Sunday, October 29, 2006

Computer stuff Computer stuff

Some times computers can be even more frustrating than women. I have been planning to reformat this computer's (#D) hard drive and reinstall the OS's. So, one of the steps in the process is to make sure that everything is backed up on another computer (#H). Good practice in any case, and something that I had not completely done for quite awhile. Indeed, when I lost my other desktop system (#F) maybe four months ago (motherboard or processor), and my older server (#H) a couple of months ago (hard drive), I found that I had not backed up everything.

Some how in the haze of making sure that everything was backed up, I was deleting some of the extraneous stuff that doesn't ever need to be backed up, and decided to delete ntldr and ntdetect.com from the back up. These are system files that Windows NT systems (including 2K, XP, 2003, etc.) use for booting, and they reinstall them whenever the OS is installed or reinstalled in the root directory of the lowest order drive (typically your C: drive).

The problem is that you can't boot w/o them. At all. So, all of a sudden, this sytem (#D) was unbootable. I didn't have a CD that I could boot with, in order to copy those files back into C:\. So, I tried a floppy boot. I went through the whole thing, loading four diskettes, just to run into this error
Disk I/O error: Status=00008001
Failed to arcread the boot partition to check for a disk signature
when Windows Installer was trying to run in order to fix that problem. So, I looked up the error on the MSFT Knowledge Base, and it is a Win2K problem with having Zip drives on the same IDE channel as the boot disk. The suggestion was to disconnect the Zip drive until installation was complete. (Actually, I think the error shows up more often than that - it is just that Win2K normally just notes it early in the boot process and then ignores it).

But while I was in the Knowledge Base, I figured I might as well try to figure out why my 1gb SDRAM wouldn't work in that computer (#D) (it won't work in the Dell server (#H) because Dell has its motherboards rigged not to take anyone else's memories, which is why Dell memory costs so much, and why I won't buy another Dell). The suggestion was that many BIOSes don't handle two different memory speeds, and my 1gb SDRAM is DDR3200, whereas my other SDRAMs are somewhat slower. So, I figured that I might as well check out just running the 1gb memory, without any other SDRAMs installed.

Whoops, all of a sudden, I couldn't find anything to boot from whatsoever. Not only was the hard drive not finding ntldr, but the floppy and CD drivers weren't finding bootable media installed in them. I started unplugging things, to little avail, until I finally found out that any time you do a major hardware change, my BIOS requires that it be reset to the new hardware configuration. I have the BIOS set to not autodetect my IDE drives, since that is a waste of time when you are booting from the same hardware configuration month in and month out. And that configuration is lost whenever you add or subtract an IDE drive, or add or subtract memory. So, in order to have static IDE definitions in the BIOS, I have to redetect the disk drive info. And I ended up doing this some half dozen times in the last 12 hours. And while I was at it, I found that the Dell (#H) BIOS is even worse than usual about handling two disk drives jumpered as Masters on a single IDE channel.

So, right now, the server (#H) is now upright with only one side missing. This system (#D) is running on its side with the hard drive not screwed in, and the Zip drive unplugged and unattached to the IDE cable. I am back to 5/8 gb of RAM and Win2K Help errors. With it open and lying down, I plan to replace the CD-Rom with a DVD-RW drive that I bought a couple of weeks ago. Currently it has both a CD-ROM and a CD-RW drive. The CD-RW drive is much slower, but the CD-ROM drive is much flakier, and hence its imminent replacement. Besides, it keeps me from hybernating or suspending the system.

One positive side effect of this whole thing though is that I finally have a bootable CD that I can use for this sort of recoveries. The Dell system (#H) came with a CD-RW/DVD-R drive and Nero software, which actually manages to make bootable CD's with minimal work. MSFT suggested a way to do it involving copying a hard drive smaller than the CD/DVD being built or a floppy drive. It noted that this didn't mean a disk partition of the proper size, but a hard drive. When was the last time anyone saw a 700 mb (CD) or 4.7 gb (DVD) or smaller hard drives? And it is silly taking up an entire CD or DVD with 1.44 mb from a floppy - might as well use the floppy instead.

Finally, I should note the reasons for reformatting the hard drive and reinstalling the OS. Currently, the hard drive is formatted as:
C: FAT
D: FAT32
E: FAT32
F: NTFS
This is mostly historical, so that I could access data from both Win 98 and Win NT. As should be obvious from its name, NTFS is unreadable by 3.x descended Windows OSes (including Win 95, 98, ME). And I always want to have mutliple OSes installed and operational on any system. Currently, this system has: Windows 3.11, 98, NT 4.0, 2000 Professional, and 2000 Server (the 1gb SDRAM only runs under NT 4.0). A more logical configuration is Windows 2000 Professional for work, and 2003 Server as a back up (in both senses of the word - so that this system can also run as a server, if the Dell system is down). And that can probably be best done with a single NTFS partition.

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