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Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Fixing computers

Even better than using computers, is fixing computers. I take great pleasure in fixing things, whether it's mending a toy of grandson.1, or sorting out a bicycle, or bringing a dead computer back to life.

On Sunday, one of my main servers went down. I contacted my colocation hosts (safehosts) and got a hands-and-eyes service, but it soon became clear that pounding on the keyboard wasn't going to lead to a solution. So I decided to make a site visit, asap.

I went to their support ticket site, but it wasn't working - they were in the middle of changing over from one support system to another. So I called their phone number - that didn't work either. Apparently, it sometimes gets itself into a loop and can't take outside calls. Fortuunately, I have the mobile number of the boss there, so I called him. I understand that they've now fixed these minor (but very important) problems.

So on Sunday evening, I loaded the car up with everything that I thought I might need in order to fix eight computers. Eight? Yes - I keep a lot of spare computers at the colocation, and when one goes down, I switch over to one of the backups. I haven't been there for 18 months, and I had accumulated eight faulty computers.

My usual practice, is to get however many computers set up and ready to run here, then take them down and swap them for the faulty ones. But this time, I decided to try to repair them on-site.

I arrived at 11am (it's a two hour drive) and set to work. The first computer (the one that had only just gone down) was a puzzler. I swapped the memory, I swapped the power supply, I swapped the motherboard and cpu. Nothing helped. That only left the hard drives, and sure enough, one of them had the condition that I call "killer drive". It's very rare, I'm glad to say, but the symptom is that when that drive is connected to the computer, the computer can't start up. When the drive is disconnected, it can. I have no idea what the cause is, but the cure is obvious. So I swapped that hard drive, and another one that had been giving a lot of errors, put in a new CMOS battery, and the computer was good. That took me over two hours, and at that rate, I wasn't going to finish before midnight!

The second computer was operational, but it had a hard drive with lots of errors, and it crashed every week or so. I replaced the hard drive, and replaced the memory. The old memory was "Rendition" brand, and I've had a lot of problems with that.

The third computer just didn't start up when power was applied, but it did start when I pressed the start button at the front. That's easy - I opened it up, and changed the CMOS battery, and that fixed it.

The fourth was another pig. I changed the dead battery, but that didn't help. So I swapped out the motherboard, and then it would start up. But the new motherboard was a Foxconn, and the old one was a Gigabyte, and the ethernet is different, and I couldn't remember the magic incantation that you use to tell it to forget the old ethernet and auto-detect the new. So I reinstalled Linux. And what with the install (which I had to do twice because I dropped the keyboard in the middle of doing it the first time and it hung), and with all the fuffing about, that took about two hours.

The fifth one had a bad hard disk that I replaced, and I also replaced the battery. These batteries are really cheap, but absolutely vital if you want to leave a computer switched off for many months, and expect it to start up as soon as power is applied. Because the default CMOS setting, is "don't start the computer when power is applied" and it goes to that default when the battery is dead.

The sixth one needed a memory replacement (but I also put in a new battery).

And the seventh one just needed a new battery.

I didn't do the eighth one, because the problem it had was two dead drives, and I could get by without using those drives, because it had four good drives still in place. I'd run out of spare drives and time by then, anyway.

So I got home at about 8:30, job well done, in time for Gotham, which if you're a Batman fan, is absolutely excellent, being a modern take on the whole origin story, and the best character so far by a long chalk is Oswald Cobblepot, better known as The Penguin, because he's nasty, slimy, psychotic, ruthless and evil. Although the young Catwoman is rather nice.

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