Archive for the 'Hardware' Category

Workhorse Windows Computers

As each year goes by, I get less and less technical. I do still hack together fixes for software when needed, and write some procedural code from time to time. Most of the tools I use are still Windows based. While I know all the “cool kids” do Linux or containers, and I should too, especially with my background, it just hasn’t happened.

We have a number of discrete, single task computer systems that we use around the house. I have a dedicated music streaming server in the mechanical room in the basement; a system than runs Rouvy, Zwift, plays streaming video in the garage for my bike trainer and treadmill sessions; and in the living room, I use another system attached to a TV to do vinyl recording, mixing, and editing.

Everyone of those systems is a Dell Optiplex desktop computer. Why?

Because you can pick up the systems from ebay for $25-$150, upgrade the memory, replace the HDD with an SSD, and come out with a top-notch, headless system for less than $200. The processors are everything from 2-core Pentiums to 4-core Intel i7’s and if you get really creative, you can switch almost all the parts from one system, to another. The form factors run from Ultra Small Form Factor(USFF), to Small Form Factor(SFF) to Mini-Tower, to full size desktop.

The reason there are so many of these on ebay for sale is exactly the same reason I want them. They are low cost, they are easily maintained, Dell has an outstanding support website which when searched with a “Service Tag” will return the original configuration, including all the software.

That’s important, you can tell if the original system was shipped with a Windows “Certificate of Authenticity”. If it was, with a small hop-skip-and-jump you can install Windows 7 and upgrade to Windows 10. Some of the Optiplex 90xx series even have sufficient hardware to run Windows 11.

Sadly this week the system I use for my music editing died. It wouldn’t even power on. It’s been sat unloved, on a shelf, behind a closed door, in the media center under the TV for 4-years. I went through some basic diagnostics and it wasn’t obvious where the problem was, so I removed the SSD from the i5 Optiplex SFF 3020, and put in an i3 Opitiplex USFF 970. It booted and everything was great.

I scoured ebay, and secured a Dell Optiplex 7010 SFF i5-3570 3.40GHz 8GB RAM 2 TB HDD for just $66. I added another 8GB of memory, and the existing SSD and no software installs, when switched on, Windows booted, switched drivers, and rebooted and I was back online.

The best thing about using these though, is possibly using the Dell Support portal to track inventory, add location and other information. You can organize by folders, I even keep one for defective equipment and another for out of use stuff. https://www.dell.com/support/mps/

Buying from ebay

If you are considering buying an OptiPlex from ebay, here are a few tips.

  1. “Bare Bones” – Beware buying systems listed as bare bones. These are likely to have been completely stripped, and have no processor, HDD, or memory/RAM. They can be useful for parts like power supplies or replacement USB modules. If you don’t have experience putting systems together, probably best to avoid, by the time you buy parts it’s likely more expensive than buying a pre-built system.
  2. Processors – As discussed, the OptiPlex come with a range of processors. Here is a simple guide: Pentium(Slow); i3(adequate; i5(good), i7(much better) – an I3 will run a browser and local apps with 8GB of memory, perfectly OK for day to day Google Apps and web browsing. i7 with 16GB will run pretty much anything, I record vinyls albums while watching streaming movies, and checking email etc.
  3. Memory – These systems can pretty much only take 16GB of RAM/Memory. 8GB is fine, 4GB will work with Windows 10 but is slow, on an i3 or Pentium processor, it’s probably too slow. You can add memory easily, but only have two slots on most systems until you get up to the 9xx models. You can mix and match sizes of memory, but not speed. Don’t over pay for an identical system that has maybe 4/8GB of additional memory. You can pick up the RAM/Memory for as little has $9 per 4GB on ebay.
  4. HDD/SSD – check the model on the Dell support system before buying, even if just by model number, better by service tag. You can check the documents or original configuration and see what size HDD they were shipped with. Probably the best performance upgrade you can make is to get an SSD, even a 128GB SSD. I buy Kingston SSD’s. Many of the SFF systems will need a plastic drive caddy to mount the SSD in. If you need more storage, an external HDD or SSD might be the simplest, all the models have ample USB ports, some even have USB 3 ports.
  5. Graphics – in the same way the OptiPlex models have evolved with processors/speed, the graphics have developed the same way. The early Pentium models have basic onboard graphics, typically only supporting 1920×1040 resolution. Even if you attach these to a large screen LCD 4k TV that won’t deliver anything other than a good Windows text based display. Later models, especially SFF, Mini-tower and desktop models withy i5 and i7 processors will have Intel 4000 series graphics chips. The newer models have Intel 4600 series processors which can do 4k display. The desktop and mini-tower have enough space to install a full graphics expansion card.
  6. Networking – All the OptiPlex models have Ethernet ports, generally, while the all support a wifi card, almost none of them will be supplied with one. If you need wifi, it’s probably simplest and cheapest to add a wifi USB stick. The same is true for Bluetooth, almost none have it, which is frustrating if you want to use your phone, or headphones with them. Again, you can find a 2x pack of Bluetooth 4 dongles for as little as $12 new.
  7. Power – The new USFF models, those with the all black faceplate, like the Dell Optiplex 9020m i5  don’t include a power supply. They need an external brick and cable like a laptop. Don’t buy one without a power supply.
  8. Local Pickup vs Shipping – Watch the shipping price. This is a good rule for buying anything on ebay, but especially larger/heavier items. I paid $50, $12.95 and had free shipping on Optiplex systems, factor that into the total price. If you have time, like me, consider local pickup. I found one seller just 20-miles away that offers free pickup. Not only do you save on shipping but you may be able to get it the same day, or next day.

Whatever you do, do check the Dell Owners Manual for the system you intend to buy. It will be on the Dell support website in .pdf format. You can see how simple these are to work with and what components they can take etc.

Finally remember, even if you can buy a cheap new system for a similar price, it’s unlikely to be so flexible and repairable. Also, it may not have an embedded Windows license. Don’t forget, e-waste is a massive problem, by buying used from ebay you are keeping it away from a distant country where it might be disassembled by a child using a soldering iron. At best, you’ll be keeping it from landfill.

If you want to buy, here is a starter link to ebay. Once there add the key tech you want like +i5 or +16GB to the search. Feel free to leave questions.

Mysterious Disappearing MAC Address

One of my systems applied a Windows 10 updates on Friday, it runs attached to my TV, and so while not headless(ie. no attached monitor) it often runs for days without the UI visible. So there it was, has anyone ever clicked “Let’s Go”?

The system wasn’t connected the Internet? Puzzling, since it has a 1Gb wired connection into a switch, that goes straight to the 1Gb Fibre Optic cable modem, and everything else was working.

Choose Adapter settings > Disable > Enable > Wait > Identifying Network... > No Network Connection.

Next up was a CMD prompt and IPCONFIG /ALL

Strangely, it reported the IP V4 address as 169.x.x.x – no DNS etc. Then I spotted it, Physical Address: 00-00-00-00-00-00
Huh?

I tried all the usual things:

Disable Adapter > Delete Driver > Shutdown/Reboot

and variations of that. Then went ahead and started searching on the web, that was as helpful as it always. They only thing I learned is, I was far from alone. Especially with Realtek PCIe GBE Family Controller users. I downloaded their device diagnostics, and everything ran clean, and right there in the diagnostics window was the supposedly zero-d out MAC/Physical address.

VPN Software?

I checked with the support team with NORDVPN that runs on that system, they assured me they do NOT change the MAC address, or use any form of MAC Spoofing in their software.

No Connectivity

The reason for the Internet connectivity issue, is that the cable modem I use, will not give out DNS data and assign an IP address to a device that is not on the list of devices I maintain.

Among the various reports of issues relating to this, I found this one. So there is every possibility that it was a #Windows #WIN10 update that screwed up the MAC address which is stored in the registry, who knows? Also, everyone of the posts I found recommended an app to store and update a new MAC Address. I’m not a big fan of either using REGEDIT and downloading and installing random apps to update the registry.

Setting a MAC Address in Windows 10

Turns out you don’t need to. If you go into the properties for the adapter, and scroll through them, you’ll come to the “Network Address”.

In the value field should be the same MAC address that is on the label that came with the PC. It also should match the MAC address you can find in the BIOS if you want to go rooting around in there. If you have the MAC address, for example, from PC Hardware case, you can simply add that back in at (3) above and select (4) OK. Just make sure you get the correct MAC address, don’t duplicate one already on your network, and don’t use the MAC address from your Wifi adapter, for your Ethernet adapter.

A Picture I found online. Don’t do this especially with a label that includes your Dell Service tag… trust me on that.

You can also look up your provider MAC address prefixes, here, and make a new one. Again, the MAC address does need to be unique. In my case I had the original, but decided while working through this issue to use a MAC Address starting with FCCF62 and is from a block assigned to “IBM Corp”. Since I don’t have any IBM devices on my network and am unlikely to have any.

My system has been fine since fixing this. The change survived through a couple of reboots, and I re-installed NORDVPN and it’s also working fine.

Why Post?

First obviously was to document what I’d done; Second was to share what had happened and how I resolved it; Third was in hope someone would post with a logical discussion of how this happened, and also, how I could have resolved it more simply and quickly.

I remain amazed that the Realtek diagnostics, a). loaded their own MAC address from Windows registry and b). didn’t at least recognize the MAC address wasn’t from a block they own?

IBM 3090 Training

Between 2001 and 2004, I had an office in the home of the mainframes, IBM Poughkeepsie, in Building 705. As a Brit’, it wasn’t my natural home, also, I wasn’t a developer or a designer, as a software architect focusing in software and application architectures, it never felt like home.

IBM Library number ZZ25-6897.

One day, on my way to lunch at the in-house cafeteria, I walked by a room whose door was always closed. There was a buzz of people coming from it, and the door was open. A sign outside said “Library closing, Take anything you can use!”

I have some great books, a few of which I plan to scan and donate the output to either the Computer History Museum, or to the Internet Archive.

One of the more fun things I grabbed were a few IBM training laserdiscs. I had no idea what I’d do with them, I had never owned a laserdisc player. I just thought they’d look good sitting on my bookshelf. Especially since they are the same physical size as vinyl albums.

Now 16-years on, I’ve spent the last 4-years digitising my entire vinyl collection, in total some 2,700 albums. One of my main focus areas has been the music of Jazz producer, Creed Taylor. One of the side effects from that is I’ve created a new website, ctproduced.com – In record collecting circles, I’m apparently a completionist. I try to buy everything.

And so it was I started acquiring laserdiscs by Creed Taylor. It took a while, and I’m still missing Blues At Bradleys by Charles Fambrough. While I’ve not got around to writing about them in any detail, you can find them at the bottom of the entry here.

What I had left were the IBM laserdiscs. On monday I popped the first laserdisc in, it was for the IBM 3090 Processor complex. It was a fascinating throwback for me. I’d worked with IBM Kingston on a number of firmware and software availability issues, both as a customer, and later as an IBM Senior Software Engineer.

I hope your find the video fascinating. The IBM 3090 Processor was, to the best of my knowledge, the last of the real “mainframes”. Sure we still have IBM processor architecture machines that are compatible with the 3090 and earlier architectures. However, the new systems, more powerful, more efficient, are typically a single frame system. Sure, a parallel sysplex can support multiple mainframes, it doesn’t require them. Enjoy!

The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies – Bloomberg

This is a stunning discovery. I don’t have any insight into it except what’s been published here. However, it’s always been a concern. I remember at least one project that acquired a sample of hard disk controllers (HDC) from vendors with a view to rewriting a driver for OS cache optimization and synchronization.

I’d never actually seen inside a hard drive to that point, except in marketing promotional materials. We were using the HDC with different drives and I was surprised how complex they were. We speculated how easy it would have been to ship a larger capacity drive and insert a chip that would use the extra capacity to write shadow copies of a files that were unseen by the OS. We laughed it off as too complex and too expensive to actually do. Apparently not.

Source: The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies – Bloomberg


About & Contact

I'm Mark Cathcart, formally a Senior Distinguished Engineer, in Dells Software Group; before that Director of Systems Engineering in the Enterprise Solutions Group at Dell. Prior to that, I was IBM Distinguished Engineer and member of the IBM Academy of Technology. I am a Fellow of the British Computer Society (bsc.org) I'm an information technology optimist.


I was a member of the Linux Foundation Core Infrastructure Initiative Steering committee. Read more about it here.

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