I am always scouring Ebay for computer deals that could potentially become projects to play with or to restore and sell. While I don’t get in to really old systems that may require some real work to repair I am willing to take a shot at a system that may or may not be totally complete or being sold as untested.
Before you continue there are a lot of acronyms used in the enterprise industry used in this post. I will have links to Wikipedia where possible so you can read up on these terms as explaining them all here right now would take another few pages of writing. Enjoy!
My latest rebuild has been what initially looked like an abused and tired old Dell PowerEdge 840 server that was up on Ebay for a price of $9.80 CAD and $30 CAD shipping. Not bad really. This reseller had a bunch of similar systems up at the time and I chose one that looked like it had a tape drive in it. There were only two pictures of the system and no pictures of the inside which can always show a sign of a seller hiding something.
I decided to jump on the system and it arrived a week later from Calgary, Alberta to my humble abode in southwestern Ontario. Of course I received notification that it arrived while I was at work but the good news was I’d have my week off before my sister’s wedding to figure out exactly what the system needed to get up and running.
The seller had noted in the posting that there would be no included hard drives or cords. They also mentioned that the drive caddies would be removed from the four drive SATA/SAS RAID hotswap cage. The question remained of course what WAS included with the system. I expected to see that they had removed the SATA/SAS RAID interface card for the drive cage and perhaps the SCSI card removed from the system that controlled the tape drive.
I received the system in the photo for sure as it was the only one they had with a tape drive. That’s a good start. I opened the tower up and realized the first thing I was going to have to do was remove the dust inside. It was absolutely caked with dust inside but I was able to get it all cleaned up.
I brought it back inside and began to inspect the components remaining with the system. It still had the CPU which was good though I couldn’t confirm it was the correct one until I booted the server up. It had the 4GB of memory that was promised which was good as many of the others were shipping with just 1 or 2GB. It came with a SATA DVD-ROM drive which was interesting to see. I wasn’t expecting it to be just a DVD-ROM. The tape drive was still there and it was indeed still connected to it’s SCSI interface card. There is no front drawer cover on it though and looking online this part is worth a lot of it works. I bet they tested it and it doesn’t. I have no way to test it right now so I removed it from the system. This was the best news though. It came with the SAS/SATA RAID interface card AND the drive cage to go with it. This was great news even though I was initially planning to just use the server’s built in SATA RAID option otherwise. Oh, and for some reason this server had a modem card installed. Weird.
So after inspecting all that it was time to see if she would fire up. I plugged the PowerEdge in to power, plugged in a VGA cable, found an old Acer PS/2 keyboard and a USB mouse to control it and hit the power button. With a loud whine from the fans she came to life. After the fans settled down I got a picture on the screen and saw it going through the BIOS hardware detection process. This took some time as is normal for a server but eventually I got in to the BIOS.
The BIOS confirmed that I was running 4GB of DDR2 667MHz ECC memory (upgradeable to 8GB) and the promised Intel Xeon E3240 Quad Core running at 2.4GHz. I was happy to see this as many of the other servers the seller had were dual cores.
I decided to see if I could boot it to Fedora Linux and went to open the tray for the optical drive but it refused to open. Oh it made the sounds like it wanted to but it just would not do it. Probably needs a new belt but I don’t have any lying around. So I shut down the system and removed the old SATA DVD-ROM drive and installed a LG PATA DVD burner from my stash and hooked it up. Why the switch to PATA? Well number one I have a bunch of these lying around that work great and number two I needed the SATA power and data connector for something else later.
I powered up the system again and put in the Fedora live DVD. It immediately booted to the DVD, well after I monkeyed around in the BIOS to get the thing to actually boot to DVD. It loaded up Fedora but it performed terribly. I believe this had to do with the Gnome desktop environment that Fedora uses by default. Considering the only graphics chip on this system is an ancient ATI job with access to only 32MB of memory I noted that I could indeed install Fedora but I’d have to install a lighter weight desktop environment for it to run quick enough.
I shut the system back down and began to take note of what I’d need to get the system fully operational again. I set aside a SATA hard drive for the boot/OS drive then looked on Ebay for some hard drives that I could use for the RAID array. I found four 160GB Western Digital SATA hard drives from a seller in Quebec for $30 CAD and from the same seller that I bought the server from I found some drive trays for the hard drives again for $30 CAD.
A week later and all my parts had arrived along with another project system that I will talk to you about down the road. Anyways, I installed the hard drives in to their new homes in the drive cage and booted up the server. The SAS card recognized the drives and I was able to jump into the card’s configuration utility. All drives reported good and I went ahead and created a RAID 10 array giving me a total of 380GB of storage that’s mirrored for data redundancy but also striped for performance. It took about 30 minutes to build the RAID array which wasn’t too bad.
I then went ahead and began the Fedora 25 installation. This took about 45 minutes to complete and about another hour to get another desktop environment installed (I chose MATE as it’s my favourite and doesn’t require a lot of video resources to run well) and the PowerEdge 840 was back up to, what they say in the industry, production ready.
After various restarts Fedora would no longer boot properly on the Dell. I’ve never seen what was happening before and it seems the internet hadn’t either. The 840 did have a Windows 2008 Server sticker on it so I went ahead and installed Server 2008. It’s running perfectly other than the fact that the system does not support 1080p in Windows. I ordered a nvidia 8300GS and with it installed but the system would not display video. I removed the 8300GS and searched for a proper driver for the onboard ATI graphics. Finding that driver on an obscure tech website I went ahead and installed it. Still no 1080P but it does now display 720p. Interestingly if I remote in to the system it easily runs 1080p in the remote window.
I’m pretty stoked right now as to how well this all went. Currently I am planning to install MySQL on it for kicks and experiment. Yeah, I know that sounds incredibly boring but I want to learn some more about MySQL databases. It will eventually become a file server for the house.
Have you found some interesting tech goodies on Ebay, Kijiji or Craigslist for use in a project? Let me know below. I’d love to hear your experiences.