eBay, between online poker and Spider Solitaire

Editor Neil McNaughton celebrates the 100th issue of Oil IT Journal with a humorous account of his latest pastime—buying computer parts on eBay. With the vague intention of upgrading a disk, a few idle mouse clicks led him inexorably to a new interface card, a new dual processor motherboard, server case, a new operating system and a tip of the editorial hat to Jerry Pournelle.

I have long been an admirer of erstwhile Byte magazine correspondent Jerry Pournelle, whose tales from ‘Chaos Manor’ can now be read in Dr. Dobb’s Journal. With a cupboard full of ‘decommissioned’ laptops, a three-hub network and seven PCs online, it struck me that if Pournelle can get away with it every month, then I should be able to indulge myself with a hardware story in celebration of the 100th issue of Oil IT Journal. But before I get into the story, you need to understand something of my psychological make-up.

Exchange and Mart

When I was a kid, one of my favorite magazines was Exchange and Mart—a UK collection of small ads of dubious provenance. As an example, there was the ‘seebackroscope,’ a monocle fitted with a mirror so that spotty youths could ogle young ladies without being seen (except for being seen with a strange black gizmo stuck in their eye). To my chagrin, I never got a seebackroscope. I did acquire kits for building crystal sets, later transistor radios, headphones from WWII and so on. Above all, Exchange and Mart catered to what the psychologists call the ‘spectrum’ male in me, fostering a life-long habit of pouring over magazines in a mindless quest for enlightenment and new toys.


Many years later, the combination of a modest amount of what I like to consider ‘disposable wealth’ and the advent of eBay, has led to another attack of my Exchange and Mart disorder. Although eBay comes somewhere between Spider Solitaire and online poker in time wasting and expense, the small add-ict in me was reawakened when I spotted a snazzy, 10,000 rpm SCSI disk with a 160 mbps LVD interface. Now for those of you who don’t care, know or want to know about this sort of stuff, you might as well stop reading. It gets worse.

Cheap upgrade?

A 10krpm LVD SCSI disk is nothing too fancy. But this technology of a couple of years ago that is now being sold really cheap—as folks move up to 320mbps SCSI and SATA. For me, it seemed like an opportunity to add a cheap, high performance SCSI subsystem to my IDE machine.

A long story

This was, as the French say, ‘le doigt dans l’engrenage’—the finger in the gear train. When my new disk arrived, I needed a SCSI card. Seeing as how eBay doesn’t have everything you need ‘in stock’, the card was purchased, for real money, from an online vendor. When it arrived, a problem emerged. The card was a 32 bit (long) PCI card of the sort that are used in servers. This meant that instead of an upgrade, I was suddenly looking at a new, server architecture. Being of a philosophical nature I thought, in for a penny, in for a few Euros. I bided my time watching out for a suitable motherboard to appear on eBay.

Dual Xeon

Soon enough a board came along with a couple of long PCI slots—and indeed, sockets for dual Xeon processors. This was getting to be more of ‘in for a penny in for a few thousand Euros.’ But what the heck! The board’s arrival was followed by the realization that, apart from the Xeons, these kind of boards need a) a special kind of rather expensive memory and b) a very big box with a fancy EPS12V power supply.


There ensued a combination of fortuitous eBay purchases (the Xeons, the heatsinks and fans for the Xeons, various SCSI connectors and terminators) and some buys-in-desperation from online merchants (memory and the big box). Parts jetted in from the four corners of the world. Esoteric manuals were culled from the internet. Acronyms were deciphered. An assembly plant took over the dining room table.


Next came the big decision—which OS? Another dreadful confession. This is actually the third machine I have built this year. I have been playing with OS installations—Red Hat, Suse and Windows 2003 server. The only OS that a) installed without too much hassle and b) allowed me to use all four processors (yes because in processor math, 1+1=4) was Mandrake Linux. Which neatly segues into the next editorial in this series. Operating systems I have known, from mainframes through calculators to desktops, back and forth from Unix to Windows to Linux. Or will it be on languages, from Fortran though Basic to the Unix shell, LAMP and Perl? I may even have something to say about web services!

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