Nostalgia isn’t all that rewarding in the computer networking business. Those good old days were only that good if you were charging by the hour. This observation is especially true when it comes to getting your servers to run fast (and make no mistake, fast and stable are the same thing in networking, almost always). My last month has been all about tackling a phenomenon from the past that I thought we’d left far behind, along with smiley face T-shirts, Mikhail Gorbachev and male ponytails. That’s right, I’ve been worrying about interrupts…
Everyone seems to have locked into the idea that there’s no news value left in the hardware world at all: nowadays, computers are all supposed to be just white goods. Web servers have shrunk so far you can fit two of them into a 1U rack slot, fitted back-to-back running off laptop hard drives and mini-ITX motherboards. Any smaller and we’ll be buying them loose by the kilo like tomatoes.
Regrettably, though, real life is never that simple. On the one hand, the more reputable hardware vendors have long since solved the problem of filling up heavyweight servers (the kind you need a porter’s trolley to shift) with lots of full-power expansion cards. On the other hand, everyone else has been “diversifying their product portfolio” – a nicer way of saying that they’ve been hacking lumps off their specifications to make the price more appealing to naive purchasers.
The first case study apparently has almost nothing to do with networking, and that’s my experience when I recently turned over my home desktop workstation. I use the term “turned over” here deliberately, because I don’t mean I entirely retired the older machine. Old PCs go into the basement for re-appraisal and possible upgrades, and sometimes they come out faster than they went in – and not merely by changing the processor(s). In this case, I wanted to dabble in two of this year’s more newsworthy topics; namely, multicore versus multiprocessor and Vista-readiness.
So I moved my Dell Precision 650 to the basement and, bargain hunter that I am, found an ex-lease Precision 470 to replace it with. At first sight, this was a nice “sideways-grade”, going from U320 SCSI to SATA and AGP to PCI Express, while also shrinking the case a bit and getting a boost in CPU rating from dual 2.8 Xeon to dual 3.2. Of course, when used in anger, I couldn’t tell any difference – a fact worthy of reporting in itself – but the trouble started when I stumbled across a cheap deal on a better PCI Express graphics card. I don’t play games much on this machine, and it’s long been my experience that the video output of cards that are tuned for 3D work is curiously inferior, but £50 for an Nvidia 7600 series was too good to ignore.
The minor problem was that once this new card was fitted, my PC would spectacularly fail to talk to the network, which these days means it would only run for about six seconds before some startup task or process tried to have a conversation with its home base (let’s pass over in silence the intense annoyance caused by otherwise harmless little utilities that hold up your machine from booting while they time out because their developer’s website is temporarily offline). Any attempt to use the LAN card landed me in an hourglass-watching session, which was a trifle odd, because the Precision 470 has an onboard Intel Gigabit Ethernet interface! It wouldn’t even run long enough for me to look in the Task Manager display to figure out what was coming at my system at the software level, but remember that not all such problems are down to software…