Tuesday, June 23, 2015

CompuTrek: One Man's Journey to Build a Computer

It started with an interview, an accusation that my experience did not adequately prepare me for the job I wanted. That my 2 years on the phone troubleshooting systems did not count toward the experience they desired for Level 2 Deskside Support.

I knew I could do the job, I had built several computers from parts over the last 20+ years. But those were for me, not for an employer. I had taken classes in A+ Certification, but I did not have the actual certificate.

So, I asked myself, how could I prove I have the ability to be an effective Desktop Technician? My answer was: build a desktop computer from the various components and record myself doing it.

So began an Odyssey that has taken me several months to reach fruition. First, I had to have enough money to buy the components, a feat which was aided by 20 hours of overtime in May. Once I had adequate money, I needed to research what parts I needed, and more importantly, what tools would I need to prove my abilities?

I decided that I was going to prove all the skills that I had learned at NC State: A+, Net+, Security+, Windows 7 and Cisco. I would need all the tools and equipment that would prove proficiency in those skills. I decided to build 2 computers, one of which would be used as a server, one as the client (and a killer game system while I was at it), get a Cisco Router to connect them all together, put together a RAID system, and add all the security and networking tools I needed.

I've divided the process into stages. Stage One was to build the server. This computer did not have to have the killer hardware of the gaming system. I could get by with cheap. I researched motherboards, processors, graphics cards, memory, hard drives, Solid State drives, and cases.

I didn't really want to get everything mail order, so I found a local store in Boston, Micro Center, to have a chance to look at the components first-hand. The trek there led me from work, to the Silverline Courthouse Station, to South Station where I caught a Red Line train to Park Street, to a Green Line train that took me to Boston University West. It might be noted that the night before I had attended a concert, and had walked extensively before and after, so I was already tired and footsore. Once at the BU West station, I had to walk about 10 minutes to get to the Micro Center Store.

Once there I saw a vast array of motherboards and everything else, but a sign caught my attention, that said if you buy an AMD processor, you could get money off the motherboard for it. I wound up getting a motherboard for free when I spent $100 for the processor. I was very happy about that. I could have chosen a quad core processor, but instead I was sold on a 6-core processor.

Given that I did not have a car, and had limited carrying abilities, I broke my shopping spree into two trips. On the first trip I bought the motherboard, the processor, the power supply, memory and an OEM copy of Windows 7 Home Premium. I dragged the bags back the way I came, walking 10+ minutes, Green Line, Red Line then the Orange Line to go home. By the time I got home it was late and I was exhausted.

I had planned on going back the next day, but my knees, feet and ankles said no. So I went to work, but rested during the night. I did some research on what I'd bought, and found the motherboard doesn't work with Windows 8, which was fine by me. For my first system I had planned a dual-boot, first installing Windows 7, then installing MS Server 2012. They offer a trial version that's good for 6 months, plenty of time to prove my skills.

The next day, a Friday, I left work feeling a little better, and made the trudge back to Micro Center. This time I thought I might limit myself to a case and a keyboard, and a couple of smaller things. But I
did shop for monitors too. I found a suitable, cheap case, a suitable, cheap keyboard, and a suitable cheap monitor. I actually had a choice, two 24" monitors for the same price, but one was considerably heavier than the other. After lifting the lighter one, I thought, 'Hey, I can make this in one trip.' I paid for my stuff and prepared to leave.

The box for the monitor had a handle on it, which is what sold me on getting it. The box for the case had no such luxury. But it was relatively light and I found I could heft it all right. Then the first walk came, and what was a 10 minute walk any other time, became a 20+ minute walk of horrors, as my strength gave out time and time again, forcing me to put my packages down and rest a minute. My hands began to cramp up, and my back hurt. I have one strong arm, and one weak one, and shifting the packages around proved harder on my weak right arm.

I knew there was a bus stop close by, but I'd never seen the stop. I took the chance and walked in a different direction until I found the stop. The bus came and took me in the opposite direction of what I
wanted, but did leave me at a Red Line station. The transit system was crowded by that time, so I spent half the trip back standing, my packages on the floor or between my legs. No one offered to give up their seats to someone who was obviously struggling until near the end.

But the end result was that I made it home, exhausted, but at least I had all the computer parts for the First Stage. What I didn't have was a desk or table to set it up on, and a chair to sit in.

So I did my research and I found a Walmart in Quincy, Massachussetts. The plan that day was to go to Walmart, see if they had a place to cut hair inside, as they frequently do, look for a nice suit to record an
introduction in and then get the table and chair. I found the routes to take on the MBTA to get there, and found them lacking, much the same as for Micro Center: there was a period where I had to walk. Yet, I was determined to get the damned thing set up that weekend, so Saturday afternoon, I made one last trek, oh how I wish.

Orange Line, Red Line, Bus. I found a 4-foot plastic table and a chair that went with it, not too too heavy, and the table had a built-in handle. The chair had a hole in the back to put my hand through. But I found no place to cut hair there and I knew dragging a suit along with the table and chair would be a  bad idea, so I only took the table and chair with me.

The walk from the bus stop unencumbered took 10 minutes. Encumbered, with frequent stops to rest my tired arms and back took 20 minutes. But at least the way back was downhill, that was what saved me.

After getting chastised by a snooty bus driver for going to the wrong stop, I did finally drag my tired butt back home. Tired as I was, though, I was eager to get started with the build. I set up the table and chair, then lined up all my computer products at the desk, took a picture, then recorded an introduction to the actual players in my dramedy: the components.

I have a camera that happens to shoot video. It's a nice camera, and the video it shoots, as well as the audio were perfect for my needs, but it runs on battery power and an SD card. I had no way to plug it into the AC, only to charge the batteries. I have 3 batteries for it, and each battery let me record video for about 20 minutes or so.

The bottom line was a series of short videos that chronicled my attempt to put the computer together. Overall, it went well, until I tried to fire it up, and nothing worked. All the work I had put into it, shattered by a bad power supply.

But then this is why I wanted to get all the parts locally. I knew that, rather than having to send the part back, I could just walk back to Micro Center and get it replaced the next day. I could do nothing until the morning, so I removed the defective power supply and left everything else as it was. I went to bed exhausted and not a happy camper.

Then the rain started.

It rained all night. When I woke, it was still raining. Yet though I was still tired, I made the trek to Micro Center again, in the rain and carrying the old Power Supply. Orange Line, Red Line, Green Line, walk 10 minutes. I exchanged the Power Supply without issue, and picked up a couple of things that were missing: an HDMI cable (silly cheap monitor only had VGA), and a mouse pad, because the table surface didn't let the optical mouse work well.

Trudge back - Green Line, Red Line, Orange Line, and walk the 3 blocks home. In the rain.

Yet home I did arrive, and before I turned the camera on, I installed the Power Supply and fired up the computer, to be sure it worked before I rolled. It did. I finished my videos, stepping through setting up the BIOS. I split my 2TB hard drive into 1 TB partitions, installed Windows on one and left the other blank, intending to install MS Server 2012 on it when the time came.

But before I did that, I wanted a stable Windows setup. To my dismay, nothing seemed to work well at first, most notably the Ethernet. Then I remembered that the Motherboard came with its own installation disk. I ran through the installation, trying to skirt around the bloatware, and eventually got to the point where the Ethernet was recognized and I could surf the web, and begin the process of downloading and installing updates.

Anyone who has installed a fresh copy of Windows knows that the update process can take hours. So I used my laptop to do my daily routine and let the desktop computer do its thing. Hours went by and I'd glance at the monitor every now and then as the system first downloaded, then installed the updates, frequently restarting in the process. During one of those restarts, I saw something blue out of the corner of my eye, then the system restarted again. Blue again, restart. I got up and watched it go through its process again. I was getting the dreaded Blue Screen of Death, but the system was trying to restart each time. I started the system in Safe mode and that seemed to take it out of its infinite loop. The system said it was reverting back to a safe spot, and rebooted again. I started it normally, but still got an error message that the Group Policies task could not be started. That  meant that I could only run the system as the Admin.

That is where I left it, and I'm still deciding if I want to reinstall the system after performing a chkdsk to make sure there's no bad sectors in the hard drive.

But the plan is, when Windows 7 becomes stabilized, to install Server 2012 in a dual boot and record that process. I've never installed Server in any of its variations, so this will be a challenge.

Yet it's a challenge I don't have to walk all over Boston to achieve.

It's a mental challenge that I accept and expect to conquer.

Note: It's a day late, Windows has been successfully reinstalled and updated. Time to mke that Server video!