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Punk Walrus's Journal: Little Debian Snack Box

Journal by Punk Walrus

My work thinks I am a Linux god of some kind, which is kind of funny, because if I was to rate it like a college, I am almost done with my sophomore year: I have a lot of learning to go and then there's all that post-grad work! What will my thesis be... but I digress.

Here's an example. We had gotten these mini-boxes from HP for years. My group tests software and network connections, so we're always looking for full computers in small packages. Currently we use Technoland and Spectrum systems. A few years ago, our HP guy came to me and said he had these things called "EPCs," which was their foray into the Mini-ITX form factor. These were nice boxes: P3/800s with 128mb RAM. They worked great. I set up purchasing with them, and saved the company roughly $100,000 from our current vendor for some remote testers. Then they got a new model, which were P4/1.8ghz boxes, and I was a star, because they worked just as great as the others, and are still being used as servers, testers, and other stuff.

Then Happy HP merged with Crappy Compaq, and they dropped the EPC line for these horrid silver and black boxes called "Evos." I have always had problems with Compaq, and I was pissed when they sent us these things instead. Well, right away, there were problems. The first was that these boxes are USB only. Not only keyboard and mouse, but there are no parallel or serial ports which made testing pretty useless (one of our products is serial-only). We got some converters for our KVMs and serial hardware, but these boxes are very poorly designed from the motherboard on up.

The biggest bitch was that these boxes do NOT like Linux. Specifically how the motherboard talks to the hard drive. These boxes are for Windows XP only, apparently, so when you try and load GRUB on them, they barf. LILO kind of works, but only if you have no dual booting. These boxes were stubborn as hell! here's my issues, and how I got them to work. The first hurdle was they don't allow booting from the CD, unless you change stuff in the BIOS, and then it's only a one-time deal (you have to manually reset it each time). There are no floppies, either.

Red Hat (9.0), our company standard, was right out. It installed okay, but froze with GRUB. This also removed Mandrake as a contender. Slackware 9.0 installed, but then refused to boot. OpenBSD? Forget it: it hung at dmesg startup. But the funny thing is, Knoppix (a Debian distribution) worked almost flawlessly (except no sound, which for the team, wasn't even an issue). So I thought, "Why not do the hard drive install script from the disk?" It took some futzing around. First of all, I found if I installed any more than two partitions, it would not boot. I suspected this was my first error with Red Hat (I usually do a few partitions for security reasons as well as upgradability, like /home, /var, and /boot are kept away from root). When I did cfdisk, it said it could not write the partitions due to an I/O error. So I wiped them all, and installed two: root and swap. Then it wrote the partitions, and then I installed Knoppix-flavored Debian.

It worked. Holy cow, it worked. At first I thought, "It's the hard drive partition thing," but when I tried to re-install Red Hat... same problem. I installed Knoppix... problem went away. Sort of...

Now, here's a weird thing. Whenever I boot anything non-Windows on this box, I get hundreds of errors on boot about the keyboard, until after a minute and a half of repeating error text about a signal jam of some kind, I get a "keyboard timed out" error. Then it boots normally, and I can use Debian, KDE, and the rest of the Linux stuff just fine so far. Huh.

I reported this to the guy who gave me the box to "try and fix it," but he got so disgusted with them in the meantime that he gave up and told me to keep the box aside until later. Knowing how things are with this company, I'll probably have it until I leave my job. And even then! I still have my first phone headset from this company; I haven't used it since I got it, but was told I was "totally responsible for it," and would be asked for it back when I left or be fined $650... so far, this hasn't happened to anyone else.

But these Evos pack a LOT of heat. So I keep it off. Knowing Compaq, I am sort of afraid to leave it on in my office unattended for fire hazard reasons.

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Little Debian Snack Box

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