The Desktop Rebuild–Part 3

This is the last part of this series, at least for now. If you haven’t seen Part 1 and Part 2, feel free to check them out.

After I got through Part 2, I was working again. In fact, I continued to chocotaley install a few things, but for the most part, I could get productive quickly, working on writing, email, even code. I did install Visual Studio, SQL, and SSMS by hand, mostly to be sure they were the right versions I needed.

However, things weren’t great. The two monitors I showed from Part 2 were OK, but the not great. I missed my third monitor, especially when I had the second one in portrait more. I decided I needed to just upgrade things again. Not everything, just the video card.

I tried my two older cards, shown below, in various combinations, but every time I added them to the motherboard, I couldn’t boot. Remove them, and things worked again. After 4-5 tries, I thought it was time to abandon this path.

Photo Jun 27, 12 54 11 PM

I’ve been stretching my budget slightly. I’ve had a few expenses here, and while this is tax deductible, it still costs real money. I got a few recommendations for video cards, including this Quadro K1200, which looked great. However, another $300 right now would likely get my wife a bit more upset than I’d like.

I looked around the Internet a few times at night and found some other cards that would support 3 monitors, at a more reasonable cost. In the end, I decided to switch from ATI to NVidia and got a EVGA GeoForce GT740 card with two DVI and one mini HDMI out. Quite a few people had used this for workstations and it seemed to support 3 monitors well.

Photo Jun 27, 12 54 16 PM

This was a large card, and the first one I’ve ever owned that needed its own power connections. Hardware has changed. This is also a card with 4GB of memory, which is a long way from the first computer I built after college that had 4MB of main memory.

Installing the card was easy. It slipped in, I connected it to power and my desktop booted right up. Well, I had a CMOS error, but I cleared things and then it booted. The mini-HDMI cable was a tight fit, but I managed to get it in there.

One note on cables, go longer. I got a 3ft mini-HDMI to HDMI and it wasn’t quite long enough. I had to rearrange monitors a bit, which is OK, but I should have just gotten a 6 foot cable and then secured the extra.

I downloaded the NVidia driver before I’d shut down the machine, so I booted to a single monitor, installed the driver, and things worked right away. I configured things and ended up going with a 3 monitor config that has the center one in portrait mode.

Photo Jun 27, 1 00 12 PM

It’s been a few days and so far everything looks and works great. I’ve rebooted a few times, taken the desk up and down multiple times, and connections are solid, hardware is working, and I can get back to getting work done.

I ran a test using UserBenchMark and got great scores everywhere but video and then only for gaming. Overall, this is a much faster machine, and seems to work smoother. I’ve had zero issues with the hardware and Windows 10 seems more stable since the fresh installation.

2016-06-27 13_08_24-Asrock Z170 Extreme6 Performance Results - UserBenchmark

My Windows Experience Index also changed dramatically.  The old machine was a 5.1, mainly due to graphics, with the other scores in the low 8s. The new score is 7.9, with graphics holding things back, but I have a third monitor now and more CPU and RAM resources.

Summary

Here are the changes I made. Note I’m not recommending these items. I got some recommendations from Glenn Berry, and they worked well for me. This stuff changes often, so check with friends and do your own research.

Old

  • MB – Gigabyte, circa 2010-ish
  • 24GB RAM
  • 256 boot SSD, 512 SSD, 2x1TB HDD
  • ATI 512MB RAM graphics card, circa 2010
  • ATI 1MB graphics card, circa 2012
  • Corsair 600W power supply

New

ASRock Extreme6 motherboard – $109 (after rebate)

Intel i7-6700k – $269

32GB Memory – $50

Cooling fan – $30

EVGA Video – $110

That’s $620 for a fairly substantial upgrade.

I’m pretty happy for now, and I suspect this will last for some time. If I change anything, it will be adding another graphics card because I need video stuff (or I buy Doom 4) and getting a larger power supply.

The Desktop Rebuild–Part 2

You can read part 1, but that’s more about the (initial) hardware changes. This one looks at getting moving on the new desktop. Note, that since I changed the MB/CPU/Boot disk, I decided to reinstall Windows as well on a new disk to ensure I wouldn’t have more issues.

Having a new Windows desktop is a bit disconcerting. After all, many of us techies are used to loading more and more programs and documents onto our systems. We have lots of history with our machines, and Windows hasn’t always made it easy to move things. OSX is better, but I can’t build a Mac, or at least, I don’t want to.

In this case, I still had me 2nd, 3rd, and 4th drives connected. The contained most of my documents, pictures, and application code. However, certainly some things needed to be installed.

The first thing I did with the new Windows 10 is run Edge and then go here:

2016-06-23 23_37_58-Chocolatey ‎- Microsoft Edge

I used to go get Chrome or Firefox right away, but I have a better way now. I use chocolatey. Once I get here, I first open a Command Prompt as Administrator and run this:

@powershell -NoProfile -ExecutionPolicy Bypass -Command "iex ((new-object net.webclient).DownloadString('https://chocolatey.org/install.ps1'))" && SET PATH=%PATH%;%ALLUSERSPROFILE%\chocolatey\bin

Once that finishes, I can begin installing things. In my case, I have a list of packages I want to install in a folder on my Dropbox. However, I need to get Dropbox first.

choco install dropbox


choco install passwordsafe

Once that’s done, I log in (getting my password from my phone, and then I can run the rest of my installs, using Password Safe to get my passwords.

choco install googlechrome
choco install greenshot
choco install conemu
choco install firefox
choco install sublimetext3
choco install evernote

I have Chrome and Firefox linked to an account, so my bookmarks come right over when I log in. SQL has to be installed separately, as does Office from my O365 account. I prefer to do Visual Studio myself, but these command line installs get me up and running.

Fortunately I keep a copy of the .iso’s for those programs and can just run them.

I also needed to flash my BIOS, which was easy, but I needed to download the newest file from ASRock and put it on a flash drive for a reboot. That went without a hitch, and I now have two monitor support again.

Photo Jun 24, 10 33 59 AM

I still need to adjust my monitor and also get a new video card to support the third monitor, but that’s for another day.

The Desktop Rebuild–Part 1

I’ve had an aging desktop for some time. I originally bought it from Glenn Berry (b | t), who I think gets a new machine every quarter or two. Seriously, I think there is a computer in every room of his house, and he has a lot of rooms.

In any case, I had an i7-930, 24GB of RAM, and 4 drives with about 3TB of storage. However, the CPU was aging and I’d get temp alarms when doing heavy video processing. In the last 4-5 years, I’d replaced the power supply and CPU cooler, but still had issues. The Windows 10 upgraded added more, with some weird freezing and loss of the Start menu. I didn’t have all of those things on my laptops (both w10, one new, one upgrade), so I decided it was time to rebuild when a simple Skype call had temp alarms going off.

Glenn is my hardware guy. If I have a question, I ask him, mostly because I don’t care about cool hardware and just want things to work. Glenn recommended these items (some of them), and I drove down to the local Microcenter after my Skype call finished.

Photo Jun 23, 5 39 33 PM

I purchased

  • ASRock Z170 Extreme6 motherboard (recommended) – $160
  • i7-6700k CPU ( recommended) – $290
  • CoolerMaster fan – $35
  • 32GB Corsair Ballistic RAM – $150

I know I could find better prices, but I wanted this done quickly. I also needed a new video card, but I delayed that for now. I wish I hadn’t.

After a few hours of work, and a day (filled with family commitments), I sat down with parts.

Photo Jun 23, 5 42 30 PM

I made sure my Crashplan was up to date, and my cloud services were sync’d. I’ve tried to do this in order to become productive quickly on new machines. I also had a new SSD that I’ve been traveling with, but I repurposed that as a new boot drive. The old one was 256, and this was 1TB, so I won’t be in danger of running out of space, something that I was close to doing on the old machine.

I disconnected everything and pulled out the old (dusty) motherboard.

Photo Jun 23, 5 53 11 PM

It’s worked well, but it’s aging. It’s also somewhat slow compared to newer technologies, though that was (hopefully) a bonus, not a requirement.

I then installed the new motherboard, which wasn’t too bad. The hardest part was getting the CPU cooler installed. Balancing the four arms and screwing things in while the large cooler wants to slide on thermal compound was a challenge. Fortunately I managed to get it secure without too much grease on my hands.

I connected all my drives back, using some of the new SATA 3 cables that came with the motherboard. I didn’t bother connecting the front side speaker stuff since those connections are covered by the video cards. I added back both video cards and then plugged in basics: monitor, power, USB keyboard/mouse. I left some things uncovered, since I’ve rarely had things work perfectly on the first assembly.

Photo Jun 23, 7 27 13 PM

Crossing my fingers, I booted.

Or didn’t. I got lights, which I haven’t always gotten. There’s a debug LED in there and I got a 99 code. Looking that up, I realized there’s a PCIe issue. There are only 3 slots, with 2 video cards, so I pulled one. Same issue.

Pulled the second and it booted.

I had made a bootable USB (borrowed from my son) and then added the W10 install iso. Things booted up and I installed Windows.

Photo Jun 23, 7 31 21 PM

I only had the onboard video, which worked, and I’m glad I had another machine since I needed to download the LAN drivers to connect to the network and video drivers to get beyond a basic 1024 resolution.

Total time to get Windows back up, around 90 minutes, though most of that was wrestling with the CPU cooler.

The next post will look at getting productive again, with newer hardware.

Back Home, Despite a Scare

I’ve spent the last 11 days traveling in Europe, returning home late yesterday. It wasn’t a holiday or even corporate boondoggle as this was 3 cities, 2 events at which I spoke, travel in planes, trains, and automobiles, a minor sinus infection, and movement across 6 hotels. All with just this luggage:

13087787_10209272872407736_4048621762789380628_n

Packed too full, and heavy, but I made it.

I returned late afternoon and in between spending time with family, I booted up my desktop and was surprised to find that Dropbox gave me an error. As I dug in, one of my SSDs wasn’t visible in Windows, containing VMs, my local DropBox folders and a few other things. Not what I wanted to deal with the first night back.

I shut down the system and rechecked connections this morning, then rebooted to find things working, but it was a good reminder to double check my backups and ensure that I’ve got copies of data in case I do lose an SSD.

Stress Testing

Many of the DBAs that manage production systems will at some point determine what level of hardware is needed to support a workload. Whether this is a physical server purchase or a cloud “rental”, someone has to decide what hardware is needed. How many cores, the amount of RAM, the number of disks, which hopefully correspond to some level of IOPs, and more. Even in the Azure SQL Database world, you must decide what database capacity you will pay for.

Since this is a big decision, and changes can be hard to make, many DBAs overbuy hardware. After all, no one wants to have a slow server. This is true for Azure as well, at least for many people I know. While changing from an S3 to a P2 is quick and easy in the Azure portal, it’s not such an easy sell to management. If they’ve budgeted $150/month and you tell them we want to go to $900/month, the technical change is the easiest part of this.

As a result, I’m surprised that we don’t really have better ways to determine if hardware will support our workload. I see this question asked all the time, and although there are tools and techniques suggested, I’ve yet to see many people have a set, known standard way of evaluating hardware and a particular workload.

One one hand, I think there should be better tools to do this, whether from Microsoft or someone else. I suspect since this is such a rare activity and businesses have been willing to overbuy hardware (or deal with substandard performance), that there isn’t any large impetus to solve this issue.

However I wanted to ask if any of you actually stress test hardware? Either your current hardware or new purchases. If you don’t know what your level your current hardware performs at, how do you compare that to new hardware?

Do you have a way to replay and measure a workload? Do you have the time to do so when new hardware arrives? Is there a documented method you use? Apart from discussing this today, I’d love to see some articles that detail exactly how you test hardware from a technical tool perspective, and then a followup that examines and evaluates the results.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 3.2MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn.

BYOD

This editorial was originally published on Jan 18, 2012. It is being re-run as Steve is on vacation. Some minor edits were made

As laptop prices have plummeted over the last few years to the point where most technical people can afford to purchase their own machine for around $500. Unless you want a really high end machine, in which case you’ll be looking at something over $1000. I have even used Macbooks for my work. There are quite a few people working with SQL Server on OSX, however, so if you want one for work, you can make the switch, and here are a few blogs for you (Aaron Bertrand, Brent Ozar, Joe Webb)

As computers become a commodity, and we use them more and more to live our lives as well as work, does it make sense for workers to purchase their own machines and use them in a corporate setting? I know some companies give workers a computer allowance and the workers can take the machine with them if they quit, presumably if they work at the company for longer than a few months. Other companies give their employees money for technology, which can be exciting for technical people that might want to upgrade their monitors or other accessories regularly.

There are definite security and data concerns, but with cheap memory, disks, and hypervisors, it’s possible to get around those issues, and allow employees to work with the tools they are familiar with. I ran across this blog that talks about workers owning their own devices in the future, even being required to provide them. Just like many other professions where the workers must own their own set of tools.

On one hand this seems crazy. Employers should provide computers, and as a young worker in this business, I would have struggled to purchase a $1500-2000 laptop. Or maybe I wouldn’t have. Maybe I would have seen it as an investment in my career, just like college was. These days, we have even more devices, and while IT departments struggle to secure them, that doesn’t stop people from using them, or wanting them. I think I’d like to provide my own smartphone and laptop, and get some sort of allowance from my employer each year to offset the cost.

I don’t know how we’d handle the data/security pieces of this scenario, but I’m there would be no shortage of ideas from the various software vendors.

Steve Jones

 

High DPI Test

On my new machine, running at a high DPI, I have some DPI issues.

2016-03-17 11_52_25-Settings

One is that I can’t seem to change the font for Open Live Writer. I see this:

2016-03-17 11_52_56-High DPI Test - Open Live Writer

Which isn’t what I want. This is a test to see how things render on the web when posted.

Interesting Data Centers

I’ve spent a couple decades in technology working with lots of companies. As an employee, a consultant, or a sales engineer, I’ve had the chance to visit quite a few data centers over the years, some of which were quite interesting. A few impressive, and perhaps a few more that were quite scary.

When I started working in technology, the “server” was often just one box that lived on a desk in the office. In a few of my early small business clients, our server was often used by the secretary for Wordperfect typing while also serving applications and acting as a file server. In a few larger clients, including at a state government agency, multiple servers were piled on shelves in a closet.

Over time, lots of small businesses, and a few larger ones, learned that hot closets don’t work for multiple servers, nor does a lack of clean, UPS power serve them well.  I’ve worked with quite a few companies to upgrade their facilities to include better power and cooling, often racing to keep up with the proliferation of server systems.

As time progressed I found many companies that didn’t want to invest in a data center, including us here at SQLServerCentral. In the early 2000s, companies began to trust co-location facilities, those professional data centers built and run as a business. I toured many and saw some well built environments, and some not so well built. One small company SQLServerCentral visited had two corners of an office building downtown, on separate floors, with cool hoses (about 2ft in diameter) run outside, up the side of the building.

As we look to move to the cloud, which is the next evolution of the co-location facility, I expect that more and more of us may never visit a data center in our lives. Some small startup companies don’t even own servers, outsourcing their email, VCS, build systems, and more to some vendor.

That’s not for everyone, but it is becoming more commonplace. Vendors are even trying new ideas to lower their costs, while still maintaining the level of service we expect. There are data centers being built in mines, which provide cheaper cooling than traditional buildings. There are container based systems, and while electricity and water don’t usually mix, Microsoft is looking to try putting data centers in the ocean. Of course, not all ideas are good ones, as the ill-fated Sealand showed.

The future of data centers and where and how we run server hardware will certainly be interesting. I wonder how many future DBAs may never physically touch the actual hardware that contains all their bits and bytes.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 4.2MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn.

Laptop Build Quality

I’ve been looking around at various laptops, in preparation for getting a new one. I wrote about considering the Surface Book, which is still on the list, but has dropped a bit. The hardware quality is great, but when I was in the UK last week, a few people had them and complained about some driver bugs. In particular, I was messing with one person’s touch keyboard, and they warned me not to pull if off.  If I did, the machine might crash.

Ugh. At $2k and lots of hype, I wouldn’t expect any issues like that.

In any case, this post is about build quality, not software.

I was laying in bed this week, working on some editorials when my daughter came in. She wanted me to look over a piece she was writing for school and handed me her laptop. She has a Macbook Air, and as soon as I put my Toshiba z30 down, I was impressed with the Air’s build. It’s solid, it’s light, but it feels strong. I remember loving my Macbook Air, and holding it as I reviewed her work, I was reminded of that.

My z30 flexes, to the point that across a year, my touch point is unusable with the twisting of the frame. The trackpad was also far, far superior on the Air. I thought the Macbook Pro was like that, so I swung by a Best Buy to check. I walked in and went to the Apple section, picking up a Macbook and it feel solid. It’s just a better device than my Toshiba.

However I was curious about others. I did walk over and look at a Surface Book. It’s a solid machine, about the size and weight of the MBP. However it has the touch screen, which is interesting. The trackpad works differently, but it’s a nice machine. Detaching the screen, it’s a tablet, which is nice. I still don’t know how much I’d use the tablet factor, but it’s tempting. However the weight distribution is strange. The screen is heavier than the keyboard, the opposite of most laptops.

I also walked over to look at a Yoga 900, which I was curious about after reading Tim Mitchell’s review. I’m actually anxious to see how Tim’s machine looks next month in NM, but for now I contened myself with the display model. The hinge is neat, but this is a light laptop. At first glance, it also was solid. The flex I have on my Toshiba was not there. Despite a few reviewers noting this felt plastic and cheap, I didn’t get that feeling. It’s no Macbook, but it’s better than my Toshiba.

This will be an interesting decision for me, but since I’m going to wait for Apple’s announcement in March and see what they might do. I doubt they’ll go touch screen, but you never know. I have gotten used to touching my screen for some reading, and I think I might miss that with a MBP.

Surface Book

It’s almost time for me to get a new laptop. I’ve had a Toshiba for about a year, but it’s not held up well. The screen has gotten loose, the trackpad and clickers are not consistenly responsive, the pointer device sometimes drifts on its own, and I have had a couple memory related crashes. All in all, despite a similar travel schedule to what I’ve had the last couple years, this laptop is showing its age quicker than others. These are flaky issues, not easily reproducible, and something that the warranty doesn’t seem to cover.

As I look to future travel and talks, I realize that I need to find something that might be more reliable. That’s always tricky as it seems people have a variety of different experiences with the same model machine. This last year has made me hesitant to think about chancing a new, or unpopular brand, something I did last year in trying to find a small, lightweight machine that can handle 16GB of RAM.

I read a review of the Surface Book after two months, which is one I’d like to consider. I’ve been impressed with the Surface Pros, but prevented from using them as I need 16GB on the machine. The Surface 4, on which the Surface Book is based, has that capacity, so I am intrigued. I worried about the new hardware, but it seems that the Surface 4s have been fairly solid. A couple of firmware glitches relating to sleep mode, but I’m hoping those get ironed out in the next couple months. At least I hope they do because I really like the idea of a Surface machine.

I do suspect that like the reviewer, I’d mainly use the machine as a laptop. That’s what I need, and I’m not a big consumer of media. However the option to use the machine as a tablet is interesting. I had the chance to use Rob Sewell‘s Surface 3 as a notebook with a stylus during a presentation at SQL Relay and enjoyed the experience. There are some nice OneNote integrations, though I’m not sure how often I’d want to take notes on a computer rather than paper.

However the main contender for me is probably a MacBook Pro. I loved the MacBook Air I had, and was disappointed to move away from it. I also want to do some iOS and cross platform development, which a MacBook would allow. The hardware is solid and proven, and it’s a similar cost to the Surface. I have a few months to decide. If I go MacBook, I’ll wait for the March (rumored) refresh. If I’m unsure that that time, I’ll probably think about the Surface as a backup. Either way, I’ll be in hardware search mode across the next few months, with fingers crossed that my current machine survives.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 3.0MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn.