Monday, September 9, 2013

HW monsters of my past

In the beginning of the century when dinosaurs Pentium III ruled the world, cheap dual-CPU platforms became affordable. Two socket motherboards were just a bit more expensive than their single-socket counter-parts and practically by added price of another CPU one could get himself a real dual-CPU machine at home! Even dedicated sites like 2cpu.com showed up.

Now, in multicore CPU era we got used to see multiple bars in windows task manager, but I remember the day when I have first assembled and booted such machine for the first time and saw not one, but TWO bars in my task manager. Next thing I did was launching a CPU burner and wondering why each CPU is busy 50% instead of one being used 100% and other 0%.

Yeap, those years were also the years when "computer I can afford" was close to "computer I want" as never before. Thus I decided to go for not one, but for two(!) dual CPU machines.

The bigger monster

First I got myself high-end PIII machine. I've chosen Abit VP6 motherboard with two Intel PIII Coppermine 700Mzh and 256Mb of RAM. Everyone was overclocking those CPUs those days - buy a CPU with lower FSB and clock it up to the next stage - 66Mzh to 100Mzh, 100Mzh to 133Mzh, etc. And Abit boards really shined at that - they made soft switch or jumperless motherboards where all CPU/memory timings and voltages could be controlled simply through the BIOS.

So did I, but went even further - I've found a company that sold motherboard+CPUs+memory combos tested to work properly in overclocked mode. They did not ship to Israel, so I've made them ship it to my uncle in US and he forwarded this "monster" back to me. At the end I had dual 1Ghz machine back in early 2001. I remember running distributed.net client at whopping speeds compared to my old 200Mzh Pentium I :)

I've also equipped it with Elsa Gladiac Ultra having Nvidia GeForce 2 Ultra and 64Mb of onboard RAM. It came with stereo glasses - not anaglyph, but based on polarization technology that used infrared connection to graphics card to synchronize the shutters. Too bad that stereo drivers for these glasses never worked reliably with anything else by Windows 98 :( But great games like WarCraft III (since early betas) were played on this machine with FSAA.

But this guy did end here - the motherboard also had a HighPoint htp370 RAID controller supporting RAID1/0. Yes, this motherboard had not two, but four(!) IDE connectors. I've connected two 45Gb disk drives in RAID0 and got another wow-feeling by seeing ~85Gb free space in Windows disk manager. This RAID has an interesting story behind it. See below.

The lesser monster

Year after, I've decided to upgrade my old Pentium I machine that was used as Linux home server. So lets buy another dual CPU box! I've got used Abit BP6 motherboard, couple of Intel Celeron Mendocino CPUs and yet another 256Mb of RAM that already became more common those days. I think it was the only time I've ever bought a used computer hardware.

At the beginning I've overclocked it to 555Mzh and compiled Linux kernel endlessly to make sure its stable. After some time I've realized that I do not really need that much power and clocked them back to stock rate. It served as Linux server for next 5 years and was still working perfectly when I've replaced it new AMD based computer in early 2007. I've learned a lot from playing with this machine. For example, it was extremely cool not just reading about IRQ routing, but seeing it an action - the computer served as network gateway having two networks cards and I was actually "seeing" through /proc/... how interrupts from each card are served by their own CPU.

The dusk

The lesser monster worked happily until 2007 as I've mentioned until I've voluntary retired him. The bigger one died somewhere at 2005-2006 - it motherboard just stopped responding. His death was probably speed up by highly overclocked life it had :)

Now the RAID story I've promised. When the computer died, the disks where still OK, but since they were connected to onboard RAID, I thought I would not be able to access their data through plain IDE. But I kept the disks knowing that I may have a good use of them some day. So these disks "rusted" for about two years, and I was sure that their data is long gone. After upgrade to AMD machine, I've surprisingly found out that Linux recognized them as a RAID and I got my data back! It was like opening the old photo album with all of the memories of the past.

It turned out that that htp370 "RAID" was actually a software RAID and chip on the motherboard was basically an ATA controller with its own BIOS config tool. The controller left special marks in the beginning of each disk to know how to treat them during boot. Linux FakeRaid project was there to recognize those labels and expose this under usual Linux Device Mapper facilities.

Why am I writing all these?

Those were a great times when people could build themselves dual socket computers in their backyard. The big companies closed this window pretty quickly and newer generation of processors already had multi CPU support disabled their hardware. Now I'm writing this from a machine with CPU having twice as more cores than both of my computers back then, but in my opinion a modern PC hardware is much more boring for an average hardware geek. And desktop becomes less and less common by itself phased out by laptops and tablets.

Those time were of a great inspiration for me, a big motivation to try stuff myself. Times when I was passioned by PC hardware more then a software. Times which I'm very thankful for.

Some more photos