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2022 Year in Review

In tech-tips by stephenvk

Well 2022 has come and gone, and now is a good time to look back on the past year and see what I’ve learned, what went wrong, and what I’ll do differently in the future. This year didn’t see a whole lot of activity on the site (though I have been working on a few backend and UX improvements which should prove useful in the coming weeks) as I’ve been figuring a lot of stuff out IRL and haven’t really had much of a plan for anything until lately, but nobody’s here for that and I thought I might share some of my progress in learning how to build PC’s and setting up a small homelab to work with Tom and the gang on building small community “splinternets” to escape the prying eyes of Big Tech and restore control back to real world groups of actual people.

Misadventures in Building a 486

486 PC Originally this was planned to be its own article, but due to time, space, and budget concerns it’s kind of just been sitting on a back burner for a while now and there hasn’t really been a whole lot to write. Essentially in late 2021 I realized that now that I have some of this cool stuff called money I could maybe build for myself one of those old DOS machines you see on channels like LGR to mess around and tinker with some of the different software and hardware from what I think of as a sort of rapid transitional phase between the pioneering machines of the 80’s which were honestly more like big graphing calculators and the modern, multitasking, multimedia-enabled machines of today. Anyways I bought a bunch of seemingly compatible components including an apparently high-end motherboard I got for cheap from Ukraine of all places before the war broke out, waited for them all to show up, and then realized that we have seriously come a long way in terms of hardware since 1993. CPU’s can be inserted the wrong way, your memory configuration has to be specified by placing physical jumpers on the motherboard itself, and every time I insert a VLB card (or Very Long Board as they’re affectionately known) I think it’s going to snap. Unfortunately I never could get it to POST and realized that a second big metal box on my desk is not something I need, so for now it’s unfortunately gathering dust in the closet until I either sell the parts or find a good place to put such a thing.


The Home Server from Hell

A 2U rackmount server So a lot of the old family photos have wound up sitting on my PC’s hard drive, and I thought it would be cool to setup a cheap NAS at my parents’ house when I moved out to store them as well as maybe some backups and things as well. The plan was to put the old family computer, an old HP Compaq with an AMD Athlon II X2 220, into a 2U rack case because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do with servers and then chuck it in the network closet. Not only did I realize the TDP to performance ratio would be terrible with such a machine, but I somehow managed to crash a (mercifully empty) hard drive, brick a RAID controller, spend far more than I originally anticipated to the point I probably would have been better off building from scratch, as well as encountering numerous other issues such as the CPU fan not working, not having enough space for a second memory module, the motherboard being unable to power more than one case fan, apparently the regular WD Reds use SMR and not CMR as used to be advertised (I forget why or even if that’s an issue), not having onboard USB 3.0, heck I think it would be shorter to list all the things that went right with that machine. Learned a few things, don’t miss it, moving on.


My own PC

A fairly boring PC build with mostly early-to-mid 2010’s parts. For my own use when I moved out I decided to rebuild a PC that was given to us by a friend a while back but whose power supply and hard drive inexplicably went up in smoke one day and hadn’t seen any action since. We’d also kind of lost all the panels to the case, so after procuring some advice on finding a soy-free PC case from the other landchads of Heaven Tree (thanks Ray! It’s the Silverstone PS13B btw, cable managament options are lacking but otherwise a pretty nice case) I set to work on upgrading it and replacing the damaged parts. As it turned out, I only ended up keeping the motherboard, memory, and CD-ROM drive from the old unit, with the rest being a mix of new and used parts but it still saved me about 25% of the cost of building from scratch so no complaints here. Save for one that is, namely that while I did get a great deal on an AMD FX-8350, those old Piledriver CPU’s run HOT, and the cooler that was in there with the Phenom II X6 1045T wasn’t up to the task. I call it the 8-ball, since it was one of the first consumer eight-core CPU’s and I had to install a big 120mm fan on it just so my system wouldn’t turn into a jet engine just idling on the desktop. Also, I recently learned that CPU fan’s don’t pull, they push, meaning if you want it to blow hot air to the back of the PC case, you have to install the fan on the front-facing side of the cooler. (The photo has it the wrong way) The way I had it it was just blowing hot air right back at the intake fan on the front, so hopefully now it runs a lot cooler during high-performance tasks. Also in case anyone thinks it’s a good idea to install a dedicated sound card in a PC in 2022, it’s not, since Windows Vista killed support for hardware-accelerated 3D audio effects and games that support it will use software solutions instead nowadays, so unless you’re trying to play Thief on a Windows XP build there’s literally no point unless you just like sticking random things in your computer. One other thing I learned after initially publishing this article is that the “DDR” in “DDR3” stands for “Double Data Rate”, meaning a memory module advertised as being 1333 MHz is actually 667 MHz but is twice as fast as an equivalent non-DDR SDRAM module.


The Thin Clients

A stack of HP T620 thin clients and an Odroid HC4 mini NAS This is where things really start to get interesting. After reading Tom’s post about the possibility of building private “splinternets” for real-world local communities, I decided to buy a few used HP T620’s after seeing thin clients featured for different uses on places like Phil’s Computer Lab and The Cheapskate’s Guide, as well as more recently seeing ServeTheHome’s videos on what he calls Project: TinyMiniMicro which discusses various mini PC’s that have come out in the last decade. These things are basically just mini computers meant for use in office environments where they act as remote interfaces to virtual machines running on more powerful servers, but they’re especially interesting to hobbyists amidst the ongoing Raspberry Pi and general chip shortage due to their still-low cost (usually), fairly low power consumption (twice that of a Pi at 6W idle but still much better than even the most efficient traditional desktops), the fact they’re x86, as well as sometimes having options like mini PCI-E for expansion. Provisioning them was straightforward enough as after installing one I was able to clone it with dd to the others using an external m.2 reader. So far I haven’t done a whole lot with them, but the plan is to set them up as Kubernetes nodes for distributed computing as I start hosting some of my own services on the splinternet as well as possibly joining Project Segfault though I would have to get a static IP to host anything public-facing as my ISP uses CGNAT for non-static IP’s meaning I can’t open ports. Honorable mention: The little hard drive toaster on the left, it’s going to replace the Athlon PC as a home NAS once I get around to it.


The Optiplex

My upgraded SFF PC The original plan for this machine was to act as a small HTPC before I realized that I neither have, need, nor want a TV in my apartment and I was just wasting my money, but it has actually turned to be pretty useful in itself as a more powerful server in my little homelab. It took me a while to get the CPU situation figured out, but apparently the Intel Xeon E3-1240 v2 is pretty much equivalent to the Core i7-3770 at a cheaper price and a lower TDP as there’s no integrated graphics, and is ideal for use in a more powerful server (relative to the thin clients at least) where multithreading is important as it has four cores with hyperthreading. (Note: You’ll need to make sure hyperthreading is enabled in your BIOS settings.) It should be noted that if power efficiency is a concern then you probably want to go with Skylake or newer according to an excellent video that Wolfgang did on the subject but at about 30W idle it’s good enough for my needs, at least for now. Since there’s no integrated graphics though you’ll need to use a discrete graphics card when provisioning or troubleshooting, though it can run fine without one for everyday use as a headless server. [1] I’ve also encountered a weird issue where the light on the ethernet port stays orange for some reason even though running “ip a” reports that the link speed is 1000 Mbps which is confirmed by testing with iperf3. No idea what’s up with that. Oh and you’ll also want to disable deep sleep if you want to be able to use Wake on LAN to remotely wake it from suspend.


Bonus Round: KVM Switches!

My desktop featuring my old StarTech KVM switch Before ending, I’d just like to point out to people that one really neat tool when working on different PC’s simultaneously is the KVM switch, short for “Keyboard, Video, and Mouse” as it allows you to seamlessly switch between two machines while using the same I/O peripherals so you’re not having to juggle around cables as much or double up on peripherals, and they’re available for all common video interfaces. They’re not perfect, YMMV but sometimes I have to switch back and forth again to make the mouse or keyboard work after switching from one machine to the other with the one I currently use (not pictured), the Linux virtual console doesn’t seem to like having monitors plugged/unplugged, multi-monitor ones can be expensive, and plugging the USB out into the USB in doesn’t seem to do anything useful (lol), but overall they’re great little tools and I’d highly recommend investing in a good one to anyone who frequently tinkers with different PC’s or even just want a more elegant way to plug their laptop into their main workstation.

And with that I wish you a happy new year, and while I won’t make any vain promises here’s to another year on Stephen’s Homepage!

[1] Apparently not all machines can do this though, so you may need to make sure the CPU you use has integrated graphics depending on the system's chipset. In some cases even with integrated graphics it won't boot without a monitor or keyboard present, but apparently you can get around this by getting a dummy HDMI plug though I haven't been able to find any dummy USB keyboard plugs. There may also be a BIOS option to override this behavior but that's about all I know since I haven't encountered this issue personally as clearing the CMOS seemed to fix whatever issues were preventing it from booting. Oh and when swapping CPU's it usually helps if you don't just put the same one back in that was in there before lol.

Tags: hardware, self-hosting, homelab 📧 Send reply