hard drive woes

UPDATE: In retrospect, it’s probable that the BSODs with Carbonite earlier were not Carbonite’s fault, but the bad drive. No impugning of Carbonite was intended 🙂 My apologies to the Carbonite staff who are not reading this post anyway.

I’ve had a bad time of it, but thanks to the support from Microsoft’s forums it’s clear that my hard drive is the problem. The OS loses a connection to the drive, which could be a bad or loose cable. I think that its bad blocks however as my file backup hangs in certain specific places and I might actually have to abandon some data (though I have the bulk of it copied to a new disk).

My intention is to use the secondary drive (2TB Caviar Green, lower performance but great power consumption profile) as local backup and bulk storage. The question is, what do I do now for a primary drive? I am considering several options:

– an SSD. Advantage, massive performance boost. Disadvantage, would only hold the OS and then my secondary drive is my data bottleneck. Given my problem with Carbonite earlier I am cool on cloud backup now. Also, cost of course. And then I would also need to decide whether a drive supporting SATA 6 Gb/s woudl be worth it or not.

– a 1TB drive (performance oriented). Advantage: Cheaper. I’d probably go with Samsung instead of WD because I want a 1TB, SATA 3 Gb/s drive instead of 6 (the caviar black drives all seem to be 6’s now, unless you go up to 1.5 or 2 TB). Disadvantage: the hard drive would be the bottleneck of the system. Here’s a useful comparison of 2-platter terabyte drives, proving there really was no point in paying extra for the WD drive.

I have the old 1 TB drive from the kids computer to tide me over until I decide what to do. I am torn here. I simply need a fast drive for the OS and my primary data store, which I can backup to the secondary drive.

Actually, I’m not torn. The Spinpoint is only $60 at Amazon, so if I want to do SSD later on I can always do that, the F3 will be useful until then and even afterwards as “primary” storage secondary to the SSD. Guess I’ll pull the trigger on this…

Carbonite backup caused BSOD on Win 7 64

UPDATE: In retrospect, it’s probable that the BSODs were not Carbonite’s fault, but due to a bad drive. No impugning of Carbonite was intended 🙂 My apologies to the Carbonite staff who are not reading this post anyway.

I installed Carbonite as part of my backup strategy for PREFECT, and started experiencing all sorts of issues – my system would slow down, freeze, become glacial, and even on occassion do a BSOD. I didnt realize it was Carbonite at first – started wondering if I had damaged the CPU while installed the cooler, or somesuch – but eventually realized the culprint when my router fortuitously lost a connection, causing Carbonite to disable itself on reboot of the system when no network could be detected. The system became much more functional immediately, so i uninstalled it. Again, fortuitously, I had a BSOD immediately afterwards and the XML log indicated Carbonite as the culprit. I’ve uninstalled it now and am running a memory diagnostic, after which I’ll throw Prime95 at it for good measure. I am not 100% positive Carbonite was responsible for the general system instabilities, but the evidence it caused a BSOD was undeniable (see here for my post at Technet support forums).

I don’t see much else out there about others having issues with Carbonite on W764, so it could just be my unique environment. I am running Dropbox and Live Mesh, so maybe all these cloud services don’t play nicely with each other? I’m not sure. I’ll give Mozy a shot instead; some advantages of Mozy are monthly billing instead of annual (though no 15-day free trial period like Carbonite), and also they will mail you DVDs if you need to do a full restore (never underestimate the bandwidth of a truck carrying DAT tapes, as the legend goes).

At some point I should post all my benchmarks for PREFECT – if I can get these issues sorted out, this machine should be a real beast by all measures.

(Though why my memory usage is at 21% after boot with no apps running, I am not exactly clear… I’ve got 8 GB on here for MATLAB!)

on the merits of SATA 3…

In a nutshell, I made a mistake spending extra for the 6 GB/s version of the Caviar Black terabyte hard drive, rather than the $20 cheaper 3 GB/s SATA II version.

I should have had the foresight to google the performance benefits of SATA III on traditional hard drives ahead of time; my earlier posts in this series are well-laden with links to my research for the other components. I originally was going to reuse the 1 TB Hitachi drive, but I found it limited my WEI score to 5 whereas the rest of the components were solid 7s. Benchmarks with HDTune were also slightly disappointing; basically in a system I designed for balance, the hard drive was the weak spot.

In hindsight, I should have realized that the 600 MB/s data rate for SATA III exceeds the physical capability of any mechanical hard drive. SATA II’s uppermost limit of 300 MB/s is already near the ceiling of a hard drive’s data access time, unless there’s some massive technological improvement ahead (akin to perpendicular magnetic recording, but more so).

At some point, I’ll move to an SSD drive for my main OS install and then use the terabytes for secondary storage (JBOD). I’m waiting for the 256 GB SSDs to come down in price to where the 128 GB drives are now – basically, I’ve realized that for a midlevel enthusiast build, the magic price point is $200 for any given piece of hardware. An extreme, gamer build will have a price point of $300 per piece. This is a rule of thumb I need to flesh out more when I do my final post on building this new rig.

Anyway, I guess i have a very future-proof disk now 🙂 The other big gotcha I encountered was that I did not set my BIOS to enable AHCI mode prior to installing the OS, which meant that changing the mode after OS install gave me a BSOD. Basically, the problem and the solution as described in Microsoft Knowledge Base article 922976. I ran the fixit, rebooted to BIOS, set everything to AHCI, and it worked. I forgot to redo the HDTune and WEI benchmarks, I’ll do that later today along with the other usual benchmark tools and post them here, with some pics of the new build.

In other news, I installed a DVD drive (multi r/w with BR playback), and I still need to put my CPU cooler in (the Mugen reviewed here). I’m going to call the machine Prefect, in keeping with my H2G2 theme. It definitely is the best machine I’ve ever owned and likely to last me a long time.

nested RAID level 0+0 – ultimate performance?

I'll take four of these, please... RAID 0+0 = win?
I briefly considered RAID for storage in my new system, but realized that RAID is basically useless as a backup mechanism. Others have made the basic case for why RAID sucks as backup better than I can; I went ahead and ordered a new Caviar Black with the 6 Gb/sec interface as my main drive, and will re-use my older Hitachi for regular internal backup and large video files, torrents etc. Regular Windows backup tool will be enough; I’ll also add a network disk on teh router for network backup of all the machines, and probably get a service like Carbonite for offsite backup.

While researching RAID, though, I became fascinated by the concepty of nested RAID (I had watched Inception twice on a recent flight :). Nested RAID levels are of course nothing new – RAID 1+0 and RAID 0+1 being the most common, giving you advantages of both mirroring and striping for both redundancy and performance.

But what if you nested RAID 0 twice? In other words, four disks, each pair a RAID 0 array, and then those arrays also in RAID 0?

RAID 0 gives you almost double the performance of a single disk (much as SLI gives you almost double the performance of a single GPU), at double the cost (double the drives). Does nesting RAID 0 scale linearly? Would RAID 0+0 give you almost 4x performance at 4x cost?

Triple SLI doesn’t quite give you triple performance, as there is some overhead in coordinating between the cards, In the case of RAID, the overhead is borne by the RAID controllers, however, and theoretically each controller only has to worry about 2 logical units. So I would expect that nesting level 0 RAID arrays would be less burdened by overhead and would be closer to true linear scaling.

Has anyone ever done this? It’s insanely expensive of course – 4 disks, with 4x more risk of drive failure and absolutely no redundancy at all. Though you could envision a RAID 0+0+1 array where you have 4 disks in RAID 0+0 and then do a simple RAID 1 array at the very top with a much larger drive. An example would be to do RAID 0+0+1 with 4 128 GB SSDs and 1 500 GB hard disk. It would be easy to simply reduce the nesting level for performance comparisons, to see how RAID 0+0+1 fares against RAID 0+1, RAID 1+0, RAID 0, and RAID 1 as the baseline.

I don’t have 4 SSDs and a spare 500 GB disk lying around. Or 5 hard drives of any sort, frankly. But I bet the Tom’s folks have the hardware to spare lying around the bench. I’ve posted a forum topic there to see if I can get their attention.

If someone were to spend money on this, though, clearly the best hardware would be four of these Sandforce-based 128 GB drives from ADATA, which basically has all the tech sites swooning. Couple that with a 500 GB WD Caviar Black for the +1 part of the RAID 0+0+1 array and you’d have serious hardware. Total cost for the drives alone would be about $850 as of this posting date, for 500 GB of storage. But if I’m right about the linear scaling, then this would be ridiculously fast.

CES 2011: Waiting for Alienware M13x :)

Remember my earlier laptop angst? Well, I’m not exactly bowled over by the new Thinkpads just announced at CES, and the logic that we are unlikely to see a M11x R3 refresh this soon after the R2 refresh just a few months ago is pretty compelling (per this long thread at the NBReview forums). Plus, Sandy Bridge architecture is out now, and probably most importantly I’ve built myself a professional desktop rig (my long-standing advocacy for flex computing be darned).

And yet, Alienware has been teasing about something… “huge, exciting, skinny, [other superlatives], sexy” via email:

Could it be, an M13x?

Anyway, tomorrow morning we will find out. I hope it’s not just the M17x R3 which has already been leaked. Yawn… I’ll update the post accordingly… but I’m hoping for a 13-inch, sandy-bridge sibling to plug the hole in AW’s mobile line. Let’s see!

UPDATE: I agree mostly with this list of pros and cons of the M11x which hopefully will/won’t make it into an M11x R3 or a M13x.

UPDATE: Yup, just the M17x R3. On what planet does Alienware think “skinny” applies to this beast? I expect the M11x R3 sometime this summer, and maybe they will have an M13x by then as well, though if they give the M11x a better screen and Sandy Bridge, I’ll probably be sold on it.

Static concerns and UPS power protection for an enthusiast PC

My case is too large for my desk, so it went on the floor. A carpeted floor, that is, which means that my arm hairs are perpetually on edge as my arms rest on my desk (actually, a plastic table, which makes it worse. I’ll replace that soon with a proper metal and wood desk from upstairs). My initial assumption was that since the case is metal (steel), and the power supply has a grounding plug, that the PC was basically immune to static discharges. However, reflecting on this a bit more, I realized that if I build up a charge in myself (say, by walking across carpet, in winter, while the heater is on, thus in a very dry air environment, especially so in our basement), and i were to accidentally discharge by touching the PC, then that charge has to travel through the PC to get to ground. Granted, the current might well pass solely through the case, and I assume that the motherboard is at a higher potential. I don’t really know what to do about this, or whether it’s a serious concern.

I have put the PC on a piece of corkboard rather than directly on carpet, but that’s more to prevent carpet from impeding airflow entering via the bottom fan below the CPU. This does isolate the PC a bit more from static, though that would actually be a bad thing because if the PC were truly isolated then it could conceivably build up a charge itself (though, I still assume that the PSU connection to ground will dissipate this). I’m not connecting the PC to any stereo equipment, so there’s no issues with ground loops, at least. If anyone has any advice or can assuage my concerns about static further, I’d be grateful.

Next, I realized that I am running a lot of wattage to very sensitive electrical equipment. DUH! But in the past I;ve just used simple surge suppression strips and not worried much about it. Given the investment in hardware, and my intention to make this PC my main data storage home, I’m going to have to consider some sort of power protection beyond surges. To that end I found an absolutely stellar reference by ExtremeTech on Uninterruptible Power Supplies (or Systems) from which I took home the following points:

– the VA rating on my computer hardware is probably very close to the actual wattage, since my PSU (like most nowaddays) is a Power Factor Correction (PFC) type. Hence I just need to make sure that the VA rating is well above my watts rating – in this case, I have a 650W PSU, so I’d need a VA of at least 700. Caveat: most UPS systems quote a higher watts rating than the VA, so actually I probably should get at least a 700 W UPS, not just 700 VA. That will give me overhead, future growth, etc.

– I need a PFC-compatible, line-interactive UPS. It needs USB interactivity/compatibility with Windows 7 to permit graceful system shutdown in event of power loss (just like notebooks – a good UPS basically gives desktops the same capabilities for power management, which are built into the OS by default).

Never plug a laser printer into a UPS.

CyberPower PFC UPS
1350 VA, 810W PFC UPS from CyberPower
Tom’s has already done a review of various UPS systems, taking into account the fact that enthusiast-level systems (and above) have more stringent protection needs than a typical office desktop, particularly in terms of drawing higher loads. As I noted in my epic hardware post earlier, I’m not running SLI or doing major overclocking, but even so my 650W PSU is pretty hefty compared to what you’ll find in an office cubicle Dell. My system is on par with the enthusiast build at Tom’s (minus SLI, but plus an i5 quad core), or the Editor’s Choice build at TechReport (minus SSDs/RAID). The bottom line is that they found Cyberpower’s “green” series to be the best value, quiet, and amazingly efficient. The prices for these are better at Amazon than at NewEgg – I’m just unsure whether I should buy the 810W version or the 900W version.

The bad news of course is that this is another $200 to bear. Can I get away with just a surge strip after all? Any thoughts on the matter would be most appreciated 🙂

building for the future

If you’re following my PC build saga, you’ll know that I was torn between trying to exploit old hardware for cheaper or splurge on new components. I think I’ve decided the latter route and focused on what my major uses are going to be: scientific computing (so, need lots of ram), and WoW Cataclysm (so, need decent graphics performance but not top of line). However, beyond those broad outlines, the specifics of what CPU, graphics card and motherboard to choose were pretty daunting. Luckily, I found the perfect guide to help me make some decisions: an article in Tom’s Hardware about performance in Cata.

Reading this superb and in-depth article, I am concluding:

– AMD chips seems to be bottlenecked in Cataclysm, whereas Intel chips hit their stride. Intel chips need only 2 cores to really shine whereas the AMD chips don’t utilize fewer cores efficiently. So, Intel is the way to go, and given my need for scientific computing I’ll go middle of the road with Core i5 rather than entry-level i3 or maxed-out i7.

– Hyperthreading doesn’t help performance, and chip frequency isn’t as important as cores and cache. So, I’m leaning towards an i5-655k dual/HT or an i5-750 quad. Both are the same price ($200) – but will probably the latter, since more cores will also help my scientific work. The Core i5-750 gets a lot of love from Anandtech.

– It looks like Nvidia’s series 4xx is the way to go for video card, as they support DX11. Of course ATI is always an option but the GeForce GT 460 seems to be a great value card with no equivalent value on the Radeon side. There are lots of manufacturers making these, I’m leaning towards Asus’s version even though it’s $20 more expensive than MSI’s.

– I am an Asus partisan when it comes to motherboards, though that’s really just a pragmatic choice to narrow down the choice. The real issue seems to be, do I need to run a dual-GPU setup (SLI, in this case, given that I’m leaning towards the nvidia rather than ATI video cards) ? According to Anandtech, If I were leaning towards SLI then an X58 board like the Rampage or Sabretooth would be better – most likely the Sabretooth since it’s got less gamer/lanparty bling I don’t need. However, multi-GPU doesn’t seem to be important in cata, according to the Tom’s article, and I’m not sure why I’d need multi-GPU in my scientific computing either. So I think I’m going to go with a P55-based board, which are designed to be compatible with Lynnfield chips like the i5-750 quad I mentioned above. I’m leaning towards the ASUS P7P55D-E, which comes in an LX and a Pro version. The Pro is about $50 USD more expensive but permits SLI also, but I’d rather save the money since otherwise the boards look pretty much identical.

Though I haven’t picked out memory yet, I know I want 8GB for about $100. Should be easy enough to find, but need to figure out what speed (this looks helpful…). The result looks a lot like the Editor’s Choice system at Tech Report. The key is balance – not to get any one component out of whack with the others. A fantastic video card but low end processor will handicap the GPU (and vice versa). The Core i5 coupled with the GT 460 seems like a good pairing here (though I request more saavy readers to critique me on this).

Amusingly, Tom’s sneers at the “Low” quality setting, saying it’s ugly but acknowledging that’s what you are stuck with if you’re playing on a netbook. But frankly I am really impressed that WoW is playable on a netbook at all. Regular commentor Anachronda has told me he played WoW on a Asus EEE 701; right now my only WoW-capable machine is a Dell Mini 10. You know, it may be ugly, but if you need an Azeroth fix, it suffices. That said, the rig above will be about $600 ($200 each for CP and video, $129 for mobo, and $100 for 8GB ram) and I’ll be playing at Ultra in addition to actually getting work done.

So, it’s in my cart at Newegg. I’ll look it all over again and choose some memory to go along with it. Also, I need to verify that my existing power supply will handle this stuff (not too worried about this). I think this is the way to go…

thinking about Thinkpad, seduced by Alienware

I’m waiting for my aging Thinkpad T42 to be delivered today from repair – it had the same fan error as last time, and fortuitously chose the day before my 3-year warranty expired to conk out. My desktop PC replacement saga aside, I need to think seriously about what my next laptop will be – especcially since I can’t renew the extended warranty on the T42 anymore.

The T42 is a 14″ machine and it’s basically been the best laptop I’ve ever owned. I have no complaints, and for a replacement the T401s looks like an obvious choice. However, my dalliance with netbooks has me convinced that smaller is better. Unfortunately, netbooks seems to have imploded as a category, I still cant find a decent Core Duo 9-inch netbook with an SSD and Nvidia’s ION2 “Optimus” – and even if I could, I doubt it would come in under the $500 mark (if anyone knows otherwise, though, please let me know ASAP!).

However, I’ve become aware of Alienware’s new M11x, an 11-inch laptop which is designed for gaming portability. The smaller size makes it compelling, and it would scream at my scientific work as well as run Warcraft better than anything I’ve ever played on. And it has Optimus and an SSD option (only on the R2 revision, which has the i-series processor instead of Core Duo). The downside is of course that it won’t be cheap, probably $1k minimum if I get a good deal or closer to $2k loaded including 3yr warranty. Thats what I’d be paying for a Thinkpad though as well.

I’m going to have stay tuned to @DellOutlet and see if they have any deals on the M11 in the pipe. I’m seriously tempted by it, enough to even consider straying outside the Thinkpad tent.

new PC build

I think we badly need another PC in the house. Of course this is sort of a strange statement given that we presently have a Dell 800 and Thinkpad 42 (laptops), an EEE 701 and a Dell Mini 10v (netbooks), the current kids/gaming rig (whose evolution I described in detail here) and an aging Dell minitower handmedown that originally shipped with Windows Me.

The problem is that I never got around to upgrading the handmedown, and am right now running the rig with the Asrock mobo, the AGP card, and DDR 400 ram with a dual-core chip. The Asus mobo is sitting around unused. My original plan of moving the DDR400 ram and AGP card to the Asus mobo and buying new DDR2 ram and a PCE-e card for the Asrock had a fatal flaw: it’s hard to find a decent PCI-e card for the Asrock, since all the compatible PCI-e cards seem to be discontinued on newegg.

Also, the rig gave me some major headaches the last few days. While playing WoW suddenly teh entire PC would completely freeze – not BSOD, but literally freeze so solid that nothing responded, not even the three-fingered salute. Only a hard power cycle would wourk, and then i would sometimes be able to boot up and other times the primary boot device would not be found. To summarize, the problem only triggered when doing heavy graphics load, but manifested as a boot device problem. I initially suspected a corrupt MBR or a failing video card fan, but why was there a connection between video card use and booting up? Ultimately after taking the PC apart, vacuuming the inside, and poking around, I realized what had happened – the fan on teh video card was full of dust (because the PC was on the floor.) This caused the fan to seize up, and vibrate the card – which was causing the SATA power connection on the hard drive to jiggle loose a little bit. This was because inside the case, the power cord from the CPU to both units was on the same bundle, and also rested a bit on the video card vertically.

Let me tell you, the diagnosis for the above was not as easy in real life as it was to type.

Anyway the PC is vacuumed, the power cords reseated and reorganized, and the PC is now up off the floor. And i was able to get back to Azeroth yesterday to tweak the guild settings and bank without crashing. But the whole affair made me realize that this was the only PC in the house that can actually play WoW at all – with the exception of the Dell Mini 10v, which is also kind of remarkable if you think about it.

At any rate, i need to upgrade the hand-me-down now, but finding the right PCI-e card for the gaming rig is not easy. I have two choices here:

1. persevere and find a compat video card for the Asrock machine, and build the other PC as I originally planned (though Id probably buy a new case). This will require about $50 for a PCI-e card from this list (if I can even find one!), and abouut $80 for 2 sticks of 2GB DDR2 667, along with a power supply and case (~$150). Total: about $300, and reuse of everything I’ve bought so far.

2. give up on the old Asus mobo and just redesignate the gaming rig as kids PC, then buy myself a shiny new kit. The total: $500. Only $200 more than the upgrade path, but sort of an admission of defeat.

I guess there is also option 3, which is to upgrade the present gaming rig as in option 1, and then redesignate that as the kids PC as in option 2. The downside, other than the total cost, would be that I’d be throwing away a perfectly usable P4 chip and Asus mobo. Admittedly these are outdated and ancient, but for a kids PC running W7?

I am just loath to discard the old mobo, and also the whole reason I bought the Asrock was this idea that I’d do incremental upgrades. I suppose option 1 would be the smarter route. but finding the PCI-e card for the asrock is the real sticking point – ive searched in newegg for every card in the list but cannot find the exact products. There are some similar matches, but I am uncertain if those would work. For example, the compat list has “GeForce 8400GS Foxconn GF 8400GS/256M” but none of the 8400GS cards on newegg are Foxconn. Would any of them still work? I need some advice here!

UPDATE: I am really confused as to what cards are compatible. Here’s the website for my asrock mobo; would this $100 card work? or this $40 one? if yes to both, what am I really getting for the extra money?

The Grand Tour

my 30-day introductory membership to WoW expired today, but I haven’t yet renewed. I am resolving to finish my PC upgrade first. Unfortunately I neglected to order some thermal paste… so should I just build the PC anyway or do I delay it (and WoW, accordingly) to obtain some? I’ll have to order it from Newegg or something, which will take a week. I suppose I could use that week to do other stuff, like blog or watch anime or whatnot. Heh.

In other news, my (human warrior) main is up to level 15. In one session I decided to basically grab as many flight points as I could, so starting from Westfall I 1. flew to Stormwind and 2. ran to Lakeshire, then 3. hearthed back to Westfall, 4. flew to Stormwind again, 5. took the tram to Ironforge, 6. ran to Loch Modon, 7. flew to Lakeshire and 8. ran to Darkshire. Actually I may have mixed the order of operations up a bit in there, it was kind of a blur. At any rate I basically have all the FPs for the Alliance in the southern Eastern continent. I’m mostly done with the pre-Deadmines quests in Westfall, but now I plan to polish off quests in Lakeshire and Loch Modan first. I’ll also pick up whatever easy quests there are in Dun Morogh too for leveling.

Of course, this is all on hold until I upgrade the box…