Mini ITX Experiences

My little server has been running fanless for about a week now and is running reliably beside the router, tucked in a corner and casting an eerie blue light at night from the power switch.

Just to review, the bits I used were:

It took me about a day to build the thing, thinking back I haven’t actually ever built a complete PC before, so I’m not the fastest. I had all the bits needed, the best bit being the case which comes with a laptop style cable and transformer, a built in power supply and adapters for the 2.5 hard disc drive and slim DVD drive – both of which have ide connections different to big PC’s.

The trickiest bit was getting over the hurdle of getting the motherboard to fire up. It just wouldn’t do it to begin with, and the fix just appeared to be to try things step by step. I purchased the IO plate which fills the hole in the back of the case, but in the end didn’t use it once I got it running. So first lesson learned, don’t assume the mobo is dead until you have tried the various components. The mobo will pause from time to time too, so it is a case of loosing screws off, unplugging the power supply and trying again. I hadn’t got anything to base my expectation on so hearing the reassuring beep (I still don’t know where the actual beeper is) tells me all is well. There is also a proper procedure for resetting the bios, which is only in the most recent manual on the VIA website.

The other lesson learned is that for some reason the Sony and Seagate drives didn’t want to play master and slave on the same IDE channel, trying all the combinations of jumper leads and whatever didn’t work so I ended up with the two drives on seperate interfaces. I’ve read posts on the internet to this effect about the funny ide lead that has to be used for the 2.5 HDD, but in the end I had to use another IDE lead for the Sony Optical drive. Interestingly the Morex 377 case comes with an adapter plate that fixes to the back of the slimline drive, so that a standard PC type IDE cable can be used. I connected up the case fan for the safest approach to temperature for the first few days, although the case itself features a fair amount of metal which must act to dissipate heat.

As there isn’t any floppy drive, you have to boot the O/S from either the CD, network card or usb, which are all choices in the bios. The install part went no problem at all.

When I had the machine in place at home, the fan noise was noticable, not as loud as my old PS2, but a new noise nonetheless. But keeping an eye on it over the next few days showed it was blowing cold air, so I disconnected it. I had a wee problem with the network disappearing, but this was cured by pulling the power supply out of the back, rather than just using the power switch.

It has been running quite happily as a wee proxy server for over a week now, with just power and network plugged in to it, case fan disconnected, but sat on its wee foot. It runs along quite nicely, performing quite well for a 533Mhz processor. It is also very quiet, for some reason the disc drive is practically inaudible.

Lesson Summary:

  • You will hear a single beep when it boots up, this is good. The fan will spin up regardless.
  • For whatever reason my motherboard didn’t see the whole 512Mb of a single ram chip, just seeing 256 of it, so I bought another two 256Mb chips for the two slots.
  • For whatever reasons the 2.5 HDD and Slimline DVD Rom didn’t like sitting on the same channel. Disconnect either, and the other would pop up in the BIOS.
  • Mini ITX terminology is strange, “Power Supply” is actually the component that converts the voltage coming in to the case to a regulated amount feeding the molex connector to the motherboard. It mounts just behind the front panel of the case. The plastic brick with a plug on the end is something else.
  • Both the motherboard and case come with a number of very useful cables and fitting parts as standard, but these may be missing if you buy from ebay. E.g. I just received the motherboard, whereas it normally comes with cables and IO plate etc. The case comes with a foot, 240v adapter, cd-rom adapter, various screws and fittings etc.
  • The Mini-ITX format is tiny, the complete machine is only slightly bigger than my Netgear router.
  • 2.5 Drives have strange connectors, so read the specs very carefully to check between SATA and UATA!!
  • Everything is a very very tight fit inside the case, I literally had to squeeze it all in, but it all runs ok.
  • I still haven’t figured out how to flash the motherboard bios without a floppy disc drive – usb perhaps?

I checked with my old colleage Bart and apparently I can get some geek points for finally having a server.

Almost the holidays

Counting the hours to the festive break, then off for two weeks – excellent. The weather has turned a little bit more wintry, the autumnal wind and rain has abated, but this morning was surprisingly mild with no frost.

I’m off to Dundee for the weekend with the family for a short break, taking advantage of a cheap rooms offer with Travelodge and that will kick nicely into the hols.

Mini ITX PCs

Meanwhile, while the other work related stuff has been going on, I’ve been putting together the bits for a small form factor pc by scouring eBay for a motherboard, case etc. It is based around the VIA EPIA-5000 motherboard, a fanless design, I’m putting a 2.5 inch laptop drive to it and bought some cheap 512Mb RAM from EBuyer. I’ve got a Morex 3677 case on the way too, which is so small you can’t fit a single pci card in it.

The next bit will be running stuff on it, I’m thinking of building it as a server first, hanging it off one of the ethernet ports on my DG834GPN. I bought this in a moment of desperation the night before I had to be in Yorkshire. I needed to attempt to buy a train ticket from Edinburgh to Yorkshire, but my old router was playing up. As it transpired, it appears it was my new work laptop wifi that was causing my old DG834G some problems. Such is, the new one has nice blue flashy lights.

I’m waiting for this period of windy rainy weather to pass so I can get the RS out again.

December now, so what’s been happening in the land of AlistairL

December already, and a few weeks since my last post, so here is a catchup. Things have been pretty busy for me, with a fair amount of travel chucked in.

I’ve been in Yorkshire for a visit or two, holding a follow up workshop for a report I submitted with the rest of a team looking at a web development project. It was great to work with the talented team at the client, although they’d had some challenges, they seemed to relish the opportunity to discuss their ideas and collborate a bit on what could be done. They were itching to get in there and make some changes, which we all have to hold rein on when we are keeping management in the loop.

I switched laptops just before my last visit, which caught me out a little when I heard with a few hours notice that I had to travel to Yorkshire. The really funky thing was my first go with personal area networks in Windows XP Pro. Me and my colleague had the same type of laptop, and with a good 10 minutes at the beginning of the day we were all paired up in Bluetooth, got TCP/IP running and a shared folder to collaborate. This made the rest of the day’s efforts in compiling our final report so much easier. Although Word 2003 doesn’t approach the levels of collaboration possible in Excel, having a shared file we could hand to each other in relay fashion was great. It was painless for a new bit of technology I’d never ever used before. And of course it also has built in WiFi, which was useful for popping on a local access point, firing up the vpn to the office and emailing our draft report to the company we were subcontracted to for proofing and checking.

I’ve also been in Glasgow, which although not as far was for Commerce Server 2002 and helping a team get up to speed. They were new to Commerce, but experienced in .NET  and Content Mangement Server. Spreading my visits over a few weeks was a bit twisty for my brain (which country am I in :)) but again a top team to work with. We had our inevitable hiccoughs and the lead up to my last visit was a bit challenging for them, but we unblocked the issues and it was encouraging to see how close they had got in problem solving. I’ve been there myself with Commerce in the past, the learning curve has a few cliffs in it.

Really good to get my teeth into .NET internet sites, both for the start of an online Commerce expedition, the other a huge online servicing system with massive throughput. Internet stuff for both, and top people in both organisations too even though one was Private sector and the other Public.