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Windows 2000 without Internet Explorer

Those of you who bought my book (both of you) know that the biggest secret to speeding up Windows 95 and 98 was removing the extra junk nobody used–especially the stuff Microsoft deliberately made impossible to remove via normal means.

In Windows 95, all it took was modifying INF files with a text editor to remove MSN, IE, and the other obsolete software it shipped with from the get-go. Win98 got a bit more complicated. But with 2000, Microsoft started getting nasty–putting encrypted data in multiple places, so even if you hacked the INFs, it didn’t do any good.

But several people still figured out how to do it.I really like Fred Vorck‘s site, because he’s careful to document everything. He also found out the same thing I did by writing my book–there are lots of people who will whine that your instructions are too complicated, they’ll whine that when they follow the directions and make a mistake it doesn’t work, or they just repeat the Microsoft party line that the software can’t be removed, and your mouse will stop working, your computer will generate horrific RF interference, and gas prices will soar if you remove IE from Windows. (The last part is probably true, of course, but none of the rest is.)

What really happens when you remove IE from Windows 2000 is similar to what happened when you removed it from Win95 and 98: Your memory usage drops (by about 20 megs, in this case) and your boot time is cut in half.

Since some software does break, because some software does use the IE engine, you might not want to do this on every PC you own. But if, say, you want to run Windows 2000 on an old laptop with limited memory so you can run a handful of useful Windows applications, this is perfect. If you want a stable, lightweight (by modern standards) OS for any Pentium II-class machine that might be sitting in the closet, this makes it a viable option too. A lot of computers are sitting in closets today not because they’re no longer useful, but because there’s no practical or affordable way to boost them up to the half-gig of memory that you need for Windows XP to be practical to use on them.

Read Vorck’s site some more, and dig around, and you’ll find that minimal Windows installs have created something of a subculture. I don’t know if anyone’s squeezed XP down to the level I got Win95 down to (the original Windows 95, released on Aug. 24, 1995, can be hacked down to an installation footprint of 17 megabytes without much hassle), but some people have done some pretty amazing things.

Yes, when I get time someday, I’ll be messing around with this. I wish I’d discovered it sooner.

And in case anyone cares, I found this because some know-it-all at work said you can’t uninstall Outlook Express from Windows 2000. I vaguely remembered having seen a piece of software that goes so far as to remove IE, so I said, “You can remove IE from Windows 2000 if you’re willing to work hard enough at it, let alone Outlook Express.” So I did some more searching, just to satisfy my curiosity.

If and when I end up building a minimal Win2000 box, I may just have to bring it in one day to show the know-it-all. But as longtime readers of this site know, I’ve dealt with that type before. So it’s probably not worth the effort to carry it out to the car.

Reviving a laptop

My Micron Transport LT (a rebranded Samsung Sens Pro 680) died on Friday. I wasn’t a happy camper. Just ask my wife.

But it’s working again today, and I learned something along the way.We’d gone out for a while, and when we got back, I sat down at the laptop and noticed Windows was complaining about low battery power. I didn’t think much of it–I just unplugged the AC adapter and plugged it back in, like I usually do when that happens.

Well, about five minutes into my session it died hard. And it wouldn’t power back up, no matter what I tried. Eventually I got the idea to test the AC adapter. I took the adapter to a known-good plug, switched my voltmeter over to DC, touched one lead to the barrel of the plug and one to the tip, and got a whole lot of nothing. I tried it with an AC adapter that I knew worked, and got a reading. Then I noticed the power cord going into the adapter looked just like the adapter for most portable radios. Hoping against hope, I switched the voltmeter to AC, touched it to the leads, and got disappointment.

110 volts.

Google to the rescue. I did a couple of searches and found places selling AC adapters for a Micron LT, but the prices were outrageous. The best price I found was $55, and most places wanted $70 or $75. I didn’t want to sink that much money into a six-year-old laptop–especially when I didn’t know if the AC adapter might have taken something else down with it. Since the laptop had run fine on battery power, I had a pretty good indication it hadn’t, but I didn’t know.

I found one place advertising original Samsung AC adapters for $20. But they were sold out, of course.

A search on the specifications printed on the AC adapter itself–19 volts, 3.15 amps–yielded devices that would work, but again at prices higher than I was willing to pay.

Finally I decided to search Ebay. Searching on "Micron Transport LT" didn’t yield much except some parts laptops, and substituting "MicronPC" and "MPC" didn’t help. All I learned was that a stripped 650 MHz LT with no drives, AC adapter, battery, or extra memory sold for about 50 bucks. That was encouraging. I could Frankenstein an LT back together if I had to.

So I searched on "Samsung Sens Pro 680" instead, and found some joy. Some prices were outrageous. But I found a seller in Hong Kong with original Samsung OEM units. I also found someone in Brooklyn, Laptopspower, with an aftermarket unit. The prices were comparable–around $35. Did I want to buy an identical replacement? Part of me said no–why buy something identical to something that broke? But the little guy on the other shoulder reminded me that the one that broke lasted six years.

Basically the decision came down to Hong Kong vs. Brooklyn. No question a shipment from Brooklyn would arrive faster, all other things being equal. So I took a chance on the aftermarket unit and placed my order on Sunday night.

It arrived today. I’m happy to say it’s bigger and heavier than the original. Remembering previous jobs, I know some sissy-boy executives would complain about that, but if you’re a dumb PC tech like me, you know that the weight of a transformer is a crude measure of its quality. Cheap electronics components weigh less than higher quality components, all else being equal. Besides, I’m burly enough to manage to carry a couple more ounces without grimacing.

Some other things going for the aftermarket unit: It has an indicator light, so you know when it’s getting power. This way I’ll have some warning if and when this one dies, and I’ll know to save my work. That would be worth 30 bucks right there, if I happened to be working on the right thing. And the amperage of this unit is 3.2 amps, not 3.15. That’s not a lot of difference, but more amps is better. The laptop will only draw what it needs, but higher capacity means a cooler-running, longer-lasting unit.

And, as a bonus, I learned that the LT’s CPU is removable and upgradable. Just look for an MPGA Pentium III. The catch is that the fastest chip the LT will take is 800 MHz, and it wasn’t produced in large quantities. An 800 MHz MPGA P3 runs about $80. My 700 MHz chip costs about $30. That’s an expensive 100 MHz upgrade. But it’s nice to know I can get more speed, if I’m willing to throw money at it. It used to be that the only way to get a faster laptop was to buy a new one, after all.

So my LT is back in business again, and I’ve learned something. That can’t be bad.

Seen on Slashdot: PC cases made of Lego

Yes, it’s the kid in me, but these Lego PCs are really cool.

I especially like the one on the bottom, where he made his own cube-shaped mini-PC out of what appears to be a standard microATX board.His idea of putting the power supply under the motherboard is a novel one. I’d try to give the motherboard a little more cooling than what it gets just from the CPU fan, but it’s a great idea and the result looks good.

I still have mine from when I was a kid. And yes, that has me thinking.

These would be easiest to build with motherboards that have video, network, and sound integrated, so you wouldn’t have to think about PCI slots, but he obviously did several with PCI cards, including a Pentium II-based machine.

I like the idea for a small system that only has a hard drive and single CD/DVD-ROM drive. It would be small because it’s totally custom, and would be a good conversation piece, aside from being functional. No one would have one just like it.

Freesco still works as a router/firewall in a pinch

I set up a Freesco box over the weekend. It makes less sense now that router/switch/firewall combos from the likes of Linksys sell for $50 than it did when they sold for $200, but if you’re long on unused PCs and short on cash, it still works.

My old walkthrough no longer applies directly to the current version 33, but if you’re reasonably technically competent it should get you on your way.As far as what hardware to use, I had a Kingston 10 megabit (NE2000 clone) PCI card and a D-Link card based on a Realtek 8139 chipset. They worked fabulously. The 8139 is a workhorse; networking guru Donald Becker blasted it in print–it’s the only chipset I think he’s ever said anything bad about–but until you start routing between a 100-megabit network and a gigabit network you probably won’t notice, especially if you’re using a 200+ MHz machine as your router, which in these days of $30 Pentium II PCs, is likely.

All you need is a computer with 8 megs of RAM, two NICs, and a floppy drive. To make it easier on yourself, make sure it has PCI slots, use two PCI NICs, and and 16 megs of RAM or more. Since 32-meg sticks are useless to most people these days, they’re cheap.

I suspect that if you have a pile of unused hardware that you’re looking to turn into a router, chances are decent you have a pile of network cards in that stash. Try a few different PCI cards. Life sometimes goes a bit easier if the two cards have different chipsets on them, but it’s not usually necessary to mix it up.

Give yourself a time limit. Mess around with it for an hour. If you get frustrated after an hour, go out and buy a Linksys or a D-Link or a Netgear. If you don’t have it working after an hour but you’re fascinated and you’re learning a lot, then keep plugging away at it. The knowledge you’re gaining is worth more than 50 bucks.

Hard drive upgrade tips for older PCs

A hard drive upgrade is one of the best ways to extend the usable lifespan of a computer.

A lot of people come to this site looking for hard drive upgrade advice, but I realized that it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything about that. Since there are some gotchas, I need to address them.Most PCs, whether it’s a Compaq, Dell, Emachine, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard/HP, IBM, or a no-name clone, use IDE or ATA hard drives. The two terms mean basically the same thing, and the drives are interchangeable. IDE is dirt, dirt cheap, so it’s what virtually everyone uses. But its limitations can cause headaches, especially on older systems.

A growing concern is the question about serial ATA versus parallel ATA drives. Older systems used parallel drives exclusively. The highest-capacity drives are serial ATA, however. Serial allows longer cable lengths and thin, flexible cables that don’t interfere with airflow and look better when put inside computer cases with transparent sides. While the majority of people couldn’t care less what the inside of the computer looks like, cable length and airflow have been serious issues for many years–the first computer I ever repaired, back in 1993, overheated because someone had blocked the fan vents with an IDE hard drive cable. Today, with new computer running so hot that some computer enthusiasts use them to heat their homes in the winter, it’s an even bigger concern.

If your older computer doesn’t have serial ATA connectors, and you want to buy a 400-gigabyte serial ATA hard drive, then you just have to remember to buy a serial ATA controller card. As of this writing, a cheap no-name SATA controller costs a little over $20 while the big names like Promise, Sonnet, and Adaptec cost closer to $60-$80. What do you get for the extra money? Usually you get better performance and you’ll always get better technical support if you run into problems.

If you’re the kind of person who’s been building your own computers since before building your own computers was cool, you might consider taking your chances on the cheapies. If your only experience as a computer technician is adding a new memory stick, it’s much safer to buy a Promise or Adaptec card.

The good news with Serial ATA is that everything else you need to know is either on the poster that comes with the hard drive or in the thin manual that comes with the card. You can quit reading now.

With parallel ATA, there are still some gotchas. Some older systems can’t handle drives larger than 137 gigabytes or 34 gigabytes, and some really old systems can’t handle drives bigger than 8.4 gigs, 3.2 gigs, 2.1 gigs, or (gulp) half a gig.

If your computer dates from 1997, it might have the 8.4 gig limit. Anything newer than that is more likely to have the 34 or 137 gigabyte limit.

Hard drive manufacturers recommend one of three solutions: Use an included software overlay, buy or download a BIOS upgrade, or buy a new IDE controller.

The biggest problem with the software overlay method is that it doesn’t always work. If the computer goes into a permanent coma when you plug a 200-gigabyte hard drive into it, the software overlay won’t help. The other problem is that it’s way too easy to corrupt the software overlay and render the drive inaccessible. Reinstalling the overlay might or might not get your data back. And besides that, the new hard drive is probably capable of saturating your old IDE bus. In plain English, the drive might be able to run faster than your computer can take the data, which means buying a new controller card will make it faster. So I really have problems recommending the software overlay method.

The BIOS upgrade method is better, in that it’s usually free, and doesn’t have the disadvantages of the software overlay. The downside is that sometimes the manufacturers don’t offer a suitable upgrade. Don’t expect to be able to get a BIOS upgrade to allow a Pentium II-333 from 1998 to use a 200-gig drive, for instance. What about the places that claim to sell BIOS upgrades to allow new drives? I’ve only dealt with those companies twice, but in each case, they didn’t seem to have anything newer than the original manufacturer.

I’ve seen some hacked BIOS upgrades, where some enthusiast took the most recently available BIOS and modified it for new drives, but the legality of these BIOSes is very questionable, and I’m a little bit uncomfortable with using a hacked BIOS.

Then there’s that issue of bandwidth. If an older computer only has a 33 megabyte-per-second controller, and the new drive is intended for 133, suffice it to say it’s not going to perform at its peak. A new controller is the better option

The upside to old-fashioned parallel IDE controllers is the price. A Promise ATA133 controller card costs $35-$40. I’ve seen no-names for as little as $17. So the price won’t break the bank, and they give good performance.

And let’s talk performance. Unless you’re into 3D gaming, the two most important factors in computer performance are the hard drive and having adequate memory. A lot of people today take the attitude that a Pentium II is worthless. While it’s true that you can’t play Doom 3 on one, there are a lot of people out there who couldn’t care less about Doom 3 and they just want Word to load fast. For people like that, the best thing to do is max out the computer’s memory (but check prices–RAM for older computers can be very expensive), and buy a new hard drive controller and a big, honking wicked-fast hard drive.

Oh, and make sure your PC doesn’t have any spyware.

Advice for setting up a computer lab

Two weekends ago, I headed back up to Bethlehem Lutheran Church to rebuild the computer lab I had set up for them a few years ago. Built on P3-based Compaq Deskpros and Windows 98, it had held up, but was desperately in need of repair.

The vision of this project was to set up a lab in a declining neighborhood, where kids could come to do their homework and adults could come to learn computer skills. The lab is run under adult supervision, and outsiders with teaching and/or training experience come in occasionally to teach computer literacy classes.

Ultimately, I want this project to produce some sysadmins in North St. Louis. Years ago, when this was in the planning stage, I told Pastor John Schmidtke that I wanted to see some Mercedeses and BMWs in that neighborhood, purchased with salaries earned from skills picked up in that lab.

Well, that hasn’t happened yet. But there’s still time. In the meantime, how about if I talk about what I’ve learned from three years of operation?Fancy computers not necessary

These were midrange machines when they were new. The lab cost some $10,000 to build, including materials to renovate the room. A contractor who attends my church renovated the room to my specifications. For what it’s worth, I told him there would be about 10 computers there, and the keyboards needed to sit so that a five-foot person’s elbows would make a right angle while seated. He built an around-the-room desk to hold the computers and bored out a couple of holes at each station for the keyboards.

Back to the computers. Today those computers would be worth about $100 apiece. That’s OK–they’re fine for word processing and e-mail, casual web browsing, and educational games, which was the goal. They were fine then and they’re fine now.

Any business with a philanthropic mindset could duplicate what we did here with a dozen outmoded office computers. A Pentium II with 64 MB of RAM can run Windows 95 or 98 adequately. There’s no point in messing with anything lower than that, since P2s sell for 50 bucks a pop these days. One thing I will say: The quality of the keyboards, mice, and monitors is much more important than the computers themselves. If people are going to be typing, they need decent monitors, a good mouse, and a keyboard that doesn’t feel like oatmeal. So if you’re working with a budget, plan on spending the most on monitors and optical mice.

Adequate power outlets completely necessary

There was only one hardware failure in this lab’s three years. One computer wouldn’t run, no matter what I did. It wouldn’t even power up.

Well, speaking as someone with a decade of professional experience in sales and service of computers, I’m embarrassed to say the computer that failed wasn’t plugged in. It looked like it was plugged in. But with the electrical outlets in a mismash and the cables all over the place, it wasn’t. Why didn’t I try another power cable and discover the problem? I have no excuse.

I suspect someone needed an outlet for something–be it speakers or a hair dryer, you never know–unplugged something at random, then didn’t plug it back in when finished. Worse yet, the business end of the cable ended up in a box under the desk, so everything looked fine. The result was a computer that didn’t run for about two years. I didn’t even find the stray end of the cable until I traced several other cables.

So provide as many outlets as your breaker box can handle. Provide extras. People will bring in other things they want to plug in. Three outlets per seat (computer, monitor, and speakers) is inadequate. To be safe, plan on four.

Create system images

You’ll have to reload the system no matter what you do. Lockdown software can be counted on to break things for the innocent and at best only slow down the people who are going to circumvent it. When the goal is for people to learn how things work, they need to be at least somewhat free to experiment. So make images of a working system with all software installed. Train someone to re-image the system. Then don’t be shy about re-imaging. Do it once a week or any time something goes wrong with a computer. If you can’t afford Norton Ghost or PowerQuest DriveImage, a freeware alternative called Savepart exists. Use it. Come to think of it, use that, and spend the money you’d spend on Ghost or DriveImage on better keyboards or mice.

Use identical hardware

System images don’t save you much trouble if your hardware is all different. Your image probably won’t work. Use systems that are as similar as possible: same motherboard, same video card, same sound card (if not on the motherboard), same network card. Put the cards in the same slots on each machine.

Frequently you can get away with not being that careful, but trust me, you don’t want the one time in a thousand that it matters to come and bite you.

Match your hardware and operating system

Sometimes it’s not possible to use completely identical hardware. In those instances, make sure any dissimilar hardware is recognized by the OS without loading any drivers. For example, this lab has a mix of Netgear and Intel network cards. The Netgear isn’t recognized by Windows but the Intel is. So I made the image for a Netgear, and when the system comes up with an Intel, it handles the situation gracefully.

Do the same thing for the sound cards and video cards.

Don’t ask too much of your systems

Yes, Windows XP will install and boot on a Pentium II with 64 MB of RAM. But there is absolutely no benefit to it. XP wants lots of memory and CPU power, and when it doesn’t get it, it’s a slow pig. Realistically, a P2 with 64 megs ought to be running Windows 98. Don’t even try 2000 or XP unless you have P3s faster than 500 MHz with 256 MB of RAM.

While there are subtle differences between versions, for the most part Windows is Windows. If someone can use Windows 98 and Office 97, it’s easy to adjust to the current versions. Don’t be afraid of running back-level versions.

Get discounted charity/educational software

You don’t have to pay $200 for Windows and $500 for Office to build a computer lab for a charity. I don’t know what charity or educational prices are right now, but it’s a fraction of that. The rule of thumb is this: If you don’t pay sales tax, you don’t have to pay full price for software either.

Most computer stores can get you information on charity pricing. Support your local computer store. You might need it someday. Who knows–the owner may be able to get you a line on some things you need.

And if worse comes to worse, run Linux. That was my original plan, but Pastor Schmidtke wanted to use what local businesses were using. That’s a better plan, but if you can’t afford software, Linux works nicely and is more than adequate for things like word processing and web browsing.

Just do it. That’s about all else I can say. The lab in your head isn’t doing anyone a bit of good. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. If you’ve got a vision for this, get what you can to get the lab up and running. You can always come back and add newer or more computers later.

Optimizing dynamic Linux webservers

Linux + Apache + MySQL + PHP (LAMP) provides an outstanding foundation for building a web server, for, essentially, the value of your time. And the advantages over static pages are fairly obvious: Just look at this web site. Users can log in and post comments without me doing anything, and content on any page can change programmatically. In my site’s case, links to my most popular pages appear on the front page, and as their popularity changes, the links change.

The downside? Remember the days when people bragged about how their 66 MHz 486 was a perfectly good web server? Kiss those goodbye. For that matter, your old Pentium-120 or even your Pentium II-450 may not be good enough either. Unless you know these secrets…

First, the simple stuff. I talked about a year and a half ago about programs that optimize HTML by removing some extraneous tags and even give you a leg up on translating to cascading style sheets (CSS). That’s a starting point.

Graphics are another problem. People want lots of them, and digital cameras tend to add some extraneous bloat to them. Edit them in Photoshop or another popular image editor–which you undoubtedly will–and you’ll likely add another layer of bloat to them. I talked about Optimizing web graphics back in May 2002.

But what can you do on the server itself?

First, regardless of what you’re using, you should be running mod_gzip in order to compress your web server’s output. It works with virtually all modern web browsers, and those browsers that don’t work with it negotiate with the server to get non-compressed output. My 45K front page becomes 6K when compressed, which is better than a seven-fold increase. Suddenly my 128-meg uplink becomes more than half of a T1.

I’ve read several places that it takes less CPU time to compress content and send it than it does to send uncompressed content. On my P2-450, that seems to definitely be the case.

Unfortunately, mod_gzip is one of the most poorly documented Unix programs I’ve ever seen. I complained about this nearly three years ago, and the situation seems little improved.

A simple apt-get install libapache-mod-gzip in Debian doesn’t do the trick. You have to search /etc/apache/httpd.conf for the line that begins LoadModule gzip_module and uncomment it, then you have to add a few more lines. The lines to enable mod_gzip on TurboLinux didn’t save me this time–for one thing, it didn’t handle PHP output. For another, it didn’t seem to do anything at all on my Debian box.

Charlie Sebold to the rescue. He provided the following lines that worked for him on his Debian box, and they also worked for me:

# mod_gzip settings

mod_gzip_on Yes
mod_gzip_can_negotiate Yes
mod_gzip_add_header_count Yes
mod_gzip_minimum_file_size 400
mod_gzip_maximum_file_size 0
mod_gzip_temp_dir /tmp
mod_gzip_keep_workfiles No
mod_gzip_maximum_inmem_size 100000
mod_gzip_dechunk Yes

mod_gzip_item_include handler proxy-server
mod_gzip_item_include handler cgi-script

mod_gzip_item_include mime ^text/.*
mod_gzip_item_include mime ^application/postscript$
mod_gzip_item_include mime ^application/ms.*$
mod_gzip_item_include mime ^application/vnd.*$
mod_gzip_item_exclude mime ^application/x-javascript$
mod_gzip_item_exclude mime ^image/.*$
mod_gzip_item_include mime httpd/unix-directory
mod_gzip_item_include file .htm$
mod_gzip_item_include file .html$
mod_gzip_item_include file .php$
mod_gzip_item_include file .phtml$
mod_gzip_item_exclude file .css$

Gzipping anything below 400 bytes is pointless because of overhead, and Gzipping CSS and Javascript files breaks Netscape 4 part of the time.

Most of the examples I found online didn’t work for me. Charlie said he had to fiddle a long time to come up with those. They may or may not work for you. I hope they do. Of course, there may be room for tweaking, depending on the nature of your site, but if they work, they’re a good starting point.

Second, you can use a PHP accelerator. PHP is an interpreted language, which means that every time you run a PHP script, your server first has to translate the source code into machine language and run it. This can take longer than the output itself takes. PHP accelerators serve as a just-in-time compiler, which compiles the script and holds a copy in memory, so the next time someone accesses the page, the pre-compiled script runs. The result can sometimes be a tenfold increase in speed.

There are lots of them out there, but I settled on Ion Cube PHP Accelerator (phpa) because installation is a matter of downloading the appropriate pre-compiled binary, dumping it somewhere (I chose /usr/local/lib but you can put it anywhere you want), and adding a line to php.ini (in /etc/php4/apache on my Debian box):

zend_extension=”/usr/local/lib/php_accelerator_1.3.3r2.so”

Restart Apache, and suddenly PHP scripts execute up to 10 times faster.

PHPA isn’t open source and it isn’t Free Software. Turck MMCache is, so if you prefer GPL, you can use it.

With mod_gzip and phpa in place and working, my web server’s CPU usage rarely goes above 25 percent. Without them, three simultaneous requests from the outside world could saturate my CPU.

With them, my site still isn’t quite as fast as it was in 2000 when it was just serving up static HTML, but it’s awfully close. And it’s doing a lot more work.

 

Rediscovering OS/2

So I picked up a surplus computer from work this week. Honestly, I bought it more because it was cheap than because I needed it. But it was a giveaway price for a good-quality system. Micron’s Client Pro line (its business-class line) is as well-built a PC as I’ve ever seen. The machine didn’t come as advertised, but it was still a good price for what I got: a 266 MHz Pentium II, 64 MB of RAM, a 4-gig Maxtor hard drive, a Lite-On CD-ROM drive of unspecified speed (it seems to be at least 24X), an Intel 10/100 PCI NIC, Nvidia Riva-based AGP video, an ISA Sound Blaster, and an ISA US Robotics 56K faxmodem.
Of course my first thought was to put Linux on it. But I have better machines already running Linux, so what’s the point, really? Then a few things sent me hurtling down the roads of my oldschool retro computing past, and a thought hit me: OS/2!

What I consider my first real job involved installing OS/2 literally a couple hundred times. That was version 3, on 50 MHz 486s. But by the time a Pentium-166 was a hot machine, I wasn’t using OS/2 much anymore. I realized I’ve never really seen OS/2 on something as hot as this P2-266 before. And I used to know how to optimize the living daylights out of OS/2, so this could turn into the best computer I’ve ever owned.

I had to patch my OS/2 v4 installation disk 1 to deal with the drive in the machine (download IDEDASD.EXE and unzip it, then follow the instructions in the README file) but once I got that going, installation was smooth. I need to track down device drivers for the NIC and video card yet. But I got a basic system up and running in about 35 minutes. That’s not bad.

I can’t wait to see Mozilla Firebird on this thing.

The low-end server

Here’s a good question: What should a small operation do when it gets fed up with its network and is tempted to just chuck it all and start over?
Well, my advice is to start over. But I don’t agree that starting over requires one to chuck everything.

We’ll start with the server. Chances are, these days, you need one. If you’re doing Web and e-mail, you absolutely need one. But to a lot of people, servers are a mystical black box that costs more money than a desktop PC but runs a similar operating system. And that’s all they know.

Here’s what you need to know: A corporate server is built to stricter tolerances than a desktop PC and sometimes uses higher-quality parts (common examples are ServerWorks chipsets instead of Intel chipsets, SCSI instead of IDE, and error-correcting memory instead of the cheap nonparity stuff). You also often get niceties like hot-swap drive cages, which allow you to add or replace hard drives without powering down or opening the case.

They’re generally also better tested, and you can get a support contract on them. If you’re running an enterprise with hundreds or thousands of people relying on your server, you should buy server-grade stuff, and building your own server or repurposing a desktop PC as a server ought to be grounds for dismissal. The money you save isn’t worth it–you’ll pay more in downtime.

But a dozen people won’t hit a server very hard. This Web site runs on a Dell OptiPlex Pentium II/450 workstation. A workstation is a notch above a desktop PC but a notch below a server, in the pecking order. The biggest difference between my Optiplex and the PC that was probably sitting on your desk at work a year or two ago is that my Optiplex has a SCSI hard drive in it and it has a 3Com NIC onboard.

A small office can very safely and comfortably take a reasonably powerful name-brand PC that’s no longer optimal for someone’s desk (due to an aging CPU) and turn it into a server. A Pentium II-350 or faster, outfitted with 256 MB of RAM, a SCSI host adapter and a nice SCSI hard drive, and a 3Com or Intel 100-megabit Ethernet card will make a fine server for a couple of dozen people. (My employer still has a handful of 200 MHz Pentium Pro servers on its network, serving a couple hundred people in some cases.)

This server gets hit about as hard as a typical small business or church office server would. So far this month I’ve been getting between 500 and 550 visitors per day. I’ve served about 600 megabytes’ worth of data. My average CPU usage over that time period is in the single digits. The biggest bottleneck in this server is its 7200-rpm SCSI disk. A second disk dedicated to its database could potentially speed it up. But it’s tolerable.

Hot swappable hard drives are nice to have, but with an office of a dozen people, the 5-10 minutes it takes to power down, open the case, swap drives, and close the case back up and boot again probably doesn’t justify the cost.

A business or church office that wanted to be overly cautious could buy the very least expensive sever it can find from a reputable manufacturer (HP/Compaq, Dell, IBM). But when you do that, you’re paying for a lot of power that’s going to sit there unused most of the time. The 450 MHz CPU in this box is really more than I need.

Jeremy Hendrickson e-mailed me asking about whether his church should buy a new server, and whether it really needed two or three servers, since he was talking about setting up a Samba server for file serving, Apache for Web serving, and a mail server. Running file and Web services on the same box won’t be much of a problem. A dozen people just won’t hit the server that hard. You just make sure you buy a lot of disk space, but most of that disk space will go to file serving. The database that holds all of the content on this site is only a few megabytes in size. Compressed, it fits on a floppy disk with lots of room to spare. Yes, I could realistically do nightly backups of my Web server on floppies. If floppies were at all reliable, that is.

I flip-flop on whether e-mail belongs on the same server. The security vulnerabilities of Web servers and mail servers are a bit different and it would be nice to isolate them. But I’m a lot more comfortable about a Linux box running both being exposed on the ‘Net than I am a Windows box running one or the other. If I had two boxes, and could afford to be paranoid, I’d use two.

Jeremy said his church had a P3-733 and a P2-450, both Dells, due for retirement. I’d make the P3 into a file/print/Web server and the P2 into a mail server and spend the money budgeted for a new server or servers to buy lots of disk space and a nice tape backup drive, since they’d get lots of use out of both of those. A new $1200 server would just buy lots of CPU power that’ll sit idle most of the time and you’d still have to buy disks.

As far as concern about the reliability of reusing older systems, the things that tend to wear out on older PCs are the hard drive and the operating system. Windows deterriorates over time. Server operating systems tend not to have this problem, and Linux is even more immune to it than Microsoft server operating systems. So that’s not really a concern.

Hard disks do wear out. I read a suggestion not long ago that IDE hard disks should be replaced every 3 years whether they seem to need it or not. That’s a little extreme, but I’ve found it’s hard to coax much more than four years out of an IDE disk. Dropping a new SCSI disk or two or three into an old workstation before turning it into a server should be considered mandatory. SCSI disks give better performance in multiuser situations, and are generally designed to run for five years. In most cases, the rest of the PC also has several years left in it.

Later this week, we’ll talk about Internet connectivity and workstations.