Archive for the 'Intel' 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.

Dell PowerEdge R905 Virtulization Server

In between meetings etc. I’m trying to find and keep up with some of the best Dell information sources.

Over on his Dell Community Blog, Matt M has put together a good blog entry with links and a video on the recent InfoWorld 2009 Technology award for the Dell PowerEdge R905 as the “Best Virtualization Server”.

I called this blog entry out as a follow-up to my prior posting about in-bound and out-bound management, and the challenges of using Intels AMT. The PowerEdge R905 was specifically designed around the AMD Virtaulization platform, which isn’t AMT compatible, but does have AMD-Virtualization or AMD-V which is exploited to the max in the R905.

IT T&C’S

I’ve been able to spend an interesting few weeks examining both how Dell goes about procuring technology and building it’s systems, especially within the Enterprise Product Group and to some degree storage.

Some good things, some bad things, some just are what they are, out of time to market and business necessity. One of the early things I think I want to drive is an effort to create a stanard set of IT Management T&C’s. Think about it, any major company wouldn’t deal with another major company without understanding and agreeing T&C’s for things like payments, legal, disclosure, IP and so on.

While small companies find the level of detail in these T&C’s an unfair burden, they do help in so much as they establish a baseline for how the company acts by default. There are always special cases.

I’m thinking that it is increasingly important from an in-band and out-of-band management perspective that we have the same. If you want to bid for business from Dell to build a device, server, storage, etc. then you ought to be able to find out what our baseline operational requirements are. In mostly cases these ought to be standalone from a given server build, from the baseboard design for the next server, the management console for storage etc.

So thats what I think I’m going to tackle first, a framework of API’s, Protocols, Transports etc. that we can support. I’ll classify each of the major initiatives we have underway, either they are tactically important and we’ll support for the foreseable future, they are depricated and we’ll stop using/supporting them at a given point, at which time they’ll be superceeded or replaced by xx or they are no longer supported or being developed and no new funding or projects will be undertaken using them.

Declaring how we’ll support the various technology platforms will be good for our customers. They’ll have a clear roadmap and be able to see where we are on for example standards implementations; Hopefully it will also reduce the number of protocols etc. in use and standardise around a smaller subset. It will also be good for the OEM’S and Partners we work with. they’ll know what we are going to ask for in RFQ’s, and will be able to influence our thinking ahead of time, and will be able to skill and tool-up before we ask them to bid/build for us. Finally, it will be good for Dell, we’ll be able to build libraries of re-useable assets to handle the specific API’s, protocols, transports etc. and re-use these as much as possible across different products. Also, it will put us in a better position with respect to testing and tooling.

Of course, as far as possible the T&C’s as it were, will be industry standard(s). Some of these will have to be, de facto, they are what’s being built and used today. One of the things I’ll be giving some serious consideration to will be Intel’s Active Management Technology or AMT. While it appears to address a number of the key areas you’d want to tackle, but depending on it would put us in a difficult position with respect to AMD processors, which don’t have the same function, implementedthe same way.

Interesting times, am definately enjoying the new job. Thanks again for all the best-wishes.

What’s up with industry standard servers? – The IBM View

I finally had time to read through the IBM 4Q ’08 results yesterday evening, it is good to see that Power Systems saw a revenue growth for the 10th straight quarter,  and that the virtualization  and high utilization rates are driving sales of both mainframe and Power servers.

I was somewhat surprised though to see the significant decline(32%) in x86 servers sales, System x in IBM nomenclature, put down to the strong demand “virtualizing and consolidating workloads into more efficient platforms such as POWER and mainframe”.

I certainly didn’t see any significant spike in interest in Lx86 in the latter part of my time with IBM and as far as I know, IBM still doesn’t have a reference customer for it many references for it, despite a lot of good technical work going into it. The focus from sales just wasn’t there. So that means customers were porting, rewriting or buying new applications, not something that would usually show up in quarterly sales swings, more as long term trends.

Seems to me the more likely reason behind IBM’s decline in x86 was simply as Bob Moffat[IBM Senior Vice President and Group Executive, Systems & Technology Group] put it in his December ’08 interview with CRN’s ChannelWeb when referring to claims by HP’s Mark Hurd “The stuff that Mr. Hurd said was going away kicked his ass: Z Series [mainframe hardware] outgrew anything that he sells. [IBM] Power [servers] outgrew anything that he sells. So he didn’t gain share despite the fact that we screwed up execution in [x86 Intel-based server] X Series.”

Moffat is quoted as saying IBM screwed up x86 execution multiple times, so one assumes at least Moffat thinks it’s true. And yes, as I said on twitter yesterday was a brutal day in the tech industry, and certainly with the Intel and Microsoft layoffs, the poor AMD results, and the IBM screw-up in sales and Sun starting previously announced layoffs, as the IBM results say industry standard hardware is susceptible to the economic downtown. I’d disagree with the IBM results statement though in that industry standard hardware is “clearly more susceptible”.

My thoughts and best wishes go out to all those who found out yesterday that their jobs were riffed, surplused or rebalanced, many of those, including 10-people I know personally, did not work in the x86 or as IBM would have it, “industry standard” hardware business.

The Windows Legacy

My good friend and fellow Brit’ Nigel Dessau posted his thoughts, and to some degree, frustrations with Windows Vista and potentially Windows 7 today on his personal blog, here.

The problem is of course they are stuck in their own legacy. If I were Microsoft,  I’d declare Windows 8 would only support Windows 7 and earlier apps and drivers in a virtual machine.

They’d declare a bunch of their more low level interfaces deprecated with Windows 7 and won’t be accessible in Windows 8 except in a Windows 7 VM.

Then they’d make their Windows virtual machine technology abstract all physical devices, so that Windows could handle them how they thought best, and wouldn’t let applications talk to devices directly, only via the abstraction. They would have generic storage, generic network, and generic graphics interfaces that applications could write to and Microsoft would deal with everything else.

This would initially limit the number of devices that would be supported, but thats really status quo anyway. They would declare how devices that want to play in the Windows space would behave, declare the specs, and Microsoft would own the testing and to a degree validation of almost all drivers or they could farm this out to a seperate organization who would independently certify the device, not write the code. Once they stabilised the generic interfaces though, the whole Windows system itself would become more stable.

This would be a big step for Microsoft. When you look at the Windows ecosystem, there are hundreds of thousands of Windows applications and utilities. Way too many of them though are to deal with the inadeqaucies of Windows itself, or missing function. Cut out the ability to write these sort of applications and their will be at least an infrastructure developer backlash. It might even provoke more antitrust claims. While I know nothing about the iPhone, this would likely put Windows 8 in the same position with respect to developers.

For all I know, this could be what they have in mind, it’s and area I need to get up to speed on with them, and obviously the processor roadmaps for AMD and Intel, as well as understanding where Linux is headed.


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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