Server Building with Rudd Money

Update: 29/1/17 – This is all old. Currently I’m using a HP Microserver and FreeNAS.  Server Wise, FreeNAS is glorious for a NAS compared to OpenSolaris.

At the moment for storage, I use a set of external hard drives for storing all my data.

On my MacBook, I have: 500gb + 500gb + 200gb + 300gb External Firewire drives and a 500gb internal drive.  This was going good for me, except for a few issues:

1. In the middle of the night drives would randomly spin up, unless they were positioned perfectly the hum would go through the wall and straight to my bed. This got annoying.

2. There is no redundancy in any of my drives, if a drive fails, I’ve lost all my data.

3. My music drive is only 200gb, I have more than 200gb of music, so my music collection is split into multiple places.

4. All the other computers in the house link through mine for music/movies. All our stored TV Shows (recorded through the media PC) get stored on my external drives and then accessed through the network. If I take my laptop to work, then there’s no access to movies.

5. Firewire is being phased out on the Mac Laptops, I’m due for a new laptop early next year and it most likely won’t have firewire, leaving me with no access to my drives.

So, because of all these issues, I decided to build myself a new server.

Now, I could run off and grab myself a nice HP ProLiant DL380 server for a mere $5,900 (plus extra for the drives). I’ve worked with similar servers at my work, but they’re loud and overkill for what I want to do.

I decided to do a bit of shopping around to see what I could get, I used my 2 main sources of cheap parts, umart and PC Case Gear.   Difference between the two is that PC Case Gear has awesome support, a bigger range, faster shipping and and nicer looking website (but is a tad more expensive).

Now, the parts.  I decided to go with an AMD Board and CPU, I’ve already built 2 Core2Duo machines and I HATE the way the CPU heatsink clips on, if you’ve ever had to push something onto a motherboard while watching the board flex as you do it, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

CPU:   AMD Athlon 64 5200+AM2    –   Price:  $87
I went as cheap as I could on the CPU, anything new enough can handle what I had in mind for it.

RAM:  Corsair DDR2 Twin2X 6400C5  4gb     –   Price: $68
Corsair makes great quality, fast ram. For what I had in mind, 4gigs would be enough. This comes as 2x2gb sticks.  Note that the speed is 800mhz and not 667mhz, so it’s not the slowest stuff. (The motherboard will support upto 1200mhz ram, if I could afford it).

Motherboard:  Gigabyte GA-MA780G-UD3H AMD780G FSB5200 4DDR2 1200OC VGA PCIE2.0 GbLA     —  $143
I’ve generally always cheaped out on motherboards, this time I didn’t so much.  It has onboard Video, 4 slots for Ram, Gigabit LAN, 6 SATA plugs and something I didn’t know it came with, but is great, was the fact that the board uses 2oz copper, I don’t know exactly what they mean by that, but the board is thicker than usual motherboards and doesn’t bend anywhere as easily as the cheaper ones do. It also has high quality capacitors, so it *should* be a durable board. Note that the board has no fans on it, this means it will run silently.

Case:  Antec Three Hundred Tower Gaming Case – Black   —  $104
I could have gone as cheap as I could on the case, but I’ve learned that having a good case will keep everything running together smoothly and quietly. The case also comes with 2 12cm fans (the bigger the fan, the more air it can move, the slower it has to run and all that means the fans can run silently).Case

Power Supply: Corsair VX-450 450Watt Power Supply     –   $125
This was the only part I bought from PC Case Gear, as I couldn’t find a suitable one from UMart. I actually wanted the 400Watt version of this, but they wouldn’t have it in stock till later this month so they gave me the option of getting this one instead. You should always make sure it has enough connectors for what you want to do, I was planning on running at least 4 SATA Drives on it, this PSU comes with 6 (perfect).

Hard Drives:  2x Seagate SATAII NCQ 7200RPM 32mb Cache 1tb   –  $159ea
1xSeagate SATAII 7200RPM 32mb Cache (earlier model) 1tb – Already Owned
1xWestern Digital SATA2 5400RPM 32mb Cache GreenPower 1tb – Already Owned
I already owned 2 of the drives and had them sitting in cases that I was using for long term storage, I cleared them off and shuffled data around till I could have them empty to use in the server.  I didn’t realise one of the drives was 5400RPM, and I suggest against doing this, one 5400RPM drive could slow down performance for your entire raid.

Postage: umart – $39
PC Case Gear – $17
The umart order got posted with fastways. I got a message from umart saying they’ve shipped my order at 8pm one night, at 7:20am the next morning the order arrived at my door.
The PC Case gear order took 2 days to arrive.

Setting Up

As for setting everything up, it was relatively pain free. There was a screw hole on the motherboard that wouldn’t line up with anything on the case which was a little dissapointing. The case was pretty solidly built (some cases you can easily flex the metal of the case).CaseInside

If you go to use an Antec case with the bottom mounted PSU, you should probably check to see if the cables from the Power Supply are long enough, because I got the umart order earlier and was just waiting on the power supply to test it, I tried to put a cheap powersupply in but the cables weren’t long enough to fit.

As what happened with the last machine I built, the cable for the power light on the case has a 3 pin plug (with only the two outside pins being used) but the motherboard will only let me plug in a 2 pin plug. I really with someone would set a proper standard for this as it’s happened to me twice.  I ignored it, connected the power light to the hard drive activity light so I can at least see when the computer is turned on.  At a later stage I might rewire the connector so I can plug everything into where it’s supposed to go.

The CPU heatsink felt a little dodgy going on, I may have done it slightly wrong, but when I did get all clipped on it felt sturdy (unlike previous Core2Duo heatsinks that felt like they weren’t clipped on properly).

Getting all the Hard Drives in took a while to get it all neat, carefully folding cables and moving everything around until it fit right.  I also used a 40gig IDE Drive as the system drive. I was hoping it wouldn’t affect performance too much, it seems ok. (note, I carefully tested the drive for all forms of errors before using it, if you’re planning on using an old drive for anything, you should always use Spinrite or HDD Regenerator to test for errors (1 or 2 errors is reason enough to throw it out)).Hard Drives

I didn’t put in a CD Drive, I’m planning on borrowing a CD Drive from another machine to install the OS, after it’s installed I won’t need a CD Drive for running it.

System and Software

Now, for the system I wasn’t sure what I wanted to use for the OS.  I knew I wanted to raid the drives together some how to add some redundancy in, I also wanted to have the system usable for other purposes as well (like web hosting, ssh access etc).

I had done a load of research on different raid levels, and I decided on using a RAID-Z, this is very similar to a RAID-5, where you get:  Drive Size * (Number of Drives – 1) of usable storage space. In my case with 4x1tb drives:   1tb * (4 – 1) = 3tb of space.
This setup means that any one drive can fail without the system going down or any sort of data loss.

To use a RAID-Z, I need to use a form of Solaris, I chose OpenSolaris, it’s free and Open Source. It’s not exactly Linux either, it runs differently in a few ways. Though a lot of the commands are still the same.

I had some trouble getting the network sharing to work right, I followed a few different guides but found this one to be pretty good. If you’re going to do something similar, I suggest you do a lot of reading about everything so you know what you’re trying to do.


Now for some numbers 😛

Transferring from my Mac to the Server, I get upto 60MiB/s, I get around the same from my Windows Vista Ultimate machine (Over gigabit ethernet).

On the server end, the network peaked at about 91MiB/s with both the Mac and the PC transferring files to the server.  Compared to my Firewire drives, this is getting near double the theoretical maximum of Firewire. (Firewire does 400Mbit/s, a theoretical max of 50MiB/s, in practice I get upto 40-45MiB/s over Firewire).

Using the command:  “yes > crapfile”  on the server resulted in the drives being written to at upto 140MiB/s.  Thus, with the gigabit connection to the server running at a max of 91MiB/s, the hard drives are no longer a bottleneck. (I don’t know how reliable the “yes > crapfile” command is, but it seemed to do the job pretty well 😉 )

Here’s a screenshot of the server during transferring data, note that the CPU usage is nowhere near being maxed out, the RAM is maxed out due to RAM caching, but it isn’t affecting the network speed so everything seems to be handling it well.

System Monitor during a Data Transfer

What next?

The server is currently in testing phases at the moment, I still need to set up permissions, reformat the machine to be 64bit (the version I’m using for testing was actually installed on a Pentium 4 then I moved the drive to the server machine), set up Apache/MySQL/PHP as well as build a web interface for administratrion. In the future I’m also working on building the comptuer into a “Home Server” machine that will handle as many things as I can think will be cool 😛


I figured I’d add, I named the computer Zoe, after a character from the TV Series called Caprica (currently there’s only a pilot released). I called the Raid “Caprica” too 🙂


In conclusion, I’m very happy with all the parts for the server, there’s still a bit left to work out software side too though.

The total cost for it all was: $585.84 without drives
With 4x1tb drives the cost is: $1221.84  (that’s $636 worth of drives)

Posted by duck in Home, How-To Guides, Reviews

32 Laptops, 32 000 Fingerprints

Update: 27/1/17 – This cleaning stuff is good, but I personally use now a mixture of ~10% isopropol alcohol and 90% water with a Microfibre cloth.


Part of my job at my school involves making sure the computers are clean.

Today I figure I’ll cover something that I get a lot of people asking me about: How do I clean LCD screens?

Now, I’ve heard people in the industry say “Use watered down Windex!”…. Don’t do this.

Windex contains Ammonia, Ammonia degrades the plastic coating on your screen.
(I also heard somewhere that it can also make your screen get a yellowy tint).

Of course, if you’re one of those people who has always been cleaning with Windex, it does take a while of cleaning before you’ve ruined the screen.

For cleaning LCD screens, I use a microfiber cloth, it won’t leave any bits of cloth on your screen like your standard rag would and as for the cleaning agent I use some special LCD/Plasma Screen Cleaning Spray.

LCD Cleaner

LCD Cleaner

This stuff is great, it’s cheap, you can pick something similar up from BigW. Getting one that has a dispenser for the cloths is also good and with tricky folding you can clean up to 16 screens with one cloth. It leaves no streak marks and requires no hard rubbing and fingerprints just disappear.

Long as you get a decent size bottle of it (the one in the picture I would call a decent size bottle), it will last you for ages. I clean the 32 laptops here every 1-2 months and the bottle is still about 2/3 full.

Good Luck Cleaning 🙂


Posted by duck in How-To Guides, IT Issues, School

School Video Cameras

Today I went shopping for video cameras to use in the school. I had been looking around for suitable ones for a little while. People were telling me Sony, others were telling me Panasonic or JVC.

We had a few requirements:

  • Runs on SD Cards so that kids can record video, take the card out, plug it straight into a laptop and off they go.
  • Not too Expensive, we’re talking about using it with kids here. Accidents happen, lets make them not too expensive accidents.
  • Easy to use, we want kids to be able to grab the camera, turn it on, point at something and record.
  • Must work with Windows Movie Maker

Movie Maker is the real deal breaker with all the cameras I got a look at.

I contacted the local Camera House shop with my set of requirements and got a reply back later that day with a set of recommended cameras and an invitation to come check them all out. I didn’t think to bring an SD card with me so I could take some footage back to check it with Movie Maker. Instead the sales guy loaned me a 2gig card with some footage on it so I could test it out with Movie Maker (what a nice chap).
Note, I tested the cameras with movie maker (standard install) then installed the K-Lite Mega Codec Pack and tried again (no camera worked straight out of the box with Windows Movie Maker).

Camera 1: Panasonic SDR-7

Panasonic SDR S7

This camera felt really small and light. It focused pretty quickly, which is a good thing for kids and moving the camera about a lot. Very easy to use and deals with low light alright too.
The camera was recommended to me by the ICT support group for my school.
While it was great in terms of usage, it was an Standard Definition camera and that really showed on the test footage.

As you can see from this picture, there’s interlacing going on, it looks a lot worse when you pan too quickly too. Also note, to get my computer to even read the file, I had to rename it from .MOD to .MPEG, Windows Movie Maker accepted the file but wouldn’t display any video. After I installed the Codec Pack… Still no video 🙁

Panasonic SDR7

Panasonic SDR7

Camera 2: The Sanyo CG9  (See Edit)

Sanyo CG9

This camera was nice, it has a nice feel to it, held more like a gun than a camera. Super easy to use, takes photos as well as video. The focus time was a bit slower, however that’s mainly because of the bigger lens, so it takes higher resolution shots with the downside that it takes a little longer to focus.
In terms of image quality, this camera is great. It records into MP4 format. I attempted to get it into Movie Maker and it wouldn’t accept the file at all. After installing codecs… No Change. There was a program that would let me change the file format to AVI (it wasn’t converting, merely changing the file container) and it worked, imported it into movie maker just fine. Is it an ideal solution? Well.. No. It’s a bit of a hassle to get kids to do that.

Sanyo CG9

Sanyo CG9

So, my next step is to find appropriate video editing software, free would be great. The cameras come with a copy of Pinnacle Studio, so I’m downloading an evaluation copy of that to test out now. Of course, I could just get the school a Mac 😉

I’ll update this post as I do more testing.


EDIT: After downloading the Pinnacle Studio Trial version and giving it a whirl, the process seems fairly simple, a little harder than iMovie, WAY more stable and more features than Windows Movie Maker. It accepted both movie files without a problem.
Has a great little button to grab the media off the inserted memory card (even if I could get it to work with Windows Movie Maker, I’d have to find the media on the card first).
Some buttons are a little hard to find.. I’d create a title, look at if for 20seconds going “Now what?” then I see this little button in the corner saying “OK”. It’s a tad slow, came up with “Not Responding” a few times (cleared up after 5-10seconds) and seems to like to render the video a lot (it re-rendered the same scene like 3 times for no reason).
On my gaming PC (2.2ghz Core2Duo with 4gigs of ram and a beefy video card) it did seem to take a little bit when swapping modes (Transitions to Video Clips to Titles for example). Hopefully it’s not too much slower on the HP550 Laptops…

EDIT2:  The CG9 is actually the cost effective version of the CG10. The one I actually used was the CG10. The CG10 offers better video quality than the CG9 and only takes 10MP Photos compared to the CG9 that takes 9MP photos.

Posted by duck in Reviews, School

Thanks for Attempting to Rip us Off – Laptop Storage

Laptop Storage

Laptop Storage


Revolution 8 Bay Wall Cage

Revolution 8 Bay Wall Cage

What’s the difference?  $900 and a padlock.

Because there isn’t many suppliers of products like this, a few companies have a monopoly on these laptop cages. Of course, the padlock is a good idea, though we keep all ours locked away anyway.

Here’s a link to the Revolution website

What about iPods then?

On the note of storage units like this, I’ve been looking at ones for iPods (I’ll explain about the iPods later).  I found one that looked pretty nice, it’s a 15 iPod Charge/Sync Machine. I liked the look of it and contacted the seller of the item (They’re based in the US). They sent me a quote that said:
SC15A Sync/Charge/Organize Desktop Station
List Price – $899
Discount Price – $699  (I guess he’s giving me a bit of a discount.. for no reason..)
Here’s the catch:  Shipping/Handling & Insurance:  $175

… That’s a lot of postage for a very expensive product.

So, the total price, $874USD… That’s $1327 AUD….. for a device that lets me charge 15 iPods at once….  My planned solution: A $10 Powered USB Hub… with lots of flashing lights inside it (it seems, the more tacky it is, the cheaper it is).

15 Slot iPod Charge Station

15 Slot iPod Charge Station

Here’s a link to the Tribeam website with the iPod Charging Stations

Leave a comment if you know of any cheaper ways to do these things and I’ll check them out.


Posted by duck in IT Issues, School

Kindy Manager – Asking Nicely Gets You Places

This post should be aptly subtitled “How to get applications to do what you want.”

There’s a program called Kindy Manager, it’s used for tracking child enrolments in After School Care stuff. This program also syncronises itself with the government CCMS, which is where we were having problems.
See, this program required use of the internet and offered no support for proxy servers.

I’ve heard the “horror” stories from the other schools, some schools paid for another phone line so they could get an extra internet connection that didn’t run through the proxy server (also, the other connection could not be linked up to the school network at all due to security reasons). Other schools had to move their Kindy Manager Database onto a laptop (that is, taking the database off the server and putting it on a workstation), taking that laptop home and running the connection through their home internet connection.  The other way was to use one of those NextG cards for it (and sign up to a 12/24 month contract too).

So anyway, I figured I’d do something about it.

I sent off a friendly (but firm) email to the Kindy Manager guys explaining the situation and asked them what to do about it.  Sure enough, I get a call later that day (awesome service) which started the ball rolling.

It’s less than 2 weeks since I started talking to them about the proxy issue (the first email was sent on the 5th Mar 09 and it’s now the 17th Mar 09) and the updated version will be available tomorrow from the Kindy Manager website.

Obviously, this method wouldn’t quite work with Microsoft, but when it comes to smaller software development companies, you could just trying asking nicely.

Here’s a few hints:  When asking them about adding in a new feature, make sure you explain who you are and your role. Then explain what you (or other people) are doing to get around the problem and how much of a waste of time/pain it is to have to do the work around.
Don’t forget correct contact details and to be quite polite, software companies don’t want to have to deal with angry users.

Remember that software companies build their software for you, the user. Make sure you let them know exactly what would make their software a better thing to work with.


EDIT (18th March):  So, we got the new beta copy to test out.. Looks like proxies are sort of working, but there’s a few more bugs to work out…  Won’t be long now 😛

EDIT2 (20th March): Waiting on the bugs to be fixed 😛

Posted by duck in IT Issues, School

HP550 Notebook

This is my first real post 🙂

So, our school bought 30 HP550 notebooks, with the idea that we could use 5 of them in each Year 5 and 6 classroom.  We ordered them Tuesday… they arrived Friday (don’t you just love speedy delivery?)

Here’s the HP website with the specs of the laptop:

Now, all the computers we have in our school run off an Image, and the image is the same as the other schools nearby with the exception of a few files, each laptop takes about 45minutes to image and set up to be working with our school (most of the time is spent in the imaging phase, copying the files over etc).
It was doing this image that I realised, they only come with a 10/100 Network card (a real bummer since we upgraded our school switches to gigabit last year). These laptops were destined for wireless anyway, so it’s not too much of an issue 😉

The build quality of the laptops is good, with one horrible fatal flaw. The mouse buttons are TERRIBLE. 1/3 of the clicks on the button just don’t make it to the computer. So you sit there hitting the button hard every time and that’s probably breaking it and making it even worse later down the track.
To fix this, we bought 30 mouses to go with them.

The “upgrade” from the HP530 to the HP550 would have been just perfect if they had kept the same buttons from the HP530.

I just hope that HP realise that the buttons are terrible and do something about it for the next model. I know I’m reccommending that we don’t buy any more HP550 laptops until they come out with a newer model.

As for some of the other parts, the Battery life is great. We stack them all up at the end of the day and plug them into the charger, they sit on the kids desks throughout the day. I haven’t heard of any issues of them running out of battery at all.
Speed wise they’re pretty snappy too, we got all ours with added memory, they’re all on 2gb of RAM.

Overall, they’re a very nice, well built laptop with the sole exception of the mouse button being terrible. If you’re looking at buying some for yourself/your school, make sure you get external mouses with them.


Posted by duck in Reviews, School

Welcome to my Tech Blog.

Welcome to my Tech Blog.

I’m a School Support Officer at a School in Australia, basically I’m the IT guy.

My job involves things like teaching the teachers how to use the computers, computer maintenance and really anything that involves IT.

The purpose of this blog is to document issues that come arise in my School as well as how to guides for undocumented things, interesting news that’s related to IT in schools as well as a bit on “Hey, check out what we’re doing!”

If I accidently break a copyright or something, or you wish to get in contact with me regarding something on this website, or if there’s something you think would be interesting, please feel free to send me an email at:


Posted by duck