August 02, 2006
Ubuntu home server setup

Almost a year ago now, I decided to transform the house's old, decommissioned Pentium 2 desktop PC into a house server of some sort.

There's a bunch of things I can envisage doing with a 'home server' - everything from serving files to other PCs in the house, to taking care of some basic home security, running a firewall etc.

My friend Oddbjørn has been advocating ubuntu since the beginning, so the choice of operating system was easy...

The upgrade

After bidding on a couple of eBay auctions, I landed 2x128Mb compatible RAM (the Pentium 2 in question runs on an Intel i440bx chipset, and therefore I had to be picky on which chips to get). Total cost? 0.02 + shipping.

I then ordered 2x320 Gb Western Digital RAID EIDE discs, to ensure not running out of space any time soon. eBuyer is a safe & cheap supplier.

As the old motherboard has 2xIDE interfaces (no SATA/SerialATA), each supporting max 2 units (1 master, 1 slave), and since I plan to leave a CD-ROM attached for the forseeable future, I rather wanted to spend a little more up front than having to buy more new disks in a year or two. Total cost per gigabyte is also much lower for a 320Gb disk than for a couple of 120Gb disks, for example.

The Install

Yesterday, all the pieces had arrived, and I dropped in one of the free ubuntu CDs I ordered back in June. (Get your free CDs here).

Info on installing IDE hard drives can be found here.

A few hiccups:
Once the RAM and the harddrives were in place, the default CD didn't want to boot. I got some non-intuitive error messages that needed a bit of Googling to resolve:

  • Buffer I/O error on device ... meant one needed to tell ubuntu to irqpoll
  • RAMDISK ran out of compressed data, invalid compression format (err=1), kernal panic - not syncing: UFS Unable to mount root fs on uknown block - luckily someone had gotten this one before me
  • Later, having started the installer, it suddenly changed its mind and didn't want to recognize the CD-ROM any more. Again, someone else had done some digging, and ide=nodma solved it for me.

Summary: to get ubuntu flying on my old PII, I needed to use the 'alternate' CD, select 'install in text mode' and before installing, hit F6 and enter irqpoll ide=nodma

Last tricks

I knew old PC BIOSes have problems with large harddrives (a list of the different IDE limits available here).

One of my fears was that my new disks wouldn't be useable until I had upgraded my BIOS (not straightforward to find the manufacturer & pick the right upgrade when it's some 8 years old).

The ubuntu installer (after the tweaks mentioned above) recognized both my 320 Gb disks, and default partitioning split the disks into a huge root partition (/ ) and a small swap partition. Auto-partitioning the second disk undid the partitioning of the first (automatically set the slave disk as the bootable root). Manual intervention (re-auto-partition the master disk to / and swap, then do a 320 Gb /home on the slave disk).

The installer then formatted the disks and proceeded with the rest of the installation.

When finished, it prompted to reboot the system, which I did, and Grub (the bootloader) started. Success! The PC saw my master disk, at least!

However, running grub gave error 18: - an indication that the required data to boot the system was in an area inaccessible to the BIOS.

Some fiddling with the BIOS to see if changing the settings there (references here and here) solved the problem didn't work, so I had to re-do the entire install (sigh), as outlined above, but creating a bootable 64Mb /boot partition as the first partition of the master disk. A few hours later (installation takes tiiiime), ubuntu booted up it's beautiful, graphical GUI...

't was 3am, so haven't done more playing with it yet...

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