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Wed, 05 Mar 2008

This is just a quick entry to point out a very nice, helpful, HOWTO-style guide on QuietEarth.us that goes through the process of setting up syslog-ng to receive remote log entries from another device on the local network.

In my case, as in the author’s, I wanted to send the logs produced by my gateway/router running OpenWRT to a Linux box with plenty of storage for later analysis. Although this can be done with the stock — and ancient — sysklogd, it’s as good an excuse as any to install syslog-ng, which is much more flexible. Installation on Ubuntu Dapper is painless, and with a few lines of configuration you can have your router’s (or other device’s) logs sent to a central machine, filtered, and logged into its own file.

I can vouch for the instructions in the article as working perfectly on Ubuntu 6.06.02 LTS and an OpenWRT router. (Enabling log transmission on the router requires enabling the syslogd service under the ‘Administration’ tab, ‘Services’ subtab.)

The logical continuation of this is to transmit logs not from two computers on a LAN using UDP, which is the standard method, but over the Internet using TCP — encrypted, of course. This article seems like just the thing, and I’ll probably be playing around with it more in the future.

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Tue, 04 Mar 2008

I got the PowerEdge booted up and working yesterday, with only a few hiccups here and there. The biggest problem I had was getting into the PERC2/SC’s configuration menu from the BIOS; you have to press the right key at exactly the right time, or it won’t work. (Also, it turns out the ‘2300 has three SCSI controllers in it; two on the motherboard, and then the PERC2/SC on PCI. The internals are both Adaptec non-RAID.)

Once into the PERC’s configuration, setting up the 4 drives I had installed into a RAID-5 was trivial and took only a few moments to format. The software also makes it look like it’ll be easy to add more drives and expand the size of the RAID volume later, or even add a separate striped set using the remaining two slots in the backplane. (I doubt I’ll have much use for the latter but it’s good to have the option.)

Ubuntu 6.10.02 LTS installed without any significant trouble onto the RAID volume; I chose a LVM install in order to give me some more flexibility later when I expand the array. The ~220GB RAID volume, which Linux sees as /dev/sda, is partitioned into a small /boot (250MB) with the remainder given over to LVM as a ‘physical volume.’

LVM is a pretty slick system all by itself and deserving of a separate article, just for the basics, but I’ll hold myself to saying that it gives you a ton of options. Basically, LVM introduces an additional layer of abstraction between filesystem devices as they’re seen by the OS (/dev/sda1, sda2, etc.) and the actual disks or on-disk partitions. When you use LVM, the actual disks or partitions become “physical volumes” (PVs), which you pool into “storage groups,” and then assemble together in various ways to create “logical volumes” (LVs). In my very simple setup, I just let the Ubuntu installer create one 200GB PV, put it into one storage group, and make one LV, the root partition, out of it.

In retrospect, I should have spent some more time in the installer and made some more LVM LVs; separate ones for the traditional Linux partition scheme. This is because while LVM makes it easy to resize LVs after the fact, most filesystems don’t support shrinking, only growing. It’s easy to make a 5GB partition bigger if you run out of room, but it’s much harder to take a 200GB one down to 5GB. So I’m basically stuck with everything in the big / partition, at least until I add more disks and have some more space to work with.

With the system now running and a minimalist ‘server’ installation of Ubuntu installed, the next step was to install software. The only hitch here was noticing that, for some reason, the SMP kernel hadn’t been installed. I know this was originally by design, but I thought it had been fixed in 6.10. No matter: a quick sudo apt-get install linux-686-smp followed by a reboot, and everything was good.

All in all, not bad for a (nearly) free box. It’s not the fastest thing in the world, but it has the right features, and I think it’s solid enough to serve me for a good long time.

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Fri, 29 Feb 2008

The Poweredge project is currently held up for want of screws. Specifically, twenty-four #6-32 x 1/4” flat-head machine screws.

They’re needed to mount the SCSI drives into the hotswap trays (procured on eBay for a few dollars each); standard hard-drive mounting screws — which are almost always #6-32 pan-head — won’t work. The drive trays have the holes for the drive-mounting screws countersunk into the plastic sides of the trays, since they have to fit absolutely flush. (Pan heads will hold the drives into the trays, but the protruding heads prevent the tray from sliding into the hotswap bay, as I found out to my chagrin.)

A handful of machine screws ought to be an easy hardware-store purchase, but unfortunately, finding a really good hardware store — the kind of place with drawers upon drawers of nuts, bolts, and other small parts, as opposed to the more common “home improvement” store — is right up there with finding a good typewriter repairman. They exist, but they’re few and far between.

After making some phone calls, I found a winner in Fischer Hardware of Springfield, VA. When I called to ask about screws, they cheerfully informed me that not only did they have 6-32 x 1/4” screws (spoken with a tone that seemed to imply “of course, dummy, we have #6-32 machine screws…”, truly music to my ears), they had them in my choice of stainless steel, brass, or zinc, in both Phillips or flat drive, how many did I want of each? Now that is the sign of a decent hardware store.

So tomorrow I’ll drive over there and see about picking up a couple dozen, and then I think I’ll finally be ready to boot the beast up.

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Sat, 16 Feb 2008

The 2300 is an interesting (and large, and heavy) beast. It’s all SCSI — no IDE here — and has both an onboard U160 channel and the option to add a hardware PCI RAID controller. Mine has that option (called the “PERC 2/SC”) installed, and connected to a 6-bay front-loading hotswap backplane for SCA2 drives. Unfortunately, all the drives had been pulled, along with their sleds, when I bought it. Bummer. (I understand not leaving the drives in a surplused machine, but really, taking the sleds? That’s a bit low.)

A quick peek inside showed that it was full of RAM — exactly how much I couldn’t determine, since the chips didn’t specify and the part numbers didn’t bring up any useful information when Googled — and had a single 550MHz PIII processor installed.

Since the machine has two slots, my first search was for an extra PIII processor to fill it out. eBay quickly came to the rescue; for less than a measly $5 (and that’s with shipping), I had a second processor.

A little more Googling turned up some good deals on SCA2 U160 hard drives; unfortunately not as inexpensive on a per-MB basis as modern ATA disks, but dirt cheap compared to what they went for only a few years ago. I opted for 4 73GB 10k RPM Seagates to start with, enough to set up a decent RAID-5 array, while still leaving some room for additional expansion later.

On the OS front, I’m still not sure whether I want to go with BSD — probably OpenBSD, since I have an official CD set, bought mostly on impulse a while back — or Linux. I’m more comfortable in general with Linux, and I feel like I’ll be able to do more with the server if it’s running Linux, but I’ve been looking for an excuse to delve more into BSD and can’t decide if this is when I should take the plunge or not.

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Thu, 14 Feb 2008

When it comes to geeky stuff, at heart I’m a hardware guy. I’m reasonably proficient at software configuration, and I can bang out a shell script or a little Python if there’s a need, but hardware has always struck me as more intuitive. Had I been born a bit before I was, I’d probably have become more interested in cars rather than computers, but sadly modern cars are fairly difficult to work on. Plus, mass production and Moore’s law, together with the ‘upgrade treadmill’ perpetuated by hardware and software vendors, have conspired to create an enormous, basically everlasting supply of IT junk, just waiting to be messed with and put to good use. As cheap hobbies go, as long as you restrict yourself to nothing that’s less than 4 or 5 years old, it’s about one step up from ‘trash art.’

So it was with that in mind that I found myself at a seedy self-storage facility last week, loading my latest acquisition into the back of my car. Via a corporate-surplus website, I’d picked up an old Dell Poweredge 2300 server for next to nothing. (Arguably, anything more than free is too much, but I was willing to pay a little to get one that was known to work.)

Over the next few weeks I’ll be playing around with it, with the eventual goal of setting up either BSD or Linux on it, and putting it to some sort of productive use (probably a backup server, if I can get the RAID system working) in my home LAN. Since information on the 2300 seems to be fairly limited, and there also seem to be a lot of them turning up on the used/surplus/come-get-it-on-the-curb market, I’ll periodically make updates with anything interesting I’ve found, and general progress.

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