Incredibly Dorky Tech Bleg

First off, I apologize for leading off with this. I’ve been AWOL from blogging for the better part of a week, and I doubt most of you clicked over today to read about my computer problems. So fair warning, if you keep reading, you’re going to learn a lot more about them than you wanted to know.

I’m in the process of building up a home server. It’ll be used primarily to store and serve up audio and video files to the main entertainment center downstairs. I’ve been building it on the uber-cheap, which (as I’m sure I’ll be reminded) is probably the source of many of my problems.

The hardware centers around a generic white-box PC bought on eBay (here come the catcalls already) for $50. The mainboard is a Shuttle AK12, Award BIOS AK12S013, with an AMD Duron 850MHz CPU and 512MB of PC100 RAM. The operating system is FreeNAS, which is basically a stripped-down version of FreeBSD 6 optimized for small servers, including a very nice browser-based GUI for remote setup and administration. FreeNAS installed painlessly on a small hard drive attached to the board’s main IDE bus.

I collected up a six 300GB hard drives, four IDE and two SATA, with the intention of setting up a RAID 5 array for 1.5TB of storage with at least some possibility of recovery in case of a single drive failure. I’d intended to hook all of these in using three PCI cards, but as the saying goes, then my troubles began. The cards are two Rosewill RC-200’s for IDE (Sil 3114 chipset) and one RC-209 for SATA (Sil 0608 chipset), ideally with two drives attached to each card.

The box refuses to boot with any of the PCI cards installed and attached to a drive. It will boot up with just the RC-209 SATA card installed, but just repeats the initial startup process over and over if I actually attach a drive to the card. It will also boot up (very, very slowly) with just one of the RC-200 IDE cards installed, but freezes completely at the end of the BIOS startup with any IDE drive attached to the card.

Now, in all the vastness of the VodkaSphere, there have to be at least one or two wizards out there who can offer up some suggestions. I have tried all of the following: replacing the power supply (no effect, brand-new 400W unit), swapping around the PCI cards (no effect), flashing in an updated BIOS (the box doesn’t like any boot floppy I’ve made to date), unplugging various drives (no effect, doesn’t work even with just one drive attached), booting to a USB thumb drive (BIOS no hablo USB boot drive).

So, for the geniuses, what say you? At this point, the only options I can see myself are getting either a new box/motherboard or trying different PCI cards–although the chipsets and cards that I already have are listed as supported by FreeBSD 6, and they have all been reported as working with FreeNAS by other users.

For anybody who can help, as they say in the Kentucky Fried Movie, you haff my gwatitude.


27 Responses to “Incredibly Dorky Tech Bleg”

  1. Doug Stewart Says:

    Stupid question, but are all the disks clean, or was anything installed on them previously?

    Hmmm, something just occurred to me as well: is FreeNAS the only thing you’ve tried to boot on the box? Have you perhaps thought of trying to use a Knoppix LiveCD and make sure that the machine will boot cleanly and that all the hardware is being detected correctly?

  2. Mr. Lion Says:

    Well, at first glance, it appears that neither of the ATA boards you’re using support hardware RAID5, so presumably FreeNAS is using FreeBSD’s gvinum to do software RAID. gvinum is picky, very picky, and I can’t wrap my head around someone having actually made a working GUI to set it up.

    That, of course, is a moot point if the drivers for those cards either don’t exist, or suck.

    First, I’d boot the box and check both cards’ BIOS for bad settings. Just about all ATA cards that do RAID at some level (these do 0,1,0+1) have a BIOS shim that gets loaded before anything even sniffs for a bootloader.

    Second, I’d verify that all of the disks are set to device master.

    Third, I’d boot the box with a display on the console (alternatively, log into a terminal and use ‘dmesg’), with both cards installed, and no drives connected. Make sure both are recognized and loaded, and you don’t get any unknown PCI issues.

    Fourth, connect all the drives, boot again, and see what comes up on the console so far as recognized drives go. If it takes forever to ID a given drive, you may have a bad drive.

    Finally, I’d look at the kernel config and see exactly what ATA drivers are being loaded, and remove whatever other drivers you don’t need, then recompile.

    Personally, if it were my machine (and I have several that do the same thing), I’d do one of two things:

    1) Ditch both ATA controllers and get a good card (read: Adaptec) that can do hardware RAID5 (read: Adaptec 2400A). That way, all the OS sees when it boots is a normal, single block device, and you won’t have to dick around with gvinum. Also, you can swap failed drives much easier should one go out on you. This would require that you ditch your SATA drives, or your ATA drives, and get a few more of whichever you keep. If you go SATA, you’ll need a different card, but Adaptec makes the same thing in a SATA version.

    2) Ditch FreeNAS and go with straight up FreeBSD. It’s certainly the best OS for what you want to do, and installing and configuring everything you need by hand will result in a much more stable system. At the very least, you’ll be able to see exactly what’s going boom, and probably fix it. GUIs are for workstations, not servers.

    Oh, and incidentally, six 300GB drives will give you around ~1,300 GB in RAID5, not 1,500. The parity data sucks up around 25% of your total space, and even more with software raid solutions.

  3. Will Collier Says:

    Thanks. A few answers to above points:

    1. The array drives are all brand-new.

    2. I’m not looking to run RAID 5 out of the ATA cards (as noted, they don’t support it anyway). Software RAID is fine for my purposes; the thing will never have more than three clients using it at any given time, and then maybe. Buying industrial-strength RAID cards would violate my “uber-cheap” base requirement for the thing.

    3. Recompiling a kernel is way beyond my limited *NIX know-how. The FreeBSD docs do indicate support for both chipsets… but then again, I’m not even able to load the OS with cards installed and drives attached. I’m getting freezes/restarts before the kernel loads, which in my (probably ignorant) opinion suggests the motherboard is hosed.

  4. Doug Stewart Says:

    Does the machine boot with just a single drive attached directly to the mobo? I’d try that out and ensure that the rest of your components are actually working.

  5. Will Collier Says:

    Yes, the mobo will boot with any single IDE drive attached to the secondary IDE bus (the boot drive is on the main bus). I haven’t tested it with every one of the six array drives (two of them I can’t; there’s no SATA connector on the mobo), but booting without the PCI add-on cards isn’t a problem.

    I can also boot with the PCI NIC in any slot.

  6. Pete Says:

    Possibly irrelevent, but might be worth some thought fodder:

    I’ve got a similar concept set up at home, however, the hard drives I’m using are 300GB USB2.0 externals (8, so ~2TB+) connected via a daisy chain of USB hubs.

    These things hold my collection of burned DVDs and play via XPMedia Center2005 (which I then throw against a wall via my optoma ez756 dlp projector).

    Anyway (hey, if you get to have geek seizures online regarding your home setup, so do I) … I went with external drives cuz:

    1) the server is a laptop, so no option of loading drives into the server hardware

    2) to avoid issues such as the ones you’re having, and I can continue to add drives, as needed without having to get all screwed up with driver dependcies and the like.

    Maybe this is spilt milk as you’ve already gone through the hassle; but, an idea might be to drop your HDs into external cases and go the USB plug ‘n play route.

  7. Duke DeLand Says:

    I am sending this on my laptop to which I just coupled a 250GB HD, in an Ultra case, complete w/fan and USB/firewire connector cables for less than $140….
    Of course, you can add as many as you like….

    Not sure of case price, but believe the case w/fan and cords is about $40……

    Good Luck!

  8. Doug Stewart Says:

    Here’s a thought:

    Might the mobo be under-supplying the PCI slots with juice? With that many cards in an older mobo, you might be running into some funny configuration where the cards are trying to draw more power than the slots can deliver.

    I’d take a run at one of the online power supply voltage calculators and see if you aren’t straining that poor 400W PS with your setup (the hard drives alone draw ~150W…).

  9. Doug Stewart Says:

    That 150W is in toto, not per. (Just to be clear – 6 x 25 Watt avg. consumption…).

  10. Ralph Says:

    My buddy MIB or alternately MrHemi has a computer store in Tucson and is very knowledgeable on cheap or outdated computer components… he still has some spare 80286 boards…

    I’m asking him to check in VodkaPundit and give you advice…

  11. John Says:

    It won’t boot to any boot floppy?

    That makes me suspicious as hell- I assume you swapped out the floppy drive/cable? Also that you cleared the bios to defaults, then reconfigured it to match your current setup? If so the problem could be much more fundamental- something at the motherboard level (read that as ‘bloody unlikley to be fixed’).

    Try the following: remove the drive with the OS on it, connect one of the ATA cards and connect a drive to it and try to install to that drive. I’ll bet you a glazed donut it fails. If it does, look for a new mobo.

  12. Will Collier Says:

    John, that’s precisely my concern. I not only swapped the floppy cables, I tried a different floppy drive as well. The board still can’t find a bootable disk.

    Oddly enough, my cheapest fix right now could well be just swapping the mobo.

  13. John Says:

    Try booting to the floppy without any HDD connected. Just to give it no choice…

  14. Jeff A. Says:

    Will, some BIOS’s have a boot order. Check the boot order to make sure the floppy is before and HDD, CD-ROM, or network device. Also check to see if the floppy interface is even enabled.

  15. pianoman Says:

    Pete’s on the right track. If you’re not looking for killer performance, just go the USB 2.0 route. As for the OS, I’m currently running Fedora Core 3 for my home server, and am planning to upgrade to FC5 at some point. RAID 5 is supported there, although I haven’t really used it yet.

    You should reconsider that RAID business too. Long-established companies like Netapp and EMC have got that RAID thing nice and robust, but I wouldn’t trust it on a cheap homebrew server unless I had done some serious tests first. It seems to me like the better way to go is to just upgrade to bigger single drives as needed, and maybe dial back your “needs” for disk space a little.

    Seriously, do you really *need* to rip all your DVDs? Do you really *need* to have every episode of South Park in an online state?

    If you scale back your expectations, you’ll probably find that everything fits snugly into a single 500G USB drive.

    Buy two, and use the second one as your offsite backup (preferably kept in your car between writes).

  16. Will Collier Says:

    Thanks to all, I appreciate all the suggestions. A few answers/remarks:

    I’ve tried unplugging (including power) all the drives except the floppy, unplugging all but two hard drives, etc, etc. No joy.

    Regarding RAID and the alternatives, I settled on the RAID 5 scheme after considerable thought and reading. I’m not kidding myself about either performance or reliability, but I do want to have the full library ripped (in my case, that includes HD rips from a hacked Tivo, with pretty much everything converted to an MP4 variant for smaller footprint), and anything less than a TB isn’t enough. At least with an R5 setup, I’ve got some chance of recovery, vs. none at all with a single 500MB drive (and trust me, I’ve done the math–er, better than I did the solar power calculations–on what drive combination is most cost effective right now).

  17. futurepastnow Says:

    Software RAID5 is the way to go; it’s certainly better than hardware for personal use on a budget.

    1.) Go into the BIOS and make sure the computer isn’t trying to boot from one of the controller cards.

    2.) Your motherboard may not have enough IRQ’s to hand out to all the crads. Cheapo consumer chipsets weren’t made to have seven drives attached to them, even my fileserver (with an actual serverboard) will only run with three drive controllers. Four ATA cards, no boot. IRQ/DMA issues. Sorry, I don’t know of a way to fix that (I really don’t know any more about this stuff than you do, these are just the issues I’ve encountered).

  18. Mr. Lion Says:

    Okay, a few more suggestions:

    1) Try disabling your on-board ATA bus. It’s possible, though unlikely, that there’s a driver conflict going on with the PCI ATA cards.

    2) At exactly what stage does the system halt? Does it make it thought the bootloader cleanly?

    Also, I’d forget about using external drives for any kind of reliable storage solution, especially via USB. You could use FireWire, if you had to use external drives for some reason, but you’d still be doing ATA->Serial conversion and back again with absolutely no need to be doing so.

    If you have another mainboard laying around, it couldn’t hurt to try swapping it out, but if it does a POST and makes the required beeps, with none of the bad beeps, I doubt there’s anything wrong with it.

  19. Mr. Lion Says:

    Also, as noted, you could have an interrupt issue going on. Try disabling the machine’s serial and parallel ports in its BIOS, if that still doesn’t work, kill the on-board ATA as well.

  20. BigBird Says:

    Wish I’d known you were trying to build such an animal. I have a Intel BX MB, Dual Pentium Pro’s (the 333mhz kind) with onboaard SCSI, that I was/am fixing to pitch out in the trash. It’s running 2003 server at the moment… Drop me a note.

    Roll Tide

  21. Tim Says:

    Somewhat off-topic, but relevant to the whole file server deal; check the hard drives you have and see if they’re all from the same manufacturing run. If so, you might want to see if you can swap a few of them out. I once purchased several (5, if I remember correctly) Maxtor drives on sale and had them all fail within 15 days of each other. Two of them in a mirror set for my desktop failed within five minutes. They were all from the same manufacturing run.

    RAID 5 is nice, but the loss of two drives in the array will trash all of the data.

  22. Dan-O Says:


  23. Neo Says:

    I got this SATA DVD drive from Plextor with mounts CDROM super slow like your describing. Once mounted, the CDROM acts normally.

  24. Bruce Says:

    Download a trial version if Win2K3 and see if it will install.

  25. Mr. Lion Says:

    I believe that would negate the purpose of attempting to have a working operating system.

  26. Bruce Says:

    Some people would prefer a non working Linux distro over a working Windows install out of fear that someone would discover how easy Windows is to setup and use.

    How silly.

    We have R2 Server running on old PII 400’s with 384MB of ram. Works fine. The install would tell you whether it was a hardware or driver/distro issue. You don’t have to keep Windows on if it offends you that much.

  27. SDN Says:

    One suggestion I haven’t seen is to have the memory chips tested. I assume you’ve got the power on memory test running, but you might want to talk with a local computer repair place about a bench test on the RAM chips. Or just buy a couple more and see if they fix the problem.

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