Hunting for good bargains? Join Tony Caputo as he takes you through computer shows and online auction houses in search of parts to build a server for $400 with tips for avoiding damaged or unstable goods. (chapter 2 from the book Build Your Own Server, (McGraw-Hill/Osborne, 2003, ISBN: 0072227281). Chapter 1 is available also.
I frequently participate in hunting excursions, not with a rifle out in the woods, but with cash and a credit card at a computer show. There are a flood of other hunters fighting for the same game. Busily hustling through the doors like a flock of Velociraptors encircling vendors and their deals for the day. They’re early, believing the old adage “the early bird gets the worm.” This may be true, but it’s also often the second mouse that gets the cheese.
One Man’s Garbage is Another Man’s Gold
There is a way to survive and flourish within this jungle of microprocessors and cable. I hope to pass that knowledge on to you, by pointing out some survival tips and by enlightening you to some fascinating data and deals. For me, this hunting adventure began with local computer shows and then led me online to seek out those exceptional new and used components that will give us the ingredients to build our server. It can be done for about $400, and I’m going to show you how.
The following are a few core ingredients to bargain hunting success, whether you’re at a computer show or searching the online auction houses:
Patience - Waiting for the right part at the right price
Knowledge - Understanding of the right part and its compatibility
Caution - Realizing some people are selling real garbage and bad lots
Timing - Knowing when it’s time to move in for the kill
There is truly a plethora of components at these computer shows. Some of my best deals have included a new 15-inch cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor for $50, a used 17-inch CRT monitor for $35, 2GB hard drives for $15, a used LS-120 floppy diskette drive and new network cabling for a buck, video adapters and sound cards for $5, and computer chassis (with power supplies) for under $30.
Figure 2-1 - One of the dealers at a local computer show attempting to tame the hunters
There is a long list of variables that can cause flaky behavior from electronic equipment like computer components. So, buying anything used is risky, but many of the vendors will guarantee a component is functional or offer an exchange (see Figure 2-1). In addition to damaged or unstable goods, there’s also other variables in human error, including:
Incompatible bus speeds
Incorrectly set jumpers (shunts)
New BIOS or drivers needed (which can be difficult to add if a motherboard doesn’t boot up)
Not enough power from the power supply or wrong type of power supply (for example, Pentium 4 requires new connectors)
Wrong type of cables and harnesses
The list goes on. You could very easily troubleshoot a new motherboard, hard drive, or memory module until you’re blue in the face, it finally works, or you surrender and admit defeat. In some cases, the problem may be something beyond your control. For example, I picked up an FIC (First International Computer, Inc.) SD-11 full-ATX motherboard with a new Slot A AMD Athlon 600 MHz processor as a combo unit on eBay for $60 (see Figure 2-2). Unfortunately, although rated very highly in reviews during its first release (1998), it’s not designed to handle today’s newer, power-hungry 4x AGP cards or PC133 memory (discussed further in Chapter 5). Therefore, I had a perfectly good motherboard and processor, but no video adapter or memory for it. This is why doing research before purchasing anything is important. You don’t want to get stuck with a drawer full of useless parts.
Figure 2-2 - The FIC SD-11 motherboard
An easy way to avoid buying something you don’t need is to visit Google (www.google.com) and type the motherboard model in the search field along with “issues,” “problems,” or “won’t boot.” This will bring up not only the reviews, but also technical support message boards and the manufacturer’s own documentation. Another resource is motherboards.org, which is an exceptionally valuable resource for data on the motherboard you may be considering. Unless your motherboard is an antiquated obscurity, you’ll no doubt find someone somewhere who’s had problems with it. The question is, is the solution something you’re prepared to handle?
Keep in mind that whatever you see or I suggest in this book I’ve tested with a specific configuration and brands of components. If you’ve picked up the same pieces and are having problems, check my configuration and see if you have a wildcard that may be the culprit.
Static electricity happens when two objects connect and one becomes positively charged and the other negatively charged. This is electrostatic discharge (ESD). We’ve all experienced ESD when walking across a carpet and touching a metal doorknob; the positive charge transfers to the metal doorknob, creating sparks of hot static electricity. Although this isn’t anything like a lightning bolt to us (the extreme example of ESD), to electronic components, it is a lightning bolt. The shock we feel overshadows the heat that dissipates from the event, but the microcomponents of an expansion card, hard drive, or memory module can literally melt. There’s also a latent defect, where the component may continue to function for a while, but with a shortened lifespan.
ESD kills most computer components and is difficult to diagnose in used equipment. You can avoid frying your own parts by taking a few precautions. First, get into the habit of discharging any possible static electricity by touching something metal that’s earth-ground before touching any computer components. Second, set up an antistatic workstation because eventually you’ll forget to discharge yourself before handling components. You can also pick up a wrist strap with the Megohm resistor to help dissipate ESD. A megohm resister is a device that will limit the current flowing through your body to less than 0,5 mA—not enough to generate ESD.
It’s also a good idea to wear antistatic footwear to ground you, an antistatic mat to cover your workstation, and/or enclose all ESD-susceptible items in antistatic-shielded packaging while being either moved or stored. You can pick up a package of about ten Ziploc-like antistatic bags for about $6 at most computer stores, such as Radio Shack.
This chapter is from Build Your Own Server, by Tony Caputo (McGraw-Hill/Osborne, 2004, ISBN: 0072227281). Check it out at your favorite bookstore today. Buy this book now.
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