Another computer near-disaster

Yesterday my Vista machine stopped booting. Actually, worse than that, it stopped posting. You’d hit the on switch and… the fans would rev up and… nothing else would ever happen. Hmmmm! That is NEVER a good sign.
The Vista machine was designed to be a hotrod originally (well, before I put Vista on it hahahah), and it has two high-end PCI-E 16x Nvidia cards SLI’d together, and two SATA hard drives RAIDed together in stripe mode to improve game loading performance.
So yesterday when it crapped out my first thought was “oh god, the RAID…” When my XP machine died in December, recovering the data from the RAID was a really fun adventure.
So I started down the path, swapping memory modules, unplugging the DVD drive and floppies, pulling out the video cards, unplugging the hard drives… all manner of things, none of which had any effect whatsoever. Ohhhh great. Recalling the many times I’ve screwed something up on the computer because I was frustrated and tired, I decided to call it a night.
This morning I pulled the machine out from the desk, set it up on the table, and untangled all the cables inside. Got it down to one memory module, no video card, no hard drives. I figured it should at least beep on boot. Nope.
After a cup of coffee, I grabbed the screwdriver and yanked the motherboard. By this point I figured I was dealing with either a frotzed CPU, motherboard, or power supply. Or maybe the motherboard was grounding against the case somehow. The easiest way to figure it out would be to pull all the parts out and slowly replace them one by one in a controlled environment.
But first, to rule out the grounding – I set the motherboard on some standoffs over the top of an antistatic mat, plugged the power supply into it and nothing else and… hey, it beeped!
Okay, well, whatever was causing the problem seems to have something to do with the case. So I pulled all the motherboard standoffs out of the case, re-bent and re-oriented them, duct-taped them in, and used smaller screws to reduce the likelihood of shorting the motherboard out with them. After putting the machine back together along with the power supply, a stick of memory, and one video card, it still beeped and booted. Yay! After another hour or so everything was put back together (minus one video card) and the machine still seems to be working just fine. Except… it doesn’t recognize the RAID. Ohhhhh great.
After 10 minutes digging through the SATALink and BIOS manuals, I realized I likely just needed to toggle a couple flags in the BIOS (I had reset the CMOS earlier in the adventure). Sure enough, after a toggle and a reboot, it’s all working again. But I left one of the video cards out since I don’t use the Vista machine much for gaming these days.
Ahhh nice to have that sorted out!
But here I am again, having narrowly escaped death, wondering why I bother to keep personal data on my PC at all. Recently, my friend Dave gifted me with an HP MediaSmart Windows Home Server. It is fantastic. It is super quiet and very speedy. It just sits out there attached to my home network and serves up my files, and it’s very easy to access from the XP or Vista machine, or even the PS3 or Xbox360 for that matter (for music, photos, and videos). I need to set up backups but this seems like the perfect answer to me these days. Because I’m working on technology on the PC, I do a lot of updates to my PC software and hardware, so the chance for a system crash is high. Why not keep just my applications and games on the PC, and whatever files I’m working on at the moment, and put all the rest of my data up on the server? I think that’s what I will set up next.
This does give me pause though, and makes me think more about the idea of using Internet compute clouds, or running applications over the net like Google Docs. I hate giving up THAT much control over my PC environment, but it sure would be easier to just have all my apps out on the net, and all my data on my Home Server, and a very dumb but fast home PC. Hmmmm someday… we’ll see. For now I have about 10GB of data to copy over to the server.