Rugged SFFs ... Windows ate my homework ... and why I wonít buy another iPod

I hate seeing good technology tossed out, so four years ago I purchased a used IBM 233 MHz Pentium 2 MMX PC for use as a home music server. At the time, the machine was already surplus, so this tower is now about 8 years old – an eternity in PC years. In fact, the machine originally shipped with a unique-to-IBM version of Windows 98, but I had upgraded it to a bare-bones version of Windows XP and while it was sluggish, it still ran well enough for remote desktop to manage the disks. It’s a tank-like machine, with a key locking case, and PCI slots and bays aplenty.

Of course, the stable XP Pro on this machine was way before Windows XP SP2, widespread malware, zombie computers, Windows Genuine Advantage, and monthly OS updates.

Unused for a while, I recently decided to boot it to see if it even worked anymore. After scrounging around for peripherals (who uses PS/2 keyboards and mice these days?) it booted “headless” and I could navigate across the LAN to the 200 GB worth of four shared drives via Network Neighborhood. I was so excited at the prospect ofbringing these disks back online and hearing some forgotten tunes that I decided to play it safe and update XP to SP2 et al before I connected it to the Internet for good. Bad decision.

Rugged SFFs: an iPod’s not a good choice

On pages 24 and 25 you’ll note our snapshot of Small Form Factor (SFF) storage doodads. Of course, an iPod can also store stuff – in either flash (Shuffle, Nano) or disk (Mini, G4 Photo, G5 Video) versions. And according to the commercials, they’re pretty rugged. All offer a disk mode so you can save regular files on the device plus music. But my year-old, just-out-of-warranty $400 G4 Photo iPod recently died at my desk, taking all my files with it. I used it as a backup device, taking home critical files just in case the office PC erupted in flames some day.

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Apple iPod

But an iPod is not a “regular” disk. It has an OS, firmware, a boatload of Apple proprietary code, and an impenetrable plastic case –  so nix the idea of yanking the hard disk and using SpinRite or other recovery software. Worse, I had failed to encrypt the files so sending the unit out for repair would expose all our corporate files to the repair shop. Sadly, my iPod is a write-off. Word to the wise: don’t use an iPod as a rugged SFF disk. I didn’t find it very rugged, nor recoverable when something went terribly wrong.

After downloading some 56 Microsoft updates since 2004 it was clear that my then-massive 4 GB “C” drive could no longer hold the OS. Think about it: the upgrade from Win98 to XP (SP1) had run fine within some 2 GB, but the upgrades, patches, and fixes to obtain XP SP2 – and all the other patchware for things like Outlook Express and Windows Media Audio – exceeded the original OS plus all of the applications on the disk.

Madly trying to delete unnecessary programs during the install like a brush firefighter with too small a shovel, I could tell it was a losing battle. The updates would soon exceed the disk size (couldn’t  Microsoft have figured that out before it started downloading?). I was forced to abort the process mid-install, for fear I would trash the OS entirely and lose access to the shared disks. So much for winning the battle; clearly I was losing the war.

Of course, this isn’t Microsoft’s fault, though some readers would rush to blame the good folks from Redmond. In the two and a half years since I last updated this machine the Internet has moved – as a recent Consumer Reports article stated – from the Old West to more like gangland Chicago in the Al Capone era. All these updates and patches are required and part of doing business on the Internet with a PC. Even Apple has released an unprecedented number of updates to OS X this year, so evidently the Mac isn’t a much safer option either. (But just in case, I have a Mac server, too.)

As I write this, I’m frantically moving files across the LAN from the old IBM to one of my other machines for fear the Windows Update process will soon cripple the machine. Sure, I could remove the disks or even reinstall Windows XP on a bigger disk, but I’d still have a slow CPU trying to cope with an OS in an era it wasn’t designed for.

I think this is finally the excuse I need to give Linux a try. I’ve been studying SUSE and Ubuntu Linux distributions for months and know how efficiently Linux runs on an older, low-resource machine. As soon as I finish emptying those disks across the LAN, I’ll feel comfortable saying goodbye to the old Windows-based IBM, and hello to a “new” Linux-based machine. Like I said, I hate throwing things out.