The Smith's Journal - January 2011

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New decade

Tags: Music, Studio, Pro

Happy New Decade to all of our Readers, both humans and robots. I spent a nice quiet New Year with Ruth and Bitzia, singing and watching The IT Crowd :-) The calendar had suggested I should get on with trying to practise and record my end-of-century piano piece "Decadends" but instead I got swept away by a tidal wave of energising positivity which began at the Winter Solstice Full Moon Eclipse and has continued ever since. It has been like riding a fast bike/horse/surfboard through wonderful scenery, a really productive time. I'm brimming over with excitement at what my fortieth year holds in store for me, and know things are looking up! I've moved into a new state of wellness with the realisation that 1 am finally becoming my true Self. Maybe it's just due to the fact that I've been on holiday! :-) Obviously having lots of quality time with friends and family has recharged all our batteries ready for going back to work in the New Year. I've been recording tons of music with Ruth and Barry and others, and preparing more of my archived recordings to go online soon.

- Malcolm The Inspired, "he who dreams of motherboards" Smith

Computer research

Tags: Studio, Computers

I'm going to be unstoppable if this rate of music carries on, especially once the new music computer is born. It has been a long and arduous labour, researching the current state of computer hardware for the past few months/year. This moving target has been my major focus in every spare minute all through the Christmas holidays; I've been staying up all hours, sleeping just four hours a night (Thatcher-style) reading countless reviews and forums including some epic 600-page threads (!) (not every page mind) in readiness to spend my hard-earned pennies building the finest £1000(+) machine possible with modern hardware.

Back in 2001 when I got back into computers and began this website (my goodness, was that only a DECADE ago?!?), I spent some years planning to build a dual-Athlon LinuxBIOS workstation for my studio, but eventually gave up a few years later as my goals of silent operation and fast processing seemed mutually exclusive; the tech was still too noisy and expensive, so it never happened. Instead I soldiered on with an old 700MHz Pentium III and then a friend generously donated a Pentium IV 3GHz machine, which, while not silent, was almost sufficient for my studio's initial primary task of digitising my vast DAT archives while I waited for the computer industry to arrive at quiet and powerful processing as a technical reality. The idea was that once this epic work was done, then I could think about 24-channel recording and mixing on a quad-Opteron system...

Well, fast forward four years and my studio progress has reached a good point where I'm now halfway through that DAT mountain and have also started multitrack recording. And happily the tech has moved on sufficiently that I can now look at building an audio workstation fit for the 21st Century, a supercomputer called audentity strong enough to develop my audio identity. Here's my basic spec:

New music computer spec: silent and legacy-free

It's remarkable that despite being a former Computer Configuration Engineer who once built computers for a living, that (besides the odd bit of vintage tech) I've never got round to buying parts to make my own computer (cf. the cobbler's shoes), just hobbled along on borrowed boxes and cobbled together DIY 'upgrades' such as new hard drives. The old machines have served me well but nowadays even 'simple' tasks like internet use require more powerful hardware to just keep up with all the Javascript, and as a friend pointed out, I do so much work on a computer that I need to have a decent machine.

It was interesting to come back into the world of hardware and start from scratch building a legacy-free system: no floppy disk, CDROM, DVD, PATA, PS/2 to clutter up the superfast awesomeness. My office fileserver computer (soon to be renamed trancefer) has a DVD writer, floppy drive (still useful for old sample disks), printer, scanner, card reader, big 1TB hard disks, all accessible over the network (although my printer is a bit lo-tech!).

Having now almost chosen everything, over the next few weeks I'll be building this new computer and testing everything works as hoped. Once it is ready for production use, I'll then migrate all my systems around one place like the Mad Hatter's tea party (old studio PC goes to office, olde office PC becomes music+email+backup fileserver and CD burning station). Since the huge new case won't really fit in the current studio layout, I'll take this as a good reason to tear it all down rebuild the studio into a new ideal configuration. Oh and a Tax Return needs to fit in somewhere before all that!


New music computer

Tags: Studio, Computers

[ More pics of the newly built machine ]Wow, I can't believe I actually finally ordered parts to build a new audio workstation! I'm still reeling from last month's ten-year milestone of releasing the first of my recordings online and now another epic battle is won! Heaven knows what February holds in store...

I tried my utmost to order everything before this week's VAT rise, to prevent our nasty .gov getting their grubby little fingers on even more of my money just to give to the rich; indeed this was a good deadline to ensure I pulled the trigger. Here is what I've ordered, at a total cost of £1108: (excluding the inherited parts)

[ Audentity dual screen Nanopolis desktop with Ensoniq SQ80 ]

The following will be inherited from the old workstation:

Stuff to add later on if I ever get any more money:

Ultimate/Cheap Linux Box

Tags: Computers

OK, so I backed down from my initial design concept of no moving parts nor hard drives. Large slow fans are below the threshold of hearing anyway, and large SSDs are sadly not affordable yet as was expected.

The above list constitutes my long-awaited take on The Ultimate Linux Box concept, which hopefully may be helpful to anyone considering building a new computer soon. Well, it's not really 'ultimate' since budgetary constraints kept us off the high end multi-socket platforms with massive SSDs and well within the bounds of sanity to what is a decent box for the money. I also discuss an alternative Cheap Linux Box below. I hope (but for now can offer NO WARRANTY) that the above parts will play nicely together, and I will update this article once everything arrives and is set up. Until then, here's more about the components I bought, just for the benefit of the two or three humans who might still be reading this...

[UPDATE: I've now built the new computer and taken many pictures :-]


Seasonic X-400 Fanless high-efficiency PSU

Tags: Computers

Firstly, I'd like to thank the awesomely Cool & Quiet place that is Silent PC Review, whose informative and in-depth articles shed light on many fine products in the pursuit of silent computing. Mike C built his own anechoic chamber for measuring noise levels of PC components, and his scientific reviews really are second to none. Some background from his early but still relevant article on Power Supply Fundamentals:

"Our own experience indicates that despite all the new power hungry components such as >75W video cards and >120W CPUs, it is still rare to find a desktop computer than draws much more than 200W DC under typical demanding applications. Around 300W DC looks to be about the highest power draw from a single CPU full-bore high end system at this time (Feb 2005). Although some headroom is always good to have, there seems little question that consumers are being persuaded to pay for power capacity that is never used. One of the nasty side effects is the fan noise of the high airflow required to keep the PSU adequately cooled when delivering maximum power. High speed fans generally make more noise than slower ones even when they are slowed by undervolting."

"[...] the nature of a switching power supply is that it delivers as much power as is demanded by the components. This means that when installed in a PC whose components require 200W, a 400W PSU and a 250W PSU will each deliver 200W. Does this mean the 400W is coasting while the 250W is struggling? Not if they are both rated honestly and if they have the same efficiency. If one has lower efficiency than the other, then it will consume more AC to deliver the same power to the components, and in the process, generate more heat within itself."

These facts are often forgotten even by enthusiasts: typical power usage of a 130W overclocked CPU + hot (non-SLI) GPU still only needs 256W - the graph says it all. Apart from High-Effiency PSUs, larger wattage PSUs run hotter (more efficiently) unless really pushed to higher wattages, "but then this extra resistance is removed when the load gets higher, so that turn-on is never a problem." (Yes, I never suffer from that problem either ;-)

Mike's glowing review of the Seasonic X-400 Fanless high-efficiency PSU and subsequent (evil) Fanless PSU Torture Test Roundup made me forget the rest:

"The main reason for the scarcity of lower power Gold models is due to user perceived need for higher power PSUs (a need encouraged, of course, by the PSU vendors) which makes lower power models harder to sell."

"The parts in the X-400 FL are apparently robust enough that if it was fan cooled, it could easily be rated for 700W."

Since I'm only using one graphics card, I don't really need to pay the extra £40 for the 460W version. Reading later about the Silverstone Fortress FT02 was another turning point and the Eureka lightbulb lit up...

Silverstone Fortress FT02 tower chassis

Tags: Computers

I was initially going to buy the black version of Silverstone's Fortress FT02 but the special Limited Edition with red interior was actually £10 cheaper (back when I still cared how much this all cost), and that got me thinking. Then when I found the Crosshair IV it was a marriage made in geek heaven ;-) I just joined up the dots and the remaining items fell into place (apart from the RAM). This case is totally amazing, a revolutionary design classic. The rotated motherboard idea is pure genius, coupled with positive pressure to encourage maximum airflow. The massive slow AP181 Air Penetrator fans are superb, directing the air like the Nexus BeamAir air guider, instead of just dispersing it like most fans. If even they turn out to be too loud, I can run them at 7V or perhaps switch (some of) them off while recording - experimentation will be necessary.

The positive pressure concept was first used on the original FT01 design, but its gravitationally-challenged top intake fan was a bit of a brainfart, just like Intel's failed BTX standard which similarly failed to utilise gravity. Silverstone's Raven RV01 was the first to take the smart move of rotating the motherboard, albeit with the PSU blocking the airflow somewhat. Luckily by the second attempt in the RV02(-E) Silverstone got it right, although also with tacky plastic exterior 'styling', thankfully fixed on the FT02. As people realise the stupidity of ignoring gravity, case design will soon evolve so this becomes the norm. It makes total sense even besides the heat convection issues: who in their right mind would choose to have cables coming out the back of the PC where you have to crawl and fumble around to get to them? With this case you just pull open the top and there they are, usually kept neatly out of sight. I hate having to reach around the back of things just to get at cables. Someone really needs to get in a Time Machine and sort out whoever thought that one up. The back of this just has a PSU vent. And USB sockets and buttons are more conveniently located on the top panel than way down on the front (unless used on a desk, but this thing is w-a-y too huge for that). The only possible downside I can imagine is that the top exhaust fan is nearer to the user's ears so it may become noticeably loud [UPDATE: Yes, it is, so I'll replace it.]

I wasn't sure for a while whether I needed such a large case, since I'm only using two SSDs and no optical disks, so I could get away with having no front drive bays at all and could almost do without the front third of the case. Perhaps I could build my own chassis or cannibalise an old cheap one with a large front fan by standing it up with its front fascia resting on bricks so the rear cables (and heat) come out of the top like Nature intended. But in the end since my metalwork skillz are hardly great, and I don't have a suitable old case to butcher, I decided the FT02 is the finest case on the market, and I wanted to give them my money in respect for good design. Silverstone have already announced the FT03 (much nicer in black), which can run fanless, but it is only for small motherboards and looks a bit cramped; I prefer the simple minimalist air tunnel approach. Their TJ11 is w-a-y overpriced and overkill for my needs.

Unfortunately the case is on back order until mid-January, so that will delay delivery of my orders, but give me time to download and Read The Fine Manuals. (I remember when I got my first serious computer (aged 12), it was also out of stock but the shop kindly gave me The User Guide in advance, which I promptly devoured obsessively, and still have and cherish today! :-) In the end I went for the black+red case, and some lovely matching accessories for it - the motherboard is a work of art with cool sculptural metal heatsinks which demand to be showed off, so it will all look great together. I used to think having windows on a PC was lame (nearly as lame as having Windows on a PC ;-) and just for ricers, and I was never one for bling. But I eventually decided that in this case having a window is actually a good idea since the design is so revolutionary that I'll be constantly wanting to show it to people, so without a window I'd just be wanting to take the sides off and show them anyway :-) And since it has a window, well it needs to have lights in it so you can see... so I got me some CCFLs ;-) They can be switched off when making music unless the vibe dictates. Maybe it's the whole mid-life crisis thing hitting, a Harley/Ferrari substitute, all fiery red+black Italian stallion passion wagon Phenom-enal pheromonal Aries (the RAM) yang/yang stealth powerhouse to power my house. (Although the low-power CPU+GPU could be seen as the yin balancing this system :-) [ More photos of the finished computer ]Whatever, nobody can convince me it's not awesomely beautiful.

[UPDATE: Having owned this case for a while, I thought I should pour some praise on it... :-]

This case is very cool (in many ways). Although it alone cost more than any computer I've bought this millennium, it is most definitely worth it. Absolutely awesome. These photos don't even come close. It is absolutely huge. You could almost live inside the box. Being in the same room as this thing is a quasi-religious experience (think 2001 monolith presence). I think it may well be a new form of sentient life. It's not quite perfect though - here are its only faults:


AMD Phenom II 1055T six-core processor

Tags: Computers

It's kind of ironic to think that the new computer will run at slower clock speed than the eight year-old Pentium IV 3GHz machine it replaces! The new AMD Phenom II X6 1055T normally runs at 2.8GHz, although it does have six cores instead of one. The programs I use most, namely Ardour, GIMP, and soon Blender (and eventually video editing software), are all multi-threaded and so make good use of multiple processor cores.

I was initially set on getting the low-power 45W AMD Athlon II X4 610e 2.4GHz, then considered going up to a 65W 905e, but when I read more about the Thuban architecture with its 9MB Cache, 2000MHz HyperTransport and extra two cores, the 1055T's even better efficiency and made it an obvious choice.

[ Front side portrait view of ThermalRight Ultra Extreme 120 Rev.C installed on Asus Crosshair IV Formula ] Light shining through fan behind TRUE on Asus Crosshair IV Formula in FT02R |What's best about this particular CPU though is that it is towards the end of a line of years of platform development which means that performance has matured over time as AMD have fine-tuned and improved the design and bugs have been ironed out. (And being end of line means that it's cheaper :-) As a result it runs very cool at lower power (95W) than its big 125W brother 1090T. Note that as well as my 95W 1055T (part number HDT55TWFK6DGR) there's also an older 125W 1055T (part number HDT55TFBK6DGR). The 95W one is an OEM part, and hence is only available when bought as part of a system bundle or with a motherboard. I'm not sure why AMD restrict their best processors like this, but the advantage for us is that it comes in a plain OEM box without the rather disappointing stock cooler which would just be a waste. Instead I'm using a Thermalright Ultra-120 eXtreme Rev.C which, at 160.5mm high, is only just within the maximum 165mm to fit into the FT02 chassis! The large case fans nearby provide enough airflow to not need a HSF.

AMD also recently released the 3GHz 1075T but this runs at a higher voltage and has a lower maximum temperature, so is less efficient and overclockable. The 1055T has a fixed multiplier of 14x, which reduces slightly overclocking options, but there are still many other ways to overclock it, and due to its excellent efficiency, it will easily reach above 3.5GHz even without trying. I'll initially keep everything at stock speeds, possibly undervolting and/or underclocking it for absolute silent operation, then maybe see what its capable of. For recording, total silence is imperative, although mixdowns of large multitrack projects demand lots of power but don't need total silence.


Which Coreboot motherboard?

Tags: Computers

All along I'd yearned for a motherboard compatible with CoreBoot (formerly LinuxBIOS), and had over the years investigated a few options, getting excited to see newer boards having support (albeit incomplete). But in the end I gave up since they were by then hard to get hold of and already outdated. More crucially though, I didn't have the skills required, and need something rock-solid stable, not a whole boatload more problems and uncertainties about not everything working properly with lots of memory, etc. So I reluctantly gave up on that five-year dream in the hope that I'll suddenly wake up one day and find they've gone ahead and come up with support for my chosen board anyway... ;-)

Asus Crosshair IV Formula motherboard

Tags: Computers

[ More interior photos of the new computer ]The Asus Crosshair IV Formula motherboard is easily the most stunning I've ever seen and I rarely get aesthetically excited about silicon. Asus' own webpage says it all: "Lured by Powerful Beauty". The reviews are mostly outstanding (many being Editor's Choice, like most of the products I've chosen). It's also well-spec'ed, being the second-from-top of AMD's flagship Leo 890FX platform, offering USB3 and more importantly SATA3 (6Gb/s) to keep up with next-gen SSDs in the future.

I was initially put off by the lack of onboard graphics, since modern AMD platforms now have pretty decent (non-gaming) graphics, and I was aiming for as low-power as possible. But the more I read about the FT02 and 1055T, I realised they could still make an ideal silent platform with fanless PSU and even discrete GPU (which (until they get embedded into the CPU in future) is usually superior). And since I'd eventually need a discrete GPU anyway for triple-head display it seemed more sensible to get this 890FX board without onboard graphics which "pulls less power (and hence heat) than the 890GX as it lacks any integrated graphics". So I changed my mind from the cheaper Gigabyte and Asus models and the even older 785G boards I was considering and went up in the world, to better match the price range of the other components; it's sad to see a lame machine in a superb case. Although I'm not a gamer (apart from being addicted to Doom ][ and other vintage classics), and know very little about overclocking, I figured the extra BIOS options and tweakable things could prove useful for underclocking, undervolting and temperature monitoring, as well as providing multiple options in an unpredictable future.

Like most complex computer gear, there were initial problems in production - the heatsink was found not to be touching the North Bridge (!), so temps were going crazy. But hopefully these issues have now been resolved, and it should be a good board with quality components built to last. The newer even costlier version called Crosshair IV Extreme sadly doesn't have the same gorgeous sculpted heatsinks and instead has naff wonky ones with a fan underneath(!) and other features I'll never need.

Ugly motherboards

Tags: Computers

The clincher for me though was the fact that all other current motherboards are just so ugly! I mean really, who thought up those colour schemes? All those horrid garish tacky cyan and orange and brown!?! Ugh. Gigabyte are highly regarded technically but I worry about the sanity of their 'design' teams, and question their ability to make a functional product if that's their idea of aesthetics. What makes it worse is that they could have had any colour they liked - yet somehow someone actually chose these colours! What was wrong with the standard green colour that circuit boards always came in? They actively went out of their way to change it, FOR THIS?!? Come on guys!?! I know looks shouldn't matter, especially if something just lives inside a computer case, but my sensibility is deeply troubled wondering how they can ever make a product that will fly when it looks so awful. I just couldn't bring myself to pay money for that. I reckon it's all a conspiracy to get people like me with any artistic sense to steer away from the cheap'n'nasty and have no choice but to buy the dearer boards. So I suppose it keeps us safe from cheap tat, and I guess you can't have beauty without its opposite. But hopefully all these gross gaudy colours will become deeply unfashionable already; the next generation is looking more promising, but they are still working out the bugs.


16GB Kingston DDR3 1333MHz ECC RAM

Tags: Computers

Since Linux (and the above programs) loves RAM, I've maxed out the board with 4*4GB of ECC RAM. I don't ever again wish to wait around for swap storms like I do now :-( RAMdisks are useful and faster even than SSDs (yes, I do have a UPS). Besides, I always loved the concept of ECC ever since I learned about parity in Computer Science lessons at secondary school :-)

I did spend three whole nights reading until dawn every single forum thread about G.Skill performance RAM compatibility issues, and gave up trying to battle with Corsair's borken website. Asus' confusing Qualified Vendor List for my motherboard didn't make life much easier either. These companies sadly just don't get it: make it quite clear what is guaranteed to work and people will buy your products. Or not.

In the end I was non-plussed by the small speed gains, and higher memory speeds above 1333MHz are not officially supported for 8GB+ anyway. The reality is that you can either have good latency or fast bandwidth or large capacity, but never all three and rarely even two of those unless you pay silly money. And adding extra RAM in the future is a crapshoot whether it will even work, even with identical modules, if you can even find them in a year's time. G.Skill is a pretty elusive brand to buy here in UK as it is, and often sells out in America. So I stuck with four sticks of a known-good type of Kingston server RAM which runs nice and cool at just 1.5V.

Luckily for me, the delay caused by my excessive reading efforts paid off: due to a sudden low in DRAM prices, the four modules each cost £44 instead of £55 just a few days before, saving me £44! Sure, it doesn't look as sexy as the flagship brands but I can always buy some nice copper ramsinks.

Future-proof vs cheap

Tags: Computers

All the current chatter about Bulldozer and Sandy Bridge (AMD and Intel's future platforms) might be exciting for enthusiasts bored with all the current tech, but I'm more interested in getting the best out of this year's gear which is now becoming more affordable as it (already) gets old now that the AM3 socket is EOL. Whatever I build will be a massive improvement after struggling on with my ancient Pentiums for so long. I hope this new machine will last for three years (it'll have to!) and realise that the days of gradually upgrading a motherboard then a CPU then RAM are pretty much over. You just have to throw a large amount of money into the industry at the best platform you can every few years and hope it lasts until next time, meanwhile upgrading peripherals along the way as needed. Yes, you can opt to buy cheap but we know where that leads. Before I got besotted with the red+black, I was also considering something slightly scaled down from what I eventually plumped for, in the noble olde-school historic tradition of the Cheap /Linux/ Box. For that, I'd recommend the same processor (or an AMD 905e or 610e) on a less flashy but still decent Gigabyte 890GPA-UD3H or similar MicroATX board using onboard Radeon HD4200 graphics, just 8GB or 4GB of cheap RAM and a cheaper FT03 or HTPC case (no, a cheaper one!) like Silverstone GD05, or an ancient tower turned on its face like I mentioned above. That would save a whole lot of money but just be plain jane, although much better and quieter than your average pre-assembled vomit box.

Nvidia vs AMD vs Intel

Tags: Computers

A very smart man once told me that "A very smart man once told me that absolute performance doesn't matter, it's performance at a given price point that makes a product successful." Some people claim Intel make superior chips to those by AMD, which nowadays is beyond doubt, but Intel's prices are ridiculous, so I choose to encourage AMD to continue the pricewar from which the consumer benefits. I also dislike Intel's business practices and so avoid their products wherever possible. To give them credit, Intel do do some good things for Open Source (so they should, they're a massive corporation) but they are unco-operative in some areas. AMD do the right thing and release full documentation for their chips, so the Radeon 5*** series is already supported by the Free radeon driver, and 6000 Series is also now working. Being open means things are steadily improving. In-kernel support means users can run any recent kernel without problems - NVidia just don't get this: we don't want to be tied down to whatever closed-source drivers you make which might not work with every kernel without manually patching the compatibility shim. It's 2011 - we shouldn't need to be hacking this stuff. I update my kernel a few times a week as I am tracking the state-of-the-art (well, nearly) with aptosid - this would be a pain otherwise.


PowerColor Radeon HD5750 GoGreen 1GB fanless graphics card

Tags: Computers

[ PowerColor Radeon HD7570 and 4*4GB RAM installed in FT02R and powered up ]The PowerColor Go!Green HD5750 1GB graphics card supports Eyefinity for triple monitors which I need for composing. I don't need 3l33t g4m1ng pwn3rsh1p so prefer a silent cool card to a pair of 6970s (pointless just yet since Crossfire Linux support is still on the ToDo list) or the 500W monster that matches my motherboard. But I hope this card will at least handle some Blender and OpenGL action which is more than the buggy onboard Intel I'd been stuck with could manage. Now that the 5*** series has now been superseded by the 6*** series this means the older one is now cheaper yet still has similar features. (Sadly this stonking great fanless 6850 is not available until March 2011.)

This particular model of 5750 was VERY hard to find, in fact nowhere in the UK sells it. I initially tried to order it from Ditaq Computers but they just sent an automated message in broken English declining the transaction and never responded to my emails :-( I think they are based in Malaysia and despite appearing in Google Shopping results don't seem quite ready for prime time. It looks a bit suspect that they don't list addresses or phone numbers of their London office on their Contact page... Caveat emptor! )-:

Just when I was about to give up hope, some divine inspiration arrived via a stranger on Phoronix forums, and with the help of the excellent Skinflint website I eventually found it in a German online shop seemingly named after a fine brand of mic stand. I negotiated their online payment screens using my schoolboy German and copying and pasting into Google Translate, and successfully used Paypal. All this hassle was worth it as the maximum power consumption on this special Go!Green version (different from the widely available standard version) is 62W vs 92W on AMD's reference design. This means that the card is safe to use without a PCIe power connector (PCIe bus' maximum power is 75W), so it can one day migrate to my office PC (whose old PSU has no PEG connector) once it gets old and needs replacing in the studio. AFAICT the card's huge fanless heatsink looks very much like the excellent Accelero S1 Rev.2 VGA cooler, which I was considering adding onto a standard 6850 or 5770 card to replace the stock HSF. It requires no extra fan as long as the temperature doesn't reach 90'C, which is never going to happen in this case with a huge 18cm case inlet fan inches below it. The physicist in me is pleased by the fact that the heatsink fins line up nicely for perfect vertical airflow in this case. It seems just plain wrong to put any other graphics card cooling solution in there, especially a card with an enclosed shroud with only a tiny air inlet, or one which scatters the airflow in all directions after the AP181 fans have so carefully directed it upwards. I don't want turbulence (=noise), just a gentle vertical updraft of natural convection aided by the massive inlet fans when needed. Hopefully this will work well in practice.


Choosing SSDs

Tags: Computers

This is an updated summary of a talk I gave eighteen months ago about Optimising SSDs when using Linux (and maybe Mac OS X if you're clever?).

We can take advantage of the fact that some of the cheaper models of the current generation of SSDs often have brilliant sequential read+write performance, and amazing random read performance (which is very useful for Operating System partitions) but less stellar random write performance. This is due to their architecture, and these issues will be addressed in the next-generation which promise blazing speeds across the board. Until the new drives come out and subsequently become affordable, we can use our initiative to make the current tech work in our favour.

Basically, you'd have at least one, but preferably two (or more) SSDs in your machine:

  1. A small 'cheap' one which is good at fast random reads but slow at random writes, and use this for OS files which are mostly non-sequential read-only and only change during upgrades, such as /boot, /etc, /bin, /sbin, /lib, /usr.
  2. A larger more modern high-performance one which is optimised for fast random reads and writes, and use this for everything else: changeable OS files and frequently-accessed (small) data files, such as /root, /home, /var, and maybe /opt and /srv if you use them.
  3. You may also want a big 1TB+ 7200rpm/5400rpm hard disk to store large media files which would needlessly fill up an SSD. Spinning hard disks still have their uses. You could alternatively mount these over the network on a remote fileserver to keep your machine silent.

This keeps Drive #1 in pristine tip-top performance and maximises its lifetime (which is good for an OS drive). It also allows you to choose drives based on what kind of usage they'll see, according to how well they perform and how their firmware is optimised. This is common in enterprise setups where they think about such details, but equally easy for anyone to do for any application. Just use Drive #1 as the main root filesystem "/" but then mount the read+write directories elsewhere on Drive #2 like this:

# /etc/fstab: static file system information.
# [file system] [mount point]   [type]  [options]       [dump]  [pass]
# SSD #1: mostly read-only - includes /boot /etc /usr /lib /bin /sbin
/sda1           /               ext4    defaults        0       0

# SSD #2 or HDD: read+write files
/sdb1           /home           ext4    defaults        0       0
/sdb2           /root           ext4    defaults        0       0
/sdb3           /var            ext4    defaults        0       0
/sdb4           none            swap    sw              0       0

# Drive #3 on big 1TB HDD: media files
/sdc1           /data           ext4    defaults        0       0
/sdc2           /music          ext4    defaults        0       0
/sdc3           /photos         ext4    defaults        0       0
/sdc4           /videos         ext4    defaults        0       0

# RAMdisk
tmpfs           /mnt/ramdisk    tmpfs   size=8G,nr_inodes=10k,mode=0700    0       0
# How Debian Squeeze has it currently
#tmpfs           /dev/shm        tmpfs   defaults        0       0

# Not sure about /tmp yet [I'm still reading up on this - will finish it soon...]
?????           /tmp            ext4    defaults        0       0

# If you use one...
/dev/cdrom      /media/cdrom    iso9660 ro,user,noauto  0       0

Note this from Chapter 9 of the Multi-Disk-HOWTO:

The only required directories that *must* be in / are:

/etc /dev /sbin

We're ignoring the 'virtual' directories, such as /dev, /proc, /media and /mnt. IIUC they are just system mount points which have zero size and so our SSD won't care about imaginary writes to them.

If the machine has enough memory, I'd usually aim to mount /tmp in RAM as it is volatile and needn't survive reboots. If you use a swap partition for Software Suspend, then you probably want to keep this off Drive #1 and have it on your read+write SSD too for superfast waking up from sleep. If you use a swap partition for actual swapping, then buy more RAM! Hammering an SSD with swap storms is not recommended.

Crucial RealSSD C300 64GB

Tags: Computers

[ Audentity other side cabling and Crucial C300 SSD ]In my new music computer I chose the Crucial RealSSD C300 64GB for Drive #1, but I am currently cheaping out by temporarily using a very quiet 500GB 5400rpm 2.5" laptop hard disk for Drives #2 and #3 combined, waiting until the prices of 256GB+ high-performance drives come down. The C300 has great overall performance apart from random writes, which are slower in the 64GB compared with 256GB, although they are obviously still miles better than spinning hard disks. 64GB is way too large for our OS needs, but you can't buy SSDs much smaller (apart from olde drives with lame performance). Just using one partition on it saves us worrying about running out of space in the different directories when we can't predict how they may grow. Having spare capacity is always good: spare area in SSDs is used by the drive itself for housekeeping duties. As Doug Hanson, SPCR's resident SSD expert, points out in detail:

"formatting the drive to less than full capacity will extend the life of the drive as wear leveling will have more spare blocks to work with"

"the more free space you leave for the controller to use for background operations the longer the drive will last"

"a good way to make your SSD more resilient to slow downs."

My studio requires silence, hence my need for SSD is greater than most people's, so I'll be glad to migrate from the hard disk to an all-SSD setup once I can afford another. The arrival of the next generation with superb all-round performance will obviously change everything regarding this article, but still for a while the older tech will (hopefully) only get cheaper so we win in the end. This week's drop in DRAM prices was also reflected in the C300 price like the RAM I bought :-)

Of the other current SSDs using Sandforce controllers, the Corsair Force and OCZ Vertex 2 are often recommended, but some Sandforce drives have had reliability issues. They cost more but excel at both random reading and writing, except for randomised data like compressed audio/video - this is due to their firmware algorithms which minimise writes to the drive by compressing data; this won't help if the data is already compressed, but is ideal for my own usage storing Ardour projects (uncompressed .WAV files). [See below]

Next-generation SSDs

Tags: Computers

The Crucial C300 in my new machine is currently the fastest SSD on earth, yet will soon be superseded by the upcoming next generation and its successor has already been announced. The new Samsung 470 also seems promising. The new OCZ drives look to have the best performance but won't be out until much later. These next gen drives were originally promised for Q4 2010 but were delayed due to manufacturing issues. Perhaps they cut themselves on the bleeding edge... Tweaktown cautions us though: "Don't look for price reductions until Q4 [2011], though." :-(

Hopefully soon the prices for at least the current-generation models will come down significantly when the new generation comes out (if not, the industry will surely collapse) and people everywhere will start buying them as boot drives for all their machines, not just in laptops, since moving from spinning hard disks really is the best upgrade you can get (except for upgrading from a 512MB Pentium 4 to a 16GB Phenom II X6 ;-) Obviously hard disks are still essential for large cheap media storage and backups.

What's even more interesting are the third-gen PCIe SSDs which will transfer at 1GB/s direct to the motherboard. The current gamers' delight with running dual graphics cards in Crossfire/SLI will pave the way for other uses for all that massive PCIe bandwidth, namely RAIDs of PCIe SSDs (abbr overload!). This is another reason I chose the Crosshair IV motherboard which is covered in PCIe slots, for hopefully some degree of future-proofing. And if the empty optical drive bays in my huge case ever feel lonely, the new OCZ Ibis XL (sadly not for sale) fits into a standard 5.25" drive bay and starts at 4TB ;-)

[UPDATE 2011-02-02: I've now built the new computer and taken many pictures :-]

[UPDATE 2011-07-02: Since I still have neither the workload nor the bank balance yet for a PCIe SSD, I'm currently considering the new SandForce drives from OCZ for a second drive (storing /var, /home, and audio projects). These lead the field in most things except incompressible data, which we couldn't care less about, using mostly WAVs. I like the idea of targeting specific usage niches with optimised products, such as the C300's top random-read performance for read-only OS files, and the OCZ for WAVs; choosing tech based on weak points in unimportant areas to minimise cost gives us an extra advantage. Unfortunately, rather than lowering prices, the industry is instead pushing to increase the standard lowest capacity to 120GB, limiting 60GB models' performance due to number of channels, so smaller disks are not ideal and cost more per GB. The top-of-the-range Vertex 3 120GB is fastest but in ways I don't need. The Agility 3 offers similarly stellar performance, but I'm hoping the new even cheaper (only just reviewed) OCZ Solid 3 120GB, will be fairly close to these, as it matches my colour scheme better ;-) I also hope that OCZ are fixing their higher-than-usual unreliability issues, although to be fair they are treating customers well and offering replacements for failures.

Other drives worth considering are the Samsung 470, although now they have been bought out by Seagate, it remains to be seen if their quality will stand up. Crucial's new M4 is good for read-only, but not so hot otherwise. Corsair got set back by recall problems but the new v.1.2 Force 3 looks promising, and the faster Force GT looks slick. Plextor and Patriot have no SSD history to go on as yet, but it's an exciting time in the SSD market, with everyone waiting for the long-awaited price war, so manufacturers may suddenly become interesting if they can compete on price which is still the main factor preventing mass usage. Sadly Intel's third-generation drives are overpriced with lacklustre performance. After many problems using flakey Intel graphics, these days I avoid Intel's products, especially after their embarassing Sandy Bridge product recall.

I'll do some more research and keep watching prices before making a final decision...


More recommended records

Tags: Music

While compiling my list of Desert Island Discs, I added some more choice albums to my list of Recommended Records. Here are the new additions:


Hugging soldiers

Tags: Pro, Politics

Just heard on the news:

"There are reports that demonstrators have surrounded military vehicles in Cairo and that the protestors have been hugging soldiers."

Way to go - sounds like Rob Brezsny is in there. Hope it all ends well...

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Licence © The right to copy is left with the user copyleft Malcolm Smith 2011-01-03 - last updated 2011-07-03