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Daynotes Journal

Week of 6/22/98

 

A (mostly) daily journal of the trials, tribulations, and random observations of Robert Bruce Thompson, a writer of computer books.


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Monday, June 22, 1998 - Haven't heard back from my contact at the distributor about my toasted new UPS, so I call back to arrange a swap. He tells me that they don't handle that stuff, and that I need to contact TrippLite tech support, who will be very interested in finding out what happened. I call TrippLite tech support - no toll-free number, naturally - and talk to a very nice representative. He tells me that they'll be happy to advance ship a replacement and send a pickup tag so that I don't have to pay return shipping. The problem is, he needs me to fax a copy of the invoice. Well, number one, my fax is disconnected and buried somewhere in the mess that was once my office, and number two, I haven't received a copy of the invoice yet. No problem, the TrippLite rep assures me. He'll contact the distributor to get a copy of the invoice. Still playing with FP98. The site structure is starting to firm up, and it looks like this may turn into a real web site. Still much to do, though ...

Tuesday, June 23, 1998 - An editor emails me to ask if I'd be interested in doing a magazine article on a Windows NT topic. I've never written for a magazine before, but the idea sounds intriguing. Then I find that they pay only $0.25 per word for a 2,000 word article (the going rate for high-end technical articles is $0.50 to $1.00 per word) , and that the article needs to be submitted in final form by June 30th in order to make the November issue. No prayer of making that deadline. Still, there's always the December issue, and I figure doing a magazine article or two as a loss-leader might be worth it, if only for the exposure. Visions of becoming the next Jerry Pournelle or John Dvorak flash through my mind. The editor has suggested a couple of potential topics, so I email her to tell her I'm interested and start outlining one of the topics.

In the meantime, I need to think about bringing up a UNIX box for the MT5 book project I'm just starting. I already have a BSD UNIX box, Kiwi, on my network, but Kiwi is really starting to show its age - a 486/33 processor, 8 MB of 30-pin RAM, a 340 MB hard disk, and no CD-ROM. With the inroads that Linux is making in the corporate market, it may be time for a change.  I've heard good things about Red Hat Linux, so I call them to request an eval copy. I'm no UNIX guru, so I ask them if they'll send me a second manual, so that my friend John Mikol can help me set it up. They agree to do so.

I get email from the editor about the magazine article, telling me that someone else has already been chosen to do the article I was outlining, and suggesting another possible topic. Well, I can always use the material I've already outlined in my next book.

Evening: I've been putting off downloading the latest beta of MT5. This one is available only via FTP, and it's huge. I make a 31.6 dialup connection to my ISP, connect to the beta site with CuteFTP, and learn that the Server version is about 268 MB - 22 12.3 MB files and one 4.3 MB file. They say the longest journey starts with a single step, so I start the download and go to bed.

Wednesday, June 24, 1998 - when I sit down first thing in the morning, I'm surprised to see that the connection is still up and sucking files from the Microsoft FTP site. At 11:00 a.m. the connection drops without warning, after exactly 12 hours. Apparently, BellSouth rigidly enforces a 12 hour time limit on connections. Still, I've gotten about 150 MB of the 268 MB total. I'll get the rest tonight.

It's time to get serious about this NT5 book I've agreed to write, so I start reviewing the proposal and detailed outline I'd done back last fall, when Microsoft was still claiming they'd ship NT5 by June, 1998. From what I've heard and read about Build 1814, they may have a hard time shipping a final version by this time next year. I'm hoping Build 1814 will be usable as a basis for the first draft of the book.

Evening: Start downloading the remaining MT5 files.

Thursday, June 25, 1998 - Well, it took two overnight sessions, but I finally finished downloading MT5. There are 21 12.3 MB CAB files, a 12.4 MB EXE file, and a 4.3 MB CAB file. After backing up the whole 268 MB to a volume on a different computer, I run the 12.5 MB EXE. It extracts the distribution file, all 348 MB of them, to the I386 directory.

This MT5 build doesn't support boot floppies, so I decide the best way to proceed is to run an install across the network. I have more than 10 GB of free disk space on my main workstation, but I don't want to risk hosing it up. Instead, I decide to see what MT5 can do with a minimum platform. I decide to install it to kerby, a Gateway P4D tower with a 486 DX/2-66 processor, 40 MB of RAM, and an 850 MB hard disk. Windows NT Workstation 4.0 is installed on a 275 MB E: partition. I use it to blow away the 275 MB C: and D: partitions, and then partition and format the 550 MB of free disk space as an NTFS C: partition. That ought to be enough to hold MT5.

I start Winnt32.exe from a network drive and tell it I want to install to the C: partition. Everything seems to be proceeding normally. After a lot of file copying, MT5 Setup changes to graphics mode and starts the Setup Wizard. The Installing MT Security features section of the wizard proceeds to completion, and the Installing and configuring devices starts. About half way through, the monitor clicks the way it does when resetting between graphics mode and text mode, but the wizard continues to run. After the status bar almost reaches the end, the wizard blows up to a black screen of death. It says that if this is the first time this screen has appeared, to simply reboot. I do so, and the whole wizard process starts again. The BSOD appears again. This isn't good.

One of the possible problems mentioned in the BSOD is inadequate disk space. This might well be the problem, so I decide to get rid of MT5 and turn kerby back into a Windows NT 4 computer. Oh boy. Windows NT 4 will no longer boot. After futzing around for a while, I decide the quickest solution will be to reinstall Windows NT 4 and restore from backup. No dice. Windows NT 4 setup sees the disk and displays the partition information, but won't touch either partition. I decide to blow away everything on the disk and start from a bare drive, but Windows NT 4 Setup won't delete the partitions. Time for the tactical nuke. I boot Partition Magic, expecting to use it to wipe the disk clean. No joy. Partition Magic won't touch it either. Apparently, I now have an 850 MB disk drive that's perfectly fine physically, but inaccessible to any program known to humanity. I'm going to have to think about this one for a while. MT5 is definitely not going to touch my main workstation until I figure out what's going on.

Red Hat Linux shows up in the afternoon mail, but I don't have time to deal with it at the moment. My wife arrives home from work and hands me a CD that a friend of mine dropped off. It has both MT5 Server and Workstation on it. I call him to thank him, and have to listen to him giving me a hard time about my slow, pathetic dialup link versus his cable modem. He sucked down the whole 500+ MB and burned the CD for me last night between dinner and the kids' bed time. Geez. Our cable system doesn't offer Internet access, but BellSouth is making noises about rolling out ADSL. I may have to look into this high-speed access stuff.

Friday, June 26, 1998 - Although I could probably do a minimal Linux install on Kiwi, I really need more machine to do what I want to do. The question is, should I upgrade Kiwi, or install Red Hat Linux on a different box. Fishing around in the closet where old computers go to die, I come up with a 486 DX2-80 VLB box with 32 MB of RAM, a 1 GB disk, and a 4x CD-ROM. That should be enough to let Linux do what I want to do, so I fire up the box and get started.

Well, the first problem is that the computer doesn't see the hard disk. I know it was fine when I put it in the closet, so I pop the lid and jiggle a few cables. It boots now, but I'd better put an IDE cable replacement on my to-do list. I insert the Red Hat Linux CD in the drive and boot from the boot floppy. Everything goes incredibly smoothly. This is the friendliest UNIX I've ever installed. Less than half an hour after I start, I have a boot prompt. If the rest of this OS is as good as the installation procedure, they've made a convert. I don't think I'll be using other UNIX versions much any more.

Haven't heard back from TrippLite yet, so I make a follow-up call. The TrippLite rep tells me that my replacement unit shipped yesterday from Chicago, and that it should be here on Monday or Tuesday. We'll see.

Email from the magazine editor. The author they offered the article to is dithering about doing it, and they want to know if I'm still interested and can they get back to me Monday. Sure, I tell them. Why not?

Saturday, June 27, 1998 - morning: worked on the web site this morning. I still need to do something about getting the latest NT5 beta installed. When it blew up installing to kerby, it gave a cryptic error screen that mentioned several possibilities, among them inadequate disk space. Kerby is an old Gateway 486/66 tower that has only 40MB of RAM and an 850MB hard disk, either of which may be causing the problem. Before I get too disgusted with NT5 Build 1814, I need to give it more of a chance, so I'm off in search of RAM and a hard disk.

Afternoon: Just got back from a visit to Computer and Software Outlet (CSO), our local equivalent of Fry's. The decor is industrial - steel shelving, OEM packaging, and all the rest - but the prices and selection are pretty decent. I picked up a Seagate 4.3 GB Ultra DMA disk drive for $162.00 - only $6.00 more than it would have cost from Insight. Fast hard disk space at less than $40 a gigabyte. That's amazing. I remember when a 5 MB hard disk cost $5,000 - a thousand bucks per meg. Now it's about 3.8 cents a meg. The price of memory is just as amazing. I picked up two 32 MB, 60-ns, 72-pin SIMMs for $33.00 each - a buck a meg. I could have had EDO for $26 each, but I'm not sure this old computer will use it. Time to pull the lid off kerby, swap out disk drive, and add 64 MB of RAM. That'll also give me a chance to suck out the dust rabbits for the first time in a year or more.

Before I do that, though, I decide to make one final attempt to salvage that 850 MB drive. It's not worth much at today's drive prices, but I'll put it on the shelf if I can salvage it. You never know when an 850 MB IDE drive might come in handy. I suck down the latest version of the Western Digital drive management utility from their web site and fire it up. Using it, I'm able to do a pseudo-low-level-format. It doesn't really LL format the drive, but it writes all zeroes to every bit on it. The drive resets automatically and the system reboots. I can now use Partition Magic to access the drive.

Late Afternoon: Well, there was surprisingly little dust, the memory and disk upgrade took 15 minutes from popping the lid to restarting the system, and everything appeared to worked fine. When I restarted the system and started Setup, it autodectected the hard disk as an 8 MB drive - only about 4.3 GB less than its actual size. Well, I'll try it anyway. MT doesn't pay much attention to the CMOS settings.

This build of MT5 doesn't install from floppy, so the best alternative is to install NT 4 first with a big enough partition to copy the MT5 distribution files to. I installed NTS4, which sees the new drive as 4.0 GB rather than 4.3 GB. I can remember a time not too long past when 300 MB was a big hard drive. Still, a measly 300 MB isn't worth worrying about nowadays, so I continue with NT4 setup. NT4 installs successfully on the 1 GB C: partition. I immediately copy the MT5 distribution files - all 350+ MB of them - to the C: volume. Before continuing, I use NT4 Disk Administrator to create two 1.5 GB primary partitions in the free space area remaining.

Now for the moment of truth. I change to the I386 folder on C: and start the MT5 install. Everything seems to proceed normally. After several minutes of copying files, the MT5 Setup Wizard appears. The Installing MT Security features proceeds to completion, and the Installing and configuring devices blows up to a black screen of death, as usual. The BSOD says that if this is the first time it has appeared that you should try a simple reboot, which I do. We go through the whole wizard process again, and the BSOD screen appears again. It makes several suggestions:

  • Check to be sure you have adequate disk space - well, I have a 1.5 GB volume and a 4.3 GB drive. That sure ought to be enough.
  • If a driver is identified in the STOP message, disable the driver ... - well, the only driver mentioned by name is atapi.sys, and I figure I'll need that one if I want to use the IDE drive.
  • Disable BIOS caching and shadowing options - done.

The final suggestion is to Check with your hardware vendor for any BIOS updates, and that's where the tale of woe begins. I've often wondered if flash BIOS updates are a crafty scheme to sell new system boards. Most of the people I know who've tried to update flash BIOS end up killing their system board. The main thing is to know exactly which system board and BIOS rev you currently have before you get started. I reboot kerby and learn that it has a Phoenix 4.04.C BIOS. The only identification I can find on the motherboard is a sticky label, apparently applied by Gateway, that identifies it as a BAT4IP3E. Okay, that should be enough to get started.

I check out the Gateway web site and locate the flash BIOS upgrades. I locate one reasonable sounding upgrade file, P4D404H.EXE, which is identified as being "BIOS version 4.04H for the P4D machines with the GAT type motherboard (part number MBDPCI008AAWW)". All of the other BIOS update files have different numbering schemes, e.g. 4.04.7. Still, although "GAT" may be a typo, I figure I'd better check. I search the Gateway web site, and can't locate any helpful information. As a last resort, I call Gateway tech support. After spending 20 minutes listening to really horrible rock music, a technician finally picks up. I tell him what information I have, and ask if this is the correct flash BIOS update. Finally, after 15 minutes of back and forth, he says that it sounds like the right one to him. It's obvious to me that this is a first-tier tech support guy, and he's obviously not sure of himself. He was probably selling burgers last week and will probably be delivering pizza next week.  I ask to be put through to second-tier support. After another 20 minutes listening to garbage rock music, Gateway's phone system disconnects me.

It's obvious that there won't be any help from that quarter, so I decide to go ahead and install the update. It appears to install successfully, and the system restarts showing a 4.04.H BIOS level. CMOS is corrupt, as expected, so I enter Setup to fix things up. My first hint that all is not right is when the BIOS won't autodetect my drive. At first, I figure it's because the CMOS settings aren't right, so I do my best to put them back to the settings that were originally used with the 4.04.C BIOS. Now the system won't boot at all. It gets as far as displaying the BIOS screen, but pressing F2 to enter Setup does nothing. At this point, it's pretty clear that I've installed a BIOS that doesn't work with this computer. No great loss - a 486/66 - but still aggravating beyond belief.

Evening: Before throwing up my hands and heading out to buy a new system board, I decide to give it one more try. I search Yahoo! for Anigma (the name of the system board manufacturer) and 486 and find the Micro Firmware home page. They have exactly what I need - a rescue disk that will upgrade the BIOS on my Anigma BAT4IP3E system board. I download the update, reset JP35 on the system board, boot with the rescue disk, reset JP35 and restart one more time. I'm back up. The BIOS now autodetects my hard drive. There is joy in Mudville.

I restart the system and allow the MT5 Setup wizard to start. After several minutes of checking, it blows up again to the same black screen. I'm stubborn, but it's pretty obvious even to me at this point that this 486/66 is never going to run MT5. So now I have a Windows NT Server 4.0 machine with 96 MB of RAM and a 4.3 GB hard disk - not a bad thing to have. Kerby still boots with the MT5 loader instead of the 4.0 NTLDR, so I figure it's worth the extra effort to reinstall Windows NT 4 from scratch. It'll be interesting to see how much performance benefit I get from 96 MB of RAM versus the original 40 MB, and from the fast Ultra DMA disk drive.

Sunday, June 28, 1998 - Worked on the web site this morning. It needs to be in usable form by the time Windows NT TCP/IP Network Administration hits the bookstores, which will supposedly be in August or September. That's not as far away as it sounds right now.

The rest of today is dedicated to getting my office back together so that I can start the work week productively. There are three or four computers in here with the covers off and parts strewn across the floor. Every horizontal surface is covered with manuals, tools, parts, antistatic bags, etc. Once I get things back together here, I'll work on the web site some more if there's any time left to do so.

The first thing to deal with is kerby. I'd set the Windows NT screen saver to Blank Screen, but when I came in this morning, I noticed that its monitor was not only blanked, but apparently not getting a signal. When I moved the mouse, it took several seconds for the screen to redisplay. Aha. APM Power Management is enabled in BIOS. After several reboots trying to get into setup (Phoenix BIOS's can be incredibly picky about exactly when pressing F2 will invoke Setup), I get APM turned off. Although some people like it for workstations, the last thing you want is a server going into suspend mode and powering down its drives.

Now to get all the covers back on and the machines out of the middle of the floor and back under the desks where they belong...

Afternoon: All the computers are back in place, although they're not all plugged together yet, let alone connected to the network. At least the essential ones are back on line and I'll be ready to start work tomorrow. I think I'll take the rest of the weekend off.

 

 

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.