The great PC rebuild

You can’t claim real geek cred until you’ve actually built a PC, can you? So that’s what I, with a lot of help from a friend who’s very good and patient with hardware, JB, have been doing.

The specs are awesome: a shiny new Intel processor, the i7 2600K, on an Intel DP67BG; an Nvidia GTX580; 16GB of DDR3 SDRAM from Kingston; and two SSDs (one from Intel, one from Kingston). All going into my old case from Voodoo, which housed the then-shit-hot PC I bought in May 2005, cos it’s a nice case with lots of airflow, LEDs and a clear side-panel. We also decided that the PSU from that build was more than adequate to re-use – it’s a 700W one from OCZ that I think is about three years old.

So last weekend we stripped out the old components, a long job in itself as they were watercooled, and assembled the new build. And then hit a roadblock: the PSU didn’t have a connector for the shiny new vapour-cooled GPU, so that was duly sourced.

Daphne PC rebuild

All your CPUz are belong to me

Finally we were ready for The Big Switch On. Everything lit up and the fans started to whirr – but no POST beep. After some lengthy headscratching and faffing about, it seems there’s some kind of problem with the power.

When everything is plugged in and it powers up, the lights flicker frantically – including all the lights on the motherboard, SSDs etc – and there’s a staticky sound from the PSU itself. It does that when the GPU is unplugged, so we are pretty sure it’s not inadequate power.

When tested with the multimeter, the voltage is all over the place. When we try to jumpstart the PSU by shorting it, it’s deader than a dead thing. But plug it in to the motherboard again and we get the flickering lights/staticky sound. Rinse and repeat!

It’s possible that the PSU is just on its last legs, but it was totally stable in the old configuration, which was quite power-hungry: I had a couple of GPUs in SLI on that.

The other thing is that we don’t know of course is if the PSU is cause or effect – ie if it’s the source of the problem, or if there’s something in the new configuration that’s causing the PSU to behave like that.

A diagnostic light comes on on the motherboard which the manual says is excess temperature on the voltage regulator. And there’s lots of flashing of the lights on the motherboard.

We have tried it without the RAM and everything unplugged – same result.

The question is, is it the PSU or the motherboard? I’m leaning towards the latter, though it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the PSU has picked this moment to go into its death throes. I’d be really grateful for thoughts, either comments here or an email to kate dot bevan at guardian dot co dot uk.

More on SBS and some link love

I’ve had the server up and running for a while now and it’s mostly great. However, I’m finding some random issues with emails occasionally being delayed, and emails from a couple of private mailing lists I’m subscribed to sometimes get held up or just don’t arrive, which I’d like to nail down.

On the latter, I was wondering if was to do with draconian spam filtering – I want to be able to see what’s being rejected rather than just trusting the spam filter. A quick Google took me back to a fantastic resource that I’ve used before: David Overton’s blogs. He’s employed by Microsoft and blogs on assorted Microsoft products, from Vista to enterprise software and includes some incredibly helpful walkthroughs of issues he’s solved.

Lo and behold, there was a walkthrough on how to change the spam filtering defaults and how to define a mailbox for quarantined email.

I’ve just set it up – I’ll keep you posted on how it works and whether it solves my niggle about emails from the lists not being delivered.

Spam, email, spam, email

I will blog about something other than this geekery, I promise! However, it’s occupying a lot of head- and real time at the moment, so bear with me.

I’ve run into a niggle. Yesterday morning – after I’d left home – I discovered that while email was arriving fine in my inbox and seemed to be leaving it, it wasn’t arriving at its destination. Some cursing followed, plus a bit of anguished tweeting. It was a bit of a hunch, but I wondered if it was connected to the planned outage overnight that my ISP, Be, had notified me of.

Note: I route (or at least, I did) my email through Be’s smartserver. This is to make sure that email is whitelisted as having come from a reputable, known source. I don’t have to send out via a smartserver but I risk being treated as spam: fair enough, I suppose. I did some digging around Be’s forums and discovered that there have been issues with its SMTP server in the past. One user frequently pointed users to another SMTP server that I could also use as a smartserver, so when I got home I changed the smartserver settings and bingo, email was going out again.

However, when I got up this morning, email was yet again not going out. *headdesk* I’ve disabled the smartserver and *touch wood* email is being sent again fine.

(ultrageeky alert here)
I’m wondering if it’s connected to an error reported in my overnight email from the server. I’ve tracked down the error on Microsoft’s exhaustively detailed Technet. However, as I’m discovering with Technet, it assumes a level of knowledge I don’t have as it points you to where the problem is and where you can fix it, but doesn’t walk you through the fix process. Correctly, I suppose, it assumes you sorta know what you’re doing; this stuff isn’t for amateurs.

If any experts are reading this, this is the critical error report:
“The application-specific permission settings do not grant Local Activation permission for the COM Server application with CLSID {61738644-F196-11D0-9953-00C04FD919C1} to the user NT AUTHORITY\NETWORK SERVICE SID (S-1-5-20) from address LocalHost (Using LRPC). This security permission can be modified using the Component Services administrative tool.” It happened 22 times in the logging period, and it’s identified as event id 10016.

I also had one instance of event id 10010:
“The server {0B5A2C52-3EB9-470A-96E2-6C6D4570E40F} did not register with DCOM within the required timeout.”

I’m also wondering if it’s to do with the fact that I’ve let my router take back DHCP management. On that topic, I’ve finally got around to rebooting the router, which has of course fixed the network wrinkles. The Mac is behaving itself, it can see the NAS and the Airport Express is visible to the network again. Hurray.

Next on my list is spam filtering. For the time being I’m signed up to the trial for Microsoft Live OneCare, which is offered during the setup process. It provides firewall, AV, spam filtering etc, all of which is cool except for one thing: I can’t see a way to manage directly my spam filter. I need to be able to define what is and isn’t spam as I’m on a couple of private mailing lists that can generate a lot of email – sometimes 100+ totally legit mails a day. These were arriving in my inbox but they’re not now and I suspect they’ve been blacklisted. But I can’t check to see, nor can I therefore manually whitelist the address they come from.

So again, if any experts are reading this, two questions: first, is there a way to manage directly the spam filter? And if not, can you recommend a third-party solution that will give me the control over the settings I need?

Final piece of the Exchange jigsaw

Today’s achievement is that I am syncing my phone – a Palm Treo Pro running Windows Mobile 6.1 – to my Exchange server. This means that my phone and my email, contacts and calendar sync automagically, so that when a new email arrives, it’s also on my phone. If I want to add a contact, I can do it either via Outlook (or Entourage on a Mac) or via the Outlook Web Access client and again, it automagically appears on my phone. Equally, anything I do on my phone – reply to an email, enter a contact, add an appointment to my calendar – registers on the server and is reflected in Outlook, Entourage, OWA etc.

The reason I wasn’t able to do this over the weekend was because the process of getting a secure web server certificate was a little opaque, despite the wizard, in SBS. However, I had another go at the wizard this morning and it informed me – as it hadn’t done before – that I could buy the required certificate from my registrar, GoDaddy. Without it, my phone was refusing to sync, saying it couldn’t verify the kosherness of my server. You can tell web browsers to ignore that, but the phone said no.

Having realised that, it was a matter of minutes to buy the certificate, confirm my identity via an automated series of emails, download and install the certificate on the server. This is where the SBS 08 wizards really do make life easier: apparently it was a pain in the arse in SBS 03.

What this means is that browsers – both on computers and mobile – and any applications that interact with my server recognise that it is trusted and safe. I did ponder, mind you, just how “safe” this kind of “yup, this is me, this is my server, now trust me” automated process really is: if I can do this, so can anyone, including people with malign intentions. Still, the point here is that it was easy – once the wizard belatedly offered me the option to buy the certificate via my registrar. It hadn’t before and I was a bit puzzled.

Four machines, four OSs

This is Alex at work with me yesterday setting up Exchange 07 and SBS 08. We have between us four computers, each running a different OS: my Vista box (running, er, Vista); my MacBook Air (Mac OSX 10.5.5); my server (SBS 08) and Alex’s Eee PC (Xandros Linux). We were managing the router on the MacBook and Alex was doing clever pinging stuff with his Eee PC. The Vista box was up to connect it as a client to the SBS network. Oh, and both the Vista box and the server are plugged into the big monitor.

Alex and the computers

Alex and the computers. Not shown: gallons of Diet Coke

Up and running

Amazingly, I and Alex got SBS 08 and Exchange 07 up and running yesterday. We are both absolutely delighted about it – and once we’d got around the stuff that was stumping us, which was mostly to do with the arcane Windows networking stuff, it Just Worked.

So I can now sync Outlook with my own Exchange server and I can access my email, calendars and contacts via the web.

There are a couple of wrinkles. First, I need a web server certificate, which I’m going to investigate tomorrow. At the moment my phone won’t sync with the Exchange server because of the absence of that certificate, and you can’t tell it to ignore the lack of it as you can with web browsers.

Second, the networking stuff is a pain in the arse. SBS 08 wants to manage DHCP; however, it doesn’t seem to do it very well and despite its bleatings, I have handed that responsibility back to my router.

When SBS was managing DHCP, the Mac kept dropping the internet connection; nor could it see my NAS drive. Neither the Mac nor the Vista box could see the Airport Express. None of that is acceptable. I’m sure there’s a way round it and I will see if I can track down someone who can help me with that, but for the time being, the networking is being handled again by the router.

Third, we didn’t think SBS’s notifications were very intuitive. There was a certain amount of headscratching as we tried to work out why we couldn’t connect the client Vista machine to the network. We managed it in the end, but one of my reservations about SBS is that it wants to manage too much: I just want an Exchange server up and running. Perhaps I’ve got the wrong Microsoft product as I’m not managing a small office and therefore don’t need a server managing everything for me. I hope to be talking to Mr SBS at Microsoft this week ahead of writing my piece.

What I want is this: a functioning Exchange server. Tick, I’ve got that and I’m very happy about that. I also want a functioning home network, however, and that wasn’t very satisfactory. I think that’s because I’m a bit out of my depth with Windows networking, which is not what you’d call clear and easy to manage. Plus my network is mixed, with a Vista box, a Mac, an Airport Express and a NAS drive. At the moment, that’s a bit borked; I’ve got some fiddling to do with it.

One of Alex’s observations is that the wizards in SBS don’t make it easy to poke around under the hood and see what they’re actually doing. So trying to make it easy can also make it hard: wizards are great when they work, but when they don’t, you’re stuffed.

For example, one of the wizards sets up the router. It reported that it couldn’t open the ports it needed – even after we’d manually opened them (for the record, I’ve got a new router, the Linksys WAG160N, which is very configurable and tweakable).

Other wizards, though, do the job well. If your domain is parked with one of the three registrars SBS can manage, it does all the DNS changes for you, creating the necessary MX records for the Exchange server etc. That was great: suddenly automagically my Outlook Web Access was there for me to log into.

The conclusion is that you can, if you’re confident and knowledgeable, do this yourself. The question, though, is – is it worth it? The answer is “probably not” if you’re a sole trader. It’s expensive: you need new hardware for SBS 08 as it’s a 64-bit OS, so you can’t just buy an old box at a car boot sale as you could if you wanted to run an older version of SBS or a Linux server. As I’ve noted before, it wants 4GB of Ram, a 60GB partition (though it occupies less than that once up and running); and it bleats like a sheep if you don’t have a backup drive attached (note: it won’t back up to a NAS) so you’ve got to add a second hard drive to your server. Backup of course is essential, you’d be mad not to have that second drive, but it does add to the cost.

And there’s the cost of the software: it’s going to be around £600 in the UK with five users. Never mind the time you’ll spend getting it up and running and maintaining it. So unless you’re running a small business on an absolute shoestring, you’re better off handing it over to professionals, I think.

Having said that, there is a warm geeky glow of satisfaction, even though I haven’t entirely succeeded – yet. I’m mostly there and I’ve achieved what I wanted, which was to do my own email hosting and to prove to myself that I could do it.

I’ll be writing a piece about this for the forthcoming Guardian Enterprise supplement. You can read the first one here; there’s a piece about SBS 08 here.

More geekery

The server journey continues. My domain has *finally* been transferred to my new registrar but SBS still reports that it can’t access the DNS settings. I suspect this is because I haven’t got them pointing at the registrar’s nameservers: if I do that, I break my existing email so I’m going to leave that until Alex, my tame geek friend who really knows what he’s doing, comes over on Saturday.

I’ve managed to get the server seeing both the Vista box and the MacBook Air and it can log into them and access their public folders. But I haven’t yet let the server take over DHCP and become the domain controller, because I’m a bit out of my depth with it. Again, it’s something I’m going to do with Alex on Saturday.

Alex seems to think that I’m doing OK and that I understand the concepts, so obviously I’m doing something right. However, I feel a bit uncertain about some of the network management that needs to be done and I’d like to do it with someone who really understands Windows networks sitting right next to me.

So next chapter: Saturday afternoon.

This is the point at which I draw the conclusion that really, it’s probably not worth it for an individual businessperson to manage this stuff for themselves. I’ve had a lot of help with expertise/kit/software but when you can buy Exchange hosting for (well, I’ve just seen that my registrar does it for $10 a month) buttons, why bother doing it yourself unless you really are into geeky challenges?

I’m into geeky challenges and I like succeeding at something, so I’d like to pull this off, even if it’s just proof-of-concept.