID0 array made awful ‘I-just-had-enough-of-this’ click sound and the array disappeared from the system.
The management software provided by Promise is a joke – it is actually very ugly looking monitoring tool that doesn’t allow to do anything useful except showing message that array is in ‘critical’ status because one of the two hard drives is missing. So i rebooted into the Promise BIOS in hope to fix the problem from there.
Both hard drives were visible, the first one still a part of the array, the second one as ‘Free’. After some clicking I found out that the BIOS is so simple and stupid that there is no way how to rebuild failed RAID0 array. I’m screwed. The only options available to me were to display status of the array (critical) or to delete the array. Very nice!
So I called myself many names for being such idiot and accepted the loss of all my data. I decided to delete the array and never use it anymore. But to my surprise when destroying the array it asked me if I want to delete all information from the hard drive or leave it as it is – so I decided to leave it. I was surprised by that choice but then I thought that maybe there is still a hope for me – I tried to create new RAID0 array from the two disks and it asked me again if I want to initialize the disks or leave it as it is. Second choice is right, array was successfully created, I booted into Windows – and whew, my precioussss is back!
So in case you experience the same problem as me with Promise 20579 controller, as long as the disks are not physically damaged or dead you can still recover your data quite easily.
By the way – after backup the RAID0 is now gone. Next time I might not be this lucky.

Posted By mart

Shopping for treasures on eBay

Couple of weeks ago I got hooked to eBay.co.uk since I was able to find some great hard-to-resist deals on computer components. It started with simple task – replacement board for dead 7U Xeon server in our office that we used as database server. Not exactly the same board, this one was from SuperMicro, but it had everything I needed – only after I paid I noticed it also has couple of 1.8GHz Xeon CPU’s. Price? Amazing GBP40 including shipment to Czech republic.

My Pentium M based desktop computer is slowly starting to show it’s age and I decided to give it a boost with more memory. All computers stores here in Prague ask ridiculous prices for 1GB DDR333 memory modules – got online, spent couple of minutes on eBay and voila! 2GB DDR333 with warranty and including shipment to Prague still cheaper than 1GB purchased here.

The greatest deal however was purchase of two used Dell PowerEdge 3250 servers. Dual Itanium 1.4GHz, 1GB DDR RAM, 2x 16GB U320 SCSI 15krpm hot swap hard drives, 2U rack mountable chassis. Since each server weights about 80 pounds it was not possible to send it abroad, I had to drive to get it. Basic price in 2003 when server was announced (with 1CPU and diskless) was $6229 – including the fees and gasoline, it cost me 15% of the original price.

Try it as well – it’s fun, it’s addicting, and it’s worth it!